“Damascus … the ‘Pearl of the East’ … the one city in all the world that has kept its name and held its place and looked serenely on while the Kingdoms and Empires of four thousand years have risen to life, enjoyed their little season of pride and pomp, and then vanished and been forgotten!” –Mark Twain
“Jan! Jan, wake up!” The words came from someone knocking loudly outside my hotel room door. It was April 14, 2018, around 4am, and I was sound asleep on my first night back in Damascus as missiles launched by the US, UK and France were hitting a few miles away. I went to the door a bit on the groggy side though the booms-booms were quite loud, and got the news as I opened it: the US, UK and France were bombing Syria, in Damascus and elsewhere. It wasn’t a surprise, anyone paying attention to the war against Syria was expecting it after the latest “chemical weapons attack” false flag event in Douma – and anyone still believing those obvious frame jobs should consider themselves part of the “Charlie Brown should trust Lucy to hold the football” Club. The questions at the moment were how bad was it? How many more Syrian soldiers and civilians would be killed in their own country by the US and its allies? Was this going to be the start of an all-out invasion? The “leaders of the free world” were at it again, “defending freedom” by bombing a country far away that has never threatened nor been a threat to them; and doing it with all the pride and pomp of two-bit emperors wearing no clothes.
I’ve spent many weeks in Damascus over the past two years in five different visits traveling around Syria and I don’t know if it’s the water or the stones or the air but there is something about that place that brings out the dormant poet-lover in me as it has for so many others through the ages as well as the keyboard warrior-defender. People often ask me why I love Syria so deeply and I usually respond with, “I don’t know, it’s like I drank some kind of love potion.” Honestly it’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me; strange but impossible to resist even if I had any desire to resist it. So if you’re looking for a clinical, unbiased report here you will be disappointed; however I did begin my study about Syria with a completely blank slate and have been determined through these past six years to be a pragmatic learner. Disciplined research came first; the love grew organically as a result but without the never-failing support of my husband and our sons as well as friends both at home and online, I think I may have had some kind of mental breakdown by now!
The first part of this series was an overview of Damascus and what I was doing traveling to Syria during the war in the first place, but there is more to share about the great capital city that has witnessed history since the history of civilization began. The term “history of civilization” can be misleading as it brings to mind reading, writing, agriculture, art etc., but the flip side of the civilization coin has been rulers and empires and their endless wars often resulting in mind numbing, blood-soaked barbarism proclaimed as “greatness”. What has been happening in Syria for the past seven years is one of history’s most glaring examples of this kind of false glory.
In October of 2017 shortly after returning from several days in Deir Ezzor and seeing the fight against ISIS there, I was invited to attend an event at the Damascus Opera House. The Opera House is not a rich person’s pleasure as tickets are very cheap and there are events almost every night. The audiences are made up of all Damascenes including students and soldiers, young and old, from all religious and people groups. The Mari Women’s Orchestra was playing that night. I was weary from travel and trying to process emotionally the experience of having been near the front lines, but I’m so glad I went despite my fatigue. As I watched and listened to the dozens of women, beautiful Syrian lady musicians dressed in black evening gowns, playing epic and artistic music that blended eastern and western orchestral styles, I wanted to shout, “Take that Saudi Arabia!” (a country ruled by depraved despots in an absolute dictatorship that jails women who want to drive cars and enslaves them to their male guardians and strict religious codes). Yet the Sauds are supposedly helping the US to bring “freedom and democracy” to Syria while also starving and slaughtering the people of Yemen. Such an event would never be seen in that kingdom whose oil and big weapons-buying budgets make them a “great ally” of America, which hails their leaders as “reformers”.
Nor would such an event as this concert ever be allowed in any place under the control of the so-called “freedom fighters” and “moderate rebels” backed by the US and its allies. This should not be surprising since the rule of those groups over the people they’ve subjugated resembles that of the Saudis and other Gulf State monarchy-dictatorships who have financed them so generously.
But in Syria where the government is in control there is music, dancing, singing, drinking, worshipping, studying, shopping … and a lot of hard work going on just to make a living and to begin rebuilding. There’s work going on for emotional and society rebuilding as well: healing from the sadness and trauma, particularly for the children; coping with injuries, illnesses and depression; finding strategies to deal effectively with long term effects on the culture; and trying to hold onto some hope for the future. Smiles and funny stories are always shared with a distinct sadness in eyes that have seen too much and cried too often. Life is and has been so very hard – each and every person has been affected. As in all periods of suffering, character is tested, but during this war the tests have been particularly brutal.
On one trip in Damascus last year, it was Palm Sunday. Families were out after church services in droves and filled the cafes in the Old City and so I went into one and was going table to table talking with them. There was a large family of maybe 14 or more, some spoke English, and they invited me to join them. The mother I won’t forget, about my age, and as she was sharing with me she was crying. The family was to be torn apart as some members were going to live elsewhere to find better work and a place where their children would not be under constant threat of terrorists’ mortars, rockets, suicide bombs etc. Close, extended families are the foundation of society in Syria, something America has lost for the most part. Families gather constantly for meals, to sip tea or coffee and share sweets and conversations of small and great matters. It broke my heart to see hers breaking. The sons and daughters of the lady were telling me how they never had planned to leave Syria before the war and I asked one son how he would describe it then. He said, “It was almost perfect.” There are problems in Syria, deep problems that have existed for a long time – and many made so much worse over the war – and people I’ve met there have been very open about that, including him, but he meant what he said. Many ex-pat Syrians have described to me about them kissing the ground or stone walls of Syria when they go back. That love potion I mentioned at the beginning is a well-known phenomenon to Syrians and visitors alike it seems. Not all are so enraptured though to be sure, refugees didn’t leave just because of violence and/or economic hardships – a great number are weary and they need rest from the suffering. The good news is hundreds of thousands who did leave have returned as more and more of the country has been liberated from armed groups and life is moving back towards some normalcy.
The war has been a shock to Syrians (as well as to people who visited before the war) as so many have asked me, “Why Janice, why?”One young lady I spoke with on that Palm Sunday said: “Why do Americans want us all dead?” I assured her that people in the US and other western countries have been deceived into thinking they were helping Syrians. She said immediately she understood – she speaks English perfectly and had been watching the lies from western media and governments. She had been shot twice by US backed “moderate rebels” and her best friend had been kidnapped by them. Her friend has never been seen again. Syria had wanted positive, mutually beneficial relations with the West; their definition of good relations is different from the powers that be in Washington however. Syria wanted to maintain its independence and not be a puppet to US demands and dictates. The narrative that the so-called “revolution” was organic, spontaneous and popular is a total myth – a fairy tale. General Wesley Clark had revealed the “7 countries in 5 years plan” which listed Syria as one of the seven targets for overthrow since just after 9/11 although none of the seven countries were in any way connected to that event. A trail of government documents, officials’ statements, and media reports from 2003 until now makes it incontrovertible that the war is in fact another regime change operation that was planned, initiated, orchestrated and supported by the US and allies. The US was “already picking out new leaders for Syria” in 2005 according to the odious Christiane Amanpour in an interview with President Assad at the time. The strategy in this attempt was to arm, train, fund, and provide support for proxy militant groups both through intelligence agencies and military advisors. Violent, extremist elements were fostered and religious tensions created and fueled using planned propaganda by regional media like Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya that capitalized on the introduction of both the internet and outside media that was one of President Assad’s reforms. The plan to overthrow President Assad is chillingly spelled out in a leaked 2006 cable from the US Embassy in Damascus. In short, the fire storm to come had been prepared for years by the US with help from allies, particularly the UK, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood (with whom President Bush and Eliot Abrams met in 2007 to enlist their help in undermining the Syrian government). For a more complete and referenced timeline of this buildup, please see my “Timeline leading up to the US war against Syria” by clicking here.
Before the violence broke out in March 2011, millions of tourists had been visiting, and the numbers were going up dramatically, jumping 40% from 6 million in 2009 to 8.5 in 2010. Journalists and scholars from all over the world were going also in large numbers. Syria’s president had been named Most Popular Arab Leader in a regional poll actually done by the US. Diane Sawyer spent a week there in 2007 and raved about the culture and her experiences. Charlie Rose had been several times and described in 2010 how anyone wanting to do business in the Middle East was going to Damascus to invest. And even the British television car show, Top Gear, had been to Syria in 2009 and proclaimed that Damascus had gone to their “Top 5 list of all-time favorite cities.”
