Damascus on September 5, 2013. Photo: Getty
One evening in 2006, after a hard day, I was having drinks with a colleague in a hotel in Beirut. It was during the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Every so often, the crump of another air raid came from the southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s stronghold. My colleague Simon Wilson, now the BBC’s bureau chief in Brussels, mused about history: “Do you think this is what it felt like to be having a beer somewhere in central Europe in about 1934?”
Simon was referring to the nagging feeling that many people in the Middle East had – the instinct that it might all be bad but that it could get so much worse. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was still reverberating around the region. The removal of Saddam Hussein had changed the balance of power between Sunni Muslims and the Shias, not least his old enemies in Shia Iran.
At that bar in Beirut, Simon and I decided he might be right. The Middle East was being shaken into a new era and it didn’t look good. I have to admit that the conversation moved on. We didn’t foresee the Arab uprisings, the ousting of the dictators the west had cultivated and protected for so long, the rise and perhaps fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Syrian civil war.
In 2006, the war was fought along familiar lines. The Israelis and Hezbollah were doing their best to kill each other. Many Lebanese civilians died. Yet the result was different. Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a standstill. That was another sign of change.
Seven years on, the Middle East is deep into new territory. Someone said recently that the reliable old explainer about the Middle East – my enemy’s enemy is my friend – no longer applies. These days, it is just as likely that my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.
Blast from the past
The other day, I went to the office of Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister. He picked up on the theme. Mekdad asked why it was that Barack Obama wanted to attack the Syrian regime when it was fighting al- Qaeda. Syria and the west, he said, shared a common enemy. It made no sense to fight but President Obama, he said, was determined to attack Syria.
When I asked Mekdad about the evidence that the Americans had come up with for the use of chemical weapons, he looked back into history, too. He explained that he had been Syria’s ambassador at the UN and remembered when the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, gave his infamous briefing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The new evidence, he said, was just as useless.
I recently had another warning from the past. The amiable, extremely well-connected Mokhtar Lamani, who is the head of the office of the UN peace envoy in Damascus, recalled what he had seen at the UN during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides in the 1990s. The humanitarian situation here is already a near catastrophe, he said, but if sectarian hatred in Syria continues to increase, there could be a huge genocide.
All of Syria’s minorities are in danger, he warned, but the most threatened are President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites.
Stuck in the middle
To understand what’s happening in Syria’s capital, it is important to get the geography right. Damascus proper, the ancient-walled Old City, the Ottoman streets around it and the sprawling concrete high-rises in the inner suburbs are the stronghold of the regime. Yet there is also a ring of outer suburbs, some of which have been under the control of armed rebels for well over a year. Others are bitterly contested.
The outer suburbs are the places hit by the chemical attack that the Americans say killed almost 1,500 people. In Britain, the word “suburban” evokes visions of neat gardens, washing the car and Sunday lunch. The outer suburbs of Damascus are unplanned concrete jungles, thrown up in a hurry to accommodate poor migrants from the countryside. They were never comfortable but now they are desolate places, battered over 18 months of heavy shelling by the regime.
On previous trips to Damascus, I have seen streets in Douma, one of the suburbs believed to have been hit in the chemical attack, made impassable by rubble from collapsed buildings. Most of the original residents are now among the millions of Syrians who have been displaced within the country or who have fled abroad.
Those who are left are desperate to see US bombs and cruise missiles hitting the regime’s strong points. However, not every Syrian is dedicated to the downfall of the Assad regime. Far from it. The president has his own support. He would not have survived – and at times prospered – without it.
And in between the Assad family and the scores of opposition militias, there is a big middle ground of Syrians who just want to survive the war, protect their families and property and have the chance to get on with their lives again.
Keep cool and carry on
The central parts of Damascus feel more like a city at war than they did a year ago but physically the place is still almost untouched. Roadblocks cause huge traffic jams and power supply is patchy but almost no buildings have been damaged and, in the Old City, the staff at the best-known ice-cream shop in Damascus, Bakdash, still pummel the ice cream inside its churns with great wooden poles.
But Damascus is groaning under the weight of two million displaced people and is at the centre of a civil war that has developed into a regional proxy fight. The Saudis, Iranians, Qataris, Iraqis, Turks, Jordanians, Lebanese and Israelis all have a big stake in what is happening. So do Russia and the US and its western friends. The war is now about much more than Syria alone. That is why it’s the greatest foreign policy, strategic and humanitarian crisis of our time.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. An updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings” is published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99)