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Syria: a tale of three cities


Syria: a tale of three cities

Erika Solomon reports from Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, where she finds a ravaged population with very different views about their country’s future


On a hot June afternoon, under the shadow of the minarets of Damascus’s ancient Umayyad Mosque, a group of men and women cook rice and vegetables to feed the poor when the call to prayer comes and ends the Ramadan fast. Ali Aqil, a wiry soldier in army fatigues, is standing by to help but, spotting me — a foreign journalist — he launches into what I assume will be a typical defence of President Bashar al-Assad against the rebels who have fought for more than six years to topple him.

“Any rebels who raised their guns against the Syrian army are no longer Syrians. This is an indisputable fact!” he says, smacking his fist into a hand tattooed with the name of one of 37 loved ones he has lost in the war. “I’d call whoever does this a terrorist — even if it was my own brother!”

The shouting distracts the men at the old Nofara café below but they quickly resettle into their clattering backgammon game. I ask Aqil if any of his friends joined the rebels. “Yes,” he says, and shrugs. “I still contact them. I don’t blame them. War is confusing.” Given that he has just called all rebels terrorists, I assume I have misunderstood. But Aqil shakes his head. “You didn’t misunderstand me. I still contact them,” he says. “There was a time we shared the same loaf of bread and the same glass of water. I’ve lost a brother, they’ve lost brothers too. I should forgive them, and they should forgive me. We should go on with our lives.”

Aqil cannot reconcile the conflicting beliefs in his heart and, after so much bloodshed pitting neighbour against neighbour, neither can the rest of his country — the symptom of psychic wounds Syria will struggle to recover from. First came the 2011 street protests against the Assad police state. Then came the government crackdown, and then civil war. Now, some 400,000 people are dead. Half the country of 21 million have fled their homes.

Syria today is a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces seem hard to fit together again. Bits in the north are held by rebels under Turkish patronage, while US-backed opposition fighters roam the south. To the east, Kurdish forces have carved out an enclave bordering the vast territory held by the jihadi group Isis, which is itself slowly shrinking as it faces attack both from a US-led coalition and regime forces. Meanwhile, Assad, bolstered by Russia and Iranian-directed foreign fighters, has reclaimed some 40 per cent of the country, much of that since Russia intervened militarily in 2015.

A Syrian soldier at a checkpoint in the old city of Damascus © Omar Sanadiki

This summer, I travelled through Damascus, Homs and Aleppo on a rare government visa to see how Syria’s key cities, with different visions of their past and future, grapple with these questions. In the capital, I found a population desperate to move on even if it means leaving parts of their country behind. At the heart of Syria’s western territory, Homs is struggling to forget its sectarian bloodshed. Further north in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, where some of the darkest chapters of the war were fought, embers of hatred are proving even harder to put out. I was usually accompanied by a government minder, touring regime-held regions, so this is a loyalists’ story — not that of the millions who fled their homeland and face an even murkier future.

In Assad’s Syria, people are not only divided from the rest of their country, but from within. The war is not yet over, but his presumed victory has sparked fresh reflections on the fight. What did it mean? How will people heal? Can they even come together again? Across the country, you hear a constant exchange of stories about suffering, loss and survival — a national currency for a society grappling with incomprehensible change.

Soldier Ali Aqil talks to Erika Solomon © Omar Sanadiki

On my first visit to Damascus since the war began, it is clear the conflict has worn the capital down. Both its Soviet-style apartments and jasmine-laced colonial buildings look browner. At traffic stops, you find yourself in a sea of dented car doors and bullet-pocked bumpers. Checkpoints clog wide boulevards and cramped alleyways alike. The thud of rocket fire can still be heard from rebel pockets, pushed ever further into the outskirts.

Yet posters of the president, and his late father Hafez, stare down on passers-by as they always have. The slogans are the same. For many government officials, the villains are too: Israel and the United States. They see the main rebel backers in the war — the Gulf Arab states and Turkey — as mere puppets in the broader conspiracy. Syrians, however, have changed.

