By Robert F. Worth
May 24, 2017
One morning in mid-December, a group of soldiers banged on the door of a house in eastern Aleppo. A male voice responded from inside: “Who are you?” A soldier answered: “We’re the Syrian Arab Army. It’s O.K., you can come out. They’re all gone.”
The door opened. A middle-aged man appeared. He had a gaunt, distinguished face, but his clothes were threadbare and his teeth looked brown and rotted. At the soldiers’ encouragement, he stepped hesitantly forward into the street. He explained to them, a little apologetically, that he had not crossed his threshold in four and a half years.
The man gazed around for a moment as if baffled, his eyes filling with tears. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad had just recaptured the city after years of bombing and urban warfare that had made Aleppo a global byword for savagery. This frail-looking man had survived at the war’s geographic center entirely alone, an urban Robinson Crusoe, living on stocks of dry food and whatever he could grow in his small inner courtyard. Now, as he stumbled through an alley full of twisted metal and rubble, he saw for the first time that the front lines, marked by a wall of sandbags, were barely 20 yards from his house.
Three months later, in March, he sat with me under the tall, spindly orange tree in his courtyard and described how he barricaded himself in when the fighting started. He goes by the name Abu Sami, and he has the mild, patient manners of a scholar; he taught at Aleppo University before the war. In the early days of the rebel takeover, he said, his nephews used to drop by with fresh bread and meat. But starting in 2013, the shelling grew worse, and he would go six months or more without seeing another human face. There was no water, no electric light; he gathered rainwater in buckets and boiled it and used a small solar panel to charge his phone. He made vinegar from grapes he grew in the courtyard. He treated his illnesses with aloe and other herbs he grew in pots. Once, when a rotten tooth became too painful, he yanked it out with pliers. He cowered by his bed when bombs shook the house to its foundation.
Most of all, he sustained himself by reading. He carried out a stack of books from his bedroom to show me: treatises by Sigmund Freud, novels by Henry Miller, histories of science and psychology and religion and mythology and cooking, a book on radical theater by the American drama critic Robert Brustein. Some were in Russian, a language he learned as a young man. “I read these things so I wouldn’t have to think about politics or current events,” he said. He read plays — Shakespeare and Molière were favorites — and in his solitude, he found that he was able to see the entire drama acted out in his mind, as if it were onstage.
He led me upstairs to see his dusty study, where the walls and ceiling were shredded with dozens of small shrapnel holes that let in fingers of sunlight. He picked up a bomb fragment, rolled it in his palm and laughed. He pointed to the house next door, where his neighbor, a quiet man who kept pigeons on the roof, had lived until a group of rebels arrived, shouting, and dragged him from the door. They brought back his corpse half an hour later.
I asked Abu Sami why he never left. He gave the same answer that so many others gave me: because it was his house. And because day after day, year after year, he kept thinking, Surely this war is about to end.
In the eastern Aleppo streets beyond Abu Sami’s house, little has changed since the December morning when he rediscovered his ruined city. A narrow alley leads to an open area where a “hell cannon” still sits, the homemade howitzer used by rebels to fire on government-controlled western Aleppo. Beyond it, there are buildings with pancaked roofs, evidence of Russian and Syrian bombs. There are piles of rubble so high that entire streets remain impassable. Throughout the former rebel zone that once proudly called itself “free Aleppo,” there are hospitals and schools and houses — it goes on for miles — that have been reduced to uneven heaps of stone and broken concrete, where the faint smell of buried corpses still lingers.
In the United States, the drawn-out siege of Aleppo — where the Syrian regime and its Russian allies repeatedly bombed hospitals and civilian areas — was widely deplored as a war crime comparable to the worst massacres of the Bosnian war during the 1990s. The refusal to intervene, some said, was a defining moral failure of the Obama administration. On the other side, regime supporters saw only the rebels’ atrocities and their manipulation of civilians for propaganda. The “fall” of Aleppo, they said, was really the “liberation” of a city from terrorist rule, and a sign that Assad had all but won the civil war.
Both portraits are false and self-serving. The Syrian tragedy started in a moment of deceptive simplicity, when the peaceful protesters of the 2011 Arab Spring seemed destined to inherit the future. Chants for freedom turned quickly to insurrection, bullets and war. But it took some time for outsiders to recognize how different Syria was, how its internal schisms — like tightly coiled springs — would provoke the fears and ambitions of all its neighbors. The Saudis and Turks wanted to replace Assad with a reliable Sunni client, while Iran and Hezbollah held fast to their one foothold in the Arab world. Russia, which intervened decisively in 2015, had its own motives: flouting American designs and protecting a reliable autocrat. The United States, having expected Assad to fall on his own, dithered over support for the rebels.
