Syrian businessmen start from scratch after their shops and factories were destroyed. Families who lost their homes struggle to rent new dwellings and make ends meet. Along highways stretching through government-controlled areas are the bombed ruins of once-rebellious towns, now dotted with checkpoints.
Government-controlled Syria is truncated in size, battered and impoverished. But it carries on, underscoring how Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has clung to power, despite an armed rebellion to uproot him, now well into its fourth year.
Visits the past week to the capital, Damascus, and the coastal region of Tartous, a stronghold of government support, show how Syrians have adjusted to life in this reduced country. Thick barriers surround government buildings, painted in the red, black and white of the Syrian flag. Assad’s portrait is everywhere: as a soldier, a businessman and a father.
After years of brutal back and forth, the government rules over Damascus and a sweep of territory west to the Mediterranean coastal region that includes Syria’s biggest cities, along with some parts south of the capital. Rebels hold some suburbs in the countryside around Damascus and parts of the northwest. The extremist Islamic State group has imposed its rule over territory encompassing a third of both Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The war constantly intrudes. The persistent thud of bombings of nearby rebel-held areas is the soundtrack of Damascus.
Checkpoints dot roads, often concrete shacks spruced up with posters of Assad cut into heart shapes. Soldiers rest on faded couches.
“Got any cigarettes, sir?” one soldier hopefully asks a driver.
Local pro-government militias also guard towns and neighborhoods, aiding Assad’s stretched army.
Mustachioed men with assault rifles peer into cars at the entrance of the historic Bab Touma area of Damascus. The majority Christian district is a favorite target for mortars from the nearby rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar. Anti-Assad activists accuse some pro-government militias of being more brutal than soldiers, and say they demand bribes and steal cars.
Leaving Damascus, the highway is well-paved, including a strip of freshly asphalted road. Nearby stands part of the smashed remains of the town of Nabak, whose residents rebelled against Assad early in the uprising. The yellow Ferris wheel in Nabak’s amusement park is faded.
Graffiti nearby reads “Assad for eternity.” Another reads: “I love you Lulu.”
It’s unclear how many Syrians live in rebel- and government-controlled areas, given the demographic upheaval in a country where nearly half of the population has fled their homes. Areas once dominated by Assad-loyal minorities, like the Alawite-dominated coastal region of Tartous, have seen their communities change character as they host some 350,000 displaced people, mostly Sunni Muslims.
That ultimately will have a longer-term effect: It will be difficult for Assad’s government to carve out an Alawite bastion, as some critics suggest he is doing — and which government officials deny.