Down a crumbling alley of the old city, there is a bar called Cosette. Men with hipster beards sip beers and women in ripped jeans puff on cigarettes beneath a line from Les Misérables scrawled on the wall. It could almost be the city’s motto: “It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”

Everyone here is trying to find a way to be happy. There was a moment when I realised that, even when I’m laughing, I’m never really happy

Damascus resident Marla Awwad 

Bars and nightlife flourished amid the war, part of a devil-may-care attitude once unusual in Damascus, the kind of place where, my Syrian friends would joke, you could meet a man driving an old sedan only to discover he had hundreds of thousands of dollars for his children in savings. Now, people spend what they have, whether it buys them a luxury SUV or is just enough to nurse a single glass of beer. Among youth who can afford it, drug use is on the rise, as is plastic surgery — perhaps the second most widely spread billboards after Assad are those for beautification procedures.

“Everyone here is trying to find a way to be happy, but something is missing,” says Marla Awwad, one of Cosette’s patrons, tapping her cigarette on an ashtray. “There was a moment when I realised that, even when I’m laughing, I’m never really happy.”


Central Damascus was never fully hit by the armed rebellion but many who lived through the war here describe a kind of sadness hanging over it. Perhaps that is why the urge to move on is so strong, even if it means leaving behind parts of the country still gripped by war. “There are two Syrias now. One is regime Syria, the part we can try to improve,” one politician told me privately. “The other is the zone of war — and we can’t worry about them any more. We have to move on.”

But, even here, many risk being left behind. Before the conflict, Syria was known for its large middle class. Today, about 86 per cent of the country live below the poverty line. The brain drain has sucked away those most needed, such as doctors, who often travel to several cities each week because of a shortage of medics.

A souk in Damascus © Omar Sanadiki

The wealth discrepancy is blatant. Upscale neighbourhoods buzz with the sound of massive generators producing power for restaurants populated by men in polo shirts and women in heels, while outside, children in ragged clothes and old men missing limbs beg for change. “The middle class has disappeared. People are either very rich or very, very poor,” says Waddah Abd-Rabbo, head of pro-government newspaper Al Watan. “It is a real disaster.”

Some economists say 2017 may be the first year since the war that Syria’s gross domestic product will grow, though probably only by one per cent. But that will not be enough to help a large portion of the middle class, knocked into poverty by unemployment or wages worth less than a third of what they were before the war.

At the Souk Sarouja, a man with a face knotted in a frown approaches a market trader about some eggs but walks away when he hears the price. Nearby, Um Sawsan, a woman with weathered hands and a dull green headscarf, sells tiny vials of perfume — a substitute for the income she lost when the school where she taught was closed and her home destroyed. She wages a daily battle to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. “I feel I am living in the old Arabic saying, ‘We accepted hell, but hell did not accept us,’” she jokes. “We are falling into an abyss, when a citizen can’t feel at home in their own country.”

Sensing the popular frustration, Assad announced a reform programme in a recent televised appearance. He referred to corruption among government officials and a nouveau riche of war profiteers, who oversaw the black-market trading that kept the economy afloat under years of western sanctions but who have grown so powerful that loyalists see them as the biggest menace to Syria’s future. The president vowed to create a hotline for calling in complaints.

“It would be a good idea, except who is going to be the one brave enough to call and report on his local official?” one loyalist friend says. He predicts a growing struggle between the regime and warlord class that “will be bigger, deeper and dirtier”.

When security forces prevented a string of car bombs from hitting the city centre this July — on the same day the government said it would reduce checkpoints — a conspiracy theory quickly sprung up among some Syrians that the perpetrators were racketeering militias who had grown rich extracting tolls at checkpoints — not terrorists, as state media reported.

This is why some Damascenes say the regime is now more wary of its supporters than the opposition. “The real reckoning will come from within,” one businessman told me. “People feel like they’ve sacrificed a lot, and they don’t want to put up with this any more — and you can’t call us traitors, we’re your base!”

“Everything is out in the open” has become a common refrain. Some bus drivers keep a plastic bag stuffed with cash for checkpoint bribes right by the steering wheel. Regime supporters who once insisted the 2011 protests were a myth now acknowledge their existence. And soldiers, like Ali Aqil, no longer insist that civilians were not among their victims.

Nearly everyone is impatient for reconciliation, but that is not easy. First, because the international community seems to have resigned itself to a stalled peace process. The second reason is psychological. While Syria has changed, the basic facts of the conflict have not: those for or against the revolt remain that way.

