Dispatch

Syrians Are Ready to Accept Bashar al-Assad as President

The war-weary country isn’t enthusiastic about its president, but desperate for a return to normalcy.

Damascus, SYRIA: A Syrian man arranges a display of national flags carrying a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad in a shop in Damascus, 26 May 2007. Assad stands tomorrow in a no-contest poll which will give him another seven years leading a regional heavyweight under immense international pressure. With parliament unanimously approving the candidature of the 41-year-old president for a second term, and with vocal opponents of the regime locked up, the referendum will inevitably anoint Assad as president until the year 2014. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Damascus, SYRIA: A Syrian man arranges a display of national flags carrying a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad in a shop in Damascus, 26 May 2007. Assad stands tomorrow in a no-contest poll which will give him another seven years leading a regional heavyweight under immense international pressure. With parliament unanimously approving the candidature of the 41-year-old president for a second term, and with vocal opponents of the regime locked up, the referendum will inevitably anoint Assad as president until the year 2014. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

ALEPPO, Syria — Seedra, Zahra, and Faedele draw in the debris with a stick, seemingly oblivious to the destruction surrounding them. The girls are sitting amid chunks of fallen concrete, collapsed pillars, and a caved-in roof in what was once the Shado Medo school in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed district.

“Have you come to rebuild our school?” Seedra asks.

Seedra is the oldest and the leader of the small group. “The war is over, we were told,” she says, but the walls in the classrooms are still riddled with bullet holes, the swing in the playground hangs unrepaired, and nobody has come to assess the damage. “When will the school reopen?”

The girls are not alone in their eagerness to return to school. Within minutes of my arrival, a crowd of families collects in the playground, showering me with questions and complaints. “The Syrian air force dropped barrel bombs,” says Riyad Jadiyeh, a resident of Sheikh Saeed. His children and his brother’s children, whom he now cares for, studied in the Shado Medo school.

The three-story school sat on the front line of the battle for Sheikh Saeed, a neighborhood in the formerly rebel-held east of the city. It provided the rebels with an ideal vantage point to fire at the Syrian army, positioned barely 650 feet away, and a perfect hideout to halt the advances of regime forces. But the defenses of the enclave, punished by intense bombing, would eventually collapse: On Dec. 12, the opposition gave in, and the regime marched into opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo.

Sheikh Saeed was regained through extreme violence, but the anger of the families I met was reserved for the regime and rebels in equal measure. Jadiyeh’s relative Fatima accused the rebels of ransacking the school and blamed them for inviting the wrath of the state. “Gunmen, the Nusra Front — they were here, and because of them it was bombed,” she said.

This neighborhood provides a window into the mindset of many Syrians as President Bashar al-Assad consolidates his control over the country. During a 10-day visit, I traveled over 600 miles of territory under Assad’s control, driving from Damascus to apocalyptic Homs, and then crossing through a countryside littered with checkpoints, manned by young soldiers and militiamen in ragged uniforms who vowed to wipe out Islamic State fighters hiding in nearby villages. Sheikh Saeed was my first stop upon landing in Aleppo, and the voices of its residents resonated in other war-torn neighborhoods of the city, such as Shaar, Saliheen, and Bustan al-Qasr. Everywhere, it seemed, Syrians have been left battered by a six-year war, disillusioned by a fractured and increasingly jihadi opposition, and desperate for the return of basic necessities of life.

The regime may have retaken Aleppo’s formerly rebel-held districts, but it has done little to bring back jobs or basic services. Riyad, a day laborer, earns 7,000 Syrian pounds a month, or about $14 at the current exchange rate. He spends a quarter of his salary on water, which is a scarcity here as neither the government nor the Syrian Arab Red Crescent can provide enough to meet local needs.

“There is no electricity,” he said. “We buy water from the owners of private wells because there is no water supply from the government.”

It is obvious that everyone regrets the war, and it is understandable that residents like these, whichever side they were originally on, if any, now cast blame on all sides. But while the regime has done little or nothing for them, they accept that it represents the only chance of restoring a semblance of normalcy to their lives. Sheikh Saeed’s residents know that if they ever want Seedra, Zahra, and Faedele’s school to be rebuilt, they will have to count on Assad.

