Meanwhile In Damascus: Pro-Regime Optimism Far From Aleppo Siege

The worst fear in the capital is a lasting truce between Russia and the United States, which they believe would halt the Assad regime’s offensive and delay the total victory.

Syrian children playing in Al-Ghouta, Damascus
Syrian children playing in Al-Ghouta, Damascus
Giordano Stabile

DAMASCUS â€" At the Masnaa border crossing between Syria and Lebanon, mothers and children wait in line to return to their homeland. For the first time in Syria’s brutal five-year civil war, the flow of refugees has inverted â€" though just barely. Returnees only number a few dozen out of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees that have fled their country.

The border officials are curt with the new arrivals. "We treat them a little badly at first," says one official. "They were wrong to flee when things were bad, now that things have changed they’re coming back. But we’ll help them, they are welcome."

Other buses stream into Syria from Lebanon, bringing Shia Muslim pilgrims from across the region â€" mainly Iraqis â€" continuing their travels from Beirut and a Shia sanctuary in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, toward the Syrian capital of Damascus. Thousands more arrive by plane from the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Basra, and Najaf, as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Many fly in via low cost airlines like Cham Wings, now Damascus' dominant airline, replacing the state-owned Syrian Air, hit by sanctions and left with only one functioning plane.

In the capital, hotels and restaurants are full nowadays, revitalized by a boom in religious tourism that has replaced the European tourists who no longer come. There’s an air of optimism around the city not seen since before the war began. Supporters of the Assad regime feel that victory â€" maybe even peace â€" is within their grasp.

The tide has been turning for Assad since August, when the large Damascus suburb and rebel stronghold of Darayya surrendered to government forces. Darayya had been a symbol of opposition to the regime and a constant source of rockets and mortar fire for residents of Mezzeh, a primarily Alawite, pro-Assad hilltop district of the capital.

Darayya’s rebel fighters and residents were deported to the rebel-held northern province of Idlib, following the model of previous surrender and "reconciliation" deals between the government and rebel forces. The regime’s victory in Darayya created a buoyant mood in the capital, and now Mezzeh’s three-lane main road, lined with palm trees planted by French urbanists in the 1930s, is abuzz with life and clogged with traffic. Blackouts that used to last half a day now last only three hours.

With the lights back on in Damascus, the crisis in Aleppo, where civilians are being massacred and left without water or electricity, seems more distant than ever. Residents of the capital fear one thing above all else: a new truce between Russia and the United States, which they believe would halt the regime’s offensive and delay the total victory they insist is close at hand. Conquering Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, would also bury Turkey’s aims in the area â€" a move that would strike at the true roots of the Syrian conflict, in the eyes of President Assad.

Three ways

"There are three ways to take Aleppo, but it will be taken back in any case," says Wael Almawla, director of the Beirut-based pro-Hezbollah Al-Manar television channel. "It will be taken with force, with an international accord, or with a reconciliation treaty between Syrians. We expect diplomatic talks to continue, but if there isn’t an accord, military operations will resume."

Without the conquest of Aleppo, the Assad doctrine of total victory cannot succeed. "Aleppo was Syria’s richest and most industrialized city, retaking it means restarting the entire economy," says Almawla, who accuses rebels of dismantling factories and selling machines to Turkey.

If the regime manages to take the city, any scenarios for splintering Syria into separate nations will be moot, because no other rebel-held city is large enough to act as a "second capital" to Damascus â€" not even the Islamic State’s headquarters of Raqqa.

Almawla says that the massacre of civilians â€" hundreds have been reported killed in recent weeks in air raids â€" is the price being paid because the rebels in Aleppo are using locals "as human shields."

The Hezbollah commentator says there have also been many Shia victims of anti-regime forces, like the residents of the large Shia villages of Fouah and Kefrayeh, strangled to death by members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham.

Relatives of the victims of those attacks have been conducting a sit-in for 20 days at the Shia sanctuary of Sayyida Zeinab, south of Damascus, site of the reputed grave of the daughter of the legitimate successor to the prophet Muhammad according to Shias.

The drive to the shrine from the capital requires a long detour around the southern periphery’s pockets of the sniper fire of anti-regime resistance. Elderly soldiers and young men oversee regime checkpoints that block the road, the ages illustrating the toll the war has taken on the army’s ranks. The women at the sit-in, haggard in their black veils and sitting on white plastic chairs, could just as well be the grieving women of Aleppo on the other side of this internecine conflict.


Wafa had come to Damascus from Fouah to visit her relatives, but now she can’t return home. It's been two years since she has seen her four children or her husband, who has a heart condition and has run out of medicine. "His name is Hassan al-Mustafa, please help him," she says. The world's attention is rightly focused on the great suffering in Aleppo. Tragically, there are a hundred, even a thousand Aleppos in this devastated country.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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