As Syrian Government Forces Advance, The War Could Be At A Turning Point

Dec 7, 2016
Originally published on December 7, 2016 12:23 pm

In central Damascus, it's perfectly clear that President Bashar Assad is firmly in control. In the souks of the Old City, his face looks out of almost every shop window, pinned up next to gold jewelry or intricate rugs. No one has a bad word to say about him, at least not to a Western journalist.

In rebel enclaves nearby, forces loyal to Assad are creeping back into control. After years of siege tactics, opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus are increasingly making deals that see their fighters heading into rebel-held areas.

And the regime's forces and allies are moving deep into the rebel-held half of the northern city of Aleppo. Tens of thousands have fled the rebel-controlled enclave as fighting escalates.

People close to the regime and government officials all say the mood within the government is now one of cautious optimism.

"The mood in Damascus now is better and it's very good," said Bassam Abu Abdullah, a professor of international relations and adviser to the Information Ministry. "Aleppo is a very important and strategic turning point for Syria and for the world."

Regime supporters say eastern Aleppo is held by terrorists, who have kept innocent people hostage there.

People inside the opposition-held area and activists say maybe 200,000 civilians remain — too afraid of Assad's forces or too poor or too stubborn to leave, and that they support the rebel gunmen.

Aid agencies and the U.N. warn that Aleppo's civilians are suffering and dying under airstrikes by the Syrian air force and their Russian allies. Hospitals, schools, apartment blocks have been leveled. An intermittent siege has left people hungry and cold.

Certainly for Abu Abdullah, the rebel gunmen in Aleppo qualify as terrorists, and if the regime crushes them, that will be a turning point in the almost six-year civil war.

"I think yes," he said, "the beginning of the end." After years of conflict, all parties are exhausted, he noted. "Very clearly there is no way for these terrorists."

The professor sees another reason for Assad's supporters to be cheerful: the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Abu Abdullah stayed up all night to watch the results come in last month, and was surprised and relieved to see Trump win.

"I felt that it's good for Syria," he said. He had feared Hillary Clinton would strengthen the Syrian opposition. He hopes Trump will back Assad.

The editor-in-chief of Syria's al-Watan newspaper, Waddah Abd Rabbo, also was relieved to see Trump win.

"In Damascus, like all over the world, it was a surprise," he said, "but a good one."

Abd Rabbo does call for reforms in Syria, and his newspaper is privately owned, not state-run. But he is on good terms with the government and said the West underestimated Assad's popularity.

"They only want to see that the president is unpopular, he's a bad guy, he has to go, he has to leave. But this was not true," he said.

The Obama administration has maintained that Assad lost legitimacy because his forces killed so many civilians, and that he could not be a cohesive force in Syria.

Abd Rabbo conceded that Assad may not be popular with everyone, but opined that he enjoys more than 50 percent approval, "if you want to be democratic." Assad, he said, is the only person who can unify Syria.

In the Old City's markets, life seems to thrive. They are bustling and busy till long after dark. One shopkeeper told me his takings are up by 70 percent, year on year.

Another shopkeeper, named Ali Dera, played backgammon as he said he feels safe now.

"What makes me feel comfortable and optimistic about the situation is when you see people on the streets," he said. The security situation has improved, and the news from Aleppo is pleasing, he added.

"Very good," he said, and hurled his dice, rattling the board.

But even in the winding old streets where traditional courtyard houses serve as restaurants shaded by lemon trees and cooled by plashing fountains, there are constant signs of the ravages of the war.

The power is out a lot, so generators roar in streets that were once quiet. Food prices have tripled or more since the war began. And as shoppers wander, homeless children run up and beg — ragged, wild-haired reminders that half of all Syrians no longer live in their homes.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to hear from inside Syria now. This country appears to be at a turning point in its almost six-year civil war. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have advanced deep into a rebel stronghold in the city of Aleppo, and it appears the government could retake the city. NPR's Alice Fordham is one of few Western journalists allowed into Syria, and she's been traveling there for the past week. She joins us now from the coastal city of Tartus. Hi, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hello.

GREENE: So I gather this coastal city is really the heartland of support for the government and President Assad. Is that right?

FORDHAM: Exactly, yeah. And there hasn't been a lot of fighting here, so the city itself seems kind of OK. But once you start talking to people, you realize that nearly every family here has someone - at least one person - in the Syrian army. And more men from Tartus have been killed fighting for Asaad per capita than anywhere else in the country. It's customary here to have a poster made to commemorate someone's death, and the city is plastered with these posters, layer on layer in some places, built up over the nearly six years of the civil war.

