Middle East

Damascus: The changing face of Syria's capital

Syrian boy

Seven million Syrians now need humanitarian assistance, according to an estimate from the United Nations. The Assad regime is being blamed by the UN for hindering the distribution of aid. In the capital, Damascus, people struggle to get on with their lives in the midst of a civil war.

A doctor in one of the military hospitals in Damascus struggled to find the right words. Everyone does.

In the end he just said: "I do not recognise this place anymore."

"This is not our life," he said. "This is not our country."

He talked as if he had blundered into someone else's nightmare. I used to tell my friends in Britain, he said, to come to Syria, because it was safe, and wonderful.

He was right. Three years ago I brought my mother and my daughter, then nine years old, to Syria for a holiday.

We walked through the Old City of Damascus, and drove up the highway to Aleppo, past Homs, and Hama, and stopped off near Idlib at the deserted towns known as the Dead Cities.

They are hundreds of settlements that sprawl across a high moorland that were abandoned more than a thousand years ago.

Syria was, as the doctor said, a friendly and safe place to visit.

It is not any more.

This week, the head of the UN World Food Programme in Syria, which feeds 2.5 million people every month, told me about a trip he has just done from Damascus to Aleppo.

He said they went through 50 checkpoints on the road between Syria's two biggest cities. Just over half were government troops. Armed rebels manned the rest.

President Assad was on TV this week. He denied there was any such thing as a liberated area controlled by the rebels in Syria, but the fact is that the only contact the President's men have with large parts of the country is through the sights of a weapons system.

That even applies to districts of Damascus. The regime controls the core of the city.

But much of the sprawling, impoverished ring of suburbs around it is in the hands of the rebels.

That is why all day, and sometimes all night, there is the crump of artillery fire from the Syrian army's positions directed into the concrete jungles on the edge of town.

The bangs are not constant. But they are regular and steady and sometimes intense.

Earlier this week I could see a tall black column of smoke coming from a fire that the attacks have started in one of the rebel-held suburbs.

I went down to the eastern end of government controlled Damascus, just beyond Abiseen Square, which used to be one of its posher neighbourhoods.

Sandbagged military positions start in one of the roads off the square, which leads to a suburb called Jobar.

Every so often an armoured personnel carrier or a tank screeches around the Abiseen Square roundabout.

In the streets that lead into the square, life goes on. Shops are open, though the prices of basics, like tomatoes, have doubled.

I spoke to a woman who lives in direct line of sight of the rebels in Jobar. She was standing outside her local shopping mall and restaurant, which was battered and shuttered and barely functioning.

It had a newly built blast wall where plate glass used to be. They have given up replacing the windows.

But human beings are resilient.

The woman - she did not want me to use her name - said that she was a planning a barbeque at the local cafe with her neighbours.

But she was scared she would be caught in the open by a stray bullet or one of the mortars that the now much more heavily armed rebels can lob out of their territory.

Image caption More anti-regime protests were held in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo earlier this week

I have no idea what is in the mind of President Assad. But I get the impression from people close to the regime that, despite everything, they believe they are winning not just the war but the argument.

That is because their Russian and Iranian allies are holding firm, and because after two years the Assads are still here.

The former leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya lasted, respectively, days, weeks and months after insurrections began.

The Assads seem satisfied that their claim that they are facing jihadist fighters has, finally, come true.

Secular Syrians and others say the regime's own violence has created the conditions for jihadists to flourish.

Mark Twain wrote that in Damascus years were only moments.

Time, he said, was measured by the empires the city has seen rise and fall.

But people count their lives in months and years, families, friends and jobs. Damascus, and Syria, will get through this.

It is tragic that so many of its people will not. In the news business, the word tragic can be overused.

That does not apply in Syria. In this place it feels more like an understatement.

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