Middle East

Syria: Assad loyalists concerned by rise of paramilitaries

Ride at amusement park in Uptown, in Damascus suburb of Dummar Image copyright uptowndamascus
Image caption The $35m (£22m) Uptown development on the outskirts of Damascus includes an amusement park

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.

'Mafia-style gangs'

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.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The ranks of pro-government paramilitary groups like the National Defence Forces (NDF) are growing

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.

In many areas that have been attacked by radical Islamist rebels, residents have been left to defend themselves after the army pulled out.

Recently, there was a demonstration outside the state television building at which loyalists called on the government to negotiate with the rebels and exchange prisoners.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Islamic State fighters killed dozens of Syrian soldiers after capturing Tabqa air base in August

A campaign was also launched to press the government to rescue or negotiate the release of soldiers captured by IS in Raqqa province last month before the jihadists published videos showing them killing more than 250 of them.

More and more Alawites who are losing family members on the battlefield could be heard repeating the saying: "The grave for us and the palaces for them."

That has continued since the US-led coalition began carrying out air strikes on IS targets in Syria.

The government in Damascus, which was accused of deliberately not targeting the jihadists between mid-2013 and mid-2014, has hailed the strikes as a victory, even though it has been made clear by Washington that there has been no co-ordination.

Desire for peace

At the same time, President Barack Obama said the US would start arming and training "moderate" Syrian rebel groups so that they can take the fight to IS on the ground.

"Better late than never" has been the response of many Syrians, yet there is still a strong sense that a political solution to the conflict in their country should be pursued.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Supporters of President Assad and the opposition want to see an end to the conflict in Syria

Rumours are spreading that Iran, Mr Assad's staunch ally, may be changing its stance. An official is reported to have recently travelled from Tehran to Riyadh and Damascus with a proposal.

While little more is known, some changes are being seen in the Syrian capital.

Hafez Makhlouf, the president's nephew and head of one of the most feared branches of the General Security Directorate, has been sacked and unconfirmed reports say he has left the country.

Sources in Damascus speculate that Iran may be considering a deal like the one that saw it persuade Nouri al-Maliki to stand down as Iraqi prime minister in favour of a member of his party who was acceptable to Sunni Arabs and Kurdish leaders, as well as his fellow Shia Arabs.

In return, Mr Maliki was appointed one of Iraq's three vice-presidents, a ceremonial post that comes with immunities and a security detail.

Something similar in Syria might see Mr Assad and other members of the elite step aside, but the military and security establishment would likely be left untouched.

Most Syrians, whether they support the opposition or government, want to see an end to the war. But only a just deal that prevented reprisals and brought to justice those responsible for war crimes would allow the dust to settle.