Putrid piles of garbage lie on streets because basic services have ceased operating. Running water and electricity are either unavailable -- by design, as a form of collective punishment, or as a result of disruption -- or else are available only sporadically. Storefronts are shuttered, battered and broken. The stores themselves are empty of both people and products, as either the retailers have deliberately removed the stock, storing it for a safer day, or more likely the goods have been pilfered by vandals on one or either side of the conflict. The walls of buildings are pockmarked by shells and bullets.
Many streets are deserted, littered with debris and marked with the occasional bloodstain. Security checkpoints are ubiquitous; on the highways into and out of cities and along the main arteries, security personnel check identification and search vehicles, while those that have been stopped pray that their names are not on government lists of people to be arrested. As the violence has increased, thugs and criminal elements on both sides have begun to appear, extorting money and bullying innocent civilians.
This is Syria today, where even the elites of Aleppo and Damascus are wary of leaving their safe areas. In the cities that have been hardest hit, people have retreated into sectarian quarters. Homes have been abandoned as families have fled. Tourism has virtually ceased. Credit cards don't work. Trade and commerce have declined sharply. An unemployment rate that was high prior to the uprising has doubled. The Syrian pound has plummeted in value, from 47 pounds to the dollar before the uprising to as much as 100 pounds to the dollar a year later. Public-sector salaries have been halved to reduce government spending and redirect it toward security. Food and fuel prices are significantly higher. The agricultural sector has been severely disrupted, and basic food items have already become scarce. Schools are closed.
It is an excruciatingly sad picture. Almost every Syrian knows someone who has been killed, arrested, tortured, or bullied during the uprising. I have traveled to Syria more than 20 times since 1989, with some of those visits lasting for months. I have acquired a number of Syrian friends who are now faced off against one another. A couple of the foreign reporters and photographers killed while covering the uprising in Syria were friends of mine. Even those of us who are keen observers of Syria but are far away from the horridness on the ground have been touched by it.
How did it come to this?
I interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad extensively in 2004 and 2005 for an earlier book, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. Following this, at Assad's request, I continued to meet with him on a regular basis until 2009. I witnessed him change from someone whom many hoped would reform the inert, authoritarian Syrian system to someone who seemed captured by -- and increasingly comfortable with -- that very same system. He has been transformed from a potential agent of change to a figure almost universally seen as a brutal dictator with the blood of his people on his hands.
Part of this change in perception is due to the completely different realities that exist in Damascus versus much of the rest of the world. And it is Bashar's view of the world that has dictated the nature of the Syrian regime's response to the uprising.
Early in Bashar al-Assad's presidency, he decreed that military-style uniforms would no longer be worn by students in primary and secondary schools. At the time, Western media, officials, and analysts dismissed and ridiculed the change as virtually worthless. It was emblematic, they said, of how little Assad was actually doing to reform his country. This added to the growing disappointment in what was supposed to be a different type of Syrian ruler.
However, on closer inspection, there was more to this decree than met the eye. Wherever Assad could, he tried to redirect Syria's operational philosophy away from the symbols and trappings of martial indoctrination to a more normal educational environment that focused on developing useful skill sets. Ironically, this may have contributed to a new generation of youth who thought not of battle against real (or imagined) foes, but of securing a sociopolitical milieu more conducive to a better life. In any event, the "conceptual gap" between the West and Syria as to the utility and effectiveness of this decree was quite wide.