For the first time in sixteen years Damascus has inaugurated a new five-star luxury hotel. The Golden Mazzeh is a ten-story reminder that some Syrians are surviving America’s economic sanctions better than others. Its 111 suites and rooms, ten restaurants and bars, two outdoor swimming pools, ballroom, meeting rooms, theater, gym, and conference center make it a formidable competitor to the older Sheraton and Four Seasons. Guests can sip martinis in its two rooftop bars while contemplating a 360-degree panorama of the sprawling Syrian capital: suburban apartment complexes and parks to the west, Mount Qasioun to the north, and to the east the ancient walled city where Saint Paul eluded his persecutors and which tradition says the Prophet Muhammad bypassed in the belief that man could enter paradise only once. An Italian architect, Massimo Rodighiero, designed the hotel, whose manager, Patrick Prudhomme, is French. In the eucalyptus-shaded public garden across from the entrance, mothers watch their children as traffic rumbles along the nearby Mazzeh Highway toward Beirut.
This is the road that first delivered me to Damascus at Easter 1973, before high-rise government offices, embassies, and apartments for a new class of military officers, civil servants, and merchants absorbed semirural, suburban Mazzeh into the metropolis. I was a tourist then, an ignorant American graduate student on his way by land from Lebanon to Aqaba in Jordan, pausing long enough for lunch and a little sightseeing. When I returned the following October to cover the war with Israel, it was as a journalist on a visa approved by the Ministry of Information’s obstructive, sluggish bureaucracy. Since then I’ve had to apply to the ministry whenever I sought to return.
When I submitted my latest request on October 16, the Syrian consulate in Beirut informed me, “The visa process takes twenty to thirty days to get a response from Syria.” Three months later the ministry had yet to respond. Syrian and Lebanese friends with wasta—influence—in Damascus offered to obtain a visa for me through the more powerful Ministry of Interior. To my surprise, they succeeded. I took a taxi from Beirut to the Syrian border post at Jdaideh, where an officer behind the counter examined the visa and checked his computer. When my journalist status flashed up, he declared that I could not enter without the imprimatur of the Ministry of Information. My driver remonstrated with him, until a man in civilian clothes behind us offered help. He told the officer to admit me if I wrote a letter affirming that I had retired from journalism and would not be reporting from Syria. I did so, the official relented, and I paid $140 for the visa stamp. When I turned to thank my savior, he had disappeared.
Relieved of my journalist status, I skipped interviews with officials in favor of meeting friends, visiting monuments and museums, lingering in coffeehouses, gossiping with shopkeepers, and hearing again and again that life is unbearable. Electricity is supplied one hour in every six. Gasoline and diesel to run cars, heaters, and kitchen stoves are in short supply and, when available, too expensive for the average worker. Iran has increased the price it charges Syria for seaborne deliveries of refined oil, only one of the reasons Syrians pay about ten times what the next-door Lebanese pay for a liter of gasoline. Oil traders point to the government’s hoarding of gasoline and diesel in storage tanks near Baniyas harbor, which delays distribution and keeps prices—and profits—high.
The value of the Syrian pound has dropped steadily, from 3,000 to the US dollar last year to 6,500 when I arrived, and it continued to fall while I was there. With the largest denomination note only 5,000 pounds, men carry thick bricks of cash in handbags. Bread costs 40,000 pounds a kilo. A year ago, it was a mere 500. Meat, vegetables, olive oil, and other basics are beyond the means of most Syrians. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 12 million out of Syria’s remaining 18 to 21 million inhabitants—6.6 million have fled the country since the civil war began in 2011—do not have enough to eat. More than a quarter of a million qualify for assistance to ameliorate what the WFP calls “acute malnutrition.” The World Health Organization had recorded more than 50,000 cases of cholera across Syria by the end of last year and warns of other epidemics due to the shortage of imported medicines.
Damascus reminded me of Baghdad on my many trips there between the war over Kuwait in 1991 and the American invasion in 2003. In those years the US, the EU, and the UN were enforcing similar restrictions based on their conviction that economic hardship would destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime or compel a hungry populace to depose him. In Iraq then, as in Syria now, the regime flourished and people starved. I recall Iraqi teachers begging in the streets and middle-class married women turning to prostitution to feed their children. The reported deaths of half a million Iraqi children from malnutrition were, in the words of then US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright, “worth it.” The failure of sanctions on Iraq to bring about regime change, as in Cuba over a longer period, has not persuaded Washington to conceive of an alternative for Syria.
Perfunctory US sanctions on Syria had been in place since 1979, but the all-out economic blockade went into effect 180 days after December 20, 2019, when Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act—named for the photographer who documented murder and torture in government prisons. President Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Russia and Iran, had just secured his regime with the expulsion of his rebel enemies to a periphery in northwest Syria, near the Turkish border. The Orwellian preamble to the State Department’s fact sheet on the legislation states, “Our sanctions under the Caesar Act and Executive Order 13894 are not intended to harm the Syrian people.” My daily promenades through Damascus’s old and new sections suggested that the intention is belied by reality. The run-down flats and houses of the poor, who complain of the struggle to afford food and heat, coexist with the prosperous Abu Rummaneh and Malki quarters’ neon-lit restaurants, cafés, and nightclubs.
Compounding the misfortune is the transformation of Syria into what The Economist calls a “narco-state” that produces and exports billions of dollars’ worth of illegal, addictive, amphetamine-like Captagon pills in cooperation with Lebanese, Jordanian, and Saudi smugglers. Many a Ferrari and Maserati parked outside expensive restaurants was purchased with drug money. Scions of old but recently impoverished trading families speak with derision of the nouveaux riches who made their fortunes from the war and are increasing them by evading sanctions.
“The regime is still here, and the people are suffering,” a diplomat told me. “Reconstruction” is a forbidden word, as international agencies are permitted to provide the drip-drip of humanitarian aid but not the means to rebuild. The Caesar Act threatens to penalize anyone from any nation who assists in reconstructing Syria’s infrastructure, which has been devastated by years of war. Such is the logic of sanctions.
While the government and many citizens blame sanctions for the country’s plight, the victorious president does not escape blame. “I don’t dare say it, but I like him,” an old friend confided. “Before the war, no one dared say he didn’t like him. Now, it’s the opposite.” Over the following days more people, including those who supported him on my previous visits, criticized his performance, the blatant corruption, and the ostentatious wealth enjoyed by his inner circle.
Another friend, who posted pro-Assad propaganda on social media during the war, is fed up. “He betrayed us,” he said, sotto voce. Assad’s critics do not pronounce his name. It is always “he” or “him.” They never know who is listening. Their grievances are now more economic than political, as they were ten years ago. Disenchantment, however, does not imply another rebellion. Instead, there is resignation.
I met the novelist Khaled Khalifa, a longtime friend, in an old-city coffee shop deserted except for two waiters and us. Slivers of sun filtered through the dingy windows, exaggerating the exhaustion in Khaled’s bearded, once-vivid face. His latest novel, No One Prayed Over Their Graves, like his previous works, is banned in Syria.1 He spent ten years writing it, conceiving the story after seeing a church in the region of Qamishli, near the Turkish border in the northeast of the country, that the Ottomans had desecrated in their genocide of the Armenians during World War I. “It explains everything now,” he said over a tiny cup of sugarless Turkish coffee. He added, “All my friends have left Syria.” We walked along a narrow, cobbled street toward his car. “Syria is finished,” he told me. “Who knows what will happen to Syria now? No one.” I remember when he had hope and could laugh about police breaking his arm during an early antiregime demonstration. Now the laughter was gone. He left the next morning for Zurich on a writing fellowship to work on a new book.
I wandered alone through the old city and the jammed Souk al-Hamadieh, finding my way through the ancient walls to the disused Hejaz railway station. From there I went to the Fardoss Tower Hotel’s ground-floor café. I remembered the enthusiastic youngsters who gathered there in 2012 and 2013 to organize peaceful protests demanding reform. Most of them are gone, some arrested, others in exile. A few students were there, but I saw from their laptops that all they were doing was homework. A university degree will make it easier for them to do what most young Syrians want to do: emigrate.
“If a country like Canada agreed to admit any Syrian, the country would be empty,” said another friend. Even without a visa, young men who can are fleeing in search of work and perhaps a semblance of normal life. Most of the Syrian capital’s inhabitants must have forgotten the savage artillery and aerial bombardments that terrorized them for years. Otherwise they would not say, as they do, that life is worse now than it was during the war. “We miss the rocket times,” a friend whose retail business has failed told me. “If we died, we died. It was war. Now we don’t know.” What he didn’t know was how he would feed his children.
The war may be over in Damascus, but it still rages in outlying regions so far away that they seem to be on another continent. Syria, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts: the government-held center with about 60 percent of the land and nearly 80 percent of the population; the Turkish-occupied northwest, where unreconstructed jihadists and other rebels launch desultory attacks on government outposts; and the Kurdish-governed northeast under the protection of nine hundred American soldiers and American air power. There is also a twenty-one-square-mile “red zone” of oil-rich desert that the Americans control in the south along the Jordanian border.
