A Surreal Trip to Syria
Through a quirk of fate, I was on a bus travelling from Beirut to Damascus on the day that the US, Britain and France launched airstrikes on Syria. The group I joined was on a pastoral visit arranged months earlier, at the invitation of the Syriac Orthodox church, to offer support and solidarity to Syria’s Christians.
The name of the bus, Al-Ma’arri Travel & Tourism, was well-chosen, for Al-Ma’arri was an 11th century blind Syrian poet-philosopher whose Treatise on Forgiveness is thought to have directly influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy. His poems expressed the cynicism and pessimism of his times, where political anarchy and social decay were prevalent. He became a vegetarian and adopted a life of seclusion.
Breezing through the checkpoints with no obvious bribery or checking of luggage, our bus clearly shone with the sanctity of those on board. My previous trip in late 2014 to rescue my Damascus house from war profiteers had involved packets of cigarettes passed to soldiers and profuse sweating as grubby hands rummaged among my bags. Our clergy-led coach party was treated like royalty throughout; there was no need even to sully our feet with a descent from the bus at the border.
When I bought my crumbling courtyard house in 2005 at the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City of Damascus, I did so as an individual, with no shortcuts or favours. For three years I battled to complete its restoration, fighting the labyrinthine bureaucracy, helped only by ordinary Syrians like my architect and his team of craftsmen, my lawyer and my bank manager. Various friends who lost their homes in the suburbs to regime bombardment have lived there since 2012 – up to five families at some points, more after the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013 when the courtyard was full of mattresses. Today, just one extended family lives there at my invitation, in residence since 2015.
In the Christian quarter of the city, we were whisked on to a smaller bus that wiggled its way past the Damascus citadel into the pedestrianised square, directly in front of the spiritual heart of the city, the Umayyad mosque. Its magnificent courtyard had been cleared of worshippers in our honour and we were ushered into an audience hall I had never known existed, despite scores of previous visits. Here, the grand mufti – the country’s most senior Muslim authority – Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, presided over an atmosphere of bonhomie and spoke of the joy of Muslim-Christian relations. Amnesty International notes that the grand mufti’s approval would have been required for between 5,000 and 13,000 executions carried out at Saydnaya prison since 2011.
Homs was shockingly empty, acres of devastation, with only the famous Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque hastily restored by the military construction department to be viewed from afar. It is an empty shell for show, like so much else.
Through accidental timing, we were in Aleppo for Syria’s national day on 17 April and found ourselves invited to an elaborate concert put on for the country’s elites inside the citadel. As we walked up the ramp of one of the world’s greatest pieces of military architecture, we looked down over the destroyed souks and mosques, and were issued little Syrian flags to wave and shout “Hurriya” (freedom) followed by “Halab” (Aleppo) when prompted. It seemed like a cruel echo of the earliest peaceful chants for freedom in 2011. Freedom is now on the regime’s terms only.
Back in Damascus, on 19 April I visited my house and watched helplessly from the roof as Russian/Syrian fighter jets from Mezzeh airbase flew in broad daylight over central Damascus and dropped cluster bombs on the residential southern suburbs of Yarmouk and al-Hajar al-Aswad. Through accidental timing again, it was the first day of weeks of incessant bombing, day and night, till the ISIS rebels agreed a deal and were bussed out into the eastern desert.
“Trapped” was the word I heard again and again from my Syrian friends, Muslim and Christian, to describe their predicament. While the world debates the legality of airstrikes, to those on the ground the action amounts to no more than hot air. Not one of my friends even mentioned the strikes, knowing their fate remains unchanged – to be killed if they dare to protest or to submit to the will of Assad. It is far too late for the west and the international community to intervene militarily in Syria – that should have been done in 2011, or 2013 at the latest, before Islamic State or Russia came in to fill the lawless vacuum we ignored.
Now the only option is to keep up all forms of pressure on the Assad regime and on Putin, to make both feel the heat. In the past, Assad has caved in quickly to pressure, such as when he removed his troops from Lebanon in a matter of weeks following the international outrage at the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, in 2005. Assad and Putin are umbilically connected at present, but if the cord were cut, leaving Assad stripped of his Russian shield, he would capitulate much faster than anyone imagines. All it needs is a united and coherent policy. That’s something that has been sadly lacking so far.
A version of this article appeared in The Guardian on 1st May 2018: