A Ravaged Syria Through The Eyes Of A Bus Driver

What was once a simple and relatively quick commute through Aleppo now takes up to 12 hours, as battered roads, endless checkpoints and ISIS violence take their toll. A bus driver's view.

A bus in Aleppo
A bus in Aleppo
Ayham al-Khalaf

ALEPPOAnas, 27, drives one of the world's most unusual and dangerous bus routes. Every day, he travels between parts of Aleppo under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and areas controlled by ISIS, and still others run by the government. A typical journey, he says, takes up to 12 hours because of battered roads and endless checkpoints.

And yes, his bus has been hit by shelling while traveling along al-Haidaria Street in Syria's largest city.

Anas, who lives in the al-Shaar neighborhood, considers driving the bus a step down from the taxi he used to pilot around in the northern city, but with a wife and two children to support, he needs the work. The bus, he says, actually belongs to his neighbor.

On most days, he takes about 14 passengers, most of them elderly men and women because of the government's decision to recruit men between the ages of 19 and 45. Every day, he must go through a multitude of checkpoints, where baggage is searched, IDs are checked and bribes must be offered.

Atharia separates the government and ISIS areas. "This is a National Defense Forces checkpoint, and they don't ask for IDs," he says. "They just ask for no less than 500 liras for each bus."

After Atharia, the bus reaches a military police checkpoint at the border of Khanasser town. They then go into Khanasser town, which connects Aleppo province with Hama province. There are four National Defense and security checkpoints. Then there is Safira town, where they pass by a Hezbollah checkpoint. "Of course, there are Syrian members at this checkpoint, but their leaders are Lebanese," Anas says. "When we pass through Khanasser and Safira, we see houses and farms that have been completely destroyed by battles and shelling."

After the many regime checkpoints at the entrances of towns, they arrive at al-Ramousa, which is the entrance of Aleppo from the southwestern side. Here they stop at a regime checkpoint that examines IDs and forces passengers to pay taxes on valuable assets. "Sometimes I can be detained at this checkpoint for three to five hours, but sometimes it's only half an hour," Anas says.

In Aleppo — Photo: Syria Deeply

Afterwards, they arrive at al-Hamadania, where the checkpoint has a bad reputation for harsh inspections. "Many people have been arrested and beaten while passing through it for the silliest reasons," Anas says. "However, anyone can pay them and pass safely."

Then they reach the New Aleppo area with no checkpoints, and the journey of eight to 12 hours ends. Anas says the worst part for his passengers is their fear of ISIS. "Their members have repeatedly assaulted civilians," he says. "One of the passengers once told me that when he passes by these checkpoints, he feels like he's not in Syria but in Afghanistan or Chechnya."

The passengers tend to be people who trade products, college students traveling weekly or monthly from the Free Syrian Army areas into the government areas, or people seeking treatment in hospitals in the government areas.

"I feel sorry when I see how much citizens have to pay from al-Bab to al-Sulaimania," Anas says, saying he passenger pays about 2,000 liras ($10.60) for the trip. "While they used to pay no more than 10 liras (5 cents) in a bus and 50 liras (25 cents) in a taxi in a journey that took no more than 10 minutes, now they suffer all this for the same distance. It hurts me a lot to see what has become of our country, and I don't think any of the parties will win. The military solution is not the answer...And the biggest loser in it is these poor people."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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