Syria today is a multi-ring circus where armed forces from Turkey, the US, Russia, and Iran engage in a clandestine conflict with no obvious objectives. US troops are never far from their Russian counterparts in the government zone. The Turkish army attacks the Kurds despite the American presence. Iranian troops, augmented by Iraqi Shiite militiamen and Lebanese Hezbollah irregulars, harass the Kurds, the Americans, and Turkish-supported Sunni fundamentalist militias. The Israelis regularly bombard the Iranians, Iraqis, and Hezbollah from the air.
“Syria is the stadium,” a businessman whom I have known for years told me. “We are the grass. All the players play on us: Russia, the US, Iran, and Turkey.” While outside powers keep the conflict simmering, they are attempting to win through negotiations what they cannot achieve by force. Moscow sponsors talks between Turkey and Syria aimed at getting Turkey to withdraw from the northwest and disarming the Kurds so Damascus can police the border for Turkey, while forcing the Americans to leave. The US seeks a compromise between Turkey and the Kurds to prolong the Kurds’ autonomy and keep Damascus from threatening them. Neither diplomatic push has succeeded, but the Russians’ efforts are making more headway.
Meanwhile the US feels betrayed as its Arab allies welcome Assad back into the fold, just as they did Egypt’s Anwar Sadat after his “treachery” of making peace with Israel in 1979. Jordan, the UAE, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia have reopened relations with Assad in the hope of reducing Iranian influence. Most of their diplomats are back, their intelligence services have resumed cooperation, and trade delegations are booking Damascus’s hotels. The Golden Mazzeh should have room for them all.
On February 6, soon after my return to Beirut, the violent shaking of my bed woke me around 3:15 AM. I got up and stood in a doorway, as I was advised to do during my youth in earthquake-prone California. My eleventh-floor flat swayed for a few minutes and stopped, then the swaying resumed with less force for another minute and stopped for good. Later that morning I read that the quake had devastated southern Turkey and northern Syria. To war and hunger can be added the blind cruelty of nature.
At last count, although the figure continues to rise, the toll from the magnitude 7.8 earthquake, and the smaller one that followed on February 20, was 48,000 people killed, more than 6,000 of them in Syria. Turkey, where the epicenters of the quakes were located, suffered the most casualties and buildings destroyed. In Syria, the ancient city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, was the worst hit. Much of it had yet to be rebuilt following the government’s December 2016 conquest of rebel strongholds in the eastern half. I described in these pages what I saw there in the spring of 2017:
Bombs have transformed Aleppo into an Escher-like vision of six-foot-thick concrete slabs twisted into braids; five-story apartment buildings compressed into piles ten feet high; and collapsed façades of entire streets exposing rooms with ceiling fans eerily intact and revolving in the wind.2
Many residents moved back rather than become refugees or lose title to their properties. Their homes remained so precarious that the earthquake knocked them down for good. A woman I know in Aleppo sent me pictures of her apartment. It had scars in the walls so wide you could walk through them, and ceilings had collapsed into rooms below. Men, women, and children shivering outdoors needed not only blankets but food. Aid was slow to arrive in both Aleppo and the Turkish rebel territory north of it.
The regime and its jihadist opponents blame each another for blocking deliveries of desperately needed earthmovers, food, blankets, tents, and medicines. The UN accused the largest jihadist coalition, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, of delaying supplies over “approval issues.” Although one of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s predecessors, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, used to kidnap and torture foreign journalists, its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, granted an interview to The Guardian in which he claimed that the regime could not be trusted and that it had turned the region “into an ongoing earthquake the past 12 years.” He eventually withdrew his objections to receiving aid, no doubt under pressure from his Turkish protectors and the thousands of civilians among whom he and his fighters live.
President Assad, who had insisted for years that Syrian sovereignty required the UN to provide assistance only through Damascus, belatedly agreed after the earthquake to permit the UN to send aid to rebel areas from Turkey through two border crossings. The US too softened its hard-line stance on February 9 and lifted some of its sanctions for 180 days to allow agencies to send earthquake relief, but it has not responded to appeals from Pope Francis, the World Council of Churches, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Syria’s Christian bishops for further easing of the embargo. While the US remains firm, some EU countries—notably Italy, which sent ambulances and the navy ship San Marco to Beirut with equipment for Syria, and the Czech Republic—are breaking ranks and demanding that more be done to allow Syrians some measure of dignity and self-reliance.
I applied for a visa immediately after the earthquake to see its effects for myself. As of this writing, I am still waiting.
—February 23, 2023