Reporter Robert Dulmers and photographer Teun Voeten recently embarked on an audacious endeavor: to enter Syria in hopes of getting an interview with embattled President Bashar Assad. Their experience illuminates a side of the conflict -- the regime's -- that is rarely seen in the West.
“What is this ??” the army officer gesticulates. We’re on the border between Lebanon and Syria. All bags are opened; photo cameras and lenses are dismantled; serial numbers are written down. It turns out a fax has been sent to the border post by Mrs. Reem Haddad of the Syrian Ministry of Information in Damascus, with a full list of our equipment. The smart black box of expensive chocolates we bought in Brussels, however, is not on the list. “What is this?” the officer repeats.
“Chocolates for Mrs. Assad,” I reply.
The officer’s face petrifies. “What do you say? For the wife of our president?” In that one moment, the atmosphere becomes outright hostile. Suddenly we're playing in a different league. While I am looking for words to rescue us from the situation, the seconds tick past. Then suddenly the solution comes to me. I point at the fax: “No, no, you didn’t understand. Chocolates for Mrs. Haddad!”
Syria is in war. “In crisis,” as they call it on the government’s side. As we drive the 40 or so kilometers on the highway to Damascus, we pass 19 roadblocks and 19 checkpoints for passports and visas, then enter the city from the south. Blasts of artillery fire in the remote distance. Then, as we stop at the 20th roadblock, two loud bangs just behind us. The taxi is shaking. A bit farther, less than a kilometer, plumes of smoke from shellfire and a residential area totally shot to rubble. It must be the suburb of Darayya, which at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 was a place of peaceful protests. Now, it is reputedly a stronghold of Jabhad Al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist organization. Two tanks with naked barrels are rushing the fly-over. Then there’s a tap on the car trunk – a sign that we can pass.
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“Welcome to Syria!” a soldier shouts.
THREE MONTHS AGO, we decided to go to Syria, in a wild plan to interview President Assad. “We want to know what the Syrian government thinks,” we wrote to the embassy in Brussels. “There seems to be a kind of misbalance in information. Perhaps it is time for an interview with the president.”
To cover a war from two sides at the same time is impossible, we know – and for that reason, undesirable to even try. But no independent news is coming from Damascus. The international press, it seems, is absent in the territory controlled by the government.
Unfortunately, the Syrian ambassador to Belgium, where we await, has been declared persona non grata. Just as we are about to blow off the whole idea, an email arrives from Damascus. “Regrettably, President al-Assad is not available for an interview at this point,” Ms. Hamsa Al-Kassir writes, “but by all means do come over to have a cup of coffee.”
We Google her. Until a year ago, she was assistant to the first lady. Now, she’s doing press relations for the president. Owing to the lack of an ambassador, it appears our request has traveled almost all the way to Assad. And the visas are ready.
“You are free to go wherever you want,” Haddad, director of the Department of Foreign Press, says upon our arrival. “Have you got your own translator, or do you want one from us?” With our budget in mind, we choose the latter, and Bacel, a former diplomat-in-training, is picked from behind his computer and compelled to be our companion. He practices yoga, smokes 30 cigarettes a day, and has a dry sense of humor. It could be worse.
Outside of the ministry: remote shell fire. No one seems to care. Ten, 15 rounds an hour. Outgoing fire. Damascus appears to be surrounded by rebels on three sides. Only the west, the road to Beirut, is free of any danger. At almost every street corner in Damascus, a roadblock is erected. From time to time, a jet fighter flies over and a large blast sounds in the distance.
“WE DO TREAT EVERYONE,” says Dr. Adib Mahmoud, director of Damascus Hospital. “Whether patients from the government's side or rebels.” At the moment there are no wounded rebels at the city’s largest hospital, he says.
The entire medical staff lines up. Inconspicuous-conspicuous security people are walking with us, wearing leather jackets. “Every day, we receive eight or nine hundred patients,” the director says. “Of which approximately 25 are war victims.” He cannot give the daily death toll. These are, he hints, confidential -- military secrets. But according to estimates, there are around 30 deaths a day, in and around Damascus, half in government territory, half in areas held by the rebels. Since the beginning of the conflict in spring 2011, the total death toll to date is generally put at 130,000, both military and civilian.