One friend of mine, a bubbly fashionista from a loyalist family who is personally sympathetic to the uprising, tells me the only way she was able to resolve years of inner conflict was to give up on the premise that only one side was right. “There is no ‘truth’ in Syria,” she says. “There are two truths.”

On my last night in Damascus, at dinner at an ancient stone house in the old city, I posit her theory to a man sitting beside me, who laughs. “There are way more than two truths now in Syria.”

A boy looks up at a poster of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad at a souk in Homs © Omar Sanadiki


A 163km drive north of the capital lands you in Syria’s central city of Homs, where life is buzzing, though the memories of what has happened here are everywhere. The white clock tower that once stood over crowds of protesters now looms over steady traffic honking its way past bullet-scarred shopfronts. One refurbished street may be crammed with pedestrians but turn down the next, and the only sign of life is trees emerging from rubble. Deeper inside the heart of Homs, the original epicentre of Syria’s armed revolt, there are only the skeletal remains of buildings that look as if they are rotting away.

One of these buildings is the Jabbour family home, and from the street, you can spy them living out their lives. From the shell of an upper floor, Issam Jabbour, sweating and puffing on his cigarette, can survey everything below.

Once, this street was called the Visitors Valley. “Since the war, we called it the Valley of Death, because they dumped bodies here,” he says. “I remember the date we found the first body, because it was Christmas morning, 2011.”

The body belonged to a government bread distributor, who was from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which Assad himself belongs. “I am sure whoever killed him used to eat his bread — it was someone from the neighbourhood,” Jabbour says. It was, he tells me, the start of a spiral of sectarian killings and kidnappings that have only recently calmed.

Sectarianism is a fraught subject in the war. Both sides are sensitive to accusations of it, and both rightly point out how long Syrians of myriad faiths lived in relative harmony. But in Homs — home to large Sunni, Alawite and Christian populations — the uprising quickly stoked sectarian tensions.

Issam Jabbour in what’s left of his family home in Homs © Omar Sanadiki
One of the damaged rooms in Issam Jabbour's family home © Omar Sanadiki

Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority formed the backbone of the rebellion, while minorities, fearing the rise of Islamists, mostly stood with Assad — particularly his fellow Alawites. Some Alawites joined loyalist gangs that attacked protesters, and were accused of massacres in Sunni neighbourhoods. Alawites, for their part, can tick off long lists of neighbours, like the bread distributor, who they say were innocent but ended up as bodies dumped in the Valley of Death.

It is likely that more than half of Homs was damaged by war, and sectarianism retains a physical presence. Sunni areas are empty ruins. Alawite neighbourhoods are battered but whole, dotted with recruitment offices beckoning young men to loyalist militias. Along a park in the Alawite neighbourhood of Zahra, a wall covered with more than 1,200 photographs of the dead is now called Martyrs Wall. It has become a kind of shrine, where mothers pray for sons who never returned from battle. Boys scan the faces, searching for a father or uncle.

Because of the Assad link, Alawites are often accused of being a privileged sect, especially in Homs, where they occupy many top government posts. But they come from all backgrounds and many are quite poor. It is widely believed that, proportionally, Alawites sacrificed the most lives defending the regime. No Alawite I interviewed had lost fewer than seven relatives.

The Martyrs Wall, which is covered with more than 1,200 photographs of the dead, in Homs © Omar Sanadiki

In Zahra, Munir Hussein, a man with piercing blue eyes, is repairing the grocery shop where he plans to spend his retirement after finishing his service as a pilot in an air force that has levelled rebellious neighbourhoods and is accused of killing tens of thousands of civilians. He proudly recounts “breaking the terrorists’ heads”, pausing only to smile at passers-by and shout, “Welcome, neighbour!”

“The people in those [rebel] areas are our people — but some were recruited by terrorists. It was our duty to carry out the strikes, even if a few martyrs were lost,” he says, by which he means civilians. He struggles with how to coexist, though. “Forgiveness is not just a word. A government can issue amnesty. But we need time to forget. Some things can’t happen quickly. There is a generation that has to end.”

Depending on how Homs is rebuilt, forgetting may be difficult. Some residents say the city’s layout, with different sects in different neighbourhoods, fostered estrangement and unrest. This cycle could be doomed to repeat itself if reconstruction is not carefully planned.

