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Walid El-Atrache visited the province of Sweida in Syria in March 2016, and spoke with Syrians who have been displaced by the war, as well as the non-governmental organizations assisting them.

A divided nation

SWEIDA, Syria – Despite a war that has ravaged a whole country and scarred an entire generation, this city has managed to retain a relative stability. At first glance, it does not even look like it is part of a country at war. For this very reason, tens of thousands of Syrians have been making their way to Sweida, a city located halfway between the capital Damascus and the Jordanian border. Outside the Sweida distribution center of the Red Crescent, a leading non-governmental organization, a woman, seemingly shaken up, stands in line, waiting for her turn to collect some supplies.

Good Friday event in the government-controlled part of Aleppo in April 2016 (Credit: Iad Tawil).

“We left Aleppo with our children so we could be safe,” says Umm Mahmoud, who fled intense fighting in Syria’s largest city. “We need whatever help we can get and we came today to get some supplies.” These supplies included food, blankets, toiletries, and other basics. Aleppo has been the scene of horrific fighting since July 2012, when terrorists invaded the city. These days, Aleppo is reminiscent of Berlin during the Cold War. The eastern part is held by terrorists, while the government controls the western part.

Umm Mahmoud and her family decided to travel across Syria to the safety of Sweida. She is one of more than 85,000 people who are registered with the Sweida branch of the Syrian Red Crescent. The Red Crescent works in partnership with the International Red Cross, the United Nations Food Programme, and the Syrian government. At the organization’s refugee camp in the village of Ressas, just 15 kilometers southwest of Sweida, other displaced people, such as Yasser El Gheiry, take it one day at a time. Ressas is a quiet, small village, worlds apart from the tumultuous fighting raging in other parts of the country, such as his hometown of Al Ghouta, just outside the capital Damascus. He and his family have been living in Sweida for four years now, having escaped the devastation that has taken over Al Ghouta since the early stages of the war.

“I have four girls, and my wife has a heart condition,” El Gheiry says. “Bread was so scarce that we could only get it every two or three weeks.” He and his family resorted to eating plants off the ground for survival.

Last summer, Syrians flocked to Europe, prompting what is now known as the “Syrian refugee crisis.” Until then, 4 million Syrians had sought refuge in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Almost double – around 7 million – have been internally displaced since the start of the war and remain in Syria.

“The Syrian crisis only became the Syrian refugee crisis when it started to affect Europe,” said Paul Danahar, who was the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2010 to 2013. “We covered the story a lot,” he added. “For the American media, it was not a story that resonated into their news bulletins because it was not affecting anybody but the Syrians, the Lebanese, and the Turks.” More than half the Syrian population is now uprooted, making this the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Damascus in April 2016 (Credit: Iad Tawil).

It all started as a nationwide unrest in 2011 that quickly escalated into a full-blown war in 2012, reaching its pinnacle in December 2012. As the war edged closer to the capital Damascus, it prompted a three-day closure of Damascus International Airport for the first and only time in the now 5-year-old conflict. It was then that refugees started fleeing to areas of safety.

As the army secured the area around the airport and reopened it to the public after the heavy December 2012 clashes, international airlines had already abandoned Damascus Airport. While Western airlines stopped flying to Syria in late 2011, regional airlines were the last to withdraw their flights. Since 2013, only local airlines such as Syrian Air and Cham Wings have operated out of the airport, restricting their services to short-haul flights and destinations around the Middle East, due to international sanctions banning their flights to Europe and elsewhere.

Since 2014, Damascus has become relatively more secured, as the government strategically decided to retain control over populated cities. Most of the clashes were then relegated to rural and remote areas, where extremist groups like ISIL and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front dominated. In mid-2014, ISIL joined territory it had acquired in Syria with areas under its control in Iraq to form an Islamic caliphate. As the army focused more and more on protecting major cities, extremists captured smaller towns. By 2015, the Syrian army had recovered major cities such as Homs and Hama, while places such as Idlib and the historical town of Palmyra had fallen in the hands of terrorist groups.

Three cities have become relative safe havens during the Syrian war. Besides Sweida, the other two are the coastal cities of Tartous, where the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean Sea is located, and Latakia, about 50 kilometers north of Tartous. As a result of how the clashes have occurred, as well as their geographical distribution, 70 percent of the Syrian population is now in government areas, where people pursue as much of a normal life as possible.

The geographical division within Syria since 2014 has been more or less clearly demarcated into three zones, with government areas making up one zone ranging from Latakia and Tartous in the north, to the cities of Hama and Homs in the center, all the way to the capital Damascus and Sweida to the south. The second zone is made up of the entire east, which is held by ISIL. The third zone is where most battles are currently taking place. These are located in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, as well as the province of Deraa in the southwest of the country. Al Nusra Front controls most of these areas.

Interview with Middle East expert Paul Danahar

Paul Danahar was the BBC's Jerusalem burau chief from 2010 to 2013. In 2013, he released a book called "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." Walid El-Atrache sat down with Danahar to talk about the new Middle East, the Syrian conflict, and why the Arab Spring has failed (Image courtesy of Paul Danahar).

Despite Sweida’s relative stability, the province has not been incident-free. In the winter of 2013, an armed group, which had come from the neighboring province of Deraa and hidden in the mountains to the east of Sweida, was quickly quashed by the army after a battle that lasted several days. The rebels had been affiliated with Al Nusra Front. This battle came on the heels of several incidents of kidnapping that marred Sweida throughout 2012 and 2013. On several occasions, terrorists from rebel-held areas, mostly affiliated with Al Nusra Front, would go to Sweida and kidnap random individuals, in order to demand a ransom that they could use to finance their operations.

More recently, in June 2015, rebel groups from Deraa, led by Al Nusra Front, launched an attack on the Al Thaaleh military air base, just 15 kilometers to the west of Sweida. After a fierce four-day battle against locals, aided by the Syrian army, the rebels retreated to Deraa. Dozens were either killed or injured. The attempt to capture the air base would have been a strategic move for rebels, and this was the closest they ever got to the city of Sweida. As a means of self-protection, everyone in villages and towns in the west of the Sweida province and bordering the Deraa province has been supplied with weapons, to keep rebels at bay until the army is can intervene.

A safe, yet troubled haven

The effects of the war in government-controlled cities like Sweida are mostly felt through the economic crisis brought on by the political instability and the international sanctions against Syria, which affect people’s daily survival. Syria’s currency, the Syrian pound, has lost 10 times its value since 2011, when the exchange rate against the U.S. dollar was 50 Syrian pounds to one dollar. Now, it takes up to 500 Syrian pounds to buy one dollar.

As a result, inflation has increased fivefold for locally manufactured products, and tenfold for imported items, according to grocery store owner Qutaiba Besher. Grocery stores are making less money, and consumers are facing a hard time putting food on the table.

“Every time the exchange rate changes, we have to update our prices,” Besher said. “Sometimes, it is nearly impossible to stay abreast of the latest fluctuations, and we often end up losing money.” To minimize their losses, grocery stores like Besher’s have resorted to diversifying their products, and even providing new services like selling prepaid cell phone cards, or offering free delivery.

By comparison, salaries have only doubled in the same time, meaning that the purchasing power of Syrians has considerably dropped. People now have to work two or even three jobs to survive, putting a strain on the job market. A lot have chosen to leave by securing jobs overseas. The less fortunate had no option but to immigrate, either on their own expenses, or by risking their lives and becoming refugees abroad.

Cemetery outside the city of Sweida for martyrs of the Syrian War (Credit: Walid El-Atrache).

“The real tragic, cruel irony of Syria is, this is a nation of people that fell over themselves to help other refugees, and when it came for the world to help them, the world just said, ‘They will be all right in a camp somewhere on the border,’” said Danahar. “This is not a nation of refugees; these are modern, sophisticated, highly educated people with jobs, who are used to sending their kids to school. These are not people who have spent their lives buffeted by famine and catastrophe and war.”

Because most oil fields and natural gas reserves lie in areas that have been invaded by ISIL, energy sourcing has become a major challenge for the Syrian government. According to Sweida’s residents, electricity has gone from being available round-the-clock before the war to only a couple of hours at a time these days. Apart from an hour or two in the morning and the same again in the afternoon, power is only available at night. Even then, access to electricity varies and blackouts are common, as ISIL wages occasional attacks on power plants.

Most households now keep their own fuel-powered generators, but even then, the availability of fuel is unreliable. Vehicles sometimes line up for hours on end at gas stations just so drivers can fill up their tanks. To ensure everyone gets a fair share, fuel is now rationed and every vehicle with a Sweida plate number has a fuel quota. According to gas station owner Hashem Amer, the quota varies from 25 liters per week for private cars to 30 liters per week for taxis and pick-up trucks, which are often used for agriculture.

Diesel is another source of energy hit by the crisis. It is predominantly used for heating during the winter, when nighttime temperatures dip to below freezing. Before 2011, diesel was subsidized by the government. But the international sanctions on Syria and the control that ISIL has over many of Syria’s oil reservoirs, along with the sharp drop in the Syrian pound’s value, forced the authorities to raise prices. Those who could not afford diesel anymore have resorted to cutting trees at their own risk, because it is against the law.