“We still have a basic supply of life-saving medicine,” the director says. “Although most of the pharmaceutic factories are in Aleppo and are now destroyed. At the moment, I would rate our situation a 6 out of 10 – slowly getting worse. For months now, we are waiting for spare parts for our Siemens MRI scanner. Due to the Western boycott, prices have been quadrupled.”
“That boycott is a bloody shame!” an aged radiologist interrupts to say.
Then, suddenly, there is turmoil. “Sorry, guys, I cannot see blood,” Bacel, our translator, says and hurries away.
At a tearing pace, a stretcher is rushed in, blood dripping from it as a nurse blows oxygen with a bellows into the lungs of a man – judged by his dress a civilian, not a soldier – who appears to have been shot in the head by a sniper. It looks quite serious. The emergency doctor with whom we were just drinking coffee rushes to the hall. Outwardly he remains calm, but we can sense he's boiling inside.
“Of course I am furious,” he later tells us. “I am a doctor. I hate to see blood deliberately scattered.” Whether the man survived, he doesn’t know. When we part, he gives us a portrait of Assad. Made of plexiglass, with an LED light inside.
WE HAVE TO WAIT at the corner of the Old City, Bacel says. A black car from the presidential palace will pick us up. He himself won’t join. We are watching for a black Mercedes Benz or BMW, when a small black Hyundai stops. Dusty, but above all, nondescript.
It’s twilight when we arrive at the palace. It’s not on our map, though it rises high above the city on a mountain in the northwest. “What is that big building there in the distance?” we had asked Bacel earlier that day. “I don’t know,” he had answered, unconvincingly.
The hydraulic road barrier comes down. Young men in leather jackets, some armed with Kalashnikovs, others with handguns, check the car. Quite informal, actually. And most likely far more effective than a presidential guard of honor. All cameras must be handed over. Then we drive the kilometer-long entranceway, edged by palms, trimmed boxwoods and spherical lamps. Not a living soul to be seen.
A two-story modernistic building rises up, one of two adjacent colossal shoeboxes of steel, glass and granite. Inside, pink granite hallways, crumbled pointing, naïve artwork and a huge portrait of President Assad in battle dress. It’s freezing. The long corridors are deserted. In the courtyards, no one.
The average Syrian never comes here, as several average Syrians later assure us. And President Assad, according to his own saying – in a rare interview that he gave to the French news agency AFP just before our arrival, actually prefers to work on his laptop in his private apartment downtown.
“Yes, we cut down on fuel,” Al-Kassir says of the frigid temperature. “It would be quite improper to heaten-up this place while in the meantime the Syrian population is out there in the cold. Energy is becoming a great problem lately -- the terrorists control most of the oil fields and consistently are targeting the power supply.”
Terrorists: the stock phrase used on the government side for rebel groups.
But inside Al-Kassir’s office it is nice and cozy, and the promised coffee arrives. Pictures of her with a smiling President Assad, and of Asma, the British-Syrian first lady, of understated elegance with blue nail polish. “She will get them tonight,” Al-Kassir assures us, receiving the chocolates.
I apologize and say, “It’s wartime. Perhaps it is not suitable to present food items to a head of state. You know: poisoning and all that…”
But Al-Kassir resolutely dismisses my concerns. “These things I’ll take for granted,” she says. “The president and his wife are normal people. They don’t want to live in paranoia. In this case, suspicion is out of order. Mrs. Assad loves chocolate. Don’t you want to add a note?”
Al-Kassir is hip. Twenty-eight years old and a fashion designer by profession, until the day she was hired by the Assads. With her chestnut hair and sparkling eyes, she seems to have stepped out of an Italian club or movie. At random intervals, a Daffy Duck tune sounds in her office -- her mobile phone’s retro ringtone. “One shouldn’t be always too serious, I think,” she explains. “And no, I don’t take my cell phone with me when I meet the president – but most likely, he, too, would smile.”
The president’s office is just a few doors away. “We are a free and cultivated country,” Al-Kassir says.
“That’s lucky, I’m gay,” I say.
We tell her that everyone we have spoken with so far has been very open. On the streets, in the pubs in the Old City, where we drank arak last night. It’s different from many police states. No one seemed to care, particularly, about speaking to us foreigners. As for the infamous secret service – there are 30 of them, it’s rumored, so far we haven’t seen any sign at all.
“Be sure that the police know about you,” Al-Kassir says and smiles. “They know exactly where you are. But the secret service won’t bother you, because you didn’t illegally enter the country. As we speak, there are over 35 journalists missing. They sneak into the country illegally and get lost in rebel territory. And then their governments and the ICRC are requesting us about their whereabouts – of which of course we, too, are totally in the dark."
AFTER BEING TOLD by Haddad that we’d be given an opportunity to rendezvous with the government army the next morning, the army calls things off just as we’re getting ready to go. And though the Geneva peace negotiations have kicked off just an hour ago, big bangs can be heard in the distance. A ceasefire is not included in the deal.
Instead, we tell Haddad we would like to visit the suburb of Sahnaya, 10 kilometers south of the city. The Roman Catholic Jesuit fathers there are running a soup kitchen for more than 3,000 refugees from the adjacent suburb of Darayya – now in the hands of Al-Nusra. But the main road to Sahnaya, which was open about an hour ago, now is closed. A large truck blocks the road. While cars bearing soldiers speed southward, blasts sound and a big black plume of smoke ascends. “You guys want to take the other road?” Bacel asks, clearly hoping the answer will be no. The other route is a back road through enemy territory, with two large walls of stone that the government has piled up with bulldozers to protect against snipers.
Of course we want to go.
In the soup kitchen of the Jesuit fathers: large pans with rice and meat. And tomato salad! We have to try. It tastes delicious. “We try as much as possible to cook according to traditional Syrian cuisine,” the cook tells us. “Good meals – although it is only one a day. With herbs and spices and small pieces of meat, so that, despite all odds, the refugees here can somehow feel a little human after all.”
Teun, the photographer, wants to make a few more pictures of refugees living in some unfinished apartment building, but as he does so a man in a leather jacket taps us on the shoulder. Could we please have a seat on one of the plastic garden chairs down the road? There seems to be some kind of problem.
The local military headquarters is housed in a former bank office. Our permits are being checked and Bacel shows his Ministry of Information ID. “Just five minutes,” says another guy in a leather jacket in between numerous phone calls. Then, half an hour later, a tall, middle-aged man in battle dress enters. Grayish hair, well-groomed beard. No insignia of rank or unit – and he wears a heavy vest with ammunition clips. All soldiers rise in respect. A short nod; he does not deign to look at us as Bacel, apparently in vain, pleads our case. Finally, we decide to call Reem, and Hamsa at the palace. Both speak to the commander, yet the expected smile of respect and liberation (“Ah! Guests of the government! Friends of the president!”) does not appear on his face in the very least. When, an hour later, suddenly we are allowed to go – a sturdy handshake for me, a big bear hug for Teun – Bacel summarizes: “They told me: ‘We don’t take orders from your ministry, only from our superiors.’ I’ve told them that you’re legal, but our powers don’t surpass it. So they called the commander here, nicknamed Abu Adman, back from the front, especially for you, guys. He told me that just an hour ago, he’d lost seven men. This commander called to the general staff, the general staff to the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Defense called with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which confirmed your names, and then back again, along the general staff to here. This, guys, is the separation of powers implemented. That’s how it works in a state under the rule of law.”
Leaving the place, we see a rocket-launcher propped up in front of the bank, and an anti-aircraft gun that wasn’t there before. Two soldiers carry large sniper guns. At the end of the first day of the peace talks in Geneva, it is still very much war in Damascus.
“WELCOME BACK, DEAR!” a relieved Haddad says in a text message. She’s trying to fix another trip with the army for all foreign journalists (notably: two Japanese, two Ukrainians and reportedly a Dane) but believes it will be difficult. So we go to the museum.
The National Museum has been closed since the beginning of the crisis. Only in the garden a handful of people stroll between the Corinthian columns. “Our masterpieces are tucked well away,” museum director Dr. Ahmad Deeb tells us from behind his small electric heater. “We took preventive measures to preserve our collection. We have learned from Iraq, where, when the American invasion came, the National Museum was totally looted when the turmoil began.” Halls full of empty showcases, only now and then a piece of unimportant mosaic on the wall. Dr. Deeb is more concerned about the 8,000 or so historical sites the country possesses. “Especially east and northern Syria are out of our control. We hear about looting by illegal traders in antiquities; they were always there -- also before the crisis, mafia. But also we hear about destruction by extremists who want to destroy eventually everything that is not Islam.” Especially alarming, Dr. Deeb tells us, the news from the town of Raqqa, on the Euphrates, in north-central Syria, where for a year the black flag of jihad has flown over the central square, and ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has unleashed a reign of terror. (According to unconfirmed reports, ISIS also last month defeated the remaining troops of President Assad there.)
“But the local people are the real heroes,” he says. “Very humble people have helped us, are hiding artifacts in their sleeping rooms or under the floor. In Raqqa, one of the private guardians was tipped by one of the extremists and therefore had just been able to bring objects in safely. We, as the Directorate-General of Antiquities, are neutral in this crisis. We sometimes had to negotiate with all sides, in order to protect the world heritage.” From his colleagues at the Louvre and the British Museum, partners of many years’ standing, he did not hear a single word. “Since 1929, 120 foreign missions have worked in our country. No one took up our emergency request. We sent letters to UNESCO and to the international scientific world to take at least a cultural stance – that might affect the politics on the ground – but no one answered.”
“If you happen to see a glimpse of lost artifacts in museums in Amsterdam or Brussels, would you please let us know?” a middle-aged woman with a head scarf asks. She is the curator of ancient art. We promise we will.
A LITTLE FARTHER ON, next to the opera house, in a military zone – strictly off-limits for photographers! – is the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts. The fourth-year students – all between 19 and 23 years old – have returned from their holidays and have been waiting the entire morning for our arrival. They prepared for us the staging of the opera "Carmen" by George Bizet. “They are so excited!” says their teacher, Maral Der Arakelian, a friend of Hamsa’s, who’d sent us here. The actual opera stage is closed for the time being, and costumes are made of old newspapers and garbage bags “because textile now is too expensive,” the teacher explains.
“Of course the war affects every Syrian man and woman,” Ahmed, who designed the set, says. “But when we come to the Institute, we can forget it. Working here and working hard perhaps is the best reply. In the midst of present-day’s misery, out of war we make art.”
Is war perhaps a boost to creativity? Perhaps it is, the students agree.
Says Jamin, “War as such is an absurdity. But by us, students, the surrealism by now has reached its depths, so actually we are forward-looking and optimistic.”
“We don’t want to fall into the trap of surrealism. We want to be as normal as we were before the war,” Salim adds. “So we make art and beautiful things.”
On the rebels’ side, they say, in Aleppo, there’s a 22-year-old boy, “a fine painter” of absurdist paintings that are smuggled out of town by refugees. “He keeps on painting!” So free life can be.
Samer Omran, a famous theater director, unexpectedly drops in. “The minister of culture just grabbed me by the neck, and now I am director of this institute,” he says. Not that it was his primary ambition -- according to his own account, he was too much of a free spirit to care for an administrative position. But he accepted nonetheless. “For me it is to preserve my country for the future, because this is a place for culture, not ideology. The institute is a cultural compass, and thus we are concerned about the human being. Personally, I’m not in favor to turn this place into a canned food factory, where Western ideology – or any ideology whatsoever – is pumped into everyone. If I were to model the human being to wishes of the regime or the opposition, I will be helping them to implement their man-model. I want to create my students as humans are meant to be created: in the full atmosphere, in the full spectrum, and make free men and women out of them.”
