Dawn breaks to a daily chorus of artillery and mortar fire in two of humanity’s most ancient settlements that today are Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Projectiles rain on their rural peripheries, where opposition groups still fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad shelter in tunnels below mountains of rubble. Muezzins wake the faithful to prayer, and warplanes deliver the day’s first payloads just after 5:00 AM. The rebels respond with desultory mortar rounds fired at cities they once dreamed of ruling. In Damascus, their shells explode in the Christian neighborhoods closest to the eastern front lines. In Aleppo, artillery batters opposition bases along the western frontier with Idlib province. Both cities’ exhausted citizens have cause to fear for their country’s uncertain future.
I happened to arrive in Damascus, after an interval of four months, on March 19—a few hours after insurgents launched a large-scale assault to break into the city from the eastern suburbs. They emerged from underground caves, smashed through army checkpoints with suicide bomb vehicles, and seized buildings between two besieged districts, Jobar and Qaboun. This happened within sight of the Christian neighborhoods surrounding Abaseen Square. It took the army more than a day to drive them back. Some Damascenes doubted their government’s ability to defend them, and many feared a massacre of minorities. When the battle ended, the lines were back where they had been. The regular pattern of artillery exchanges and aerial sorties resumed. Citizens continued what passed for normal life in wartime, going to work and school to the sounds of violence on the outskirts.
Inside the walls of the old city, the narrow streets around my Ottoman-era hotel sounded like a steel mill. First came the heavy presses, pounding up and down, metal smashing metal, shaking the ground: outgoing artillery from the border separating the old city from Jobar. Then the rumble of turbines, furnace doors screeching open, and flames gushing forth: Syrian air force planes soaring low over the no-man’s-land between the old city and Jobar to strike tunnels and mortar launchers. Finally the staccato of jackhammers breaking ground with relentless fury: jeep-mounted .45-caliber heavy machine guns and old Dushka 12.7- millimeter antiaircraft weapons. Occasionally, something like a compressor rumbled the houses of the old city and splattered shards into the walls: mortar rounds from Jobar, the response of weakened warriors repaying their enemies for keeping them down.
At breakfast one morning, the hotel roof rattled as if a ton of lead had fallen on it. I was about to seek cover, when I looked up. Two cats were fighting on the roof, whose clear plastic sheeting amplified their footsteps. The war seemed to affect even the animal population.
A friend of mine, who has longed for a change of regime since the March 2011 protests in Daraa sparked the conflict, has abandoned hope. “I don’t care how they end it,” he said, “just so they end it.” Ending it was already difficult, but the early April chemical attack that killed more than eighty civilians in Khan Shaykhun, a rebel-held village in Idlib province in the country’s northwest, and the American missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield in retaliation are rendering the difficult impossible.
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