When gunfire first rang out, targeting the protesters who dared to call on Syria’s President Assad to reform, it seemed shocking. No one then predicted that the gunfire would be followed by tank fire, artillery, chemical weapons, MiG warplanes and Hezbollah fighters, deployed against armed rebels, al-Qaeda-linked Islamists and totally innocent civilians. No-one imagined a Biblical exodus of people.
Or 10,000 dead children.
Or dozens of massacres.
Or dozens starved to death in a siege more reminiscent of medieval warfare than anything in the twenty first century.
But this is the reality of Syria today.
Three years of mass killing and psychopathic brutality.
Three years and counting, because this is not a war that’s ending any time soon. This is my ninth assignment in Syria, covering this war.
The cafe has closed down and Damascus echoes to the boom of artillery today. The capital’s suburbs are a battleground, many still held by rebels who are pounded daily from the ground and from the air.
In one suburb, Yarmouk, people told me they survived only by eating grass and weeds. One little boy said when they couldn’t find weeds themselves they bought them for three dollars a bag. The suffering of children, trapped in this war, is heartbreaking.
Another strip of Damascus suburbs suffered the worst chemical weapons attack the world has seen for decades; an attack that briefly opened the prospect of US air strikes last year, before President Obama stepped back from the “red line” he himself had declared.
Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, is torn in two and half destroyed; the engine of Syria’s economy broken. Homs is a killing ground, its Old City still stubbornly held by rebels after two years of almost constant bombardment by Syria’s army.
Since the UN stopped counting the dead a few months ago, the most accurate estimate the world has, from a British based opposition group, is that around 140,000 people have been killed so far. But many of the figures for the dead don’t include Syrian army casualties. The country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has told me on several occasions that these number in the tens of thousands. Nor do they include the tens of thousands of Syrians who would not have died had health services not been devastated by the war. Two thirds of Syria’s hospitals have been either damaged or destroyed. In Aleppo, which had a pre-war population of two million, it’s estimated there are now just 36 doctors left, working in the few remaining hospitals. Public services in Syria are strained to breaking point; the country’s schools are bulging with refugees.
After a year of war, it was widely predicted that Bashar al-Assad would be driven from power; it wasn’t a question of if he would go, just when.
Three years after the first protests against his rule, he is still in power. Indeed his troops are consolidating their grip on several areas rebels had previously held.
Within the ranks of rebels and opposition, there is chaos.
The West has almost given up trying to find a single voice or group it can deal with.
Extreme Islamist groups, their ranks filled with foreign fighters, regularly turn their weapons on Syrian rebel factions.
Just when Jabhat al Nusra seemed to be the most extreme organization on the rebel side, recognized by al Qaeda as its arm on the battlefield, along came ISIS, a group so extreme even al Qaeda disowned them.
One regional city, Raqqa, is now run by extreme Islamists and is giving many Syrians who once called for Assad’s overthrow pause for thought.
It’s not the kind of country most Syrians want in this traditionally tolerant land of religions and peoples. The chaos is growing here. The death toll is actually accelerating. President Assad rallies his people, urging them “to persevere, hand in hand”. But not far from where he speaks, his army’s shells rain down on Yarmouk. They persevere there, in hunger and in misery, in a way he cannot -or will not- understand.