Over the last few years, Omran contends, the institute has turned out to be a sort of protective, pro-diversity shell. Does that not put him in conflict with the regime? “The government doesn’t intervene with our freedom,” he says. Still, he leaves little doubt about the side he has chosen: “I start to see life in a broader perspective. Theory becomes practice. Russia is better than America, is better than terrorism.”
I ask if he thinks Syria will be more free after the war ends.
“There has never been a war without painful consequences,” he says. “Syria has the origin of a rainbow. This rainbow is ethnic, religious, civil, and is unique in the world. A prefab international concept will not fit us. The Americans would be happy to see the Saudi model be implemented here, but for a country as ours, with all its ethnical and religious minorities, that would be a disaster. As a human being, as a humanist, I am not prepared to see the Syrian artists pay for an international clash.”
Can radical Islamists be friends of free art?
“They are no friends of human beings.”
“TALKING ABOUT AN ARAB SPRING in Syria is very, very romantic,” Jesuit father Nawras Sammour says, and takes a deep breath. “There is an open war going on between different ideologies, and the normal Syrian people are caught in the middle and seem somehow voiceless now. If I can speak freely? Of course I can speak freely, because my position and what I say is based on the principles of the Gospel – and I cannot negotiate these principles. We don’t want any more war! We don’t want any longer that any arms or weapons are smuggled into Syria. At the very beginning, I would say, the crisis maybe was a popular uprising, asking for some reform. The president himself admitted there were some mistakes. But very quickly, at international level, they asked for the immediate departure of the president, which is too difficult, for the regime, for the president, without an opportunity of negotiation, without a dialogue. Violence broke out, from both sides. Each side now tries to throw the ball to the other side, and rapidly Syria became the stage for jihad and the whole of international Muslim extremism. For the culture of Syria and for the Islam of Syria, this is not acceptable at all! Syria is a mosaic of different people of different communities, different ethnics, different cultures and different religions. Syria is not a land of jihad; Syria is for the Syrians. With all respect to you: I don’t accept any foreigner to intervene, to teach me how to liberate Syria and how to protect Syria.”
“I am wondering: Is the picture slightly shifting? Is Assad no longer the devil incarnated, but is some of the opposition not much worse?” I ask.
“Not some of the opposition. Most, I would say, of those who are powerful in the opposition, they are evil. Al-Nusra, ISIS, the Islamic ideologists. I am marginalized. I am not accepted as a Syrian in my own country, according to those ideologists. So for me, it is evil. They refused dialogue, they refused to work together to shape the new Syria.”
“A new Syria?”
“Let’s say, in a modern state, I have to be protected by law. Not by persons. Not by tribe. Not by religion. Not by community. But by law. My wish is that we reach that point sometime. Maybe not in my generation. Maybe the next generation, the generation of my nephews and nieces, will reach that point of really to modernize our Syria. Now, for the time being, it is too difficult to talk like that; it is a war. And the tragedy of war is that the reason, the mind and the intelligence of people are completely marginalized. We react, we don’t act. Which is really, really sad. Because the reaction often is even much more violent than the action.”
“Will there be reforms, after the war?”
“I hope so, with all my heart. Otherwise, my fear is we will get one winner and one loser. That scenario is very harmful – with the enormous risk of another war in 40, 50 years. So let’s build up on the idea that we are all losers. If we accept that, in some way, we’re all equals. The Sunnis, they have lost a lot of people. And the Shia. And the Alawites. And the Christians. We lost people! In the army! In the cities! Children! We are all losers; let’s start as losers.”
SOMEWHERE IN THE CITY, we meet an army general. Soft-spoken, perfect English. “Please accept that I just express my own private opinion. I am an elderly man, without too much knowledge when it comes to politics, but with a little bit of wisdom, I dare hope.” He gives us his name but asks us not to take his picture. How many casualties are there in and around Damascus? He takes a deep breath: “Too many, too many… The last days, the fighting increased. Two, three hundred wounded a day – the number of deaths I am not at liberty to give to you.”
"Damascus seems to be surrounded by rebel forces on three sides," I say. "Daily in the city, there are dead and wounded. Why does the regime not simply bomb the suburbs?"