Aleppo became the rebels’ last major urban redoubt. Its fall reconfigured the Syrian battleground: The Saudis and Turks resigned themselves to Assad’s rule, and their rivals exulted in a victory that seemed to justify years of blood and treasure. The Assad regime happily stepped out of the limelight as the world’s attention turned back to capturing Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria’s northeast.
One small measure of the regime’s confidence was a renewed willingness to let Western journalists — including me — travel the country. I was under the usual police-state surveillance, with a minder from the Information Ministry accompanying me during my travels outside Damascus. But scarcely any Americans had been to Aleppo since the regime’s victory in December. The city had become a symbol of sorts, a sprawling commercial hub where every faction seemed to have left its mark. I had been trying to get back there for years; it was a place I loved when I covered the region from Beirut. I wanted to wind back the clock and make sense of how a city that seemed so averse to politics — of any kind — had been torn apart.
Even Syrians have trouble answering that question. In March, I met a lawyer named Anas Joudeh, who took part in some of the 2011 protests. Joudeh no longer considers himself a member of the opposition. I asked him why. “No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition,” Joudeh told me. “They know what they don’t want, not what they want.” In December, he said, “Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, ‘We lost Aleppo.’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.” For these exiled Syrians, he said, the specter of Assad’s crimes looms so large that they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of a rebellion that is corrupt, brutal and compromised by foreign sponsors. This is true. Eastern Aleppo may not have been Raqqa, where ISIS advertised its rigid Islamist dystopia and its mass beheadings. But as a symbol of Syria’s future, it was almost as bad: a chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias — some of them radical Islamists — who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.
As for the regime’s victory there, it probably would not have taken place if Turkey had not withdrawn some of its rebel proxies to focus on fighting the Kurds. Aleppo may have helped the regime’s morale, but the war is likely to grind on for years, sustained and manipulated by outside powers. Assad needs them: His army has been decimated by war and desertions. That may help explain his use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in early April, which prompted the Trump administration’s slap-on-the-wrist missile strike. With his manpower running out, Assad cares more about reinforcing his rule — at any cost — than rehabilitating his reputation in the West, which might have provided loans to help rebuild his shattered country.
All the same, Aleppo was a turning point, and in some ways an emblem of the wider war. Its fall appears to have persuaded many ordinary Syrians that the regime, for all its appalling cruelty and corruption, is their best shot at something close to normality. This is almost certainly true for the Trump administration too. President Trump may call Assad an “animal” and hint at more airstrikes, but he cannot unseat him, because he knows that the alternative is not the kinder, gentler place once dreamed of by opposition activists. It is anarchy, where the warlords rule not from the presidential palace but from every town and every street.
‘No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition.’
First they stole everything, then they burned everything,” Freddy Marrache told me as I stumbled along in the darkness behind him. Above us were vaulted medieval stone roofs, interrupted here and there by huge shell holes. “This was the spice market — it’s totally gone. The front line was just here.” Underfoot was a slurry of ash and garbage. Marrache, a 48-year-old businessman with a pale, shaved head and an air of quiet alertness, made frequent visits as a child to Aleppo’s Old City. The souqs were its crown jewel, a cloacal maze of market stalls packed with spices, fabrics, silks, leather, soaps, gold, meat, fruit, carpets, toilet seats — almost anything. It went on for more than eight miles, one of the largest covered markets in the world. Aleppans used to say that a blind man could find his way through them by following the smells of the merchandise. Then, in 2012, the rebels came, and the souqs became the perfect refuge for urban guerrillas.
Marrache and his sister, Marie-Michelle, had offered to show me the remains of the Khan al Nahassine, a grand old house attached to the souqs that was built in 1539 and has been owned by their family since the 1800s. I first saw it a decade earlier, when their mother, Jenny Poche Marrache, walked me through it. She was then in her 60s, and she had a sour elegance that seemed to match the place. I remember her complaining about Islamists as she chain-smoked and concluding acidly in French, “Soon I’ll be dead, and it won’t matter.” She waited patiently as I stared at the parade of antiquities on every wall: paintings, sculptures, documents, old musical instruments, photographs. That house was a shrine to the old Levantine world of which Aleppo — with its polyglot traders, its mix of Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam — had been the center. Jenny died in 2015, before she could see the extent of the damage to the house.
Everything was gone. Even the copper wiring had been stripped out. The walls were still there, but on the far side some rooms had collapsed into the courtyard after heavy shelling. “You remember the painting that was here?” Freddy asked. I did. It was of a woman in Renaissance dress, the wife of the first Venetian consul in Aleppo. (Aleppo still has honorary consulships for many European countries.) The painting was memorable because it was painted in the same room where it hung; you could recognize the other objects and the shape of the wall. Freddy explained that the painting had turned up in Turkey, like much of what the rebels had stolen across Aleppo. An Istanbul antiques dealer told them that he would sell it back to them for $20,000. When they protested that it was stolen, Freddy told me, the dealer said dismissively, “I get things from Syria every day.”
