Syria between War and Peace under Bashar al-Assad

    Gabriel Garroum Pla

    This March marked the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian conflict back in 2011 and I believe it is fair to say at this point that, for most of the general public, Syria is barely more than a product of mass consumption. There appears to be something we can call a ‘Syria tiredness’, partly produced by the permanent production of ‘abstract’ analyses in which States, security concerns, norms, international law, interests and geopolitics act as chess pieces on a seemingly de-populated board.

    Between October and November 2017 I visited Syria, which to me is my father’s country, a place of endless personal and familiar memories, and my main focus of academic inquiry. During this trip, my first after the beginning of the war, I visited Aleppo (where our familiar house is) and Damascus, with a short trip to the Christian town of Maaloula and the port of Latakia. What follows is an account that, albeit briefly, seeks to explore the dynamics of governance under Assad control space and, more importantly, the way this governmental practices interact with population and vice-versa.

    Aleppo: a lost city

    My first stop is the city of Aleppo. According to investigations carried by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (2016) through satellite imagery, more than 33,000 houses have been destroyed in Aleppo, a city that has seen most of its southern and eastern neighbourhoods completely destroyed as well as the complete crumbling of the once-impressive Old City.

    Our house, a traditional Arab patio, lies partially destroyed in the Jdeideh neighbourhood of the Old City, just nearby al-Hatab square. It could be argued that the complete destruction of al-Hatab square and its surroundings when rebel forces filled up tunnels with explosives and blew them up in 2015, serves as an epitome of what happened in many places across the city: spaces completely erased, lived landscapes rendered uninhabited and, in many instances, unthinkable. There is hence a (re)configuration that shapes a new relationship between people, the space they transverse and the government. This new socio-political articulation does not only take place in a ruined space, but also in a space that has seen the appearance of new actors.

    For instance, a walk around the famous Aleppo Citadel allows you to capture (and feel) the presence of Russia in the Syrian conflict through a very mundane artefact: a painting in a wall saying ‘free of mines’ in Russian. Alongside that interjection of international presence, the Syrian government is trying to articulate the narrative of reconstruction through billboards, flags and hashtags. ‘Aleppo: Piece of Heaven’, ‘Aleppo: Warmth of Place’ or ‘#Believe In Aleppo’ are only some of the messages the Assad government is trying to send through the public spaces. When you talk to Aleppans they clearly seem to feel ambivalent about these: on the one hand, it is seen as an attempt to bring hope back to a city so heavily harmed by war, but on the other hand it obscures and erases from the debate the multiple stories of suffering people there have gone through, bringing a kind of ‘nothing happened here’ scenario.

    In fact, in the middle of the Christian-majority neighbourhood of Azizieh, in the so-called Western Aleppo, a huge banner featuring Assad, Putin, Nasrallah (the Hezbollah chief leader), Khamenei and a Chinese flag ‘celebrate’ the final victory of Assad forces in Aleppo in December 2016. A bit further north, in the Kurdish-majority neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, the Syrian flag ‘shares’ sovereignty with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) flag. Two different checkpoints and two different flags on the same street territorialised control and managed its population. Socio-economic, religious or ethnic difference, once patterning themselves diffusely onto Aleppo’s urban fabric, now become territorialised as frontlines, checkpoints and barricades re-structure the cityscape.

    Exploring the layers of the Damascus

    The contrast between Aleppo and Damascus is striking. Massive destruction aside, while Aleppo is full of boxes and banners of the UN Refugee Agency you can see the logo of the International Committee of the Red Crescent pretty much everywhere in Damascus. Damascus city has also been affected by the effects of war albeit in different ways. Free from heavy warfare in its core centre, Damascus appears as a security bubble and feels like in a permanent threat. For instance, you can spot lots of fences, bomb detectors and controls all around the diplomatic neighbourhood of Abu Rummaneh, the Ummayyad Square and the luxurious hotels nearby. There is no better way to grasp that securitisation than through a walk around Bab Touma, a Christian-majority neighbourhood of the Damascene Old City just 20 minutes walking away from the now former rebel stronghold of Jobar. The entrance of this once famous neighbourhood for its bars, foreign residents and modern lifestyle is now a heavily fortified checkpoint displaying pictures of martyrs, exploded cars and ammunition.

    Once inside Bab Touma, pictures of Assad are everywhere and circulation of people take place in a rather controlled way given the multiple streets that are simply no-go spaces and have been blocked. This experience of total governmentality was completed by the sound of jet fighters flying above the neighbourhood, dropping bombs on nearby rebel pockets. Two very different systems of rule, by the same political entity, just 20 minutes walking away from each other. Sheer violence on the one hand and more diffused, not less violent in many cases, governmentality on the other. On March 23rd 2018 Assad forces managed to surrender the rebel pocket of Jobar as part of the Ghouta campaign started on 18th February 2018.

    Steps away from the marvellous Ummayyad Mosque, one of the most sacred places for Sunni Muslims, you can find a couple of streets traditionally inhabited by Shia Muslims and the Sayyidah Ruqayyah Mosque that contains the grave of Husayn ibn-Ali’s young daughter. Just at the entrance of this small area, there is a checkpoint managed by Hezbollah forces. The street is filled up with “Party of God” merchandising (flags, t-shirts, bracelets) and Shia icons. In front of the Ruqayyah Mosque, two armed Hezbollah militants protect the place. When asking people around why there are no regular Syrian troops around, they are crystal clear: ‘We feel very insecure and we don’t trust anyone else. Not even the government’. Hezbollah has certainly become a powerful force in government-controlled Syria, especially after their manpower helped Assad winning more than one battle.

    The area around the famous Mount Qassioun, one of the icons of the Syrian capital, also bears the multiple scars of war. The access to the roads that go through the Qassioun is heavily limited and militarised, and the once-rebel towns that lie on the Qassioun slopes are deserted in the best of cases. Those militants that accepted rendition were sent to rural Aleppo under harsh conditions; those how did not were forced to leave and settle in Idlib, a pattern that has become a staple throughout these years.

    This outsourcing to irregular forces is not only palpable in many checkpoints located on the road that join Lebanon with Damascus and Damascus with Aleppo, but also in towns and frontlines that showed that Assad alone could not face rebel forces and recapture territory. One of this examples is Maaloula, a Christian-majority town 45 km northwest of Damascus which community still speaks Aramaic. Jabhat al-Nusra (former al-Qaeda in Syria) occupied the town back in 2013 and it only fully returned to government control once Hezbollah troops got involved on April 2014. The Safir Hotel, once a four-star hotel for tourists is now just a hollowed skeleton after serving as the Nusra headquarters in the town. At the main square of the town a flag of Hezbollah alongside a flag of Syria welcome again those who were lucky to fled massacre and remind those who survived that loyalty should be shared from now on.


    I would argue that the value of adopting a lens that focuses upon governmentality in the local level is its capacity to show how power articulates itself, how it deals with a certain population and, more importantly, how it enfolds a particular relationship between discourses and practices on the ground. Moreover, it also brings some insights up concerning the future of Syria. Assad-controlled territory is not the only space in which we can see how governing discourses and practices try to manage a particular population since this can definitely be explored in any other space in Syria controlled by any other political entity.

    However, given the fact that Assad has been able to re-capture most of the Syrian territory and a near-future scenario without Assad is pretty much improbable, exploring spaces such as Aleppo and Damascus allows us to calibrate if Syria is simply going back to the status quo ex-ante or actually showing relevant and positive differences in the ways government is engaging with its population beyond warfare. And the latter might be the only way forward for a country whose people have experienced enough violence.