On the southwestern periphery of Damascus, the adjoining neighborhoods of Moadimiya and Daraya illustrate the regime’s tactics and the opposition’s limitations. At the outset of the conflict in March 2011, both relatively poor quarters depended for their livelihoods on farming, light industry, and small businesses. Their Sunni Arab majorities believed rebel promises of a brighter future after Assad had left. In 2012, parts of both areas became what the media called “rebel strongholds.”
Artillery, sniper fire, and barrel bombs ground the rebels down. Most of the residents fled to safer places in and out of Syria. Civilians and combatants dwindled to an estimated four thousand in each area from pre-war populations of about 100,000 in Daraya and 60,000 in Moadimiya. When the government encircled each of the neighborhoods by seizing the land bridge between them last February, its stranglehold intensified the pressure to capitulate. An activist in Moadimiya, Qusai Zakarya, told the website Syria Direct:
The Fourth [Armored] Division was responsible for negotiations in Moadimiya and the truce as well. They sent the External Committee, which contains people from Moadimiya who live outside the town, some of whom have good relationships with the Assad regime.
“When we went in, people were given one hour to evacuate,” a United Nations official said of Daraya. “They took nothing with them.” Regime soldiers looted everything the residents left. A Syrian friend, who has avoided taking sides in the war, told me, “When soldiers conquer an area, they regard everything as theirs.” Soon furniture, crockery, linens, televisions, refrigerators, and electrical cables turned up in the ta’afish—market for stolen goods—of Damascus.
With the pillage came destruction. The government forces were “razing Daraya to the ground,” a UN official told me. This was obvious when I drove along the highway beside Daraya and saw, beyond earth barricades, a devastated territory of demolished houses, mountains of rubble, and untilled fields.
“Moadimiya did not attack outside,” said a Syrian aid worker. “Daraya was attacking.” More importantly, Daraya was close enough to the government’s Mezze military airport for rebels to hit it with mortars. Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters, “The Islamist groups which control Daraya have been launching rockets into the military airport zone.” The government is trying to ensure that Daraya never threatens the airfield again, although a missile attack on it on January 13—blamed on Israel by the Assad government—indicates that it remains vulnerable.
I found some of Daraya’s rebels and residents in a new camp ten miles south of Damascus near Harjallah. Harjallah is a Sunni Arab village beside the sprawling base of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, whose presence deters the defeated fighters from taking up arms again. The government’s detention of several hundred Daraya and Moadimiya residents, whom it releases in stages, provides another source of control. According to government figures, the people of Harjallah, like their compatriots in the rest of Syria, welcomed refugees from Daraya and took in about 17,000 of them. The government installed others in new single-story concrete houses that give the impression of permanence. The camp stretches along three main avenues, in contrast to the jumbled streets of the semirural village they left behind.
When I arrived, boys were kicking a soccer ball up and down a paved road in the middle of the camp. A young man, one trouser leg pinned up where his lower leg had been, leaned on crutches and watched. The camp director, a sixty-six-year-old retired charity worker from Harjallah named Mohammed Dib Karawan, introduced himself and invited me into his spartan office. He said that a week earlier the camp housed 900 people. When I asked how many remained, he consulted a sheaf of typed white pages that listed 285 men, 303 women, and 64 infants. Where did the others go? He produced another list that gave names of the families and their destinations: Harjallah village, Tartous, Suweida, and other places in Syria where they had relatives or friends. “If you want to leave, you can leave,” he said. “If you want to stay, you can stay.” The advantages of staying are free food, water, electricity, medical care, and education with help from the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and several UN agencies. So far the government has not released comprehensive figures for those participating in the reconciliation program.
The camp, which the regime must regard as a “Potemkin village” to attract other rebels to accept amnesties, was achieving a kind of normality in an abnormal environment. The children attend school in Harjallah, and they receive remedial lessons in mathematics, Arabic, and English to make up for four years of lost education. “Fifteen women are giving birth,” Dib said. “There will be a wedding for five couples in two days.”
I left Dib’s office to walk through the camp. Four women sitting on the doorstep of a house invited me inside for coffee, as they would have done with a stranger in any Syrian village. My hostess was Ghousoum al-Ghazi, the thirty-three-year-old wife of a farmer whose two children followed us in. Her friend, fifty-four-year-old Ruweida Abdel Majid Naccache, came as well and asked me to sit on a cushion. The house had one bedroom, a bathroom, and a modest front room with a kitchen built into the far wall. Paper-thin mats marked “UNHCR” for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees covered the freshly washed floor. Mrs. al-Ghazi told me she had moved into the house on August 26, weeks before the final surrender, when civilians were fleeing Daraya. “We were very hungry,” she said. “There was fighting every day. The children were afraid at first. Then they got used to it.”
Mrs. Naccache recalled life in Daraya: “When there was an airplane, we fled to a shelter. It was just a hole in the ground. We stayed like that for five years. I was there when they besieged the town. I lost a lot of weight. There was no food. Here we are living in heaven.”
Two men removed their shoes, entered the house, and sat down. One of them, who preferred not to give his name, said, “I thought all Syria was like Daraya. We thought it [the war] was everywhere. When we were in Daraya, there was no electricity, no television. The destruction was everywhere.” His companion, a forty-six-year-old electrician who called himself Abu Anis, said: “When we were in Daraya, we didn’t care who was going to win. We thought it would end in fifteen days. That was before the siege. On the road between Daraya and Moadimiya, we could pay the soldiers to let us leave.” Was he a fighter? “I never carried a weapon, but I worked with the rebels. If they needed anything, I helped.”
The other man said that he had fought against the government. Unlike other regions of the country, such as parts of Idlib, most of the rebels were Syrian. He had considered going to Idlib with his comrades: “We were given a choice. Even when I came here, it was not an easy choice. Everyone said the regime would take me to prison.”
Why did he take the risk? “Because I know that here is better than there. Going there means continuing the fight.” The government was encouraging men like him to call their former comrades in Idlib and tell them they would not be arrested if they accepted an amnesty. I asked people in the room, “Will you go back to Daraya?” They all said, “Yes,” but the disarmed fighter added, “Inshallah”—God willing.
The government has made their return extremely unlikely. “They looted my house,” Mrs. Naccache said. “Then they burned it.” “They” are the government. Is there anywhere to return to? She said, “No.”