Back in the souqs, I kept trying to superimpose my memories of the place. We passed near the silk merchants’ area, now blackened and silent. Before 2011, I used to stop there and visit a flamboyant young trader with a round, cherubic face. He would give me tea and drape me with scarves. His little stall was covered with pictures of gay icons like Judy Garland, a reference that his Syrian partners seemed not to get (or perhaps they just didn’t care). I still have his business card, with a picture of Oscar Wilde and the quote: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Aleppo in those days was a magnet for footloose journalists and adventure tourists. We would spend hours getting lost in the souqs and then stop for drinks in the dimly lit bar at the Hotel Baron, gazing at its old unpaid bar tab left by T.E. Lawrence, our heads swimming with nostalgia for an era we knew only from books.
Now parts of the city were literally unrecognizable. In al-Hatab Square, once one of the prettier spots in the Old City, I found only a giant, uneven mound of rubble and earth that rose 15 feet above the street, with grass growing in it. I almost stepped on an unexploded Turkish gas bomb surrounded by yellow spring flowers. On the square’s edges, half the buildings were destroyed. It was hard to believe this was once an orderly urban setting, lined with restaurants and hotels. The last time I was in Aleppo, in late 2010, I stayed at a beautiful old boutique hotel near the square, the Beit Wakil. I remember the owner taking me down into a dark, earthen-walled subbasement to show me a network of tunnels built centuries earlier. You could travel all the way to the citadel — the great medieval palace that towers over the Old City — without going aboveground, he said. They were built during the 17th century, when intermittent wars often made streets too treacherous to walk. “Perhaps we will need them again,” he said.
What destroyed Aleppo? It was not the sectarianism that is often held up as a key to the Syrian war. It was not just “terrorism,” the word used by regime apologists to fend off any share of blame. Those things played a role, but the core of the conflict in Aleppo, as in much of Syria, was a divide between urban wealth and rural poverty. It is not new. Travelers in the Ottoman era used to describe the shocking gulf between Aleppo’s opulence and the countryside surrounding it, where peasants lived in almost Stone Age conditions. Later, this divide mapped onto the city itself, as eastern Aleppo spread and filled with poor migrants. Deeply religious and mostly illiterate, smoldering with class resentment, they became the foot soldiers of a violent insurgency led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s. That rebellion burned for years and culminated in the Syrian regime’s notorious massacre of 10,000 to 30,000 people in the city of Hama in 1982. Hundreds of people were killed in Aleppo, too, and a siege atmosphere marked the entire city. The Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, who grew up in Aleppo during those years and wrote a novel about it, told me in 2008 that the city’s cosmopolitan traditions had helped protect it. But he added: “All this has harmed Syrian society so much. If what happened in the 1980s were to happen again, I think the Islamists would win.”
One tragedy of Aleppo is that this rift between rich and poor was slowly mending in the years just before the 2011 uprisings. An economic renaissance was underway, fueled by thousands of small factories on the city’s outskirts. The workers were mostly from eastern Aleppo, and the owners from the west. A trade deal with Turkey, whose border is just 30 miles to the north, brought new business and tourists and optimism. I remember sitting at cafe table with two Turkish traders just outside the citadel in late 2009. Tourists thronged all around us, and the two men talked excitedly about how new joint ventures were melting the animosity between their country and Syria. “Erdogan and Assad, they are like real friends,” one of them said, referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
This kind of optimism was one reason the revolution took so long to reach Aleppo. All through 2011, as the rest of Syria erupted in protest, its largest city was quiet. But by 2012, in the villages just beyond the city’s edges, weaponry was flowing in from across the Turkish border and battalions were being formed. “The countryside was boiling,” I was told by Adnan Hadad, an opposition activist who was there at the time and belonged to the Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, a group led by Syrian military officers who defected. The council was eager for more European and American recognition and sensitive to Western calls for the preservation of most of Syria’s state institutions. But local rural people tended to side with a more Islamist and less patient group called Liwa al-Tawheed. Tawheed’s members “considered themselves more authentic” and had begun getting their own funding from Persian Gulf donors, Hadad told me. In the spring of 2012, Tawheed’s members began pushing for a military takeover of Aleppo, accusing the council of excessive caution and even secret deals with the regime. The council resisted, saying they should move only when it was clear that the city’s people wanted them to. In July, Tawheed took matters into its own hands. Armed insurgents flooded eastern and southwestern parts of the city, taking over civilian houses as well as police stations in the name of the revolution. Hadad considered the move a “fatal mistake,” he told me, and resigned from the military council.