Before the uprising, the former Homs governor planned to remodel several central districts and poor neighbourhoods for a project called “Homs Dream”. Many locals accused him of using urban planning to push Sunnis and Christians out of central areas, while Alawite areas remained untouched. Many of those areas tagged for demolition were later destroyed in the fight to rout rebels, including the Khalidiya area near Jabbour’s house. “You could say we’re getting that construction project anyway,” he jokes. “Just not the way we were expecting.”

The new governor, Talal Barazi, has formulated a project, linked to Syria’s new public-private partnership law — the government’s answer to reconstruction. The law allows provinces and municipalities to create holding companies to organise private investors for reconstruction. Like “Homs Dream”, Barazi’s project audaciously envisages luxury high-rise towers replacing the impoverished neighbourhoods that once stood here. Critics call it veiled displacement, because no one who lived here will be able to afford to return.

“Whenever there have been these expropriation projects in Syria, compensation has been extremely low. It’s a very clear dispossession of these people,” says Jihad Yazigi, who heads the Syria Report, an online economics bulletin. “This is a transfer of public assets, tax-free, to private companies — and it will be a big boost to regime cronies.”

Men clearing out their devastated homes in the Waer district of Homs © Omar Sanadiki

One of the earmarked districts is Baba Amr, the first bastion of armed revolt and the first to be recaptured by the regime. It is the eeriest of the destroyed areas. A massive poster of Bashar al-Assad rises over the security checkpoint at the district entrance. Down the road, a stage once used by protesters is surrounded by brittle weeds. Behind that lies block after block of empty buildings. This is the only place where I am not only escorted by a government minder but a car of security forces, suggesting how tightly controlled the area is. I find only a handful of returnees — children and women, whose husbands are either in jail or fighting on the frontline for Assad, a choice they say was offered in lieu of incarceration. As I leave, one woman in black clasps my hand so tightly that I half expect to find a note in my palm. But there is nothing.


From the outskirts of Damascus, through Homs and up towards Aleppo, there are countless city districts and villages like Baba Amr and, driving past them on the highway, one gets a sensation of passing not through a ghost town but a ghost country. There are millions of displaced people scattered across the region and the country, eking out subsistence in unfinished buildings and garages — and most of them are Sunnis.

Diplomats say this unnerves Assad’s main backer, Russia, which fears it will lead to a radicalised generation. For that reason, they say, Russia has become more involved in negotiations in the region, trying to ensure more locals stay.

The first thing we have to do: we must forget, because what else can we do? Life will go on. We can’t stay angry or upset. We have to forget

Homs resident Roula Toama

On the outskirts of Homs, the once-wealthy Waer district has been brought to its knees by three years of siege and destruction, and is the latest opposition-held neighbourhood to accept what the government calls a “national reconciliation deal”, which is essentially negotiated surrender. Rebels and their supporters, who want to fight another day, are bussed to other enclaves. Civilians and fighters who accept registering for “normalisation” are cleared by security — but can also end up conscripted into the army. The opposition in exile sees this as the ultimate humiliation but many who want to stay in Syria argue there are no other options.

According to Barazi, about 15,000 people — rebels and civilians — left Homs and some 28,000 stayed. Residents say most of those who fled wanted to keep draft-age sons out of the army. Others feared sectarian massacres that never materialised and now want to come home. The governor allowed a few busloads to return in recent weeks.

But some involved in such negotiations complain that the government makes return harder by demanding returnees appear on state television — seen as a form of public humiliation — or by stipulating they bring their army-age sons. Critics argue that the regime does not want these “problematic” parts of the country back. “They have a population whose size is more manageable, whose demographic make-up is more manageable,” one diplomat said. “Harsh as it sounds, this may suit them for quite some time.”

Members of the Toama family of Christians who live in Homs © Omar Sanadiki

It also suits many government supporters, such as the Toamas, one of the few Christian families who stayed in Waer throughout the war and who tell me much of the opposition cannot be reconciled with. Roula, the youngest of the three Toama sisters, worked as a school teacher throughout the siege. Some of her students’ sympathies with the rebels maddened her, she says.

One day, a mysterious voice called up on the phone, ordering her family to leave Waer, because they were kuffar (infidels). She was heartbroken. When two former students who joined the rebels heard the news, they begged her not to leave, and joined her neighbours in organising a patrol to ensure the Toamas’ safety. I am touched by this story, and later, as Roula is showing me old family photographs, I try to draw her out on it. Was it not hope for coexistence? She can’t bring herself to agree. This glimmer of hope seems flimsy amid all the stories of hatred she can recall, and so the only solution, she says, is to erase all these memories.