The prevalence of jihadis within the armed opposition also made the rebels an easy target of blame by all sides, not just regime propaganda. In Sheikh Saeed, it is easy to see how alliances between the Free Syrian Army factions and the Nusra Front, since renamed, delivered an unintended gift of legitimacy to Assad. When Fatima Jadiyeh referred to “gunmen,” she did not distinguish between the militias’ ideological nuances — she associated any crimes committed by the al Qaeda affiliate with the rebels as a whole.

These dynamics are not unique to Aleppo but resonate in the capital as well. East of Damascus, the war continues in districts such as Jobar, where a multitude of Islamist and jihadi factions compete not just with the regime but with each other for dominance.

The nature of the opposition here, which sporadically but uselessly shells the city center, is another gift for the regime. One target is the Christian Bab Sharqi neighborhood of the Old City, famous for its nightlife, where the heavily armed Islamists a few miles away were never going to win much sympathy.

At one bar, a group of young men and women sat drinking wine and smoking water pipes. “Look, dead men walking,” said one man as he pointed to the internally displaced people camped out on the pavement outside. I wondered if he was trying disguise war exhaustion with morbid jokes and a half smile. “You have come at the right time. This is high season for terrorists,” he continued.

“Waiting for the war to end is like waiting for Godot,” he said. “We hear — not just hear, we feel the mortars thrown at us. The jihadis and their lackeys are in Jobar. They are attacking us and also fighting among themselves. What sort of an opposition is this?”

The sense that there is no alternative to Assad is, of course, not just restricted to Syria itself. In the last few weeks, a chorus of the opposition’s former backers has urged it to come to terms with Assad’s continued rule. Saudi Arabia, a prominent backer of the armed opposition, summoned rebel negotiators to tell them to find a new strategy, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson finally admitted that forcing Assad to quit as a precursor to peace talks was unrealistic.

But growing acceptance that Assad will remain does not mean that the Syrian president has won over his people or his country. A section of Syrians is making a quiet pact with themselves to wait for another day to assert their political beliefs. For now, the priority is peace.

“At the moment, we need to fight these guys,” my new friend in the Damascus bar told me, of the jihadis and rebels. “But then we should look again at what is to be done next.”

Even in areas where Assad has largely fulfilled his promise of stability, fear and resentment of his government sometimes bubble to the surface. In western Aleppo’s Mocambo neighborhood, for instance, coffee shops and designer outlets are filled with upper middle-class customers, and waiters cater to water pipe smokers.

The area, a government stronghold, came under attack by the rebels, but the destruction here doesn’t even come close to the annihilation of the east. Contrary to the pitch-dark nights in eastern Aleppo, businessmen here tell me that they can afford to buy power, even though the cost is eating into their profits. Electricity costs $400 a week, compared with $40 a month before the war.

“We had no buyers until mid-last year, but now business is flourishing,” said Rami, the owner of a patisserie. “There are more customers than we can serve.”

Is he satisfied with how quickly services are returning? “We’d have to ask if we can be upset,” Rami said wryly.

In line for the swimming pool at the Ittehad sports club, a young woman named Jenan Shamma said she had lived in Lebanon during the conflict. Who does she blame for the war that exiled her? “Actually, I don’t want to say anything about the government,” she answered.

On the basketball court, Feras al-Farra, a coach and national player, spoke of his teammates killed in rebel shelling but would not talk politics. “I am a sportsman. This question is not about sports,” he said. “Sorry, I can’t talk about the government.”

It’s no secret why Syrians don’t want to criticize the resurgent regime. Whether or not they truly are the saviors of “secular Syria,” as they portray themselves, the Assad family hegemony has been sustained by their intelligence agencies. Amnesty International reported in August that at least 75,000 Syrians had been “disappeared” since the start of the uprising. As many as 13,000 people were killed in Saydnaya prison alone between September 2011 and December 2015.

After so many hundreds of thousands of deaths, many Syrians are reconciled to whatever comes next, as long as it is not more war. The regime, however, is benefiting not from an upsurge of genuine support but from war weariness, the sins of the opposition, and the desperation of millions of people for the return of basic services. Hatred of war and contempt for the rebels are not the same thing as a permanent peace.

Photo credit: HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Anchal Vohra is a reporter based in Beirut.

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