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Picking up the pieces: How Syrian society has changed

category mashriq / arabia / iraq | imperialism / war | non-anarchist press author Wednesday September 26, 2018 13:53author by Synaps Network Report this post to the editors

Syria’s war has transformed the country in both shattering and subtle ways. While many evolutions are for the worse, others inspire cautious optimism: Syrians have shown relentless ingenuity in adapting to every stage of a horrendous conflict, salvaging remnants of dignity, solidarity and vitality amid nightmarish circumstances.

They have generally done so on their own terms, grappling with changes ignored by virtually everyone who claims to help or represent them. These transformations are far removed from peace talks and power politics, and rarely considered in aid efforts. They apparently elude the growing pool of outsiders able to visit Syria, who often remark that things are more “normal” than they thought: Damascene cafes are filled with people, shops have begun to reopen in Aleppo, and officials of varying nationalities buzz with over-optimistic plans for the future.

Indeed, Syrian society has been reshaped in ways that will take time to discern. A thorough reassessment is in order if we are to grasp even the most basic realities of Syria as it continues to exist and evolve today. In gauging the magnitude of these changes, accounts from ordinary Syrians provide the most powerful guide.

No country for young men

The decimation of Syria’s male population represents, arguably, the most fundamental shift in the country’s social fabric. As a generation of men has been pared down by death, disability, forced displacement and disappearance, those who remain have largely been sucked into a violent and corrupting system centered around armed factions.

An Alawi family in a coastal village provides a window into the ravaged state of Syria’s male population, even in territory that has remained firmly under government control. Of three brothers, one was killed in battle, a second paralyzed by a bullet to the spine, and a third—an underpaid, 30-year-old civil servant—lives in fear of conscription. Their mother summed up her plight:

We’re tired of war. I gave one martyr, and another son is half-dead. The youngest might be drafted at any moment. I hope for god to end this war; the graveyards are filled with young men.

Their story is typical in their 3,000-person village, which in turn reflects realities across many communities socioeconomically bound up with the military and security apparatus. By the family’s own estimate, matching the information provided by an NGO director active in the area, 80 of the village’s men have been killed and 130 wounded—amounting to a third of the male population aged 18-50. The remaining two-thirds have overwhelmingly been absorbed into the army or militias.

The violence that has consumed so many lives has also generated indispensable sources of income. Within this particular family, the paralyzed brother relies on his veteran’s pension of roughly 60 dollars per month. (All dollar figures are approximate, rounding off to an exchange rate of 500 Syrian pounds to the dollar.) His brother’s widow receives a monthly allowance equivalent to 35 dollars, doled out by the militia for whom he was fighting when killed in battle. Such stipends, however, are far from adequate, and other family members need to spread themselves thin to make ends meet. The 65-year-old father—himself an army veteran—said despondently: “With one son martyred and another broken, my healthy son and I work day and night to feed the family.”

A similar malaise has taken root in areas formerly controlled by opposition factions, and since retaken by pro-Assad forces. While many young men have been killed or forced to flee, those who remain face powerful incentives to cast their lot in with regime-aligned armed groups. Doing so offers the chance to safeguard oneself while earning a living – providing an alternative to conscription into the regular army, which combines dismal pay with the mortal risk of deployment to faraway frontlines.

The eastern half of Aleppo city exemplifies this trend. Devastated by years of government siege and bombardment, it has been left with minimal services, a ravaged economy and the grinding insecurity caused by unregulated militia activity. “If you want to protect yourself and your family, you join a militia,” remarked a middle-aged man in the Jazmati neighborhood. “The area is infested with crime associated with the National Defense militias. Each group has control over a certain quarter, and they sometimes fight each other over the distribution of spoils. Shop owners must pay these militias protection. One owner refused, and they torched his store.”

Against this backdrop, bearing arms carries a natural appeal. A man in the Masakin Hanano neighborhood described this dynamic:

The young people who stayed in East Aleppo have joined militias, which provide solutions to some of the worst problems we face. Fighters get a decent salary, but also other perks—for instance more amps from private generators, because electricity vendors will reduce the price if they know they are dealing with a militiaman.

Another resident of the same area explained that he and his family could scrape by thanks to his two sons’ positioning in the Iran-backed Baqir Brigade—which provides not only monthly salaries, but also opportunities to procure household items through looting.