GREENE: Fascinating because we hear so much about places held by rebels and the sacrifices and death there. It's a reminder the people close to the government, I mean, fighting for the government have been sacrificing as well. I mean, where else have you gone in the country?

FORDHAM: Well, speaking to places that were held by rebels, I was able to get to Homs, where some of the soldiers from Tartus surely died. Homs is affected in a very different way. Much of central Homs was at one time held by rebel forces. And as a result of the battle there, the infrastructure has been massively damaged. Sixty percent of the city is uninhabitable now. We know that many civilians lived in the opposition-held areas of Homs and were killed by the security forces. That figures when you see the wreckage of the city there.

GREENE: And what about the capital, Damascus, where I know you've also spent some time?

FORDHAM: Right. Well, I often used to visit as a tourist before the war, and I've been able to get there occasionally but haven't been back in five years. And we know, of course, that there are still sieges and battles on the edge of the city, but the center is remarkably physically untouched. And although information is tightly controlled, that goes for everywhere. We always need permission for everything and to be accompanied by someone approved by the Information Ministry. I was able to take the temperature a little bit, and I can play you some of the voices from there.

Here in central Damascus, it's perfectly clear that Assad is still in control. In the souks of the beautiful, old city, his face looks out of almost every shop window, pinned up next to gold jewelry or intricate rugs. And no one has a bad word to say about him. I meet with Basam Abu Abdullah, a professor of international relations and adviser to the Information Ministry, and ask him about the mood here.

BASSAM ABU ABDULLAH: The mood in Damascus now is better, and it's very good. So Aleppo is a very important and strategic turning point in Syria and for the world.

FORDHAM: Regime supporters say eastern Aleppo is held by terrorists who have kept innocent people hostage there. People inside the opposition-held area, aid workers and the UN say there are maybe 200,000 civilians there suffering under assault by the Syrian armed forces and their allies. Hospitals, schools, apartment blocks have been leveled. An intermittent siege has left people hungry and cold. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But for Abu Abdullah, the gunmen are terrorists. And if the regime crushes them, that will be a turning point in the almost six-years civil war.

ABDULLAH: I think it's beginning of the end, I think, because most of the parties are tired, and the winner is very clearly that there is no way for these terrorists.

FORDHAM: And Abu Abdullah sees another reason for Assad supporters to be cheerful.

ABDULLAH: The other important things now are the elections of the United States.

FORDHAM: He was surprised and relieved to see Donald Trump win.

ABDULLAH: I felt that it's good for Syria. This is first my feeling.

FORDHAM: He had feared Hillary Clinton would strengthen the Syrian opposition, and he hopes Trump, by contrast, will back Assad. Later, I sit with the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Alwatan, Waddah Abed Rabbu. He does call for slow government reforms, but he's also on good terms with government officials. He, too, was relieved to see Trump win.

WADDAH ABED RABBU: In Damascus, like all over the world, it was a surprise, but a good one this time, I mean.

FORDHAM: I ask about the Obama administration, which maintained that Assad had lost legitimacy because his forces killed so many civilians and that he could not be a cohesive force in Syria. Abed Rabbu says Western powers were just wrong about that.

RABBU: They only want to see the president is unpopular. He's a bad guy. He has to go. He has to leave. But this was not true.

FORDHAM: He concedes that Assad may not be popular with everyone but says he has more than 50-percent approval and that he's the only person who can unify Syria. In those markets at the old city, at first, things seem OK. They're bustling and busy till long after dark. One shopkeeper tells me his takings are up 70 percent, year on year. Another shopkeeper named Ali Dera plays backgammon and says he feels safe now.

ALI DERA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "There are crowds out on the street," he says. "The security has improved. The news from Aleppo is pleasing," he adds.

DERA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: But even here, there are constant signs of the ravages of the war which is playing out across the country. The power is out a lot. Food prices have tripled or more since the war began. And as shoppers wander, homeless children run up and beg, a reminder that half of Syrians no longer live in their homes.

GREENE: OK, Alice is still on the line with us. And, Alice, just thinking about the future of this country, half of Syrians out of their homes, many of them outside Syria now. Do you get a sense - will the Assad regime let them come back to their home safely?

FORDHAM: Well, Assad likes to emphasize that all Syrians should feel welcome to come back to their country. And officials say the only people being arrested as they come out of the rebel-held part of Aleppo are terrorists, that people who were not terrorists that just lived in opposition-held areas are welcome to resume life as normal Syrian citizens. But we know the opposition has seen a lot of broken promises in the past, and they'll be watching very closely to see how these people from opposition areas are treated as Assad's forces move into them.

GREENE: OK, speaking to our colleague, NPR's Alice Fordham, who's been traveling around Syria, talking to us now from the Syrian city of Tartus. Alice, thanks.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.