By then, eastern Aleppo had become a rebel stronghold. In early 2013, elections for provincial councils took place, giving the rebels a civilian veneer. But the councils, initially funded by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, were soon under pressure from the Nusra Front, the Syrian Qaeda affiliate, and other hard-line groups. Later, ISIS forces captured parts of the city and forced residents to live by their rigid code. In theory, Aleppo was an embattled showplace for the Syrian revolution’s aspirations. In fact, most civilians were dependent on a patchwork of armed rebel factions for food and protection. The constant pressure of war left almost no room for a real economy, and many of the city’s factories had been repurposed by the rebels as military bases.
Now Aleppo’s great economic engine lies in ruins. One afternoon, a 45-year-old factory owner named Ghassan Nasi took me to the industrial area just west of Aleppo called Layramoon. The sounds of the city dissipated as we drove west, and when the car stopped, there was an eerie silence. An entire district that once hummed with 1,000 small factories was now abandoned, most of its buildings shattered and burned. “It is a 100 percent loss here,” Nasi said. We walked down a dusty street to his factory, a textile and dyeing house that employed 130 people who worked 24 hours a day in three shifts. The door still had its metal filigree gate and marble steps. “This is where workers stamped in and out,” he said.
Inside, the huge factory floor was burned black and strewn with rubble. The rebels had used it to make weapons, he said. His old office had been used to house prisoners. Nasi told me quietly that he collapsed to his knees upon seeing it again last summer. “I lost $10 million in machinery, $4 million in land,” he said. “Even if we rebuild, the machinery is gone, and with the sanctions, we cannot buy new machinery.” On top of that, there is inflation: The American dollar was worth 47 Syrian pounds before the crisis, and now it trades unofficially at about 520. And Turkey — where much of the Aleppo factories’ machinery was transported and sold, often with the collusion of Syrian owners who wanted to avoid losing everything — now sells similar textiles for less. Reviving Syrian industry, and the social glue it might once have provided, is next to impossible.
I asked Nasi what had become of his workers. He said about 70 percent of them joined the rebels. He didn’t seem bitter or surprised about this. Some lived nearby, so when the area was divided, they had little choice. As for the others, they were poor and ill educated and religious, and the rebels promised them a lot. “The average salary for workers was about a hundred dollars a week,” he said. “The rebels paid more.”
For many Aleppans, caught up in a conflict they had tried to avoid, the only rule was survival. On a warm spring morning in 2013, a 22-year-old man named Yasser lay bleeding in the middle of a street in eastern Aleppo. Moments earlier, he had carried his mother, mortally wounded by a sniper, into his grandparents’ car. As he watched the car pull away, three bullets struck his legs and left arm. He collapsed into the street and could not move. Shots rang out over his head: regime soldiers trading fire with rebels on either side of him. The soldiers heard Yasser calling for help and told him to come toward them. “I can’t move,” he shouted. Then a rebel spoke from a nearby building, promising to help. When he answered, a regime soldier called out, “Who are you talking to?” The rebels quickly warned him not to answer or they would kill him.
“I was very scared of both sides,” Yasser told me later. “If I went to one side, the other would kill me.” He lay there, his limbs going numb, too frightened to move or speak for more than four hours.
I met Yasser in March in Sha’ar, the most devastated neighborhood in eastern Aleppo. He was short and solidly built, with a snub nose and a gruff manner. He was selling tomatoes and cucumbers from a stand, on a block where many buildings were in ruins. Across the street was a fruit stand, and next to it, a loud generator, set up by the government to supply electricity. Surprising numbers of people walked the streets. This place had been almost completely empty a few weeks earlier, but now that Russian mine-clearing teams had been through and the rubble was mostly pushed aside, Sha’ar’s residents were returning to their homes. (More than 100,000 went back to eastern Aleppo between January and March, according to the International Organization for Migration.) Yasser said he was one of the first people to come back, right after what he — like everyone else I met — called the liberation. It was a gesture of defiance, aimed at the rebels. “What we lost, we will get it back,” he said. He wore military fatigues, and he told me he re-enlisted in the military after he got out of the hospital in 2013. “My blood type is O-Assad,” he said.
Later, Yasser showed me the place where he was wounded. It was the first time he’d been back since it happened, and the block had changed, like most of eastern Aleppo. “There was a checkpoint here, there were sandbags there,” he said. He pointed out the first-floor window where an old man had talked to him through curtains as he lay on the street. He showed me the building where he thought the sniper had been hiding, about 100 yards away. He explained how his ordeal had ended: An airstrike hit the building, and the sniper vanished. A man on a motorbike rescued Yasser, carrying him to a house, where someone cleaned his wounds. Later, he was taken to a hospital, where a doctor told him that his mother was dead. The doctor put a needle in his arm and told him to count to three, and he blacked out.
I found Yasser’s story credible, and his uncle later backed it up. But as I stood on the street with him, I found myself wondering: Did he really know who shot him? Bullets were coming from each side. As he lay there bleeding, whom was he more frightened of — the rebels or the regime? Yasser clearly knew how his government is portrayed in the West and seemed defensive about it. He told me a rebel group tried to blame the regime for his mother’s death. Later, he said, the same group admitted its guilt and offered blood money, which the family refused to take. This seemed less plausible. He walked me down the street to his uncle’s house, where he said we would hear another story about what the rebels had done.