“The first thing we have to do: we must forget,” she says. “I must forget, because what else can I do? Life will go on. We can’t stay angry or upset. We have to forget.”

Posing for pictures at the citadel in Aleppo © Omar Sanadiki


From Homs, I travel the four hours to Aleppo, along a road where plumes of smoke only a few kilometres in the distance are a reminder of how close the war is, even when it seems so far away. The western side of Aleppo, a government stronghold through four years of war with the rebel-held east, is filled with posters declaring, “We will rebuild.” Girls in white headscarves chatter with friends in skimpy tops and bangle earrings along a popular shopping promenade, where fathers press children up to an ice-cream shop window to pick a flavour.

At a café shrouded in clouds of smoke and perfume, I meet Fares Shehabi, a parliamentarian and industrialist, who shows me pictures of his bombed-out pharmaceutical factory in eastern Aleppo, which Isis fighters made their base for a time.

Aleppo was Syria’s economic and industrial hub before the war, producing things such as textiles and plastics. At its lowest point in 2013, only 1,200 of Aleppo’s original 40,000 factories and workshops were functioning. Today, they are back up to 10,000. “Six months ago, a third of these people wouldn’t even be here,” he shouts over the music. “Aleppo is coming back.”

But across town, in east Aleppo, the rebels’ last urban stronghold before it was recaptured by Assad forces, the streets are silent. Those who venture out in the dark use mobile phones to light their way. In the daytime, the landscape of destruction is overpowering. Charred, decapitated palm trees line the streets. Many in eastern Aleppo never accepted the rebels when they stormed their half of the city in 2012, fleeing to the western side. But others stayed throughout the war, refusing to leave their homes.

In December 2016, supported by Russian bombardment, the regime forced rebels to withdraw, with thousands of supporters, into the opposition’s last enclaves of the northern countryside — or to Turkey, home to some three million Syrians in exile. The moment indisputably turned the war in Assad’s favour, but at the cost of thousands of lives. “We apologise for being unable to receive you,” reads a message on a wall emerging from the rubble. “We have been transferred to heaven.”

Fares Shehabi, a parliamentarian and industrialist from Aleppo © Omar Sanadiki

In the battle’s final days, Abu Ahmad, a man with dark skin and twitchy brown eyes, tried to flee to the government-held west — even as its bombs pounded his neighbourhood. Rebels caught him first. They dragged him through the streets, into an old wedding hall. For three days, they beat him with strips of tyres, stomped across his bare back, and poured freezing water over him.

He shares his story on the condition that I don’t use his real name — but not because he fears retaliation from the rebels. Instead, he fears the army, and its checkpoints that criss-cross through his neighbourhood. He fears loyalist militias who beat and extort neighbours. For the first time in years, Abu Ahmad could easily cross to western Aleppo but he is too afraid to try.

“What is the difference between a rebel with a gun or a soldier with a gun if they are pointing it at you?” he asks, his once trembling voice now booming. “The east and west are still divided. We’re still treated like we’re not part of the same city.”

Compared with Damascenes’ determination to move on or the self-imposed amnesia in Homs, resentments here offer a bleaker litmus test for Syria’s future. Aleppo’s situation could create a dynamic similar to Beirut: nearly three decades after neighbouring Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, the city still feels psychologically split between east and west, and many prefer to circulate on their own side.

Some western Aleppines’ sense of victimisation is so strong, they seem numb to the east’s suffering. They mention how they, too, were besieged earlier in the war and pummelled with lethal rockets made from gas canisters, dubbed “hell cannons”.

But the damage is nothing compared with the east, where air strikes turned buildings into pancakes. In an abandoned building overlooking the ruins, I meet a bulky commander sitting in a battered armchair. He orders an underling to bring me chilled juice, then lectures me about the conspiracy against Syria. He doesn’t trust the east Aleppines who have returned, he says, but it’s his job not to trust anyone.

“You think we don’t know that those are the militants’ wives, children, parents and uncles? Of course we do. We lost so much because of them,” he says. “But my government ordered me to welcome these people, to let them return to their homes, to treat them fairly — and so I do. But inside, I can never accept it.”

