As the outside-sponsored war of attrition fails to dislodge Bashar al Assad, Syria has started to give off curious vibes that are a mixture of upbeat morale and a hint of realism; Saurabh Kumar Shahi provides an eyeopening report from inside the heart of Syria
On a rather sunny afternoon on 28th May, several Syrian Arab Air Force fighter jets took to the sky from their bases in Latakia. Their destination was the neighbouring governorate of Idleb. Completely under the control of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, al Nusra; Idleb was rather habituated of such air raids targeting terrorist locations. However, that afternoon of 28th May was quite different. As the fighter jets hovered above rural Idleb, it released several packages at countless locations. Surprisingly, these packages were equipped with small parachutes and did not blow up at the impact. They had something more dangerous than bombs. The packages contained the question papers of the annual exams for the secondary and senior secondary school students. As several students and their teachers—still on Syrian government’s pay role—grabbed the questions, the message was delivered loud and clear. The Syrian Government is alive. And kicking. The war in Syria has rather been a war of winning the hearts and minds of the Syrians. Amidst propaganda cacophony of Gulf sponsored media outlets and a curious mix of sloppy journalism and gross twisting of facts committed by the Western outlets, the Syrian Government has not only survived the five years of war, but is looking increasingly confident of its outcome. An outcome that it deems will be in its favour. And there’s solid reasoning behind such an expectation. If you have not been to Syria—like most of the Western Pundits and reporters—you can be excused if you believe that the government of Bashar al Assad is going to collapse in a few weeks, if not outright. While the gains made by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies are pooh-poohed, the initiatives started by the Islamic State, al Nusra and other organisations called “moderate rebels” by the West, are exaggerated to such a proportion that (this reporter has personally known) opposition commanders (who) are themselves embarrassed by the hyperbole. But none of that matters in the propaganda warfare. But what is the situation like on the ground? Read on! In the Western perception of things, airports of the oriental capital cities are considered as the bastion of the respective nation. If you control the airport, you pretty much control the country. It has been repeated so many times in so many scenarios that everyone, including the Syrian rebels, know this well. Consequently, in the dangerous days of 2012- 2013, a section of rebels tried to capture the Damascus Airport. It reached a point where the neighbourhood of Ghouta, both east and the Government is collapsing. It is not. It is on the move. Military officers look more confident and emboldened than ever before. The mortal threat in Damascus and towards the coast in the North has been averted. It’s time for the offensive again. At the time of the writing of this report, there were at least five fronts where the Syrian Arab Army and its allies were on a major offensive. One shall have to go back to 2014 to give a similar example. The thrust of the campaign is towards Raqqah, which serves as a de facto capital of the Islamic State. The Syrian Arab Army and its allies are pushing hard on the Ithriyah-Raqqah road, and have reached the outskirts of the Tabaqa Military Airport. This remains the last major terrorist fortification before the city of Raqqah. It is the same airport which was captured by Islamic State in 2014 and which had led to the cold blooded execution of hundreds of Syrian soldiers. The campaign is supported by incessant bombing by both Russian as well as the Syrian Air Force. The advance on the ground is spearheaded by the Desert Hawks Brigade and the Syrian Marines, who are assisted by SAA’s 555th Regiment of the 4th Mechanized Division. Raqqah also happened to be a traditional Sunni stronghold of the ruling Baath Party prior to the war. It is therefore not a surprise that pro-government sleeper cells, made of urban members and rural tribes, will/have come to action. Sources suggest that as and when the military reaches the outskirts of the city, the Baath Party sleeper cells will spring to action and will resort to sabotage from inside. South from here, another offensive is on at the East-Homs-East-Palmyra front, where SAA is marching towards the besieged town of Deir ez Zor. The town under the command of Brigadier Isaam Zahreddine of the Republican Guards has managed to hold on since 2013, in spite of over 100 attempts in all these years by the Islamic State to enter the town and the airport. The situation however has turned pressing and SAA wants to reach the town in order to lift the siege. At the time of the writing of this report, the Syrian Arab Army’s 60th Brigade of the 11th Tank Division and the National Defence