Yasser’s uncle was a big, heavyset man with a jowly face and a look of weary resignation in his eyes. He welcomed us into his tiny apartment, where he offered me a stool and sat down on his old brass bed. He sighed and apologized for being unable to offer us tea. Then he showed us his scarred arm and told us the story of how his family was devastated in January 2013. He was driving his pregnant daughter to the hospital when machine-gun fire riddled the car, killing his wife instantly and wounding everyone else. He told me rebels from the Free Syrian Army pulled them from the car and rushed them to a nearby hospital. I asked who fired on them. “I don’t know,” he said.
There was a silence. Until that moment, I had not heard anyone miss an opportunity to blame the rebels. With my government minder looking on, Yasser began asking where the gunfire had come from. Wasn’t it from a tall building nearby? Weren’t the rebels in that building? The uncle shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said again. I had the impression that he was profoundly depressed and past caring about what he was supposed to say. Yasser kept pressing. Eventually, the uncle caved in and said, Sure, it was probably the rebels. “My wife died a martyr,” he said. “For the F.S.A., I cannot say, because they helped me and my wife. I cannot say how they are with other people.” And then quietly, he began to cry.
There is a billboard hanging over one of Aleppo’s main intersections that shows a soldier wearing a helmet, with his entire face shrouded in shadow. Beneath it are the words “Aleppo in Our Eyes.” The image stuck with me. Which Aleppo? Whose eyes? In Arabic, the expression conveys affection, but the words also seemed to hint at the city’s fragmented loyalties, its atmosphere of enduring suspicion. It wasn’t just regime allegiance that made people like Yasser tailor their stories. He refused to be photographed, and when I asked why, he hinted that the rebels might still be able to find and kill him, even after the regime’s triumph. Another man described receiving a visit at his home in government-controlled Aleppo from two ISIS members, who calmly blackmailed him and went on their way, unhurried. The city had changed hands so many times that no one could be fully confident whose eyes would be watching them.
On my second day in the city, I went to see the Aleppo Eye Hospital, a sprawling compound that the rebels had used as a military headquarters. As we walked through the burned and shattered building, my government minder and the soldiers guarding the place kept picking up markers of the rebels’ Islamist leanings. They weren’t hard to find. A fire-blackened car out front still had the Qaeda logo on its hood. Inside, the rebels had put up paper signs to show how they used the rooms: a room where Shariah rulings were handed out by a religious sheikh, a document about Islamic punishments. There was a prison too, and I later met a woman who seems to have been kept there. She had been captured in a rural village, and the rebels killed her husband and then moved her from place to place, intending to trade her for their own prisoners. There were female jailers who beat and cursed her and called her an infidel. She told me she was given a bottle of water to wash herself with once every 10 to 15 days. During the final battle for Aleppo, she often heard the sounds of bombs and mortars exploding nearby, and her jailers would taunt her, saying Assad’s bombs will kill you.
As I walked through those ruins, it was clear enough that the rebels who ruled eastern Aleppo had done some awful things there. Yet the whole hospital tour was designed, at least in part, to mitigate or obscure a very uncomfortable fact. The Assad regime repeatedly and deliberately bombed hospitals in the rebel zone, even when there was no reason to suspect that fighters were based there. No one would discuss this with me during my time in Aleppo, even when I did not have the minder with me. Instead, I had to speak to people who fled eastern Aleppo under the terms of the deal to evacuate the city in December, when the regime recaptured it. They were living in Idlib province, to the southwest, which is held by rebels, and I spoke to them by Skype. One was a young man who worked as a nurse at the Omar bin Abdul Aziz Hospital throughout 2016. He told me that the hospital was rendered inoperable 15 times by regime airstrikes. Each time, engineers and doctors would rehabilitate it, only to see it damaged again. When the regime soldiers got too close, they moved to another hospital, called Al Quds. It was so crowded that they sometimes tended the wounded in the street outside.
Stories like this have been amply documented and held up as evidence that the Assad regime is guilty of war crimes on a wide scale. A nongovernmental organization in Europe has been working for years to gather documents that would tie the Syrian leadership to these crimes in a Nuremberg-style trial. That prospect is remote, but there are signs that Assad, too, may be worried about whose eyes are watching him. This month, the State Department released satellite photographs suggesting that the regime is burning the bodies of executed prisoners in a crematory at the Sednaya prison complex, north of Damascus, in an alleged effort to hide evidence. The Syrian regime called these charges a “new Hollywood plot.”
