Damascus under siege? Certainly. But at war? I’m not so sure. The shells swish high over the city, from Mount Qasioun to Deraya, soaring far over the 18th-century Azem Palace and the mosque built on air, the glorious Umayyad with its fragile 8th-century mosaics, last resting place of Saladin, the head of Imam Hussain and John the Baptist. The place vibrates with explosions. Yet down at my favourite hostelry near the Barada river yesterday morning, the latte and the chocolate croissants were as fresh as they were eight months ago, the front page of the government newspaper Thawra bearing a poorly coloured photograph of a regime soldier amid heaps of anonymous rubble. But haven’t I seen this picture before?
Rumours of war. A cliché? Of course. Yet true. On Wednesday, I’m told by trusted friends that the Iranian-style shrine of Sayyida Zeinab has been destroyed by Salafist mortar fire. The tomb of the Prophet’s grand-daughter stands – or stood – on a site from the fourth caliphate. So yesterday, I drive at 140km/h south from Damascus, thundering down fearful motorways amid equally terrified drivers and along country laneways and earthen front-line barricades until suddenly, towering above me, are the blue-marble minarets and golden dome of the tomb of poor Zeinab, sister of Hussain, the Shia world’s first martyr whose own death began the whole sorry chasm within Islam. Mortars crack and rumble around us but save for a few marble squares, the place stands untouched. There’s a T-72 tank down the road and a clutch of government soldiers outside. But the rumour is untrue.
You can tell the diminishing circle of middle-class hope from the destinations plastered over the city’s buses. Until recently, they were announced on display boards; now they are written in vast inky whorls on cardboard taped to the windscreen. The Jobar bus now terminates at the edge of the rebel suburb. The Samaria station single-decker now finishes its journey just the other side of the Old Market. The great Haj railway terminus hasn’t seen a train in six months.
But who is under siege? The shopkeepers and the middle classes of the Mezze boulevard, “supporters” – a dodgy word these days – of the President, or the people of the little hell of Deraya, those who are left amid the cellars and chewed-through fabric of long-destroyed homes whose antagonists worm their way like centipedes through the walls of living rooms, toilets and hallways? “A whole society eaten away,” a Syrian journalist describes it.
A whole country, you might say. Anniversaries are celebrated with suitable gloom. The foundation of the Baath party; the start of the uprising against the Assad regime; the first major attack on government troops. The latter slightly upsets the Western narrative, of months of peaceful demonstrations brutally assaulted by government forces until the rebels reluctantly seized weapons in the summer of 2011. In fact 25 days after the beginning of the revolution, a convoy of the government army’s 145th Infantry Brigade was attacked on Banias bridge. Up to 12 soldiers were killed, 40 more wounded. But the “other” narrative, that of the Assad government’s desperation for “democracy” in order “to save the homeland”, is also hourly contradicted by the air raids against “foreign terrorists” – and surely the Assad lads and lassies can do better than dish up Israel’s and Washington’s clichés – which are erasing so many towns.
I talk to a former Syrian Special Forces officer. “Don’t you remember the ambush and murder of seven of our finest pilots in Hama province?” he asks contemptuously. “Is it surprising that their comrades want to go and smash the people who did this?” How easily revenge becomes a legitimate motive for war in Syria, in any war I guess. Casually, almost without realising its significance, I bump into this awful phenomenon.
At the al-Jdeideh border post between Syria and Lebanon, a Syrian-Turkish journalist has to return to Istanbul – via Beirut. Driving home over the northern frontier is impossible. “My village is just south of the Turkish border. The rebels killed my nephew. This was a message for me.” A Syrian-Armenian TV personality’s home is attacked in Damascus. Yerardo Krikorian’s grandparents were from Kilis in ancient Armenia. The Turks killed her grandfather in the 1915 genocide, her grandmother escaped. She comes from Aleppo. “The rebels knew where I lived,” she tells me. “They tried to kill my brother when they came to the house. I had asked the local (government) checkpoint to protect us when we saw the armed men in the area. They said their duty was only to guard the mukhabarat [intelligence] headquarters down the road.” When the same armed men attacked the secret police, the government soldiers were at last forced to fight.
The mukhabarat, the torturers, beaters, threateners, killers of the regime, are to blame. It’s surprising how many within the steadily diminishing circle of government Damascus say this. Soldiers say the same. The mukhabarat are to blame, they started this wretched business by assaulting the teenagers who painted graffiti on the walls of Deraa, they went beserk, they thought they were kings. It’s said that Assad wanted to rid himself of these thugs – there are tens of thousands of them – and that quite a few soldiers in the still-loyal army want to destroy them. But whose side would the mukhabarat then join?
“Really Robert, this country was always complicated – now it’s more difficult to understand than ever,” I’m told. Take the rebel commander who allegedly offered to pay for 25 captured government tanks for 750,000 Syrian pounds each. “I refused to sell for less than a million,” their “owner” is supposed to have proudly announced. He was told he was a fool. A million Syrian pounds was rubbish money. The tanks were worth a million dollars each.
Take the Sayyida Zeinab shrine. The soldiers outside have been ordered to let us enter. Inside a little room bearing pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chairman – this is, after all, a Shia shrine – sits a smiling man, the head of security for the shrine, a foreigner, I suspect (readers may answer this little riddle without much trouble), who speaks with impressive ease. “Yes, we have water and other things to protect this shrine when it is attacked. We have expertise in these things. You cannot protect the shrine from mortar attack with the Koran.”
But his message is simple. “This shrine is not for Shia only but belongs to all Muslims because Zeinab was the granddaughter of the Prophet. We want to protect this shrine and all others. But we must protect this shrine because if there is damage, it will make Shia across the world more angry with Sunnis – so we are protecting all Muslims.” This friendly man lives and sleeps in the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. He has been there for a year. The last mortar strike damaged a tiny part of the roof on Wednesday. “We know exactly who is trying to destroy this building. They are not Sunni who are doing this. The Sunnis don’t think like this. It was the Salafists.” Ah, those great tomb-destroyers, shrine-eradicators, Bamyan Buddha-liquidators, the Salafists. They are indeed in Syria now. Chief funders: our old and wealthy friend Saudi Arabia.
I walk into the great marble square for prayers where I find another Zeinab, a Syrian woman with her two tiny children in a pram. “I am not afraid,” she says. “It is normal here.” Untrue, of course. She sees the two soldiers standing in the corner. Then there is Moratada Ali, a 30-year-old from Najaf in Iraq. From Iraq, I ask incredulously? Yes, he says, a refugee who came here two-and-a-half years ago to escape the sectarian terrors of his homeland. He says he’s unafraid. Lives just round the corner with the wife and two children. The shrine “speaks” to him, he says. The woman guardian who stands not far from Zeinab herself – the real Zeinab who cared for her vast family when Hussain had bled to death – says that she prays for the Prophet’s granddaughter to protect her.
Only by chance, chatting to a Syrian companion yesterday did he mention that his brother had been kidnapped six months ago. He had never mentioned this to me. Not his business to, I suppose. “We are still searching for him,” he says, and I realise that he, too, is under siege. Damascus isn’t Leningrad in 1941 or Stalingrad or Troy or even Beirut, 1982. Not yet. The best description I heard came from a colleague. “Damascus?” he asked. “Going. But definitely not gone.”