Forces (NDF) had reached the oil rich town of Al Sukhnah. This is the last terrorist stronghold on this route, after which is the vast expanse of unfortified desert. Military commanders told this correspondent that if this oil rich town is captured, Deir Ez Zor will be a cakewalk. Similarly, outside Damascus, in its governorate, SAA and Hezbollah have been chipping away at rebel-held territories in East and West Ghouta one block at a time. Then, when the situation looked apt—when two rebel factions started cannibalising each other—they took a rather large bite. In one swift move, during my stay in Syria, SAA and Hezbollah managed to capture several villages in the southern part of East Ghouta and increased the buffer zone between airport and the rebel bastion to ten kilometres from the initial five kilometres. A new offensive was also launched in Latakia Mountains at the time of the writing of this report. This signifies something else too. Although various foreign paramilitaries are helping the Syrian Army, including Hezbollah, IRGC, Fatimayoun and Harkat al Nujaiba, the Syrian Arab Army retains the capa west, that surrounds the airport, fell into the rebels’ hands. Only a narrow strip of road connecting the airport to the town was under government’s control. It culminated to a point where rebels started firing from small and medium weapons on the civilian planes that were trying to land. The idea was to send the message to the Western media savvy audience that the fall of Damascus was a matter of when now, and not if. Nothing was further from the truth. But the imagery worked. Four years to the day, the planes land and take off unmolested from the airport. The “rebels” have been surrounded and under seize in the neighbouring East Ghouta neighbourhood. They still fire an occasional mortar here and there. But most of the time, their focus now is on how to cede less territory to the combined SAA-Hezbollah assaults. The attack against the Syrian Government has been neutralised in general. The Syria of 2016 is a different place from the nation of the past that I have visited. Post Russian intervention (with permission from Damascus), there is a visible spike in the morale. Officials who sounded rather unsure a few months ago, have started to articulate the situation better. While the administration had never collapsed even during the height of the trouble, it appears to be surer of itself now. But that is not to say all is hunky dory. Just days after my visit to the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab, a figure revered by Shiites world over, it was hit by two car bombs, killing scores. The shrine is near the rebel stronghold of Ghouta. The ability of rebels to mount a tactical attack has been curtailed. But bomb blasts are a different matter. It is often the sign of desperation; the last tool by a side losing the war. The role of Sayyeda Zainab shrine is central to the anti-terrorist campaign started by the Syrian Government. When Ghouta was almost completely taken by the opposition, it was from the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab that Hezbollah and SAA started their clean-up operations to secure the capital. That symbolism is not lost on anyone. It remains a galvanising force for the government. It is therefore not a surprise that it is targeted repeatedly. The security appeared extremely tight during my visit. I was being accompanied by Rama Nour Qadabashy, a young official from Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP GC). Rama is kind of a regular visitor there. But even her presence couldn’t make the process smoother. The security of the area is managed by Hezbollah and the allied Fatimayoun Shia militia, drawn almost exclusively from Afghan Hazaras, who responded to the call by Iranian leadership to come and protect the Syrian Government from a largely foreign sponsored campaign. Local sources maintained that Fatimayoun now follow Hezbollah at whatever sites they operate at. Their skills in sharpshooting has being utilised effectively in several of the offensives. This has further contributed to Hezbollah’s awe. In fact, experts after experts, journalists after journalists in Syria maintained that Hezbollah remains the only force, after SAA, which has universal approval from all the sections of the society. “If you talk to people here, quite a few of them will see the Russian role with suspicion. They will say that Russians have their own interests. The same goes for Iran. There are sceptics who are not very comfortable with the theology driven motivation behind Iran. But you’ll find a total agreement on the role of Hezbollah here,” says Alaa Ebrahim, journalist and analyst. This also brings to focus the role played by Russia. As part of mostly psychological operation, Gulf driven media keeps coming up with stories insinuating that Russia will ultimately make a deal with the West and abandon Bashar al Assad. Or that it will pick someone up from among the current ruling dispensation and sideline Assad. Russia’s insistence on the ceasefire or the cessation of hostilities in South Aleppo, where Hezbollah, SAA and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were on a roll a few months back, confused many Syrians and Syriawatchers alike. Its partial withdrawal of air force gave more wings to this rumour. But the vibe from inside Damascus is completely different from this. None of the government officials this correspondent met betrayed any scepticism regarding the Russian role. Even the independent analysts maintain that there is no truth in the current or possible Russian “betrayal.” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad is more direct. “We have had no such worries regarding the Russian role. Russia is a great ally and has taken the initiative in consultation with the Syrian Government. The cessation of hostilities agreement was also done in consultation with the Syrian Government. The ceasefire and its subsequent violation by West-supported terrorist groups actually exposed the hypocritical Western stand over the issue of terrorism and their claim to genuinely looking for peace and reconciliation in Syria. The ceasefire, therefore, achieved its goal in that regard. The opposition has lost the plot. Rumour mongering is what they have resorted to now.” But there are others who are not happy with the entire ceasefire issue. Several analysts, many of whom were close to the military, actually rued the missed opportunity. The city of Aleppo was at the cusp of being captured fully before the cessation of hostility was announced. In the subsequent months, Al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) components, supported by the West, captured quite a few strategic points and villages in a surprise attack. In one such attack, IRGC lost many men, it highest till now in any battle in Syria. Sources also confirm that Hezbollah is also wary about the situation and withdrew its members from the front citing that it cannot operate at a defensive position and that its potential will be fully utilised only if it is allowed to mount an offensive on the opposition targets. Iranians are also unhappy that the ceasefire was used by al Nusra to stock up there dwindling logistic and uplift their flagging morale. Syrian officials dismiss these as operational issues. Their trust in Russia appears unshakable. Others, more independent analysts, who are not tied down by political correctness, also believe in Russia steadfastness, but because of a different reasoning. “President Putin cannot afford to betray President Assad and the government now. He could have done that before the intervention. That would have been plausible. But not now. Not in the thick of it. First, Russia cannot afford to lose Tartous. Even the capture of Sevastopol has not diminished the utility of Tartous. And no one other than the present dispensation can commit Moscow that Tartous will remain in its service,” says Elias Murad, head of the Journalists Union of Syria, in a no-hold barred interaction with this correspondent. “Second, President Putin will not like his allies to believe that Russia can’t be trusted. How will Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia or Central Asian countries react to that? Sure, he’ll not want them to be wary of Russia,” he added to good measure. Murad makes sense. What’s more, Putin’s role in Syria has catapulted him back to the centre of the international politics, from which he was sidelined following the Crimean fiasco. But the discussion also brings in focus the military aspect of this conflict. How is the Syrian Government placed? How is its defence strength? If you are hooked on to Al Jazeera or even CNN, you can be excused for believing that bility to mount multi-pronged attacks at multiple fronts. It has bled manpower profusely in the last five years, but new recruits keep joining. The majority of those joining come from, as in the past, the Sunni sect. This also brings the focus back on the sectarian aspect of this war that the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood inclined Sunni militant organisations waged since the beginning. More than any time in the past, Sunnis continue to support the government in a substantially huge number. If anything, this number has only increased. The Syrian Arab Army is a conscription based Army. Naturally, it reflects the demographic mix of the society it is drawn from. There is no surprise that the core and the majority of this army remains Sunni. And it has remained fairly united contrary to the claims made otherwise. “Every day I meet delegations of Sunnis, or am informed of such groups, who are coming up and reiterating their faith in the government. Anyone who is a regular to Syria can vouch for its ideology. Our respective sect was never an issue here. I am a Sunni, so is the Foreign Minister. There are several more. It in fact shames me no end to mention this, as we were not raised in a way where sect was important for any of us,” says Faisal Mekdad. It is important to mention here that an absolutely