Across Syria, young men wishing to evade conscription—whether into the regular army or militias—face scant alternatives. Most who can afford to leave the country do so; others benefit from an exemption afforded to university students, while another subset enjoys a reprieve due to their status as the sole male of their generation in their nuclear family. Others may pay exorbitant bribes to skirt the draft, or confine themselves within their homes to avoid being detected—making them invisible both to the army and to broader society. Some endure multiple such ordeals, only to remain in an indefinite state of limbo due to the contingent and precarious nature of these solutions. A man in his late thirties recounted his experience after loyalist forces reclaimed his hometown in the Damascus suburbs in 2016:

I faced two choices: Either pay 3 to 4,000 dollars to be smuggled out to Turkey or Lebanon, or join the army or one of the militias. There were about nine such factions in my city, led by young people connected to the security services. For men not wishing to fight, there’s a tacit agreement that the head of any faction can register you as a fighter and simply leave you to live your life. In exchange, you pay that commander a one-time bribe ranging from 250,000 to one million Syrian pounds [500 to 2,000 dollars], in addition to your monthly militia salary and sometimes a further monthly sum of up to 50,000 pounds [100 dollars].

In my case, the costs of being smuggled out were too high—plus I have a wife and children here. So, I spent more than 500,000 pounds [1,000 dollars] to arrange things with a faction. By simple bad luck, that faction was dissolved, and I lost both my money and my freedom of movement. I’m confined to my house, dependent on savings and help from family. I don’t know what to do.

In other words, even the diminishing cohort of young men who stayed alive and in Syria will long bear scars of their own—if not from the trauma of joining militias, then from the desperate measures taken to avoid doing so.

Inevitably, the devastation of Syria’s male work force will beset efforts to restart the country’s economy. An industrialist in Aleppo put it simply: “I talk with factory owners and they say they want to reopen their factories, but they can’t find male workers. When they do find them, security services or militiamen come and arrest those workers and extort money from the owners for having hired them in the first place.” With no large scale returns on the horizon for local industries, this economic impasse will take years to resolve.

Politically, the war has crippled the very generation of young people that spearheaded Syria’s uprising. Those who remain in Syria have mostly been bludgeoned into submission—or indeed forcibly conscripted into the very apparatus of power against which they rose in the first place. The result is a grim paradox: Although virtually every problem that sparked Syria’s 2011 uprising has been exacerbated, society has been beaten down to the point of almost ensuring that no broad-based reformist movement will be able to coalesce for a generation to come.

Economies of cannibalization
The desperate circumstances facing Syria’s young men feed into and are reinforced by a second fundamental transformation: namely the unraveling of Syria’s productive economy, and its replacement by an economy of systematic cannibalization in which impoverished segments of Syrian society increasingly survive by preying upon one another.

The most visible manifestation of this new economy is a culture of looting so developed and entrenched that Syrian vernacular has incorporated a new term—taafeesh—to describe a practice that goes far beyond stealing furniture to include extremes such as stripping houses, streets and factories of plumbing and electrical wiring.

A recent and particularly spectacular example of such systematic looting came with the return of pro-Assad forces to Yarmouk, a sprawling Palestinian camp south of Damascus, in April 2018. Yarmouk’s fall unleashed a wave of plunder that remained in full force as of June, and which will leave the urban landscape almost irreparably scarred. The scale of predation was such that even some pro-Assad militiamen expressed shock, not least because their own properties proved targets for other factions. “I watched uniformed soldiers using a Syrian army tank to rip out electrical cables from six meters underground,” remarked a fighter with a loyalist Palestinian faction, who was scrambling to retrieve belongings from his apartment before it could be pillaged. “I saw soldiers from elite units looting private hospitals and government offices. This isn’t just looting—it’s sabotage of essential infrastructure.”

Desperate residents reported ruining their own property simply to prevent profiteering by armed groups. One such individual explained:

I returned to my apartment just to retrieve official documents and some hidden pieces of gold. I did so, and then destroyed my own furniture and appliances because I don’t want these people making money at my expense. I was ready to burn down my own apartment, but my wife stopped me—she didn’t want me to cause harm to other apartments in the building.

As this scourge spread across Syria, the spoils have created micro-economies in their own right—from the recycling of rubble to the proliferation of taafeesh markets, where people buy second-hand goods stolen from fellow Syrians. Many have no choice but to use these markets in order to replace their own stolen belongings. A civil servant explained the process of moving back to his home city of Deir Ezzor after two years of displacement in Damascus:

In October 2017, I was ordered back to Deir Ezzor to resume my work for the government. I was shocked to find my apartment building demolished. Everything in it was stolen. My brother helped me find a simple one-bedroom, and bought me some looted goods to furnish it. The people of Deir Ezzor have lost twice: First we lost our kitchen supplies, beds, everything—and then we felt that we lost again, by purchasing looted goods.

