Will Damascus go the way of Baghdad?

By John Robertson, War in Context, October 23, 2012

For centuries, the region that we have come to refer to (with unduly homogenizing overgeneralization) as the “Arab world” was dominated, and energized, by three great and ancient cities: Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. Cairo (Arabic “al-Kahira,” or “victorious”) was founded officially by the new Shi’i conquerors of Egypt during the 10th century (although the area roundabout had been a heartland of great cities for millennia, going back to Memphis, the capital of the earliest pharaohs). Founded a couple of centuries earlier by the Arab conquerors of Mesopotamia, Baghdad too lay in the original heartland of cities (to borrow the phrase of the great American anthropologist/archaeologist Robert M. Adams); Babylon lies close by. Damascus is the most ancient city of them all, its roots extending into the Early Bronze Age, but its fame is most associated with the first truly imperial Muslim Arab dynasty, the Umayyads, who in 661 made Damascus the capital of their already vast, yet still-expanding empire.

Today, all three cities are pale reflections of what they were at their respective apogees. Cairo’s impoverished population are awash in trash, even as the new Islamist-led government likewise tries to dig itself out from under a long-depressed national economy and decades of corrupt authoritarianism under Egypt’s preceding military-based rulers.

Anyone who’s paid attention over the last few decades knows of the devastation the people of Baghdad have endured, beginning with Saddam Hussein’s war launched against Iran in 1980. Those horrors culminated in the Anglo-American conquest of the city in 2003, which touched off a massive breakdown of political and social order that led to Baghdad’s self-cannibalization. With the demons of Iraq’s sectarianism resurrected, the city’s Sunni and Shi’i populations turned against each other – and against the American occupiers of the city. The evidence of the carnage looms everywhere across the city, which has lost a huge portion of its Sunni Arab – and Christian – population.

As this New York Times report today indicates, Damascus is now poised at the brink of its own self-cannibalization. The civil war that has been tearing at what was an already loosely woven Syria national fabric is now beyond Damascus’ lintel and making its way into the city’s ancient interior. Like Baghdad, Damascus has been the abode of a plethora of sectarian groups, all of whom had been living in relative harmony. That harmony is fraying:

The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability. Even supporters of the government talk about what comes next, and rebels speak of tightening the noose around this city, their ultimate goal.

Damascus was once known for its all-night party scene. Now, few people venture out after dark, and kidnappings are rampant. Gasoline is increasingly scarce, and as winter approaches, people are worried about shortages of food and heating oil. Streets are closed at a moment’s notice, traffic diverted, bridges shut down. Even longtime residents and taxi drivers get lost and have to weave in and out of parking lots to avoid barriers and dead-end streets. Shelling and machine-gun fire are so commonplace, children no longer react.

As recently as summer, while war raged in various neighborhoods surrounding the city, Damascus existed in a bubble of denial. War, people seemed to feel, was happening elsewhere — and the residents of Mr. Assad’s stronghold were determined to live their lives as if nothing had changed. There were garden parties and fashion shoots, and the Opera House hosted Italian tenors. There were elegant dinners at embassies — before the ambassadors fled, that is.

But as summer faded, the strangulation of Damascus began. More checkpoints appeared. The shabiha — Arabic for ghosts — progovernment paramilitary forces who are often held responsible for the most violent crimes, were defiantly visible in foreign hotels.

Now, suicide bombings are more frequent, and the rebels of the Free Syrian Army say they are slowly establishing control of the suburbs that ring the city, with the aim of slowly strangling the government. Some families say they are taking their children out of school and teaching them at home, because the drive to school is too dangerous.

Discussions among friends are no longer “of the real world,” as one writer put it. Talk turns more naturally to the fate of the homeless in the city’s parks, or the traumatization of the children.

“People,” one woman said, “talk of death.”

To a reporter based in Paris who has been granted three visas in recent months to report freely in the country, Damascus seems now like a city under siege, where for most people danger is a wearying companion — so much so that the last names of those interviewed for this article are being withheld for their protection.

Kidnapping of wealthy Syrians is on the rise, sowing fear in the city’s finest precincts. In Mezze, a politically and ethnically mixed neighborhood once known as the Beverly Hills of Damascus, people talk of the daughter of a local businessman who was kidnapped three weeks ago and ransomed for about $395,000. She was returned to her family, according to local residents, sexually abused, tortured and traumatized.

Residents say the kidnappers are from either the Free Syrian Army or renegade offshoots of radical groups or are, in the government’s catchall phrase, “foreign terrorists.”

One man, an Armenian Christian — “a minority within a minority,” he joked — said he was wary of laying blame on any one group.

“I am not aware of a unified opposition,” he said. “People call themselves groups — F.S.A., Salafists.” In the past, he added, neighbors lived so close together — Druze, Christians, Muslims — that “when something happened, we all offered condolences.”

“We went to each other’s funerals,” he said. “We did not have a feeling that one was different than the others.” Now, the man, a professor of linguistics, says, “I have a lump in my throat when I think about it.”

While people will openly complain of government corruption — even in Alawite pro-Assad regions like Latakia — they also fear what will come if and when Mr. Assad falls. Many are painfully aware that the breakdown of society into sectarian groups has echoes of earlier tragedies, in Bosnia and neighboring Iraq. As Samir, a resident of a Christian neighborhood, Baba Touma, said, “No one knows who is who anymore — what side they are on.”

If all goes as planned, Iraq will be awash in hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue, some of which the central government may try to apply to Baghdad like a massive band-aid. Things may improve there; or things may not – corruption is endemic to Iraq’s government and politicians – but the Baghdad that will be thus (if ever) restored will be a very different city from the glory days of the 1970s.

If the wave of violence and vengeance swamps Damascus, however, there will be no real oil money to band-aid the devastation. Nor, for that matter, may there be an effectively functioning national government there to direct the triage and reconstruction.

The governments of Iran (the Syria government’s chief patron) and Turkey (major patron of the opposition), along with UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi, are calling for a cease-fire in Syria. Even if they succeed, I don’t expect any cease-fire to last. Assad is too dug in; the rebels are too fragmented; both sides will likely use a cease-fire as a breathing space for regrouping before resuming.

Short of a miraculous intervention, a horrible fate awaits Damascus. The victims, as ever, will be most immediately the innocents caught in the crossfire. But we all will be the losers in the devastation of one of the planet’s most celebrated, historic, beautiful cities – one that I was so fortunate to be able to visit in 1990. I visited the Umayyad mosque – one of the more rewarding spiritual experiences of my life. I wandered the great souk in Damascus – and now shudder to think that it may suffer the same fate as the historic souk of now embattled Aleppo.

Here’s to praying for that miracle.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.

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