BBC News reports: In the Damascus suburb of Dummar stands a four-storey building overlooking a wide residential street that has been spared the scars of war.
In the first three years of the uprising in Syria, Aliya would peer through the window, watching explosions and smoke as neighbouring areas were bombarded by government forces stationed on nearby Mount Qassioun.
But since the summer, the view has changed dramatically.
Aliya now sees people flying through the sky on a ride at a new amusement park, leisure and shopping centre called Uptown.
President Bashar al-Assad’s feared younger brother, Maher, is believed to be the main backer of the $35m (£22m) development, which was built at a time when almost half of the country’s 22 million population has been displaced and more than half are living in poverty.
The road leading to Uptown is regularly blocked by expensive cars, while its colourful lights are unaffected by the severe power cuts that plague the rest of the area.
“Most of the crowd going there is mainly watching the rides rather than going on them because very few can afford such luxury,” Aliya says.
While some Syrians have welcomed Uptown, it has angered many others.
Not far away is the eastern Ghouta, an agricultural belt around Damascus from which rebels launch daily mortar attacks on the city centre in response to the government shellfire and air strikes.
There, members of religious minorities that have largely stayed loyal to President Assad have been more concerned about the reported approach of jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS), known locally in Arabic as Daish.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of residents of Dukhani and Dwaila in the Ghouta fled after members of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia, warned them of the imminent threat from a group that considers Shia Muslims heretics and has told members of other faiths that they must convert to Islam, pay special taxes or die.
The residents quickly returned after being informed by the army that they had never been at risk, but once they got home they found their possessions – including their furniture – had been stolen.
Those affected told me that they were too afraid to confront NDF personnel, who they believed were responsible for the thefts.
Pro-government militiamen have long been accused of looting homes in opposition areas they have captured and selling the stolen goods, creating what has become known as the “Sunni market” – a reference to Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims who dominate the opposition to President Assad, a member of the heterodox Shia Alawite sect. But now loyalists are also being affected.
“In areas under government control, there is no unified central command. They are ruled by a cluster of mafia-style gangs,” says one resident of Damascus, referring to the NDF.
“A few men with guns call themselves the ‘protectors of the neighbourhood’. They then set the rules and bypass the law, in a country that is already lawless.”
A new class is emerging in Syria of warlords who have grown rich with the money they have earned from kidnapping ransoms and theft. Their rise has led many to believe that President Assad cannot control his own militia anymore.
“We used to think that this was intentional to terrify people who dared oppose his rule, but the problem now is that this savagery is targeted against his own people, even amongst the Alawites,” said the Damascus resident.
Members of minority groups feel Mr Assad can no longer protect them. [Continue reading…]