All that came to end though in 2011 when a tsunami of fake news reports came out about a so-called “brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters”. Suddenly positive press turned 180 degrees and without so much as a question from any main stream western reporter, the judgement was final and debate not acceptable. The reality is that Syrian security forces weren’t allowed to carry armed weapons for several months at the beginning of the violence and as Father Frans van der Lugt wrote from Homs, “The protesters shot first.” (Father Frans was later executed by al Nusra which is al Qaeda in Syria.) Extremists and mercenaries had been stockpiling weapons in places like Dara’a for quite a while in radicalized mosques, and snipers were in the crowds shooting civilians and security forces alike in an attempt to create chaos.
Catholic Monseigneur Giuseppe Nazzaro, former apostolic visitor to Aleppo and former Custodian of the Holy Land, had this to say at a UN headquarters meeting in Geneva on September 16, 2014:
[Assad] opened the country up to foreign trade, to tourism within the country and from abroad, to freedom of movement and of education for both men and women. Before the protests started, the number of women in the professional world had been constantly increasing, the university was open to all, and there was no discrimination on the basis of sex. The country was at peace, prosperity was on the rise, and human rights were respected. A common home and fatherland to many ethnicities and 23 different religious groups, Syria has always been a place where all were free to believe and live out their creed, all relationships were characterized by mutual respect. The freedom that is purportedly being brought to us by the rebels is precisely what this rebellion has taken away from us. (ISIS, Assad, and what the west is missing about Syria in Catholic World Report, Dec. 15, 2014)
The problem was that most Syrians saw through the ruse and knew the armed groups that formed the “moderate rebel” forces for what they were – proxy armies composed of mercenaries, criminals, extremists and terrorists who desired to change Syria from a secular, women-empowering society into an intolerant, religious-fundamentalist state. Because of this, most Syrians did not join the orchestrated rebellion even though almost all want government reforms and more freedoms. But it had become obvious quickly that freedom was not what the armed groups were after as they put one area after another under harsh sharia law, drove out or often out-right executed minorities, and forced women to be fully covered.
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University recently spoke of Operation Timber Sycamore on MSNBC, the CIA program to train these “rebels”. The Benghazi compound had been acting as a weapons running operation out of Libya to fighters in Syria in 2012. When not enough Syrians joined the rebellion, fighters from other countries were called to join “jihad” in Syria including al Qaeda and later ISIS. You can see a video of the Free Syrian Army founder, general and field commander showing their appreciation of this outside “help” by their “brothers in arms” here. By 2012 it was evident that the “rebel” groups were dominated by extremists and the Defense Intelligence Agency report from that year stated Al-Qaeda was not only driving the opposition in Syria but that an extremist caliphate was planned for northeastern Syria. General Michael Flynn (head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012-2014) asserted later that the Obama administration made a willful decision to treat groups like Al Qaeda and what would become ISIS as assets in the war against Syria. Eventually it escalated into America creating a huge coalition to enter Syria illegally under the pretext of fighting the terrorist group it had been using as an asset, bombing both ISIS – on very rare occasion actually – and also the Syrian Army that was fighting ISIS as in the massacre of about 100 soldiers at al Thardah hill in Deir Ezzor. In fact, John Kerry was recorded on audio (leaked by WikiLeaks) explaining how the US had been watching ISIS grow in hopes that this would put pressure on President Assad to negotiate, but instead he asked President Putin of Russia to come help fight the terrorists. At the present time, the US is illegally occupying about a third of Syria’s land – the third that just so happens to contain the country’s richest oil fields.
“This is the Syria he died for” was the thought stuck in my head after another event in Damascus that same trip: two other writers/activists and I who had all been in Deir Ezzor were invited to a memorial service for the popular General Issam Zaher al-Deen who had died after fighting ISIS for years there. The service was hosted by the local Druze community in Damascus and was attended by men and women from every part of Syrian society, every religion, every walk of life, who came out to honor the Herculean, larger-than-life hero. The General’s mother, son and brother were all there and the room often erupted into patriotic songs from the soldiers and others as speakers were paying tribute. We arrived late after getting the time wrong, almost at the very end, and I felt quite ashamed of that and even more sheepish as I noticed that this was one of few events I’d been to there that was segregated – the women were in another area of the hall and most I had seen around it had white scarfs on their heads (other than when visiting mosques, I have never been asked to cover my hair nor is it required anywhere in Syria). Yet I wasn’t asked to go to where the ladies were but made to feel very welcome as we were ushered up to the very front to meet the General’s son and brother and the hosts and speakers and to pay our respects. It was a profound moment for me to meet the great General’s son Ya’roub, who I knew had fought at his father’s side throughout all those terrible years in Deir Ezzor, and at the end of the service the men exuberantly lifted Ya’roub onto their shoulders.