Children playing on the streets of eastern Aleppo © Omar Sanadiki

For locals, the bigger concern these days is the loyalist militias, whose commanders, they say, drive around in SUVs with blackened licence plates, beating or even shooting passers-by in the way. A relative of Abu Ahmad, a frail man with a raspy voice who calls himself a staunch Assadist, says he was shocked at how psychologically broken his relatives seemed on his first visit back after seeking refuge on the Syrian coast. He called friends in the government to complain but they said there was nothing to do — they needed these militias to finish the war. “They’re wrong,” he says. “We’re deepening a divide, an anger. It is going to create the next revolt.”

Businessmen such as Shehabi argue that reviving the economy will ease these tensions. But that requires major reconstruction funds unlikely to come as long as western countries demand an internationally approved settlement to remove sanctions. Syrian officials say they don’t want European or US money and look to Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to fill the gap. But diplomats here insist those countries see little to gain — Syria’s main natural resource concessions have already been handed to Russia and Iran.

Another impediment is lingering hostility towards the rural populations that formed the backbone of industrial labour — and the bulk of rebels who stormed Aleppo. Some businessmen say their own employees looted their factories. “Can you imagine the spite?” asked one.

In Aleppo, westerners look suspiciously at the impoverished east but everyone in the city points a finger at the countryside. The disparity between town and country shocked even some local rebels, who described meeting families in the countryside who hadn’t had electricity until 2002, who couldn’t afford a washing machine. They worked factory jobs six days a week for men with luxury homes.

To this day, Syrians debate what fuelled the uprising. Some blame sectarianism. Others, the class divide. Others note that rural populations — desperate after years of drought, crammed into ramshackle suburbs seeking jobs — were the first to take up arms. Beneath all these interpretations lies a struggle for resources in a country running short of them, and distributing them less than equitably. In places such as Homs, Sunnis say state jobs went to Alawites. In Sunni cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, the benefits of Assad rule were bestowed on the urban and wealthier classes.

This provides a loophole for reconciliation: loyalists here rely on an interpretation of the uprising as driven by ignorance and desperation. “They had to join but, deep inside, they were not convinced,” Shehabi says. “We want them to come back. They are victims of war, like us.”

What’s the difference between a rebel with a gun or a soldier with a gun if they’re pointing it at you? The city’s east and west are still divided 

Aleppo resident Abu Ahmad

In Aleppo’s Sukkari district, where about 20,000 people, a third of the original population, have returned, shoppers buy vegetables and street vendors hawk used shoes. Adnan al-Daqas, a local administrative head, is handing out cooking gas canisters. In tones instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Assad’s prewar Ba’ath party rule, he describes his mission as reacclimatising wayward citizens. “We explain to people that they are part of an entity called the Syrian Arab Republic. We have a president, a flag, and we have a national anthem,” he says. “People are grasping this, and they know they were in the wrong.”

Some Syrians urge loved ones in the opposition to exploit this opportunity for return: to say they were duped, and to sign up for “normalisation”. But oppositionists in exile argue this is accepting comfort over principles. They insist on waiting for an internationally brokered peace deal.

Meanwhile, their alienation deepens. On my last visit to Turkey, in a town a few hours from Aleppo, one rebel described watching his children struggle to write in their native Arabic. Some days, his son belts out the Turkish national anthem as they walk home — causing Turks on the street to stand to attention, he adds with a laugh, before burying his face in his hands. “My kids are becoming Turks,” he says.

But even for those inside Syria, home is a place that remains elusive. I remembered the army commander in his armchair, overlooking the rubble-strewn streets. When he struggled with my questions on reconciliation, I posed a different one: what had he learnt from the war? He leaned back, and stared at me a long time.

“I don’t know if it offered me a lesson. But it has given me a wish, which I hope is fulfilled. I want to go back to my village. I want to be with my parents and my friends. I want to have a simple life, and be a simple person.” When could he go home? He laughed, and shook his head. “When there are no more terrorists.”

Erika Solomon is the FT’s Middle East correspondent

Photographs: Omar Sanadiki

Letter in response to this article:

Start work now on empowering Syrians for a postwar settlement / From Tobias Flessenkemper, Senior Fellow & Balkans Project Director, Centre International de Formation Européenne, European Institute, France

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