One afternoon, I was sitting in an Aleppo cafe with a 26-year-old man who had just got out of the army after six years. He served all over the country and had shrapnel wounds on his legs and back. His Cellphones rang, and I watched his eyes widen as he absorbed what was obviously bad news. When he got off the phone, he told me that six friends from his old unit had just been killed in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus. The rebels had launched a complex attack using tunnels and multiple suicide bombers. All in all, about 30 regime soldiers had been killed. That attack was the start of a rebel offensive that reached the edge of Damascus’s Old City, keeping residents awake much of the night with deafening blasts. The rebels mounted simultaneous assaults to the north, forcing the roads to close for days. I had my own minor brush with the rebel campaign. As I was driving from Aleppo to the Syrian coast, rebels opened fire on the road to our right as we passed near the city of Homs. A soldier yelled at us to move fast, and our driver gunned the engine — we must have hit 100 miles an hour on a tiny two-way road — and told us to duck our heads. The rebels were just a hundred yards away. I heard their shellfire thumping in the distance almost everywhere I went.
It is impossible to live in government-controlled Syria without noticing that there are almost no young men on the street. They are in the army, or they are dead. Veterans must carry their military papers with them or risk on-the-spot re-enlistment. At one checkpoint, government soldiers tried to grab the young Spanish photographer I was working with, who is easily mistaken for a Syrian; they wanted to recruit him. In Latakia, a beach town in the regime’s northwestern heartland, I met a 53-year-old businessman named Munzer Nasser, who commands a militia composed almost entirely of older men; there are no young men left in his village. One of its members, he told me, is a 65-year-old whose three sons have all been killed in the war. Behind the Assad regime’s atrocities lies a fear of demographic exhaustion. Its rebel opponents have no such worries: They can draw on a vast well of Islamist sympathizers across the Arab world.
These facts translate into a genuine gratitude — in regime-controlled areas — toward Russia, whose military intervention in late 2015 may have forestalled a total collapse. Many Syrians say they feel reassured by the sight of Russian soldiers, because they (unlike the army and its allied militias) are not likely to loot or steal. Some of my contacts in regime-controlled areas are even learning Russian. In Latakia, some people told me that their city might have been destroyed if not for the Russians. The city has long been one of Syria’s safe zones, well defended by the army and its militias; there are tent cities full of people who have fled other parts of the country, including thousands from Aleppo. But in the summer of 2015, the rebels were closing in on the Latakia city limits, and mortars were falling downtown. If the rebels had captured the area — where Alawites are the majority — a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area. In this sense, the Russian intervention was a lucky thing for the Obama administration too. Andrew Exum, who worked in the Pentagon at the time, told me that the military drew up contingency plans for a rapid collapse of the regime. The planning sessions were talked about as “catastrophic success.”
Yet Assad’s popularity is due not only to his role as the guarantor of a secular order. He has also cannily positioned himself as a unique guardian against his own regime. Just before I arrived in Aleppo in March, a high-ranking Republican Guard commander in the city issued a public order declaring a crackdown on “acts of looting, robbery and assaults on public property and on the freedoms of citizens and their private property.” The order was a belated recognition of what had been going on for months: an orgy of looting by the various paramilitary groups that work alongside the Syrian Army, and even by elements of the army itself.
Inside the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Credit Sebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times
I heard complaints about this everywhere I went. Looting has become so common that it has generated a new word: ta’feesh, to steal furniture. One reporter for the regime-friendly TV channel Al Mayadeen said in a November interview that “this systematic looting has exceeded all limits to include murder as well as stealing and looting.” He went on to describe a “rigorously organized” process in which the paramilitary groups followed the Syrian Army and pillaged at will, sometimes “dragging homeowners from their houses and robbing the houses right in front of their eyes.” Another common tactic, he said, was to pour gasoline on walls and set a fire “until the tiles on the floors and walls expand due to the heat. Then they put out the fire, remove the tiles and resell them.”
The reporter, an Aleppan named Rida al-Basha, described the neighborhoods where this had taken place and named the militias, including the notorious Tiger Forces, whose leaders include well-known thugs. At the end of the interview, Basha said that he had pleaded with the city government and other journalists to expose these crimes, but that everyone was too frightened. After the report, Basha repeatedly said he was threatened with death, and he is said to have fled the country.
Publicly, the Syrian state deplores these crimes, but privately it seems to condone them as a form of compensation for the paramilitary groups, whose support Assad needs to supplement his decimated army. (The rebels do it, too, and sometimes offer an Islamic justification: ghana’im al-harb, the spoils of war.) Only when the looting starts to spin out of control, as it did in Aleppo in January and February, is there a crackdown. But such systematized thievery has become entrenched in an economy that is more corrupt than ever. Regime-allied armed groups often set up checkpoints and extort taxes from farmers and businessmen, making it that much harder to earn a living. “You pay through the nose to transport anything anywhere,” I was told by a man who manufactures plastics and has seen most of his profit margin disappear. “Bashar can’t do anything about this. He is in survival mode.” Meanwhile, war profiteers (tujjar al-harb — another phrase you hear a lot in Syria nowadays) have become well-known figures. I was amazed to see new, lavish-looking restaurants in Damascus; some of them belong to men who are said to have grown rich from crime. Members of the old Damascus business elite wince when they describe the clientele in these places. One friend told me, “You see a guy in a business suit in a fancy bar talking to a thuggish-looking guy in fatigues, and you understand the conversation without hearing anything.” Some of these men are also widely said to sell oil to rebel groups for huge profits.
