A Syrian woman rides in a car painted in the colors of the Syrian flag with President Bashar Assad’s portrait in Damascus, Syria, June 3, 2014. Photo credit: AP
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Four years ago, a few hundred Syrians took to the streets in Damascus, Aleppo and Daraa in what was billed as a “Day of Rage” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Inspired by the Arab Spring protests that had erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, they marched peacefully, and cautiously, fully aware that they lived in a place where such actions were not tolerated.
Few could have predicted the scale of the tragedy that would follow. After protests were brutally suppressed by the government, a peaceful movement transformed into an armed revolution, then an all-consuming civil war.
Countless lives have been lost between then and now. Families have been torn apart. Communities broken. Ancient archeological treasures felled. And a country destroyed.
Every Syrian can tell a story of how the war has changed their life forever. This is Jawad’s.
It took a while for a full picture of what was happening in Syria to filter through to Jawad al-Housh in Damascus. Protests were springing up across his country. But where demonstrators saw the beginnings of a revolution, he only saw chaos and disorder.
“It took me three months to know there was something happening. After that I started investigating and seeing interviews, seeing TV reports,” he said, speaking from Damascus via Skype.
“There was general disorder. It was out of the blue — as if it was planned from outside forces. The whole country turned upside down.”
Jawad, 34, is a civil servant — a translator working in information technology for the oil ministry — and describes himself as a supporter of Assad.
The Syrian revolt was born in the countryside, propelled for the most part by the country’s Sunni population, who were tired of corruption and the lack of freedom afforded to them by a government dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect. But as the country was convulsed by protests, large rallies were held in Damascus in support of Assad.
“Normal people didn’t want to have a so-called revolution. We didn’t want anything like that,” Jawad said.
Whether he wanted it or not, a large number of his fellow citizens were calling for change. The response of the Assad government was to brutally suppress protests. Large numbers of demonstrators were killed, leading to retaliatory attacks against government security forces.
Most of the violence was taking place in Homs, Daraa, Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs, but Jawad did not escape it.
“It was a totally painful experience from the start. Horrible scenes, horrible sights, inhuman actions taking place,” he said, with a picture of Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad hanging on the wall behind him.
In 2012, the war came to Damascus. Bombings became commonplace and clashes occurred in places that had so far been immune to the conflict.
“There was so many random attacks of mortars and shells and bombs. There was a lot of pieces of bodies on the ground. It felt like a city of the dead.”
He recounts an incident in which he says rebels targeted the bus he was travelling on.
“We were on a bus driving along a street that we weren’t allowed to pass through, according to rebels. We were on a bus, they knew it was from the government, and it was shot 12 times. A friend of mine was shot in her ankle and I was shot in the hand,” he said.
When Jawad uses the word “rebel” or “revolution” it comes with a “so-called” prefix. On the rare occasion he forgets to add it, he returns to the words: “…the revolution … the so-called revolution.”
His view is not uncommon among government supporters. There exists a disconnect between Assad’s backers and those who rose up against him. Jawad struggles to understand why things developed as they did, and is distrustful of the revolution’s motives.
“We never had a complaint about our president. There might be some injustice somewhere because of poverty and lack of resources and bribery and so on. But generally speaking we were very comfortable, relaxed, at peace,” he said.
“It feels like there is a huge conspiracy. Big countries are playing cards under the table. They are making deals and selling weapons — this is the main purpose I guess. Getting rich and finding a solution to their problems by transferring it to our country.”
When asked how he feels about the huge damage done by Assad government’s forces — the huge loss of life and the destruction of entire cities — he contends that there was no other option.
“We are not totally blind to the truth,” he said of the news that comes in from across the country. “But sometimes when you are faced with criminals, people with no conscience trying to attack, to protest in ways that are not peaceful, the government has to do something. You dont jhave to sit down and watch, you sometimes respond with more.”
“It’s not that we don’t feel sympathetic to people on the other side, but we have our problems and we are facing it. I witnessed the death of five of my friends. They were killed during in Idlib, Aleppo, other places like Homs. My neighbour was martyred.”
But in Damascus, some sense of normality has resumed. Things have improved in the capital as Assad’s government has had some success in re-taking key areas in the suburbs of the capital.
“It’s like a routine daily life. Children go to school, officials go to their work and they return home. After that there is not much movement between areas.”
“We hear the fighting far away on a daily basis, but it’s been quiet for a while now. We’ve had some peace. People are suffering because of the lack of electricity, the high prices of everything and the gasoline price.”
As for the future, he says there is unlikely to be a solution until “one side crushes the other,” reserving particular disdain for the thousands of foreign fighters who have flooded into Syria.
“The foreign fighters have to be eliminated. On the other hand, the other sides have to come back and reconcile — dialogue is so important. We can talk things out and sort things out ourselves, inside our country.”
“It’s gonna be in stages. It’s not gonna be magic. It takes time.”