You can drive these days from Damascus to Aleppo but the road is a long one, it does not follow the international highway and for almost a hundred miles you whirr along with Isis forces to the west of you and, alas, Isis forces scarcely three miles to the east of you.
The moral of the story is simple: you will learn a lot about Syria’s tragedy on the way, and about the dangers of rockets, bombs and IEDS, and you must drive fast – very fast – if you want to reach Syria’s largest and still warring city without meeting the sort of folk who’d put you on a video-tape wearing an orange jump suite with a knife at your throat.
The old road north as far as Homs is clear enough these days. Syrian air strikes keep the men from Isis away from the dual-carriageway. But once you’ve negotiated the Dresden-like ruins of central Homs – the acres of blitzed homes and apartment blocks and shops and Ottoman houses, still dripping with broken water mains and sewage – you must turn right outside the city and follow the signposts to Raqqa. Yes, Raqqa, the Syrian ‘capital’ of Caliph Baghdadi’s cult-kingdom where no man – or no westerner, at least – fears to tread. And then you drive slowly through Syrian army checkpoints and past thirty miles of ruins.
These are not the gaunt, hanging six-storey blocks of central Hama. They are the suburbs and the surrounding villages where the revolution began almost six years ago and where it metamorphosed from the ‘Free Syrian Army’ of which Dave Cameron still dreams – all 70,000 of them – into the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and then, like a Victorian horror novel, into Isis. For all of those 30 miles – perhaps 40 if you count some outlying hamlets in the dust-storms that blow across the desert – I saw only feral children, two makeshift sweet stores and a few still-standing homes. The rest is crumpled concrete, sandwiched roofs, weed-covered and abandoned barricades from wars which no reporter witnessed and of which there is apparently no visual record. They are the homes of the poor, those who had no chance of salvation in their own country.
It’s strange how the visual disconnect interrupts you as you speed down the bumpy, pot-holed road. Where have all the people gone, I kept asking myself? Why are those who live here not rebuilding their homes? And then I remembered the thousands of Syrian refugees I saw and met streaming through the hot cornfields of northern Greece last summer en route to Macedonia, and the pictures of those tens of thousands walking the frozen railway tracks north to Germany, and of course it made sense. This is the midden which those people left, the “Ground Zero” they abandoned. This is the empty bedlam which drove them to despair and to Europe. These are not the homes of the internally displaced. They are the homes of those who have abandoned all.
“Raqqa 240 kilometres,” says the official blue road marker which flashes past us, and I look at my driver – his name is Mohamed – and he casts me a look of both humour and palpable unease. Straight north of Hama is the international highway we should have been travelling on, but – I missed all reports of this – Isis has cut this road in several places. So we head on north east on this uneasy road in near silence.
Then the wreckage starts. A burned-out bus on my side of the car – “38 passengers were killed in that bus,” Mohamed says, but he can’t remember if it was hit with rocket-propelled grenades or drove over a hidden mine left for the army. Mohamed’s wife is in the back of the car and points east across the grey desert to a swaddle of concrete two miles to the east. “That’s al-Mabouji,” she says quietly. “Isis went in there six months ago and massacred 65 civilians and took eight women away as slaves. No-one has seen them since.” Another road sign. Raqqa 219 kilometres.
So now we know that Isis is to the west of us on the old highway and that Isis is scarcely three – at the most eight – miles to the east of us. I begin to count the Syrian army checkpoints, teenagers with Kalashnikovs and the Syrian flag flying over their concrete huts. This is how the government keeps the road open – conscript soldiers and a series of flying columns, open-top trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and soldiers cowled behind scarves to protect them from the desert wind. Most of the transport trucks are travelling in convoy – patrols at both ends – and a military column races down the road towards Homs, trucks and armour with rifles pointing like hedgehog quills from the military lorries.
There’s another village close by – Khanaifis – which Isis shelled several weeks ago in an attempt to cut our road, killing 45 civilians, mostly women and children. “Raqqa”, says the next infuriating sign. “167 kilometres”. And I remember that somewhere over there to the east, on grey sand looking identical to the stony earth around us, Isis put to death those poor Western men on the videotapes with knives to cut their heads off. The Syrians have built little fortresses beside the highway now, tiny castles of sand and concrete sprouting with machine guns, a few Katyusha batteries and an occasional tank. It becomes an obsessive task to count these little protective ramparts. Could they really disgorge a Syrian version of the US Cavalry if the black flags of Isis suddenly appeared on the road? The black flags did appear about a month ago but the Syrians drove to the road-block and killed every armed member of the world’s most fearful cult.
One of Syria’s top soldiers, General Suhail, known to most Syrians as “The Tiger” – he is now fighting in the eastern desert far from here – blasted our two-lane highway open two years ago and relieved the siege of Aleppo and now it trails across the desert like a single spider’s thread, a lifeline for the government and its supporters. That’s why it’s called the ‘Military Road’. There’s another burned-out, overturned bus on the right and a scattering of rusting oil tankers hit by rockets. The passenger coaches that now race past us have their curtains pulled, just like the old buses in Afghanistan when the Taliban were on the hunt for victims.
Then – and I need not describe the sense of relief – we turn left towards ancient Aleppo and there are bomb racks from Syrian jet aircraft and discarded extra fuel tanks and then a series of black smudges far to the east where the Syrian army are beginning a series of military operation against the al-Nusra. One of them appears to be an oil fire and five chimneys of a power station loom through the distant mist like a goliath, over-chimneyed Titanic. A thousand people have been killed by violence on this road in two years. Isis desperately want to take it back.
We pass a village where there were four suicide car bombs – the place is now swamped with armour and police cars – and then the countryside lights up and turns green and the fields are dark with fresh earth and women working in the strawberry fields and an old railway track with all but 20 feet of track stolen by theives. And we drive into Aleppo, the place still thumped by the sound of shellfire – outgoing, from the Syrian army, which is now winning ground around the city – and I see a railway bridge behind which I hid with Syrian soldiers two years ago from night-time snipers.
No longer. The city is reborn. There are smart military policemen in red berets on the checkpoints, new shops opened beneath crushed apartment blocks, and the sound of incoming shellfire and ambulances driving painfully through the traffic jams. Who would believe we could be so happy to see this dangerous old city and its burned medieval market and decrepit hotels? Now that tells you something about the war in Syria.