Conditions Deteriorate In Aleppo As Syrian Forces And Rebels Drop Bombs
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a glimpse now of life in Syria from the government-controlled side of the battle lines. Declan Walsh of The New York Times has been reporting from Syria. He's been in Damascus, where President Bashar al-Assad rules, and also in the divided city of Aleppo. He's on the line now from his base in Cairo. Hi, Declan.
DECLAN WALSH: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's it like to move around central Damascus right now?
WALSH: It's surprisingly OK at the moment. Damascus has escaped the worst of the violence over the last period. In Syria, there's been a cease-fire in place for the last couple of months. So although there is some violence in the Damascus suburbs, the city center has this surprising air of normality. Traffic is moving. Businesses are going. People are socializing at the weekend.
But once you scratch under the surface, very quickly you start to find people who are coming from other parts of the country, sometimes only 3 or 4 miles away, neighborhoods that have been ravaged by the conflict. And everybody has a story of someone they have lost, a house that has been destroyed, family members that have fled abroad. And you really get a sense of the enormity of the scale of human suffering this conflict has inflicted on Syrians five years on.
INSKEEP: Someone described to us Damascus as almost a refugee city. So many people have moved on. And then other people have moved in. That sounds like what you're describing here.
WALSH: That's right. It's a place very much in transit. You meet so many people. You stop them randomly in the street. And they'll say, I'm from Deir ez-Zor. I'm from Aleppo. I'm from another place. You know, they're living in makeshift circumstances. They're, you know, doing their best.
But in many cases, it's extremely difficult. People are living in very tough conditions. And for those who can afford it or for those who are desperate enough, they are sending certainly their young people to Europe on these very frought journeys across the Mediterranean, where many people have died in the last couple years.
INSKEEP: So what was it like then to go from Damascus, a good distance north through Syria, to the city of Aleppo, given that there are all these large patches of territory the government doesn't control?
WALSH: Well, in the government-held areas, it's extremely tightly secured. There are checkpoints everywhere in every major urban center and even a long lonely roads. In the approach to Aleppo city, it becomes more difficult. There is one single road that cuts through territory that is controlled on the one side by the Islamic State, on the other by opposition rebels.
And they sporadically attack that road, trying to cut off the lifeline to the government-held areas of Damascus. And then you reach Aleppo city itself. And the first thing that hits you are those quite iconic, I suppose in a very unfortunate way, scenes from Syria of devastation, of destroyed buildings, of apartment blocks that have fallen in on themselves.
INSKEEP: You in The New York Times used the phrase, war-weary roulette. What did you mean by that?
WALSH: So people on both sides face grave peril just in going about their daily business. The intensity of that danger depends on which side you're on. On the rebel side, it's arguably much worse. And the Syrian government is supported by Russia. Russian warplanes are bombing rebel positions, sometimes devastating entire neighborhoods. Most famously, last week - most notoriously, rather - the government was accused of bombing a hospital in which at least 55 people were killed. That hospital was supported by Doctors Without Borders.
On the government side though, there's also peril for people. The rebels are indiscriminately shelling in civilian neighborhoods. So when we were there, people are going about their daily lives. But every now and again, you hear a bomb. You hear an explosion. People say they have just become so inured to it that they've just decided to get on with their daily lives and effectively take their chances every time they walk out.
INSKEEP: When something especially awful happens on the rebel side, like the destruction of that hospital, do people on the government side of the lines there in Aleppo hear about it?
WALSH: They certainly hear about it. I mean, they have access to the Internet. So they know. But certainly in some neighborhoods, people's ability to sympathize what's going on across the line is limited by the fact that they are also coming under fire. And that's mainly what's worrying them. But, you know, when you speak to some people quietly, they do tell you that they just are appalled by the suffering on both sides and the way that both sides of the conflicts appear to be targeting civilians as a way to inflict military pressure.
INSKEEP: On the ground level, do you detect any confidence among people that this is going to work out or end in any positive way ever?
WALSH: Not right now, I'm afraid. You know, the peace talks that are going on in Geneva and other negotiations that may be taking place in Russia or in America - many people I spoke to, they seem to be vaguely aware of them. They were certainly grateful to some degree that the cease-fire had taken place. But generally, people are quite cynical.
Five years of war has really ground down people's hope. This conflict has become so complicated. There are so many foreign players involved, which people are constantly talking about - not just America and Russia, but also Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey - that, you know, people's ability to see a way out of this has become extremely diminished. And that's one of the toughest things about the Syrian war, is that the people who are suffering in it don't see an easy way out.
INSKEEP: Amid all the destruction, is the picture of Bashar al-Assad still everywhere as it has been in the past?
WALSH: It is incredible. And everywhere across the country in the government-held areas, you see Mr. Assad's picture. When he came to power, he initially said that he did not want his picture to be ubiquitous in the same manner as it had been for his father, Hafez al-Assad, when he was in power. But as things have gotten worse, Mr. Assad appears, certainly judging from the pictures, to be intent on imposing his authority, letting people know that he's in charge.
And one way of doing that is through these pictures of himself that you see on almost every major junction and often, these days, in conjunction with the leaders of other groups and countries that have supported him, particularly Hassan Nasrallah from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, and sometimes even with Vladimir Putin of Russia.
INSKEEP: Do people still support Assad?
WALSH: That is a difficult question to answer when you're on the government side. There are many people who have huge reservations about what's going on. But it really depends who you're speaking to. Minorities in Syria feel very embattled - Christians, Armenians that I've spoke to in Aleppo and so on.
So while, you know, this war did not start out necessarily as a sectarian war, certainly sectarian tensions have been deepened as the war has gotten more intractable. And that has changed the way people react.
INSKEEP: Will you leave us with one more image, Declan Walsh? The Old City of Aleppo, parts of it I believe are officially a World Heritage site. It's an ancient city. What shape is it in now?
WALSH: It's completely deserted. It's a frontline area between the two sides. The Umayyad Mosque, which is an absolutely stunning piece of Islamic architecture, lies in ruins. And the World Heritage center is a labyrinth of deserted alleyways, where fighters are jostling for position and trying to adjust front lines that they've been unable to move for the last number of years.
INSKEEP: Declan Walsh of The New York Times, thanks very much.
WALSH: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Walsh is back at his base in Cairo, Egypt. He had received a visa to report from Damascus and Aleppo, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.