A look at areas of control, death toll, and migration caused by the Syrian War between 2011 and 2016.

After five years of war, the signs of deforestation have started to emerge, with several 2000-year-old forests shrinking in size. This threatens disastrous ecological consequences, possibly worsening the drought that has affected the region since before the war erupted. The decade-long drought was believed to be a key precursor to the initial uprising in 2011. It had caused a rural exodus in the years leading up to the war, overpopulating cities in the process, which increased unemployment rates and forced many people into poverty.

“The deforestation taking place in Sweida is likely to have an immediate effect on the province’s humidity levels and rainfall,” said Nayef Snih, a Sweida-based agricultural engineer and environmental specialist. “The Levant is already in the midst of a long-term drought, which is a cyclical phenomenon, and this will most probably exacerbate the situation.” Snih added that these forests were crucial for air purification, by the process of photosynthesis, allowing trees to turn CO2 back into oxygen. The forests are mainly comprised of pine nut trees and the “baloot,” the Arabic word for a local species of chestnut trees. While growing new pine nut trees could take several decades, the “baloot” might take centuries to grow again. Experts estimate that some of the existing “baloot” trees in the province of Sweida date as far back to the Roman era, more than 2000 years ago.

A united front

Even though fighting is raging in several parts of the country, the war has also fostered a sense of community and unity among Syrians, as is the case in Sweida. The population of the province is predominantly Druze or Christian, and people often have to fend for themselves in the face of terrorist attacks by religious extremists. In areas close to the front lines, locals look after each other by volunteering in surveillance teams who take turns at night to watch over their neighborhoods and guarantee everyone’s safety. Not only do these volunteers fight for the province’s security, but they are also protecting the personal and religious freedoms that are either in jeopardy or long gone in rebel-held areas across Syria.

“What you’ll have is a gradual slowing down of fighting, because the Assad regime will take back most of the bits that they want,” said the BCC’s Danahar. “There may be areas that they just accept they are not going to get back. They may not get back the Kurdish areas; they may not get back immediately the areas that have ISIS holds.” But Syrians are mostly concerned about the aftermath of the war.

An aerial view of Sweida in winter (Credit: Walid El-Atrache).

“It’s the fact that people have changed that really concerns me,” said Damascus-based Rwida Kh. Zaki Alsawaf, who has been living in Damascus for four months, echoes the same sentiment. “The mentality of the people here has completely changed for the worse,” he said. “That’s the problem Syria is going to be facing after the war.”

As everyone scrambles to make a living, there has been a marked rise in corruption. Several centuries-old traditions and customs, such as the hospitality and the sense of community that prevail in Syrian society, are being put to the test in these difficult times. Even though the 2011 uprising called for more rights and freedom of expression, differences of opinion between Syrians these days often alienate relationships, or even cause the end of years-long friendships at times. Amira Fallouh, a Christian from Deraa, now residing in the United States, expressed her disappointment after several friends and acquaintances chose to cut ties with her simply due to opposing political views.

“We have lost contact because of the gap between their understanding of my rights as a minority and what I would like to see in Syria in the present and the future,” she said.

Others such as Zoubaida Alkadri, currently based in Michigan in the United States, blamed foreign countries that called for a change of government in Syria and supported the rebels. Alkadri said that change and democracy could not be achieved while women and children were abused because of religious laws, citing the conditions that people live under in areas held by ISIL and Al Nusra Front.

“Freedom and democracy are certainly not imposed by arming terrorists and insurgents, or by toppling the only secular government left in the Middle East,” she added. Camille Alexandre Otrakji, who resides in Montreal, Canada, questioned the West’s motives in the Middle East.

“After the destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and most recently, Syria, is it not time for the United States to have a serious discussion about those values it failed to promote and those interests it failed to protect with all those interventions?” he said. He added that between 2008 and 2011, Syria had a score of 60 on Gallup’s annual happiness index, a ranking that was comparable to regional democracies and U.S. allies such as Turkey and Israel. U.S.-based Rod Ghanem said that the best thing the United States could do was lifting the sanctions on the Syrian people.

“It is hard enough to live in a war-torn country,” he said. “The U.S. can win the hearts and minds of Syrians if it does not add more suffering to their devastated lives.” Diyana Al-Barouki, who now lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, expressed worry for all Syrians facing hardships on a daily basis, but chose to maintain a more optimistic outlook.

“Syria looks even more beautiful right now in spring and I hate it every time I have to leave this beautiful place behind,” she said. “It is and will always be my happy place.”