huge number of Sunnis in Syria express similar understanding as Minister Mekdad. Damascus, in essence, remains a majority Sunni city. But when the entire crisis erupted in 2011, the Syrian Government lost the perception war in the early months itself. It had neither the logistic, nor the training to counter the propaganda onslaught. “I question the false narrative that has been circulated also all over the world, but particularly in Western countries, about events in Syria. Since March 2011, Al Jazeera–that is owned and funded by Qatar–and Al Arabiya TV–that’s owned and funded by Saudi Arabia– have been the major source of information about Syria. Although, for your information, both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya withdrew their correspondents right from the very first two months of the war on Syria, they started to rely on what they call ‘eye witnesses’. The same thing applies to the Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) which also has been a major source for Western media. I don’t know how many of you know that only one person, Rami Abdul-Rahman–who lives in Coventry, England–is the one who is providing all this information about Syria. Western media, whether inadvertently or deliberately, truly ignored what is happening in Syria, throughout these five years, and relied on regional partners and regional outlets who are essential in targeting Syria. The false narrative and the media have been used by our adversaries in the region in order to misinform Western audiences. Therefore, how can Western people know what’s going on in Syria, and how can they question their governments about their stand towards Syria?,” adds Bouthaina Shaaban, political advisor to President Assad. A clear example of this is what happened to the ancient Christian village of Maaloula. One of the three villages where Aramaic is still spoken and taught, Maaloula hosts some of the oldest Christian sites in the world. The village fell to the “Moderate Rebels” who destroyed and pillaged through it. Precious icons were stolen and sold to the international market, whereas Churches were desecrated. Some of the local Sunnis helped rebels enter the village. Naji Elian Wahbe, the Mayor of the village, showed me what remains after the destruction. “Nuns from monastery were kidnapped. They were exchanged in lieu of the family of the terrorists. Make no mistake, there is no difference between the so-called Free Syrian Army or al Nusra or Islamic State. It is just a matter of nomenclature. There’s no difference in how they conduct,” he says. A visible pain spreads on his face at the mere mention of the pillaging. “Our iconographies were some of the most important treasures that the human civilisation had. Only god knows where they are now,” he adds with tears in his eyes. On the other hand, the Syrian Arab Army lost over 200 soldiers, mostly Sunnis, in recapturing this village. Shia Hezbollah commanders spearheaded the onslaught. This one incident signifies what Syria was before the war. There are unexpected fallouts of this war as well. One of them is the growing disillusionment from the Pan-Arabism ideology of Baath. Increasingly more and more Syrians have started to see themselves as Syrians first and Arabs later. The role played in the Syrian crisis by the Gulf States, as well as others in the Arab League, has further intensified this disillusionment. But this has given a new lease of life to another ideology: Syrian Nationalism. And the party that represents this ideology, Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). At the onset, the ideology looked a tad archaic. It talks about the reunion of the historic Syriac lands spanning the “Fertile Crescent”, including present day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, Sinai, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran, based on geographical boundaries and the common history people within the boundaries share. Clearly, it is antithesis to the Pan Arabism of Baath. But that has not stopped it from raising a militia and defending Syria from the hordes of terrorists that come from over 100 countries to wage the war here. At the very beginning of the conflict, most of its fighters came from Lebanon, where it had a wider presence historically. As the war progressed, its ideology became popular enough to start attracting recruits in huge numbers. Samir Hajjar is a doctor and a Member of Parliament representing the party. He met me at his clinic in downtown Damascus. Sitting amidst medical literature and party propaganda, he starts to explain the phenomenon. “We have always been very clear about our ideological position. We are defending the Syrian land against the terrorists driven by Islamism. Religion is a personal matter. You practice it inside your house. There is no way that it can be mixed with politics. Same goes for Pan-Arabism. It has turned out to be a futile dream. The answer is Syrian Nationalism,” he says. Hajjar later gives me contacts of the SSNP fighters fighting at the East Homs