DAMASCUS — 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 — 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 — mainly Iraqis — 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 — maybe even peace — 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 — a move that would strike at the true roots of the Syrian conflict, in the eyes of President Assad.
"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."
Children playing at a shelter in Damascus — Photo: Ammar/Xinhua/ZUMA
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 — not even the Islamic State's headquarters of Raqqa.
Almawla says that the massacre of civilians — hundreds have been reported killed in recent weeks in air raids — 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.