‘We all served the politics of other countries in our own land, whether we knew it or not.’
Late last year, Iran abruptly suspended oil deliveries, which have become a lifeline for Syria. Iran acted because it was angry about the amount of its fuel that was being diverted and sold to rebels by regime-connected middlemen, I was told by a Syrian who has close ties to Hezbollah, Iran’s ally. The suspension created a serious fuel crisis in winter. Iran resumed its supplies in mid-February, but Tehran has little choice: It needs Assad as much as he needs it. There are reports of similar tensions with the Russians, who are more interested in brokering an end to the fighting than Assad is. The Syrian businessman put it like this: “Bashar is like a man with two false legs — one is Russia and one is Iran. He keeps hopping from one leg to the other, because the ground he is standing on is very hot.”
All this may sound awfully precarious for Assad. But in a sense, it is just a more extreme form of the game Assad and his father have played for decades. The Assad regime arose after an unstable period during the 1950s and ’60s, when Syria was shaken by coups and countercoups. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, triumphed in part by managing a constellation of rivals who hated one another but were all dependent on him. They knew that without him at the center, chaos would return, and that would be bad for business. This is truer than ever today. And it has a secondary effect, not unimportant: Many ordinary people now see Assad as their only hedge against a far more toxic kind of chaos.
My Syrian businessman friend told me that he twice gathered about a dozen people for dinner and offered them a hypothetical in strict confidence. It is up to you to name the next president of Syria, he said. Whom would you choose? The guests were all Syrians, and none supported the regime. To his surprise, almost all of them named Assad. When he asked why, the same answer came back again and again: Assad is the only one who can protect us against his own devils.
Displaced Aleppans at a temporary shelter about six miles from the city. Credit Sebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times
While I was in Syria, I found myself thinking now and again about the vast street demonstrations I saw in Iran in 2009. This was just after the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, when millions of people marched peacefully through the streets of Tehran. The crowd drew from every social class, every generation. A peaceful popular movement seemed to have brought the theocratic regime to its knees. Soon after the largest march, on June 15, the police and the Basij militia came out in force, spraying tear gas and beating people with truncheons. Protests went on for months, but eventually they dwindled to a hard core, and the regime crushed the movement with relative ease. I often wondered about all those people I saw in the streets on June 15. At the time, their absence felt a bit like cowardice to me. Now it feels more like a kind of earned political wisdom. They stayed home not because they preferred the regime but because they did not want to risk death. And perhaps because they did not want to see their country torn apart.
Anas Joudeh, the Damascus lawyer, told me that the absence of this kind of wisdom is precisely what doomed Syria. For years, he said, he and his friends cast around looking for someone to blame for the failure of the 2011 revolution. “We often asked, If only this, or if only that,” he said. “But now I feel that what happened was destiny. Because there are no political or social forces in Syria. The regime emptied them out. So when the regime looked to make a deal in 2011, there was no one there.” I took Joudeh to be saying that the regime might have been willing to share power, in some limited way, if the opposition had been more organized, more conciliatory. Perhaps it is naïve to suggest that the regime could have offered genuine reforms of its own accord. Police states are not known for voluntarily giving up power in the interest of building a better future. Assad has spoken the language of reform ever since he inherited his role from his father in 2000, and he has never followed through on any of it. Still, there is one story that has haunted me.
On March 30, 2011, Assad delivered a televised speech to Syria’s rubber-stamp Parliament that is widely viewed in retrospect as a crucial step in the country’s descent into war. He had kept silent during the previous two weeks of protest and violence. Some of his advisers and proxies had hinted, in the days beforehand, that he would make historic proposals, offering a hand to the protesters and paving the way for genuine national reconciliation. Much of the region tuned in as Assad walked up a red carpet into the Parliament building past a cheering crowd. But his speech quickly turned into a familiar, embarrassing spectacle, with lawmakers chanting his name and interrupting his speech with fawning accolades. Assad delivered a hard-line speech deriding the protesters as dupes of a foreign-backed plot to destroy the country. He closed on an ominous note, saying: “There is no compromise or middle way in this. What is at stake is the homeland, and there is a huge conspiracy. ... We have never hesitated in defending our causes, interests and principles, and if we are forced into a battle, so be it.”
