Earlier this month, TCF fellow Thanassis Cambanis had a rare chance to visit Syria. In its fifth year of a grinding war, Syria has become something of a black box. It’s prohibitively dangerous to enter rebel-held areas, where foreigners and locals alike are routinely kidnapped or executed. The government of Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, rarely hands out visas to Westerners.
During the ten days he was allowed inside Syria, Thanassis visited Homs, the emblematic and now destroyed seat of the popular resistance movement against Assad; the coastal cities where the government feels most secure; and Damascus, a capital city still rich in cultural and social life but deeply consumed by Syria’s fratricidal conflict.
What does a nation look like as it struggles to hold together under the unrelenting pressures of war? Through these snapshots of regular people and their neighborhoods, join Thanassis on his journey and share a glimpse of what everyday Syrians see.
Early in the uprising, Homs was known by anti-government activists as “The Capital of the Resistance.” Years of block-by-block urban fighting and a punishing siege destroyed the entire city center, leaving only an empty, apocalyptic no man’s land. In 2014, a few hundred people began haltingly to return to Old Homs. Now life is trickling back into a landscape of desolation, in fits and starts.
The major coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia have been relatively protected from intense fighting, and they are home to a high concentration of government supporters, especially members of the Alawite minority. But the coast is ethnically diverse and hosts hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and others displaced by the fighting inland. The Assad clan hails from the mountain village of Qardaha, and the area’s families have contributed a disproportionate number of soldiers and militiamen to the government’s war effort.
The heart of historical Damascus is the Old City, a walled area that has been continuously inhabited for millennia and contains some of Syria’s most important antiquities and religious shrines. It is a bastion of commerce and coexistence, with a bristling market full of everyday items, spices, jewelry and Syria’s famous wood and textile crafts. Mortars regular strike the Old City along with the occasional car bomb, but life inside its walls can still feel remarkably timeless.
On the outskirts of Damascus, the fighting has been more intense. In the first two years of the war, the government almost lost control of the road to the airport and the Shia shrine of Saida Zainab. With extensive help from Iran and Hezbollah, the government regained control of the suburbs around the shrine. It took nearly two years, however, for the government to allow civilians to return to their homes in Husainiya, a neighborhood near the shrine.
Since the war began, about half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. About 8 million remain inside Syria, and another 4 million have left the country. On all sides of the conflict the infrastructure of daily life is strained or in shambles. Even under such horrific circumstances, those who remain in Syria try to preserve what they can of their routines—or in the case of many pictured here, to salvage something from the destruction. Sadly, there promises to be more.
To read more on Thanassis Cambanis’ trip to Syria check out his latest post “Inside Bashar Al Assad’s Syria.”
Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation who has covered the Middle East for more than a decade.