In Damascus, shells explode in the Christian neighborhoods closest to the eastern front lines. In Aleppo, artillery batters opposition bases along the western frontier with Idlib province. Both cities’ exhausted citizens have cause to fear for their country’s uncertain future.
In Damascus people call it the “million-dollar checkpoint,” although it is not one but two face-to-face roadblocks, barely a rifle shot apart. On a suburban road between government and opposition zones of control in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers and their rebel enemies inspect cars, vans, and pedestrians. Their shared objective is extortion, exacting tolls on medicine, food, water, and cigarettes, as well as people, that are moving in and out of the besieged orchards and homesteads about ten miles from the center of Damascus in an area known as the Eastern Ghouta.
Folk memories endure, mothers’ and grandmothers’ sagas trumping documents in neglected archives. What will Syria’s youth, when they are old, tell their children? All will have stories of cowering in their flimsy houses while bombs fell, of the deadening existence of refugee camps, or of escapes through treacherous seas and perilous highways to uncertain lives in strange lands.
The Damascus cafés where I met young anti-Assad activists early in the uprising are now mostly empty, and their original enthusiasm has dissipated. Some organizers are in prison, others have gone into exile, and the rest have given up, as disillusioned with the rebellion as many Alawites are with the regime.
The commander is thirty-six years old. A few strands of white in his dark, curly hair make him seem older, as do his words. He points to six young men, posed like football players in a team photograph on a wall of his forward command post, and says, “Two are martyrs, two are prisoners, and two are still working.” By working, he means fighting. Those recruits under his command were friends in their twenties. Of the two who died, he explains, “He was twenty-two years old when he was killed. And this one was martyred in June this year here in Tadamon.”
The battle for Aleppo is a war for Syria itself. In both political and military terms, Syria’s commercial capital is vital to both sides. Yet both the regime and its armed opponents are alienating the people they are ostensibly trying to cultivate, as they jointly demolish Aleppo’s economy, the historic monuments that give the city its unique charm and identity, the lives and safety of its citizens, and the social cohesion that had, until now, made it a model of intersectarian harmony.
Archaeologists believe that human beings settled on the hilltop that became Aleppo—some 225 miles north of Damascus—around eight thousand years ago. Cuneiform tablets from the third millennium BC record the construction of a temple to a chariot-riding storm god, usually called Hadad; while mid-second-millennium Hittite archives point to the settlement’s …