In more ways than one, displaced Syrians seeking to return home must navigate a convoluted and costly process of buying back into their own neighborhoods. Beyond the direct costs incurred by damage and theft, such individuals face predation ranging from informal tolls at checkpoints to extortionist fees imposed by various branches of the state, including for nonexistent basic services. An elderly textiles trader in Aleppo’s old city ticked off these costs:

I spent three million Syrian pounds [6,000 dollars] to reopen my damaged shop. On top of that, government agencies demanded that I pay bills for water and electricity—plus taxes on profits—from 2013 through 2017. I argued that my shop was closed, that I was making no money and using no electricity or water—but was forced to pay anyway. I then spent seven million pounds [13,500 dollars] buying new textiles, because my shop had been completely looted.

So, in total, I spent ten million pounds [20,000 dollars] to open my shop. I now make about [6 to 8 dollars] in profit daily, which barely covers food, electricity, water, and taxes. But it’s still better to spend my days in the market rather than sitting at home, thinking too much and getting heart disease.

Syrians also dip into precious resources to pay officials for information, for instance on disappeared relatives or their own status on Syria’s sprawling lists of “wanted” individuals. For those wishing to confirm that they won’t be detained upon crossing the border to Lebanon, the going rate is about 10 dollars—most often paid to an employee in the Department of Migration and Passports.

While much of Syria’s predatory economy is linked directly to violence, the war has spawned countless, subtler forms of predation that will endure and evolve for years to come. This cannibalistic economy, which encompasses all those who have come to rely on extortion for their own livelihoods, extends to the cohort of lawyers, security officials and civil servants who have positioned themselves as “brokers” in the market for official documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates. Untold numbers of Syrians have passed through pivotal life events while in territory outside government control; in order to avoid legal purgatory both inside and outside Syria, they often pay exorbitant sums to intermediaries to facilitate documentation. A Damascus-based lawyer explained how this growth industry has transformed his own profession:

Today, even the most senior lawyers in our practice are working as document brokers. A well-connected broker makes 30 to 40,000 pounds [60 to 80 dollars] per day; this roughly equals the monthly salary of a university-educated civil servant. As a result, many government employees resign and work as brokers to make more money.

And this truly is a business, not a charity: Every broker takes money, even from his own brothers and sisters. Last week a colleague brought me his brother-in-law. I asked him why he needed me, when he could make all the papers himself. He explained that he can’t take money from his own brother-in-law, but I can do so and then give him half.

These cannibalistic dynamics are all the more pernicious for their self-perpetuating quality. Multiplying forms of predation have accelerated the outflow of Syria’s financial and human capital, leaving behind a country largely populated by an underclass that can aspire to little more than subsistence. The demands of survival, in turn, push growing numbers of ordinary Syrians into the vicious circle of predatory industries—if not as predators themselves, then as second-order beneficiaries of predation, through purchasing or receiving looted goods, reliance on extortion-based income of relatives, and so on. In other words, Syria’s predatory wartime economy is slowly but surely turning into a predatory economy of peace.

Walls of fear and fatigue
A less conspicuous but no less profound shift lies in the degree to which Syrian society has been forced into psychological submission after a period of revolutionary awakening. As some Syrians put it, Damascus has been particularly effective in reconstructing one thing amidst the immeasurable destruction: the “wall of fear” which characterized the regime before 2011 and which momentarily broke down at the outset of the uprising.

This transformation relates, obviously, to the resurgence of Syria’s security state across swathes of the country from which it had temporarily retreated. Areas that once overflowed with revolutionary activism have been brought back under the watchful eye of Syria’s political police, or mukhabarat, leaving many afraid to speak openly outside the seclusion of their homes. A researcher from Homs described the weight of this pressure in her home city:

I have a friend who was doing research with a licensed NGO, asking questions in the street. She was pregnant. Security came and took her—no questions asked, they just took her. She was detained overnight and they let her out in the morning—only because she was pregnant.

However, active surveillance, intimidation and repression are not the only contributors to this leaden atmosphere. A pervasive exhaustion has settled over Syrians ground down and immiserated by war, disillusioned with all those who purport to lead or protect them, and largely reduced to striving for day-to-day subsistence. The same researcher from Homs went on:

In 2011, everyone talked politics—even those who didn’t know anything about politics. Today they don’t talk politics anymore, because it doesn’t matter to them. They want to live. They spend their energy trying to find enough to eat, or trying to get their relatives out of prison.

A North African analyst who lived and worked for decades in Damascus echoed the point, describing his current interactions with friends in and around the capital: “People are lost, frustrated to the extent they don’t care about daily events. Even loyalists will say outright: We don’t know where we are going. Nobody sees a future.”

Pulling apart
Just as Syrian society has been beaten down, so too has it been broken apart. As communities settled into the grinding routine of war or exile, they retreated into discrete groups that now know little or nothing about one another—despite often having much in common.

At one level, the war has wrenched open social and economic fractures that existed long before the conflict. The city of Homs stands as perhaps the starkest microcosm of this trend. A Sunni majority city with sizable Christian and Alawi minorities, Homs was the first major urban center to rise up and the first to devolve into bitter sectarian bloodletting. Almost four years after being reconquered by loyalist forces, Homs’ communal divisions remain brutally clear—coloring everything from ordinary social interactions to patterns of rebuilding and civic work. An NGO worker described how Homs’ charitable sphere has become shaped by such divisions: “Charities were not intrinsically sectarian, but the war made them so. People aren’t comfortable working outside their areas.”

In Homs, as across Syria, communal divisions are intimately bound up with the divide between those deemed with the regime and those against it—a binary that is both inadequate and inescapable, having marked whole families, neighbourhoods, towns and cities in ways that will reverberate for decades. While Homs’ Sunni majority overwhelmingly cast its lot with the revolution, the city’s Alawi minority was quick to mobilise against what it perceived as an existential threat. Now, with Damascus resurgent, communal boundaries assume new salience, pitting victor against vanquished.

A man from an Alawi neighborhood in Homs grumbled about even the paltry rehabilitation efforts underway in the city’s Sunni areas: “I don’t know why our government is allowing these reconstruction projects. They should be in our neighborhoods, to thank the families who sacrificed their sons.” While vast swathes of Syria’s Sunni population feel silenced and brutalized, Alawi communities often carry their own narrative of victimhood, which blends legitimate grievances with vindictive impulses vis-à-vis Sunnis whom they regard as having betrayed the country. Sunnis, for their part, frequently express the opposing viewpoint—namely that Alawi neighborhoods have prospered through war profiteering. “Loyalist areas have benefited enormously,” remarked a Sunni merchant in the city. “They’ve become like mini-states run by shabbiha [loyalist thugs]. Even security forces don’t dare to enter an area like [the underclass Alawi neighborhood of] Muhajireen. It’s terrifying, and I don’t think it will go back to normal anytime soon.”

Homs moreover exemplifies the widening chasm between Syria’s rich and poor—a reality that helped lay the groundwork for the uprising and which today has reached unprecedented proportions, with a narrow clique cashing in on the war economy while the majority descends into poverty. A local Sunni trader summed up the situation:

War has ruined commercial activity here. Many respectable traders have emigrated or been killed. Most of those still around are afraid to return to work. You do see some who succeed—by being close to security services, informing on young people with opposition affiliations, or taking huge sums of money from families trying to secure the release of detained children. Those are the businessmen who manage to thrive.

Further divisions across Syria are less visible but no less insidious, flowing from seven years of a brutal, messy war. Indeed, crude divisions based on sect or class fail to describe a complex and fluid landscape. Some fault lines are less dramatic, all but imperceptible except to those who experience them first-hand. Neighbors, colleagues, friends and kin may have come down on opposing sides, despite having every social marker in common. Each part of the country has its own web of tragic events to untangle.

Indeed, the conflict has generated an enormous backlog of resentment which may have been suppressed for now, but will not soon be forgotten. A teacher in Raqqa, for example, voiced a grim perspective on the enduring rifts left by the Islamic State’s rule in that city:

Many Islamic State fighters swapped clothes and joined the [Kurdish-led] Syrian Democratic Forces to protect themselves and their families. But they haven’t changed; those people are bad, and will always be bad. There will be vengeance. Not now, while everyone is busy putting their lives together. But eventually, everyone who suffered under ISIS, whose brother was killed by ISIS, will take revenge.

The legacy of violence is exacerbated by cutthroat competition over meagre resources, generating yet another source of simmering discontent. In Damascus, subtle gradations have emerged between the original inhabitants and a mosaic of displaced communities, who all contend for employment and charitable handouts. A displaced woman from Deir Ezzor explained her guilt at taking jobs from individuals known colloquially as nazihin—Syrians who were displaced, in 1973, by the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, and who have for decades occupied lowly positions within Syria’s social hierarchy:

I work for a woman who used to hire her cleaning lady from the Wafideen Camp [populated by nazihin], but she got old and started breaking things. She told me I’m younger and better suited to the position. Another woman used to hire someone also from Wafideen, but she no longer sees them as displaced. She feels that newly displaced, like me, deserve more.

Similar anecdotes are commonplace among those struggling to survive in and around the capital. A woman from rural Aleppo described her experience changing places within Damascus’ hierarchy of deprivation: “We came to Damascus a year ago, and signed up for assistance with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. They gave us three blankets, a mattress, and eventually three food baskets. But now they’ve stopped, saying they can’t give us anything anymore—now it’s the turn of people from Ghouta.” A woman from Deraa pointed the finger elsewhere: “People from Deir Ezzor are taking all the food baskets. They’re very good at convincing charity workers to help them.” Needy locals, for their part, often feel overlooked. A native of a Damascus suburb remarked: “Charities typically want to help those who fled from elsewhere. So, when I go to a charity, I say I’m displaced.”

While less poisonous than the schism between those who lined up on opposite sides of the war, such divisions nonetheless capture the extent to which violence has broken Syria down into its constituent parts. And the list goes on: The divide between conservative and more secular Sunnis has calcified, manifesting itself even in differential treatment at checkpoints. “I have an easier time driving around because I don’t wear the hijab,” remarked a woman from the Damascus suburbs. “If you veil, security assumes you’re with the opposition.” Splits between Syrians inside and outside the country, between urban and rural communities, and between the capital and the periphery have deepened, too—with the former groups often blaming the latter for the uprising and ensuing destruction.

This fragmentation seems to give rise to a growing array of Western-funded “dialogue” efforts—between one communal group and another, between host communities and the displaced, between state institutions and opposition actors. While dialogue is sorely needed, some Syrians warn against emphasising dialogue for its own sake—even at the cost of burying the most substantive issues at stake. A businessman from Damascus described his own abortive experience with talks proposing to link disparate elements of Syria’s private sector: “There’s this whole industry around ‘mediation,’ including between sides that don’t actually disagree on anything. Meanwhile, all the problems that caused the uprising have gotten worse.”

The risk of papering over Syria’s worst ills is all the more acute at a time when Damascus is increasingly able to impose its version of events nationwide—empowering the country’s most aggressive loyalists while silencing both those who oppose it and those who, ambivalent, stand somewhere in between.

Holding together
Given the magnitude of Syria’s disintegration, it is all the more striking to note the ingenuity with which ordinary Syrians continue to muddle through—relying on a mixture of grit, patience and lifesaving forms of solidarity.

For many, this amounts to simply waiting and enduring for as long as it takes until they can restart their lives in earnest.

A government-employed teacher in Deir Ezzor described a typical experience of returning to the city, after several years of displacement in Hasakah province:

I was happy to find my apartment intact—it’s been entirely looted, but at least it has walls and a roof. I need about two million pounds [4,000 dollars] to fix it. I have some savings, and my son is a physician in Saudi Arabia, so he’s going to send me the funds I need for the apartment and to pay for a way out of conscription into a Kurdish militia for my other sons.

Life in Deir Ezzor isn’t good. There are no basic services whatsoever. But at least I have my apartment, and I expect in a few months the government will bring back water and electricity, and next year some schools will open. I’m tired of being displaced. I want to rest in my own community. Here I can go to the coffee shop and meet my friends, smoke argileh and drink tea and play cards every day.

Often, the ever-changing circumstances demand a high degree of adaptability simply in order to survive. Another, less optimistic native of Deir Ezzor explained the lengths to which he has gone to maintain his job in a state-run health clinic while allowing his family to continue living in the relative safety of displacement in Damascus:

Three months ago, I was required to come back to Deir Ezzor to resume work, or lose my job. But I have three teenaged daughters and two sons, and I’m afraid to bring them with me because of the militias and criminal gangs. The city has become a place for shabbiha, not for civilians. So, I stay with my brother in Deir Ezzor one week every month, and spend three weeks in Damascus with my family. I used to own a two-story house and a big pharmacy in Deir Ezzor; both have been destroyed.

My government salary pays about 45,000 pounds [85 dollars] per month, which is only enough to cover my rent in Damascus. I make another 60,000 pounds [120 dollars] per month working long hours in a private pharmacy. Just traveling to and from Deir Ezzor costs more than my government salary—about 45 to 50,000 pounds [90-100 dollars] per trip.

Just as Syrians are forced to be more self-reliant, they have also come to depend evermore on vital social support structures. Indeed, extreme circumstances have created a paradox: Even as society has splintered in countless ways, the scale of deprivation arguably renders Syrians more closely interdependent than ever before.

Perhaps the most fundamental and ubiquitous support mechanism is remittances from relatives who live abroad. A displaced woman from Homs, now in Damascus, explained how aid from her family allows her to survive:

I worked as a live-in maid with an old woman, and got an advance payment so my husband could open a small shop. My husband then had a stroke, so I left my work and took over the shop. But between rent, bills, food, treatment for my husband and school for my daughter, I spend more than I make. I have three sisters—two in the Gulf and one in Homs—who are in a better situation than me, so they send me a monthly allowance.

Other forms of support are more organized, but no less genuine—flowing not from any financial or political interest but rather from the simple urge to help one another. Such grassroots efforts are often triggered by immediate, urgent needs, and hinge on goodwill from locals who can afford it. A retired army officer living in the Damascus suburbs described how he and a group of friends decided to take action outside of any formal relief initiatives:

In 2013, huge numbers of displaced people came to our town in need of shelter and food. Some people gave them food and blankets, or found empty apartments, shops and schools for them to sleep in. Myself and six friends started discussing how we could gather donations. We went around town asking residents to donate whatever extra food, blankets or cash they had. Some volunteered to make hot meals. Doctors offered to check on the displaced, while pharmacists provided free medicine.

We visited the industrial zone and asked factory owners to give materials to equip a shelter. Some garment factories agreed to donate clothes twice a year, while food factories provided basic foodstuffs on a monthly basis. We also get cash from Syrian expatriates.

Such informal methods of support have deep roots within Syrian society. The country’s middle and upper classes have long extended vital forms of solidarity to their needier compatriots, with Syria’s merchant and religious networks playing a leading role. What is unique, today, is the scale of hardship across the country, which is so vast as to have changed the way that Syrians conceptualize the act of receiving charity. A businessman from central Syria noted the extent to which dependency, which once demanded some degree of discretion, has become a straightforward fact of life. “People used to hide it when they were reliant on charity. Not anymore. Today you might hear workers in a factory wondering, ‘Where is the manager?’ And someone will say that he’s out waiting for his food basket. The whole country is living on handouts.”

As needs have skyrocketed, ordinary Syrians have risen collectively to meet seemingly insurmountable challenges—a feat which, for this businessman, suggests a silver lining:

People still do charity the Islamic way, based on the premise that you must assist those closest to you. If there’s someone you should help—say, a neighbor—but you’re unable, then it’s your responsibility to find someone else who can. These circles remain very much intact, and the entire society lives on this. Seven years of war didn’t destroy that aspect of Syrian culture, and that’s something Syrians are proud of.

* * *
Syria’s war is moving toward a conclusion without any sense of closure. As large-scale violence subsides, essential questions will remain unanswered: How many were killed? By whom, and for what reason? Countless tragedies will remain obscured by competing narratives, evidence that has been destroyed, and the sheer scale of the country’s devastation.

Other questions have long been exhausted, and yet spur an endless and pointless cycle of commentary. The regime has won, on the maximalist terms it laid out from the beginning, and with no appetite for compromise moving forward. In the wake of its victory, Damascus’ allies will not rebuild the country. Nor, however, will Western states, which will continue to offer humanitarian support while balking at the notion of bankrolling a fully-fledged, Assad-led reconstruction. There will be no nationwide recovery, no serious reform, no meaningful reconciliation for the foreseeable future.

But that does not mean there are no questions worth asking. Rather, the most pressing issues are those too often overlooked as the wider world focuses on geopolitics and hollow peace processes. They relate to how Syrian society has struggled, transformed and, ultimately, survived—what Syria has become, how Syrians organize, and what they need to create a future for themselves. Answers won’t be found in Geneva, Astana or the corridors of power in Damascus. They will be whispered by people on the ground.

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