“It is not a classic battle," he says. "You fight in a city. Civilians are used as a human shield. You can’t bomb your own civilians.”
"At some places, the Syrian army indeed did just that and did smash residential areas…"
“Incidentally. When there was no other alternative. SOS – we have to save ourselves!”
“Against whom are you fighting?”
“Not against a civilian opposition. People, I think, have the right to say what they want – but not in this way, not with weapons in their hand. We have to go to the negotiating table with all reasonable people who live in Syria – and not abroad and not with jihadists. Not with people who don’t understand that we want to live as citizens. We are people just like you, Europeans. We are a civil society. We would like to stay in the 21st century and not being smashed back into the Stone Age. We fight against extremists.”
“Can you defeat them?”
“We can. And at several places we did, when necessary. But it is no enduring remedy. I don’t like military solutions, they don’t last.”
A RUSSIAN HIND-25 ASSAULT HELICOPTER hovers over the city. Slender, painted in patterned gray camouflage, it looks like a giant dragonfly. S8 rockets under its side wings. Then it climbs, to a high altitude, high above enemy territory, in the north. The peace talks in Geneva have been postponed for 10 days. On Darayya, international media reports, helicopters have dropped barrel bombs, but we neither see nor hear them from where we are.
Closer to home a mortar round hits the world-famous Umayyad mosque in the Old City. It is the third time the UNESCO monument has been targeted. Two months ago, the director of the mosque tells us, at the crowded atrium in another attack, five people were killed and 35 wounded. “Even though they are Muslims themselves, the terrorists target places they consider pro-government. They see us as infidels.”
Everywhere in Syria, especially in Aleppo, the fighting is flaring up after Geneva is postponed.
We prepare to say goodbye to Reem Haddad. But how to continue? What will the Syrian regime be aiming at? Will there be an interim government? With or without Assad?
“I think this is something that the Syrian people must decide for themselves, rather than sitting in Geneva, talking to Mr. Kerry about it. Before you talk about a transitional government, you need to stop the violence. How can I go and vote if my city is completely controlled by militants?”
“No, let me continue this point. The first step is that the countries that are aiding and abetting the violence must put an end to it. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, to a slightly lesser point. The borders must be secured. On a daily basis, we have jihadists crossing the border, to come and die in Syria.”
“According to estimates, 100 jihadists from Holland and 300 from Belgium are fighting in Syria,” I say. These are our own home countries.
“I cannot give you the exact number, but there are many,” she says. “From Australia, from the U.K. Never mind Chechnya, Azerbaijan. People who, until recently, never had heard of Syria ever before. It is not only a Syrian problem. The beginning of this conflict was in Syria, but now it’s spreading. It all too soon can become a European problem as well. These are jihadists who have left Europe to come and fight here, and who will return to Europe! Look at that guy of Sharia4Belgium [who was on TV recently]: He wants to go back and he wants to carry out explosions in Brussels.”
“Are you saying the liberal West and the Assad regime are actually at the same side?”
“Definitively, in fighting against the militants. In the fight against the militants, we should be shoulder to shoulder. But there is a point I want to address, Robert, in all of this. And I would like you to actually write it, because it is worth taking into account: Why do these second- and third-generation Europeans come to Syria for jihad? Have they not integrated well in your societies? And this is the saddest point: that they actually feel that they can only find their identity, and they can only find themselves as they come for jihad in Syria, a country where, I believe, five years ago they had never heard of. This is a point that you in the West must address: Why are we losing these young men and what are we doing what is wrong?”
“THE FIRST LADY LOVED IT. She says thank you,” Al-Kassir says when bidding us farewell, informing us about the box of chocolates. “Would you like to have an interview with Mrs. Assad?”
“Yes, of course. But didn’t the first lady stop giving interviews since the beginning of the crisis?”
“Yes, she did. But that very well may change. And you are high on the list.”
Robert Dulmers is a Dutch journalist and author who divides his time between Amsterdam, New York and Vienna. Teun Voeten is a conflict photographer and author who lives in Brussels. He can be followed on Twitter @teunvoeten.