frontline. It was here that I met Fadi (name changed). I met Fadi in Homs. A boy of 19, he came from a family of Syrian nationalists from Hama, and now acts as a commander of SSNP’s fighting unit in Homs. Agile and sharp, he takes me to a trip to show the defences of the town. All this while, he keeps answering my queries about the movement. His clarity of thought and articulation leave me dumbfounded. I can clearly see than no supporter of Brotherhood or Salafi ideology can match this articulation. Perchance this is why they don’t believe in debates, not much. The frontline is manned by different allies of the Syrian Government. There’s Shia Hezbollah, there’s Baath Militia, there’s SSNP and Assyrian Sutoro as well. I ask Fadi about how he reconciles with such a rainbow of ideologies in the battlefield. “We are all protecting Syria from outsiders here. The outsiders who want to impose their ideology of destruction. I can reduce it and say that an enemy’s enemy is a friend. But that would be too simplistic. We all have a common minimum agenda. To preserve Syrian land and its culture,” he explains without batting an eyelid. But ultimately, Syria is also about resilience of its people. They have braved years of war, rising inflation, plummeting currency and general uncertainty with great aplomb. I met Samar in Homs as well. A mother of three, she takes care of the reconciliation efforts in the city. One of her sons was killed by terrorists in Darra. His body was never recovered. Another son is fighting the Islamic State in East Palmyra. Yet another is fighting al Nusra in South Aleppo. He husband is also in the army, fighting at Idleb front. But she’s not the one to be afraid or cowered down. We wanted to meet the Mayor of the Waer town outside Homs. The town is under siege but under terrorists’ control. They sit atop high rise buildings and indiscriminately shoot and snipe at anyone using the Homs-Waer road. While I was momentarily hesitant, Samar had already jumped into the car. On our way back, two youngsters who were just metres behind us on their motorbikes were sniped at from the same high rise buildings. While there is a definite positive momentum in favour of the Syrian Government on the battlefields, it still appears that the conflict will end only with a political solution. What would that solution entail is anyone’s guess at this point in time. Several analysts and informed sources have indicated that the US has given up on its demand of removing Assad in any future scheme of things. While it still uses this demand for rhetorical purposes, there is no doubt that Bashar al Assad will be central to any political solution. Syria has weathered the worst phase of this war of attrition. It knows how to counter this strategy now. It is prepared for any eventuality. Insiders believe that the solution will lead to free and fair elections, possibly under the guidance of the UN or other agencies, with Assad as one of the candidates. This is something neither the US nor the Gulf States want. For it will lead to two unwanted conclusions for them. Assad will win any free and fair election. There’s no doubt about it. Even opposition analysts admit it off the record. This will also negate the narrative that the majority of the Syrian Sunnis were against him. However, it will also leave a face-saving exit option from the mess. A lot will also depend upon who wins the next US Presidential elections. On the other side, insiders and independent analysts alike pooh-pooh the opposition’s insinuation that the Baath structure will sacrifice Assad in order to reach a compromise where the structure will be allowed to remain. Even an insinuation of such a sort leads to sniggering and ridicule inside the power structure here. As one of the insiders told me in as many words, “There’s no Baath without Assad; there’s no Assad without Baath.” But this is not to say that the troubles are over for the Syrian Government. In spite of the economic meltdown staring at them, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia show no signs of any reduction in support for rebels, including those linked with al Qaeda. The emergence of Kurds near the Turkish border, and the inability of Saudis to vanquish Houtis in Yemen have started to wear them thin. There’s great churning happening inside both these countries. More so in Saudi Arabia, where years of iron-handed rule has started to slacken. However, they still manage to influence localised events on the ground. Turkey’s latest push to capture Aleppo through al Nusra terrorists is a case in point. But they are increasingly becoming incapable in altering the larger picture. Inside the ruling class in Damascus, the mood remains cautious, but definitely upbeat. There’s a feeling that the worst is over. But there is a drop of realism too. They understand that it is not over until it is over. It is this mixture of optimism with a hint of realism that has kept them assailed all these years. I’ll stick my neck out and say that it will remain so in the years to come.