A big diesel train edged out of Aleppo central station this week, pulling five long grey and blue carriages, its siren wailing over the city in the afternoon sun. In this part of the world, engine drivers do well to move slowly and warn shoppers, children, even the occasional urban shepherd, to keep off the tracks. But everyone knew that this train was putting on a show. In newly united Aleppo – especially in bloodily broken, smashed eastern Aleppo – any sign of a return to civilised life is a symbol of peace, albeit one imposed by the regime.
The train reminded Aleppines – I’ve never quite resigned myself to this (accurate) description of the people of the largest city in Syria – that their ancient home was recovering its greatness as a communications centre and one of the major commercial cities of the Middle East.
But there was a problem with the train. Far from heading south to Damascus or north to Turkey, it was hooting its way out of Aleppo for a destination less than 20 miles away, in the suburb of Jibrin, where, by chance, many of the refugees from eastern Aleppo now live temporarily in empty housing blocks which were once part of the city’s expansion plans. That’s the end of the line. A ticket costs less than the price of a cigarette lighter. The railway south towards to the capital was blown up in 2011 and part of the permanent way still runs through territory held by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Civilian flights have still not been restored to Aleppo airport, which remains close to rebel lines. You can now drive out of the city on the old international highway to Damascus, but after 12 miles you have to turn left onto the military desert road – as you’ve had to do for the past four years – to avoid the fighting north of Hama.
Further south, I did actually see another loco hauling a long freight train along the restored tracks between Lattakia and Homs, reopening the rail link between Syria’s largest port and its finally (though this word should be taken with much scepticism) pacified city. In Homs itself, the governor’s wife, Hala al-Barazi, a Canadian, is now involved in a UN-assisted project to rebuild parts of the old city. The souk is being restored – tastefully, I have to say – and so are some of the religious institutions. I’ve watched Homs stone-carvers, who helped recut the shell-wounded facades of Ottoman buildings in ruined Beirut more than a quarter of a century ago, slowly hammering and re-stoning the doorway of the centuries-old Islamic library, whose thousands of books perished in the flames of Islamist iconoclasm early in the war. Small Christian churches now sparkle with newly polished stone and gleaming frescoes.
Yet – and I alert you to the cliché – painting over the marks of war does not constitute political restoration. True, you have to travel across the increasingly large government-held area of the country to realise how vain, indeed arrogant, were the Western diplomats and “statesmen” who predicted with such confidence the fall of Bashar al-Assad in 2011. I’ve talked to Syrians whose distaste for Assad’s regime is more than matched by their contempt for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and David Cameron, and the folly of French policymakers who demanded the overthrow of Assad and then did nothing.
But even if you accept that a version of the present regime will survive – or at least as long as Vladimir Putin maintains his military support for the army – what long-term détente can bring this terrifying war to an end?
The Syrian government took a special interest in the statistics of departure when the besieged Homs suburb of al-Wa’er began to empty its fighters and their families out of the city this month. The governor, Hala al-Barazi’s husband Talal, genuinely begged them to stay and reintegrate themselves into Syrian society with guarantees of protection – an offer that was unlikely to commend itself to anyone reading Amnesty’s latest report on government executions. Thousands did remain, however many of them, just like the people of eastern Aleppo, were merely citizens of Homs who found their homes on the frontline of the Syrian revolution.
Nevertheless, by early afternoon on 27 March, during the second week of the exodus, 40 buses had left the city for the far north of Syria, to the town of Jerablus on the Turkish border. Of the 1,485 on these first buses, 462 were children, 587 were women, 84 were fighters with their weapons and 352 were fighters without their weapons. The side-arms they were allowed to carry onto the buses included 51 Kalashnikov rifles, five sniper rifles, 24 pistols and two machine pistols. The youngest gunman holding a weapon was around 10 years old. They had been fighting for two years.
In other words, only around a third of the departures from Homs were armed enemies of the Syrian regime – and, of these, less than a quarter bothered to take their guns with them.
I was struck at one point by a young man with a rifle who turned to look at us once he had boarded a bus, and who then grinned and swung his winger round and round over his head. He meant that he would return to go on fighting. But the determination to fight on is something he shares with many soldiers in the Syrian government army – or the Syrian Arab Army as its official title remains – and which is the only fully-working institution in Syria. The young man, if his ideology or resentment changed, would probably make a good officer in the Syrian army. But I doubt if it will change.
How do you convert those who have fought Assad’s regime – and whose friends and family have died fighting – into such acquiescence? The band-aid right now is the word “reconciliation”. City governors use this word like a punctuation mark. “Reconciliation committees” exist in almost every government-held city in Syria, holding out promises of pardon, grace, forgiveness and guarantees of freedom from prison to anyone who wants to wash their hands of the whole bloody mess. Most of the uniformed and armed Russian troops I increasingly see across Syria, in the Syrian army’s air bases and local headquarters and driving through the cities, have written on their sleeves, in Russian and Arabic, the words “Reconciliation Force”.
The Syrian army’s local base in Aleppo is now a joint Syrian-Russian military headquarters, festooned with Syrian and Russian flags, its soldiery mixing together, Russian personnel sharing their own intelligence with the Syrians.
On the Quweiress air base east of the city, the Russians have installed a giant mess-caravan near the runways, their soldiers living behind protective earthen revetments flying the Russian flag. Even Russian privates have been taught basic Arabic. “Our respects to you,” one of them said to a Syrian friend of mine in elaborate Arabic this week, leaving him literally speechless. This is not how the Syrian authorities normally treat their citizens. But, then again, Syrian citizens who have endured Russian air strikes these past months might not be so easily persuaded by all this respect.
And how far does respect run? The Russians were infuriated by the Syrian army’s second loss of Palmyra at the height of the offensive into eastern Aleppo. Putin’s government had staged an elaborate concert in the Roman ruins to celebrate its original liberation from Isis – and then Isis came back to insult the Russians and the Syrian government. Driven out again, after another fury of desecration among the ruins of antiquity – this time in the Roman theatre – Isis is once more living in the desert east of the city.
But Palmyra can no longer be a publicity symbol for Russian-Syrian amity. “We, too, were angry and shocked,” a Syrian officer said of the brief return of Isis. Many of the vehicles with which Isis attacked came from Ninevah province in Iraq and included men who had apparently been allowed to leave the besieged city of Mosul – by the Americans, so the Syrian army suspects.
Yet the Russians are impressed by the Syrian army’s staying power, not least that of the commander of the whole Aleppo region, General Zeid Saleh. Two months ago, his son Jaffar, a cadet at the Syrian naval college, received a call on his mobile phone. It was a threat to kill him. Saleh says his son told them to do their own “dirty work” with the words: “If you want to fight, you can face my father and fight him.” But they took the son instead. Standing in a bus station in Jebleh near Lattakia, a car bomb killed the young man and more than 30 civilians.
Saleh now talks of his pride in his son, the honour of his death for his country. But he is a thinner man than when I last saw him, his face more lined, his voice as loud as ever, but more thoughtful. And he is, I also suspected, a very wounded man. His enemies had reached out and struck him in the heart.
Of course, soldiers expect this. But I wondered if he did not also reflect his country. Though I know what his reply would have been – he is a soldier and follows orders – I did not dare ask him about “reconciliation”.