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Signs of Normal Life and Optimism in Syria's Capital As the War Ebbs
By Slobodan Lekic

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Traffic flows normally again, masses of children trod to school through streets that used to be on the front line, shoppers and office workers clog the commercial avenues that were once the target of rebel artillery fire.

The once ubiquitous sandbagged roadblocks -- adorned with Syrian flags and posters of President Bashar Assad -- that created massive traffic jams throughout the capital are either gone or empty of gun-toting soldiers and policemen who used to man them.

There are still reminders of the Syrian civil war, such as reports by state television of a missile strike near the airport Tuesday. But generally, while the war rages on in other parts of the country, life in the capital appears to be returning to the chaotic normality that has long characterized the city of 2.6 million people.

Stars and Stripes was granted a four-day visa to visit the city, though a reporter was not allowed to go farther afield and requests to interview senior officials were not granted.

In early 2012, the United States withdrew its diplomats and shuttered its embassy in Damascus soon after then-President Barack Obama called on Assad to step aside and introduced sanctions against Syria. Almost seven years later, Assad's grip on power appears strong though much of the country has been devastated by war.

The fighting has uprooted nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million. According to United Nations statistics, around 5 million have fled Syria, mostly to neighboring countries or Europe. Six million more are internally displaced, the majority having fled to areas under government control.

Bishop Armash Nalbandian, primate of the Armenian diocese of Damascus, said there is a sense among his parishioners that the war, which has reportedly killed at least 300,000 people, is finally winding down.

A church-run school recently reopened after being closed for three years, following the expulsion in April of rebels who occupied the eastern outskirts of Damascus since the early days of the Syrian war in 2011. Classes resumed after the militants, who had regularly shelled the mainly Christian neighborhood from nearby districts, were granted safe passage in a Russian-mediated peace deal.

"The front line used to be just 200 meters from this church," Nalbandian said. "The church and adjoining school were repeatedly targeted from the other side. After a mortar round killed two students in 2015 we had to discontinue classes."

Hopes for economic renewal

Damascenes expressed relief that the sporadic mortar and rocket attacks on civilian neighborhoods ceased after the militants were removed from their last bridgeheads near the capital. According to unofficial counts, about 16,000 people perished in Damascus and its surroundings from rebel fire since 2012.

In Damascus, the Armenian Orthodox Church is located just inside the ancient walls of the capital's old quarter, which consists of a maze of narrow alleys and Ottoman Empire-era buildings. Some of these buildings have been turned into boutique hotels with verdant courtyards -- and small shops that used to cater to the hundreds of thousands of tourists before the war.

Now many of the shopkeepers along the Tariq al-Mostaqim, or Straight Street, that cuts across the walled town, also say they believe an end to the conflict is in sight. This would mean the return of tourists to a city believed to be the oldest inhabited location in the world.

"We of course hope this normality means the end of the war is near," said Eli Kassis, owner of a business making the famous Syrian furniture with inlaid mother-of-pearl mosaics.

Some businessmen were already considering investing in improving the capacities of enterprises that are expected to grow quickly if peace returns.

"The business climate is already much better than a couple of years ago," said Ahmad Abu Alaa, a grocery owner who said he was planning to expand his shop. He said that before the war the neighborhood was full of foreign students studying at Damascus University, one of the largest and oldest in the Arab world.

"I am sure they will return when the war ends. I am very optimistic," Alaa said.

While the situation in Damascus today is certainly not representative of most other places in the war-torn nation, major signs of change are everywhere.

Shops, cafes, hookah lounges and restaurants remain open until late at night. Thousands of customers fill the streets on weekend nights or holidays, in sharp contrast to the situation a few months ago, when residents huddled indoors to escape the occasional shelling.

Moufit Moukabaa, a jeweler from Jobar, said he was kidnapped and forced by militants to turn over his business and about 27 pounds of gold jewelry after they took control of the district in 2011.

"We lost everything to the terrorist robbers," he said standing in front of his brother's clothing store in the capital's Mlehah neighborhood. "There were many groups here, but they were all criminals and their aim was to drive out the Christians and all others who opposed them."

Assad's support holds amid accusations

Assad's government has enjoyed the support of Syria's minority religious and ethnic groups such as the Christians, Shiites, Alawites, Druze and some Kurds.

The opposition has come primarily from the Sunni Muslim population, which comprises about 74 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Protests in 2011 prior to the war cited social inequality, economic woes and widespread human rights abuses by the government under Assad, who took over the country in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled for nearly 30 years.

As the fighting spread, opposition forces became splintered, with U.S.-backed forces advocating democratic reforms and others advocating militant Islamism, including the Islamic State.

Russia's military intervention, which began in late 2015, has turned the tide in favor of Assad's forces. The combination of Russian airpower, an influx of Iranian ground forces and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia proved too much for rebel groups in multiple parts of the country. Government forces are now estimated to control about two-thirds of the country's territory and all of its major cities.

In Damascus, the evacuation of rebels after a brokered peace deal from the eastern neighborhood of Jobar and suburb of East Ghouta preceded airstrikes targeting Syria's chemical weapons program by the United States, Britain and France on April 13.

The airstrikes came following a suspected chlorine bomb attack by Syrian government forces against rebel-held areas of East Ghouta. The attack killed 49 people, including 11 children, according to the New York Times, which cited a United Nations draft report.

President Donald Trump called Assad a monster for ordering the attack. The Syrian and Russian governments denied any involvement, arguing that it would make no sense to attack the defeated rebels with banned chemical weapons while negotiations for their evacuation were concluding.

Despite the U.S. airstrikes and rhetoric, there is doubt regarding Washington's commitment to backing Assad's opposition. Syrian forces recently launched an offensive with support from Russian air cover in Daraa Province, south of Damascus near the Jordanian border.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Daraa-based opposition activist Osama Hourani said that the U.S. has informed rebel groups in southern Syria that Washington will not intervene, according to The Associated Press.

The US endgame

Assad's troops and their allies in some regions in the Euphrates River Valley are located close to about 2,000 U.S. special operations forces in the country, according to the Pentagon.

The Americans -- working with a coalition cobbled from a Kurdish militia and their Arab allies, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces -- expelled ISIS and occupied the group's de facto capital of Raqqa in October.

Airstrikes and heavy artillery bombardments left the city in ruins, and also killed or wounded thousands of civilians, according to a recent report by Amnesty International. Last week, U.S.-backed Syrian forces declared a three-day curfew blocking entrance and exit from Raqqa, citing ISIS plans to bomb the city.

The U.S. military has also had to repeatedly to use a "deconfliction hotline" with the Russians to avoid potential clashes with their fighter-bombers and helicopters.

A Western diplomat covering Syria said the danger of clashes between those forces, which seemed possible during the government's final offensive to oust Jeish al Islam and other militant groups from eastern Damascus, appeared to ebb after the rebel fighters were evacuated.

"Most wars end in unsatisfying ways. There is little triumph to be had (but) things will be better for many Syrians if political violence keeps declining," said Jacquelin L. Hazelton, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College.

"Will Syria be a more just place? No. But that outcome was never likely," said Hazelton, who studies foreign military interventions in internal conflicts.

"Assad's remaining in power, however unpalatable, is likely to mean far fewer violent deaths than continued civil war," she said. "For the United States, the costs of Assad remaining in power are limited (and) well, that outcome is nearing."

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