From April 2010 to April 2011, following a one month assignment in 2009, I spent the year living and working in Damascus, Syria.
My stock reply to those that asked what was it like, was, “The safest city I’ve ever lived and worked in.” Maybe that was partly due to the fact that Syria was a Russian vassal state, the security apparatus was widespread.
I only used taxis or transport provided by my clients, but every taxi driver other than our regular one, Abdul, always asked me where I was from and what I was doing there, where was I living etc. I was careful to use the same brief script because I knew that the taxi drivers had to report weekly to their security handlers, I did not unwarranted closer scrutiny.
It was wonderful to explore the antiquities in the region, Lawrence of Arabia’s favourite castle (part of his academic thesis before World War One) was the Krak des Chevaliers = The Castle of the Knights/Crusaders. It was a wonderful site with an outlook down into the road towards Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.
Sadly, the place had been wrecked by another war some 800 years later. Other sites have been damaged by sectarian and associated violence.
In February 2011, the world was taken aback by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Abdul said, “We need that to happen here, Roger, we need to get rid of the corrupt regime which fills the pockets of its family members and others.”
I replied, “I think I hear where you are coming from and while I am no proponent of the Assad Regime, you should be careful what you wish for.”
Other expats and I reckoned that instead of laying down ultimatums demanding Assad and his coterie should step down immediately, they should rather engage with the Western-educated President (he was a practising ophthalmic surgeon in London when his elder brother, a playboy, got killed in his fast car near Damascus Airport, thus promoting Bashar to next-in-line) and offer economic support over a period during which some political evolution might come later; after all, Bashar Assad was on record in January 2011 that he wanted Syria to move more towards free enterprise and other reforms, but only in accordance with Syria’s timetable, not one imposed by others.
But of course, the West knew best, with Obama and Bilary Clinton determined to make Assad do their bidding.
IT WAS NEVER GOING TO WORK, THE WAY OF THE MEDDLERS.
I remained in contact with one of my Syrian translators, a lovely young woman, very conscientious. I messaged her to say that while I did not agree with everything the Assad regime had done and stood for, I though it was still the right of the Syrians to decide their destiny.
She said that she and many of her friends were no supporters of the current regime, but that they would join the fight against any foreign aggressor.
And now things have come to this:
Sometimes I still wonder what has become of Abdul, a decent man who was about to move with his elderly mother into their very own flat in an suburb of Damascus which I used to pass through on my way to work in the next adjoining suburb.
I am scared to find out; the flat was between a military base and the suburb where I worked which became a rebel stronghold. It is likely to be rubble.
Also, I abhor some of the media reporting and the staged scenes of ‘victims of gassing by the brutal Assad regime’. There was an incident many months ago which showed such children writing and crying in a large room somewhere in Damascus.
But the room was lit up with electricity in a supposed war zone! Who in her/his right mind would keep the lights blazing with snipers and RPG launchers prowling in the dark?
When the histories of the last few years about Syria come to be written, it will be interesting to compare them. My fervent wish is for a viable peace in Syria (and some other places). I just hope I live long enough to witness it.