In central Damascus, it’s perfectly clear that President Bashar Assad is firmly in control. In the souks of the Old City, his face looks out of almost every shop window, pinned up next to gold jewelry or intricate rugs. No one has a bad word to say about him, at least not to a Western journalist.
In rebel enclaves nearby, forces loyal to Assad are creeping back into control. After years of siege tactics, opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus are increasingly making deals which see their fighters heading into rebel-held areas.
And the regime’s forces and allies are moving deep into the rebel-held half of the northern city of Aleppo. Tens of thousands have fled the rebel-controlled enclave as fighting escalates.
People close to the regime and government officials all say the mood within the government is now one of cautious optimism.
“The mood in Damascus now is better and it’s very good,” said Bassam Abu Abdullah, a professor of international relations and advisor to the Information Ministry. “Aleppo is a very important and strategic turning point for Syria and for the world.”
Regime supporters say eastern Aleppo is held by terrorists, who have kept innocent people hostage there.
People inside the opposition-held area and activists say maybe 200,000 civilians remain — too afraid of Assad’s forces or too poor or too stubborn to leave, and that they support the rebel gunmen.
Aid agencies and the U.N. warn that Aleppo’s civilians are suffering and dying under airstrikes by the Syrian air force and their Russian allies. Hospitals, schools, apartment blocks have been leveled. An intermittent siege has left people hungry and cold.
Certainly for Abu Abdullah, the rebel gunmen in Aleppo qualify as terrorists, and if the regime crushes them, that will be a turning point in the almost six-year civil war.
“I think yes,” he said, “the beginning of the end.” After years of conflict, all parties are exhausted, he noted. “Very clearly there is no way for these terrorists.”
The professor sees another reason for Assad’s supporters to be cheerful: the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Abu Abdullah stayed up all night to watch the results come in last month, and was surprised and relieved to see Trump win.
“I felt that it’s good for Syria,” he said. He had feared Hillary Clinton would strengthen the Syrian opposition. He hopes Trump will back Assad.
The editor-in-chief of Syria’s al-Watan newspaper, Waddah Abd Rabbo, also was relieved to see Trump win.
“In Damascus, like all over the world, it was a surprise,” he said, “but a good one.”
Abd Rabbo does call for reforms in Syria, and his newspaper is privately owned, not state-run. But he is on good terms with the government and said the West underestimated Assad’s popularity.
“They only want to see that the president is unpopular, he’s a bad guy, he has to go, he has to leave. But this was not true,” he said.
The Obama administration has maintained that Assad lost legitimacy because his forces killed so many civilians, and that he could not be a cohesive force in Syria.
Abd Rabbo conceded that Assad may not be popular with everyone, but opined that he enjoys more than 50 percent approval, “if you want to be democratic.” Assad, he said, is the only person who can unify Syria.
In the Old City’s markets, life seems to thrive. They are bustling and busy till long after dark. One shopkeeper told me his takings are up by 70 percent, year on year.
Another shopkeeper, named Ali Dera, played backgammon as he said he feels safe now.
“What makes me feel comfortable and optimistic about the situation is when you see people on the streets,” he said. The security situation has improved, and the news from Aleppo is pleasing, he added.
“Very good,” he said, and hurled his dice, rattling the board.
But even in the winding old streets where traditional courtyard houses serve as restaurants shaded by lemon trees and cooled by plashing fountains, there are constant signs of the ravages of the war.
The power is out a lot, so generators roar in streets that were once quiet. Food prices have tripled or more since the war began. And as shoppers wander, homeless children run up and beg — ragged, wild-haired reminders that half of all Syrians no longer live in their homes.