We were told that one of the speakers had mentioned us in his talk and had graciously thanked us for our show of support and respect, and I’m glad he explained our presence there a bit. Well, that announcement had quite an effect as afterwards we were told that we had 250 invitations for dinner that night! We accepted the invitation from the hosts of the memorial event and walked over to a small community center to spend a never to be forgotten evening with many community leaders and army officers and soldiers. I had been longing to spend time with members of the Druze community and this was a wonderful opportunity to do so, fascinating people and culture, and the chicken that was served was superb, memorable in its own right. It was the feeling of fellowship though that was so extraordinary. Listening and sharing among the people in that room with smiles even laughs in the middle of a war where they all have suffered terribly, where so many diverse people groups were represented brought great healing to me personally. I had been in mourning since hearing of the General’s death as we pulled up to the checkpoint in Deir Ezzor almost a week before. The feeling in that room however brought the thought to my mind as dramatically as a shot: this is the Syria he died for.
There’s quite a lot for the visitor to see in Damascus as elsewhere in the country. The evening news is always eager to show bombed out buildings which is also a too-large part of Syria now but I spend half of the time on my trips simply experiencing Syria as a tourist and after five trips, I’ve only just begun.
One of my favorite walks is beside the Citadel in Damascus and the garden next to it. Tourist shops still line that stretch with bracelets, flags, coffee mugs and the like and there is always a stream of people walking around there. I got a sand art bottle, an inscribed bracelet, my President Bashar coffee mug, and other goodies there. The garden is a pleasant place to hang out and enjoy some coffee or tea while looking over the flowers and trees. Going into the Citadel was a privilege as it has been closed for many years both because of a restoration project and because during the war it’s strategic high ground. Inside workers are restoring precious mosaics recovered from all over Syria, and a museum is planned at the site for opening hopefully soon.
This doesn’t mean that traveling to Damascus during the war has been a “walk in the park”. Until this last trip, after the liberation of eastern Ghouta from the armed groups that held the neighborhoods that comprise that area in the city’s suburbs, there was real danger there. Rarely (well, virtually never) reported on western “news” media were the almost constant terrorist attacks against civilians in the city, attacks in which many thousands of men, women and children were killed – tens of thousands wounded, often permanently – inflicted by the terrorist proxies of the US and allies.
I’ve spent many hours in my hotel listening to the sounds of mortars and rockets falling nearby, launched from the Jobar neighborhood that was under the control of al-Rahman, whose sole “contribution” to the “revolution” was to target Damascus civilians for death. Once in front of an antique shop, window shopping as usual, I struck up a conversation with some men sitting outside. After several minutes one of the men showed me on his phone a photo of a young girl, his six year old daughter who had died from a terrorist mortar attack as she was heading for her school one day. Go ahead, see if any of the people there in Damascus will listen to how “moderate” those “rebels” were. Another day, coming in from some time on the beautiful coast in Lattakia, there was a terrible attack of mortars. I counted five times that the car I was in turned a corner and we heard another one landing pretty close by. Eventually we got back to the Old City, where it was even worse, with the added sounds of gunfire. I heard from a friend that the terrorists in Jobar were trying to break through army lines and get into the city while firing a barrage of mortars and rockets into the city. He lived in the one neighborhood between where I was and Jobar and they were getting exploding bullets as well as mortar attacks. On another trip I was taking a much welcomed nap when I was awakened by a mortar hitting very close – the bed shook. Turned out it hit the building next door which is a little church school; thankfully the kids were not there at the time and no one was hurt. Mortar holes aren’t all that impressive in pictures but each one can kill several people because of the shrapnel that flies out when they land. Mortars are very effective at cutting people’s legs off too. The terrorists of eastern Ghouta have been defeated as have all the other armed groups that had threatened Damascus for six long years. My last trip in April of 2018 seemed almost tame – tame but never boring. It was wonderful to see how people there were more relaxed, so tired also, but breathing a little easier.
Damascus is the Pearl in the heart of the Middle East and the city has kept its name and place and identity. While the American desire for total hegemony over the Middle East has been enjoying its “little season of pride and pomp” in Twain’s words by overthrowing one government after another through covert operations, military conquests and occupations, Damascus still stands. And that’s a very good thing. I’ll go into more details of the US and allies’ motives, plans and actions in Syria in later installments of this series.