Driving into a country at war is always an uncertain business. When I arrived in the Syrian capital on a Saturday evening in November, the last thing I expected to see was a line of giant coloured letters and a big red heart spelling out “I love Damascus” on a roundabout, and young people taking selfies in front of it. Or to end up the next evening dancing with students dressed as ghouls and vampires at a lively Hallowe’en party in the Old City.
“I took a decision a couple of years ago: let’s enjoy life – we could be dead tomorrow,” shouted George, the owner of the Red Bar where the party was taking place, over pounding disco music.
Old Damascus hides its treasures behind shutters and doors, and the next day one such door led me into Jabri House, a magical courtyard café with a tinkling fountain and dotted with mirrors, copper jugs and caged songbirds. The passage was lined with framed recommendations from pre-war travel articles but it’s a long time since the place has seen a tourist. The only customers were a young couple sucking apple-scented tobacco from a shisha pipe. Khalid, 28, is an accountant, and Gunnar, 21, an economics student with long, glittery nails. Gunnar told me she and her mother left for Turkey in 2014 after violent clashes in their district but she was “treated very badly there”, so returned a few months ago. “We don’t have money but my heart is in Syria,” she said.
Khalid said many of his friends had fled to avoid military conscription but his poor eyesight got him out. “I have friends who went to Germany and they tell me there they have electricity, wifi, everything, but they are unhappy,” he said.
“People have become used to the situation,” said Israel Jabri, the café owner. “Before when they heard shelling, they ran into the road, as if I knocked over this jug of water and everyone jumped from the table. Now they just stay and continue to drink their coffee.”
Indeed, many new bars have opened nearby. A businessman who recently moved back from Lebanon took me to a restaurant called Haretna that was packed with people eating, drinking, smoking, playing cards and watching Chelsea play Everton. Rebels still hold the neighbourhood of Jobar less than a mile away, from where they fire in mortars and rockets, though far less frequently than a year or two ago.
Yet as the darkness in the streets outside indicated, life in Damascus has other problems, caused by the regime’s international isolation. “Prices are soaring. The Syrian pound is just 10 per cent of what it was five years ago, there are endless power cuts and there is little fuel,” Jabri said.
With the war entering a sixth winter, people are tired. This is a police state, so they are careful what they say. But it is clear that, given a choice between the Bashar al-Assad regime and Islamist rebels, many would rather the former.
It is Assad who has forced that choice, deliberately releasing extremists from jail and turning a blind eye to jihadists entering Syria while focusing his firepower on the moderate opposition. Over the past year, since he admitted that his army was struggling, the Russians have turned around the war with their campaign of air strikes. So confident is Assad that the regime recently welcomed a group of British and American journalists, of whom I was one. At the “State of Play” conference, which we had been brought to attend, the tone was defiant. We were repeatedly told that the problem in Syria was terrorists from Turkey, Saudi, Qatar and the West.
After the final session I was whisked with a few British delegates to meet Assad in his palace on a hill, looking out over the twinkling lights of Damascus. He told us he knew people didn’t like his regime but at least it provided services, from courts to hospitals and rubbish collection. “So they feel when we had a state, even with all the flaws they thought very bad and wanted to revolt against, it was still much better than a society where if you say a word against Prophet Muhammad they will shoot you.”
Nowhere is this choice more stark than in east Aleppo, where thousands of civilians have been trapped between Russian air strikes and rebel groups. Over the past few weeks, bombs and shells rained down in an offensive that has led to Syrian forces capturing most of the east, including the Old City, and reportedly shooting people dead on the spot.
Aleppo seems another world from Damascus. The distance is less than 200 miles but the journey there is eight and a half hours along a road of destruction. The only route into Aleppo now is from the south-east past apocalyptic scenes: hollowed-out buildings, plumes of smoke, lives turned into rubble and ashes. Yet even within Aleppo, it is two worlds. As you travel round the ring road east to west, suddenly you are in a place of parks, restaurants, shops and billboards advertising the new Tom Cruise film.
There was no way for us to go into the east of the city. But we visited the industrial area recaptured in June, which once had 1,800 factories and now is rubble. The ancient souk in the old part of the city used to contain eight miles of shops. Now everything is burned out and ruined, tailors’ dummies scattered along one side and the only inhabitants stray cats.
If, as now seems likely, the regime captures all of Aleppo, it will control the five biggest cities in Syria. But what will Assad be left with? A traumatised, divided nation where six million have fled overseas and ghosts and destruction are everywhere.
Christina Lamb is the chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times. Her latest book is “Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair” (William Collins)
This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016