When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

LA STAMPA

With Syria Ceasefire Holding, Damascus Is Quietly Reborn

After gains by regime troops, with Russian air support, calm and nightlife have returned to the capital. And locals are back to betting on Assad's survival.

Rolling back to life in Damascus
Rolling back to life in Damascus
Giordano Stabile

DAMASCUS — Looman Rustom is a 32-year old web designer in the Syrian capital. With an entrepreneurial spirit, he says he loves living life to the fullest, which he had always channeled through the spirit of his native city. "If your time has come, you'll die even if you lock yourself at home everyday," he says. "Why not get out and live your life, even if there are bombs and suicide attacks?"

In Damascus, four years of siege and civil war seem to have rather suddenly disappeared. Since a cessation of hostilities between Bashar al-Assad's government forces and opposition fighters took effect a month ago, the capital's streets have filled back up with traffic on weekends, which begin Thursday nights here.

The once bustling nightlife area of Al Lawan had been the site of a battle with tanks and armored carriers in the autumn of 2012 — it's now difficult again to find a table at the local restaurants. The Ottoman souq, or market, is packed during rush hour. In the upscale suburb of Al Muhajireen, home to Assad's villa, the fountains are illuminated. In the mornings, young women wearing everything from black veils to plunging necklines skip class to meet at cafes in Al Nawfara.

Mortar rounds fired from the eastern area of Jobar, near the old city walls, were still hitting the central district of Bab Tuma as recently as a few weeks ago. One round even struck the dome of the Umayyad Mosque, which was built starting in the 8th century and is considered one of the world's most beautiful. But all signs of damage have since been covered over.

Greater Damascus was home to 5 million people before the war. The Assad-Putin axis this winter repelled the rebels' siege of the city, and the rebel-controlled outskirts, running from Moadamiyeh to Ghouta, have been split into isolated pockets.

Now the ceasefire has consolidated the regime's gains, dividing the rebels in groups covered by the agreement and those not, such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. For the first time in four years Syrians can drive safely on the Damascus-Homs highway, even at night, as long as they take a long detour around the suburb of Douma where fighting continues.

Winning bet

The Assad regime is looking to recapture the support of the Sunni commercial class, which wants to get back to business. Mouafad, 76, is the owner of Bakdash, the Arab world's most famous ice cream shop, located in the Damascus souq. "We resisted alone against 80 countries, and Europe only woke up when terrorism arrived," he says. "The ceasefire is our victory, and now Syria will come back to life because its own people are unique, they can create wealth out of thin air."

Elections will be held in 10 weeks, a government strategy to seal the new understanding between the Sunni bourgeoisie and the Alawite-dominated regime. The government-recognized political "opposition" only holds five seats in the 250-seat parliament, but there are more independent candidates running this year. They plaster billboards and walls with their campaign posters, always making sure that they are smaller than the giant portraits of Bashar al-Assad. The two internal opposition parties expected to make minor gains are the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and the Nasserist Arab Socialist Union, led by Hassan Abdul Azim.

The Christian community, a minority in the Sunni-dominated country, returned some time ago to backing Assad. In the neighborhood of Bab Al Sharqi, along the roads once traveled by St. Paul, Christians of all varieties — Maronite, Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox — live side-by-side.

The Christians of Damascus are angry with Europe, and feel betrayed by the Old Continent's leaders. "First you supported the Islamist rebels, now you accept more Muslim refugees than Christian ones," says monk Mousa Houri, counselor to Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius. "We Christians will never leave Damascus. This is our home, we have nowhere else to go."

Dozens of churches have been destroyed across Syria by Islamist groups, pushing Christian communities closer together in safe areas. The Syriac Orthodox greatly admire Pope Francis, and appreciate the apostolic nuncio's decision not to leave Damascus, even when rockets fell on the city center.

The young soldiers manning the checkpoint that controls access to the main street of Al Lawan seem relaxed. Some of them haven't been home in three years, and hope that the ceasefire could change that. Restaurant valets keep warm during the cold nights by turning on electric stoves. Prices in Damascus are a third cheaper than in Beirut, but so are the wages — the average pay is only $150 a month. Drafted soldiers earn just $30.

They can only afford to eat bread and beans, like poor farmers. But enthusiasm is slowly growing following a string of recent victories, including the recapture of ISIS-held Al Qaryatayn, a town in the mountains between Homs and Palmyra. Islamic State fighters had conquered the town in August 2015 and taken 230 hostages, but were forced to flee after the liberation of Palmyra left them isolated. As the group's black flags recede further from Damascus, Assad looks to be winning his gamble for survival.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Militarization Of Russia's Economy, And The Demise Of The Oligarchs

By putting the economy on a war footing, Putin risks returning Russia to the days of Stalinist totalitarianism, where there will be no oligarchs or businesses left, only loyal administrators.

The Militarization Of Russia's Economy, And The Demise Of The Oligarchs

In December, Putin, with Tula Region governor Alexei Dyumin (left) and Alexei Visloguzov, general director of Shcheglovsky Val (right), visiting the Instrument Design Bureau in Tula.

Russian Presidential Press Offic / Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire
Boris Grozovsky

-Analysis-

MOSCOW — The war with Ukraine has not gone according to Vladimir Putin's plan. Eleven months have passed, but less than 17% of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, is under Russian control.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest