Barzeh neighborhood, Damascus
In some Damascus suburban neighborhoods there are currently few if any families, only fighters. But in many others, residents are trickling back to their homes or never left despite the widespread danger. As a generalization it can be said that the current line-up of fighters around close-in Damascus neighborhoods is roughly: 70% FSA, 25% Al Nursa, and, as of now, relatively few, Da’ish (IS). During meetings with young men from the Barzeh neighborhood, an area maybe five blocks by eight blocks, this observer is advised that there are approximately 700 FSA, 110 al Nursa and only 7 or 8 Da’ish fighters (IS). The latter do not appear very active in community matters but according to their neighbors are keeping eyes peeled watching what the other militia are up to while surveying nearby government checkpoints. Dai’sh is also busy recruiting and sending applicants to other locations for military training while promising that within two months the Islamic State IIS) will attack central Damascus.
Desertions among the rebels are reportedly on the upswing in most Damascene neighborhoods with many fighters splitting from both FSA and al Nusra to join Da’ish. Significant, but imprecise numbers of al Nusra militiamen want to join Islamic State (IS), sometimes it seems just as youngsters everywhere often want to play for a ‘winning team’ or in the ‘big leagues’. Da’ish is currently a strong magnet for ‘tryouts.’ Nursa and Da’ish fighters both claim they are eager to fight Hezbollah and western forces who they believe will appear sooner or later and they exhibit the attitude of one European jihadist as he explained to this observer: “‘let’s get it on and the world will itself judge who are the best fighters, we who believe in Allah or the kuffers or disbelievers.”
One disturbing attitude, too frequently expressed in Damascene neighborhoods, relates to a desire of many of these young men from previously stable neighborhoods and from “good families” to sacrifice themselves and become martyrs to their various causes. Residents report that some of the most promising students, majoring in subjects like medicine, law, engineering, computer science, business and other professions are also disaffected and see no attractive future for themselves. While many are deeply religious a surprising number appear not to be.
Overwhelmingly the neighborhood rebels are from the area with few outsiders. This observers friend of more than three years, whose name is withheld for his security, but who is known to several foreigners here who seek English speaking ‘fixers’ has lived most of his life in Barzeh and he knows many of the militia guys. He reports that currently there are only two foreign fighters in Barzeh, one from Algeria and one from Saudi Arabia. He expressed shock to me that last week one of his best child-hood friends—who joined al Nusra eighteen months ago, suddenly disappeared. A few days later my friend got a ‘what’s up’ message from Turkey with a telephone number to call his friend. He did and learned to his amazement, since his friend was one of the leaders of al Nusra locally, that his fried had shaved his beard, changed his style of clothing and left Barzeh without telling anyone. Now he reports that he wears shorts and swims during the day on the Turkish coast and no longer has any desire to fight anyone. According to this observer’s information, many among al Nusra and other rebel militia are trying to leave Syria and go anywhere that might offer some kind of a positive future, because they see the war in Syria being a long one. In this respect they are no different from the war weary, exhausted, traumatized, brutalized general Syrian population and since there are very few jobs, and nearly 9.5 million are displaced from their homes, more than three million living as refugees in neighboring countries, and many have lost loved ones, they just want to get out of Syria following more than three million of their countrymen who preceded them. They now seek to establish a new life somewhere-anywhere sadly, but in the country they most love. In addition, as noted above, significant numbers of fairly hard-core al Nusra fighters are quitting this militia and joining the perceived ‘winning team’ Da’ish (IS).
Some Syrian analysts, whose views this observer credit, identify two trends that appear to be developing in many of Syria’s neighborhoods controlled by violent militia. One is the growing resistance by the local population to being intimidated and abused by the occupying gunmen and another is the role of the Syrian government in, usually privately, engaging the rebels with offers of what some locals call “contracts.” These are proposals for local ceasefires of varying scope in order to help give some hope and help to the increasingly besieged population.
The neighborhood attitudes toward militia around Damascus are dramatically changing. This observer is advised by fighters from Barzeh that as recently as 12-18 months ago, maybe 80% of the citizens in some neighborhoods supported the FSA and some backed al Nusra or other smaller militia. Today militia support is estimated at less than 40% and dwindling.
Even those who still back the armed gangs are weaker in their support these days and no longer respect the militia or defer to them as before. Increasingly neighborhood residents are confronting the rebels on neighborhood streets via ‘citizen committees.’ They are showing up at rebel checkpoints or headquarters to complain and demand more respect and the end to arbitrary street “justice.” There are many reasons for this including, abhorrence of brutality, exhaustion, disillusionment, and demonstrable efforts by the Syrian government to increase and maintain services while trying to make important-many long overdue- changes. Even many rebels are said to credit the government for its willingness to be flexible and make “contracts” with them to improve the lives of the besieged population.
For example, when families return to their homes after having fled, nearly all find that their flats have been broken into and personal property stolen, and they sometimes find some of the property being sold in neighborhood ‘jihadist souks.’ According to one resident of Barzeh, computers and plasma TV’s are among the most commonly stolen property. “Neighborhood watch” citizen groups seek the return of stolen property and demand that the militia stop the stealing.
Citizens increasingly demand a return to Syrian secularism and may be making a little progress on this subject. Unlike Da’ish, al Nursa does not insist that people attend a Mosque for prayers, and the FSA is relatively secular. Nursa does insist that women wear Hijabs in neighborhoods its controls and the first two times a woman is caught without one in Damascene neighborhoods she is issued a warning. The third time she risks a public whipping. This observer is advised that many younger women, despite the risks, remove their head scarves the moment they cross rebel checkpoints-sometimes in view of those manning them- and leave their neighborhood and travel to downtown Damascus for work or other purposes. It’s a similar attitude to that which one notes among many Iranian women, particularly students at Tehran University and young women in the work force in the larger cities, who openly admit-often with grins- giving the local “Morality Police” a hard time when these “purists” harass them, for example with instructions to adjust their head scarves so as not to show so many individual strands of hair.
With respect to the Free Syrian Army, now dubbed by some in the the Obama Administration as the “National Coalition–kind of like the National Guard” according to the White House, is considered corrupt, manned by low-life’s and thieves and generally considered a joke. The “Free Syrian Army” is described locally as neither Free, Syrian nor an Army. They also have the reputation in Barzeh of being for sale to the highest bidder and residents, while increasingly vocal about opposing the jihadists, residents seem to respect al Nursa more than the Western backed FSA despite their violent Islamist extremism.
“Word has just been received by this observer from his friend, a son of Barzeh, that last night; he too has crossed the Syrian-Turkey border in search of a new life-somewhere–anywhere he can see a future for himself.
Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).