One former regime official told me that he recalls watching the speech with a sense of shock and dismay. He and other high-ranking officials had heard in advance the details of what the speech was supposed to say. It had been drafted, they were told, by Vice President Farouk al-Shara, and it emphasized reconciliation with the protesters. Shara had received input from several other top officials with similar inclinations. This version of the speech even had the support of Hezbollah’s leaders, who believed that genuine gestures of compromise could head off a war, the former official said. Other people close to the regime have echoed this account, though there are analysts who are skeptical; it’s almost impossible to be sure about what happens in Assad’s secretive inner circle.
What is certain is that Assad did not deliver the speech that was expected. Instead, the former official said, he scrapped it at the last minute in favor of a much more aggressive text. “When I heard the speech, my feeling was — we are in for a long fight,” the former official told me. “I was in my office. We looked around at each other and did not say a word.” He remains convinced that if Assad had given the other speech, the past six years would have unrolled very differently, and oceans of blood might have been spared.
Few people in Syria have any patience for this kind of wistful talk. Former regime critics like Joudeh now confine themselves to pressing for the smallest-bore reforms: better training for the police and judiciary, more local control in towns and cities, a diminished role for the Baath Party and its outmoded Arab Nationalist bromides. But even this will not happen while the war continues, and it may be even less likely afterward. Assad has a genius for corrupting everyone around him, in ways large and small (some of his advisers are said to be receiving land in bombed-out rebel areas). Even giving in to these mild measures of hope can start to make you feel dirty, as if you had been played for a fool. The alternative, of course, is an ecumenical cynicism toward everyone and everything. This is the default mentality for most Syrians I know.
In my time in Syria, I met one person who seemed to evade both of these traps. I hesitate to use the word “hero,” because he would violently reject it. But he held onto a dogged civic idealism that was divorced from hope of any kind. In a sense, he was the inverse of Abu Sami, the professor who shut himself off from the war inside his home. He was a 57-year-old engineer named Tarif Attora, who appeared to be working himself to death running a group called the Aleppo People’s Initiative. He and his teams repair water pipes and electricity lines and supply food and medical aid to people in need. They do this in both regime and rebel areas, unlike the White Helmets, the rescue group that was lionized in an Academy Award-winning documentary. He is the only person I know who has the unreserved admiration of both rebel leaders and die-hard regime loyalists.
I met Attora in the initiative’s office, where he sat at a battered desk with a vast map of the city — east and west — on the wall behind him. The desk was covered with stacked files and old coffee mugs, and he interrupted our talk several times to bark instructions to site managers. (“Don’t strain the lines. You’re getting 50. It should be 25 to 30.”) He has steel-gray hair that is cut short and flat on the top of his head, and his face — stark, creased with vertical lines, square-jawed — looks a bit like Albert Camus’s might have if he lived a decade longer.
The initiative started in July 2012, when Attora gathered roughly 30 engineers and other professionals — all Aleppo residents — to talk about how they could help protect the city. Some were with the opposition, some were not, and there were arguments. They agreed on one thing: the need to keep the lights on and the water running. So they asked the authorities for permission and began reaching out to all the rebel groups. Soon they had hundreds of volunteers working with them and repair crews going everywhere, even the front lines. The state water company supplied pipes and materials, but apart from that, the initiative is entirely self-funding, Attora said. Six of its members have been killed. Many others have been wounded, including Attora.
He told me several harrowing stories about his work in what he called “hot zones.” Twice he came close to being killed, and his back is now broken in two places. Jihadi groups were in control of Aleppo’s main power plant for more than a year, so he ended up dealing with them a lot. Once, he saw something that left him traumatized for months. He asked me not to report the details, because it might anger the people involved and limit his ability to work with them. Despite the trauma — which still haunts him — he did not want to jeopardize his ability “to continue working in all areas,” he said.
I asked Attora why he does it, and he hesitated. He seemed uncomfortable dealing with abstractions. “Freedom doesn’t come from destroying the country,” he said as he put out what must have been his 10th cigarette since our conversation started and lit another. “Look, people consider me opposition,” he said. “But the way I see opposition — it doesn’t mean I must destroy my country and put us back 100 years. That kind of opposition is a betrayal of the country, a betrayal of the ideals I’ve grown up with.”
He seemed unsatisfied with his words, and he glanced around the room, as if he were looking for an excuse to stop talking and get back to his engineers. It was getting dark outside. “We all served the politics of other countries in our own land, whether we knew it or not,” he said. “Everybody has to wake up. To be brave, to admit they’ve made mistakes, to come back to the right way.”
I stood up to shake Attora’s hand and say goodbye. His face cracked into a smile, and the phone rang. He picked it up, and instantly he was at home again, supervising repairs on a power line that would probably be blown up again tomorrow.
Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine. His book on the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath, “A Rage for Order,” won the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize.