Syria’s Thriving Elites
At the Dama Rose Hotel, the young elite parties hard—despite the signs of war. (Kate Brooks for Newsweek)
On the seventh floor of the hospital, Maj. Firas Jabr lies in a hospital bed, his anxious fiancée standing attentively nearby. His right leg and right arm have been blown off.
At the end of May, the 30-year-old Alawite soldier fought the rebels during a battle in Homs; he says he was ambushed by “foreign fighters,” including men from Lebanon and Yemen. “After I lost my leg and hand, I knew I was wounded, but I kept on shooting until [government forces] came to evacuate me,” says Jabr.
His favorite story, he says, is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. “This is Camelot,” he says. “Assad is King Arthur, and I am a knight.” Despite the fact that much of his body is gone, Jabr has a huge smile on his face. Like nearly all the Assad supporters I meet, Jabr says he believes in the Syrian dictator, and he will continue to fight, he says, once he gets his prosthetics. “I have two loves,” he tells me, trying to lift himself up: “My fiancée and Syria.”
It’s a common belief among the elite that the bombs and chaos spreading throughout the country are caused by a “third element”: an influx of foreign fighters with radical Salafist beliefs who want to turn Syria into an oppressive and conservative state. After one car bombing during my stay in Damascus, the paranoia of the regime supporters was suddenly on full view. “Our only friend is Russia!” one well-dressed man shouted, his face contorted with rage, at the site of the bombing that left the smoking skeleton of a car but injured no one. “These are foreigners that are exploding our country! Syria is for Syrians!”
Maria Saadeh, a political novice who was recently elected to Parliament, is among those who doesn’t believe Assad or his cronies are behind any atrocities, despite mounting evidence of regime forces massacring civilians in Houla and destroying the Baba Amr district in Homs. “Do you think our president could put down his own people?” she asks incredulously. “This is the work of foreign fighters. They want to change our culture.”
Educated in France and Syria as a restoration architect, Saadeh lives in Star Square in the old French section of Damascus, in an elegant 1920s building that she helped renovate. Sitting on the roof terrace of her chic apartment—a Filipina maid serving tea and her two children, Perla and Roland, peeking their heads through the windows—she looks like a model in a lifestyle magazine: tall and blonde and successful, a yuppie member of the elite. When I ask her about regime change, she simply says, “Now is not the time.”
One night, over dinner with an affluent family in its villa in Mezzah, which has several terraces and elaborate shrubbery in the garden, the 17-year-old son lays out his firmly pro-Assad views. “Look at what happened in Tunisia, look at what happened in Libya, look at the results of Egypt,” he says. Ahmed, who wears a pink Lacoste shirt and faded jeans and trainers, is about to do his military service; after that, he plans to study political science at a university in the United States. Like his mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin, he is educated, multilingual, and the holder of two passports. He doesn’t believe that everything Assad does is right, but he is 100 percent behind the government because he believes, like Saadeh, that the time isn’t right for change. And, he says, in any case, change shouldn’t be imposed by other states, some which may not be democratic themselves. “Why should we take democracy lessons from Saudi Arabia, who arms the opposition?” he says, helping himself to hummus. “They don’t even let women drive!”
Outside on the streets of Damascus, there are gas lines and rising inflation, with the price of some imported goods rising almost 60 percent.
Syria’s Thriving Elites
The Syrian army held funeral services at a military hospital one day last month. An estimated 100 government soldiers are killed every week. (Kate Brooks for Newsweek)
The sprawling bazaar of the historic Old City, once teeming with tourists, now rarely gets visits from travelers. The beautiful, old Talisman Hotel is without guests, empty and quiet except for birdcalls and the sound of running water in the fountain.
Still, a certain class of Damascenes lives life untouched by the violence, in beautiful, spacious homes, hosting grand dinner parties underneath glistening crystal chandeliers, seeing friends during the balmy summer evenings on outdoor terraces fragrant with jasmine—too stubborn or too afraid to see their world has irrevocably changed.
“I’m still jogging and swimming every day,” says Wael, a wealthy businessman who’s eager to argue that this isn’t a civil war or a sectarian conflict. He is a Shia but members of his family are Sunni, and his list of friends includes Christians, Armenians, and Alawites, he says. “This is not a war. Our regime is strong. Seventy percent fully support Assad.” His wife, Nadia, who wears a headscarf and goes to the opera as often as she can, says the rebels threaten people—telling them to close their shops and join the protests. If they refuse, “they burn them down,” she says. “This is why I am supporting the government.”
When I ask them if they’re afraid, they deny it. “Not at all,” says Wael. “Last week we had a party of 20 people on our balcony. We were all relaxing and smoking the nargila,” the water pipe. “We heard gun shots in the background—but it seemed a long way off.”
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