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17 October 2018

Drinking whisky in the ruins of Idlib, Syria’s last bastion of resistance

When the city falls to the regime, through blood or by negotiation, the war against Assad will, finally, be lost.

By Jeremy Bowen

Many people in the Middle East like to grab a few moments of peace by listening to the songs of the great Lebanese diva Fayrouz. Her quavering voice induces an air of calm. In the mornings, especially, you can hear her songs in cafés as people sip glasses of sweet tea, or eat man’oushe, a good Lebanese breakfast of flatbread covered in olive oil and seasoned with za’atar or served with melted, salty cheese, or minced lamb.

The idea of Fayrouz and a peaceful moment is spreading. My 15-year-old son recognised her unique style – because he’s heard her at a falafel and shawarma place near us in south London. The shop calls itself Lebanese but the owner is Syrian. Fayrouz plays as he cuts thin strips from great cones of roasted chicken for his shawarma wraps. Many of London’s Lebanese restaurants and takeaways are owned and operated by Syrians. Their prowess in the kitchen is respected across the Middle East. When Syrian refugees were arriving in Cairo after the war started, Egyptians joked that the only good thing to come from the disaster was that the shawarma was much better now that Syrians were making it.

During my recent trip to Syria I found Fayrouz also goes well with Johnnie Walker on the rocks, in the morning, offered by a Christian military commander called Nabel who fights for the overtly secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As we drove towards the front line in Nabel’s vast, black American pick-up the half-full Johnnie Walker bottle rattled about on the floor near my feet, clinking on the barrel of his Kalashnikov AK-47. It was long before midday as he passed me the first brimming glass, misty with condensation in the Syrian sun.

We stopped at a post manned by Syrian volunteers and Russians in Nabel’s town, small, mainly Christian, on the edge of the province of Idlib. In the distance a beaten-up old citadel stewed in the heat haze. Idlib is the last significant piece of ground held by rebels. Around three million civilians are there, alongside around 90,000 armed men, mostly Islamists of different sorts. Perhaps 15-20,000 are considered to be diehard extremists of the al-Qaeda type. The biggest danger for civilians is a new offensive by the regime, Russia and the Iranians.

Nabel is a small, wiry man with black hair combed back and greased down, and a black beard. He wears a black headscarf folded neatly across his head and dropping down on either side to his shoulders. When we met him he had a dark scowl. With his camouflaged combat fatigues, his head-cover and his AK he looked like a bad-tempered fighting bishop.

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The day did not start well. Sweet tea was served, as always, and so was a lecture. Britain, Nabel told me, was part of the conspiracy to destroy Syria. That has been President Assad’s line since the very beginning. “You can see on the front line what your government is doing. Twenty days ago we were attacked with cluster bombs, with the help of the White Helmets, and they are sponsored as you know by your government.”

The White Helmets are a renowned civil defence force, rushing through the smoke and fury to dig victims of the regime or the Russians from the rubble. Britain spent millions on the White Helmets, and plans to resettle some of them in the UK now the rebels are almost beaten. But the Syrian regime and its fellow travellers say the White Helmets are terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.

I listened to Nabel and knew that once he had got his points off his chest the atmosphere would improve. A reporters’ time machine took me back to the 1990s, to Bosnia, when many meetings with military commanders, particularly the Serbs, would start with a fierce diatribe against Britain (“We were allies against the Nazis. Why have you turned on us?”). After the storm had been weathered they would grudgingly offer a drink, and after a few they would start toasting Churchill.

Something similar happened that day with Nabel. He stopped scowling and once we had been to the front line invited us to his home. The sitting room was decorated with antique rifles, medals he had been given by Syria and Russia and an expensive watch engraved with President Putin’s signature. In the corner was a bar stocked with more whisky. His son, no more than ten, played the lute-like oud, and his even younger daughter played the violin. The invitation, and the recital, came partly from traditional Syrian hospitality, and partly because Nabel wanted to make his point that the Christians in his sector of the line, fighting for their town, were better human beings than the Islamist fighters on the other side of the front line, whom he regarded as brutish terrorists. Every Syrian military commander I’ve ever met rejects human rights reports that they are the main killers of their own people. Instead, they insist they are protectors.

Later, just as it would have been in Bosnia, there was food, the biggest plate of grilled meat I have ever seen, more whisky and more toasts. Russians, led by a colossal man called Sergei with a beard and a gun-belt, joined the group. Sergei would beckon me to my feet if I was slow to join the toast. When my female colleagues rose to join in, he waved them back with a stern “officers only in Russia”. He did not object to them toasting from a sitting position.

Russia and Turkey have established a demilitarised zone around Idlib, which has most likely postponed, not avoided, the last big battle. When Idlib falls to the regime, through blood or by negotiation, the war against Assad will, finally, be lost. Syria will not be at peace. Foreign powers that have embedded themselves in Syria will not easily hand power back to Damascus.

Nabel said he knew many of the men on the other side. They had grown up together. They might now be veterans of Islamist fighting groups, and he fought for Assad’s Syria, but they used to sit around the same table to drink whisky. That was about the most positive thing I heard all day. One day they might even be friends again.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @BowenBBC

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This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war