When the Syrian football team took to the pitch last week, thousands of fans packed into a central Damascus square to watch the game on a big screen, filling the chilly air with chants of “Syria! Syria!” Some waved national flags emblazoned with President Bashar al-Assad’s face; two girls carried an unwieldy poster portrait of the Syrian leader.
The game offered a semblance of normality in a city trying to get back on its feet after eight years of civil war that killed an estimated half a million people. The fans were cheering a national team closely associated with Mr Assad, who is emerging victorious from the conflict.
His win, however, has come at a huge cost and he presides over a shattered, divided nation. Even Damascus remains vulnerable to attack. A bomb blast was heard on the southern edge of the capital on Sunday. Details remain unclear, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, reported an explosion and gunfire near a military intelligence facility. Syrian state media said it was a terrorist attack, and that there were no casualties.
Syria’s autocratic regime has regained control of most rebel-held areas thanks to military intervention by its allies Iran and Russia. “Congratulations on the victory,” say posters featuring a uniformed Mr Assad at military checkpoints, their brightness a contrast with the facades of a tired city.
Arab states have accepted that Mr Assad is here to stay, tentatively beginning to deal with his regime again after supporting rebels who tried to end his family’s near half-century grip on power. The priority of some is to engage with Syria to counter the growing sway of regional rival Iran, which has used the conflict to deepen its influence on their doorstep. For others it is about reopening trade routes to ease domestic economic pressures.
The United Arab Emirates recently reopened its embassy in Damascus, shortly followed by Bahrain. Sudan’s President Omar Bashir made the first official visit to Syria by an Arab League leader in December. Iraq and Lebanon are among countries pushing for Syria’s readmittance to the league, which expelled it in 2011 after regime forces attacked protestors. Jordan opened a border crossing with Syria last year.
“It’s about pragmatism taking over,” said one Arab diplomat. “Kicking Syria out of the Arab League was a big mistake …it drove us to be bystanders. Today, all the diplomatic mechanisms on Syria don’t involve an Arab component.”
Even Mr Assad’s supporters admit his military triumph is not enough. “Thank god for the victory,” said Abu Mustafa, 57, co-owner of a shop selling electricity generators on a Damascus street that was hit four times by mortars. “But my work is not good at all.” Although Damascus suffers rolling blackouts because of electricity shortages, he says few have enough money to buy generators. For his business, “the worst time is now”. His sons living in Turkey send what money they can spare.
On the football pitch, the opposing team — Australia — snatched victory from Syria in the final minute and deflated fans poured into streets without electric lighting. A gas shortage meant many people were returning to cold houses. In Damascus, long loyal to Mr Assad, residents face new battles: a battered economy and a devalued currency that is raising the cost of living. Many Damascenes say they are poorer than ever.
Rima Kadiry, minister of labour and social affairs, told the Financial Times: “Honestly, the victory of Syria will never be complete until we achieve [military, social and economic] victory. We cannot say that we have won before seeing indicators that the Syrian economy is developing again.”
Nearly 6m Syrians have fled, but concerns that men over 18 will be conscripted into the army have deterred returnees. A third of housing is damaged or destroyed, estimates the World Bank, and reconstruction is expected to cost over $200bn. But it is unclear who will pay for it. Russia wants Europe to pay, but the EU insists it will only engage with Damascus once a political settlement has been agreed.
Less than 15 minutes from Damascus is Eastern Ghouta, a once prosperous agricultural area that the Assad regime retook from rebels last year, limiting the security threat to Damascus. Whole neighbourhoods in Ghouta have been reduced to rubble and standing buildings have been picked clean by looting. Markets are now open, but the return of state services has been slower. Many areas have a visible military presence, but no running water or rubbish collection.
“Can you get the government to bring us gas?” asked Imm Khaled, 70, waiting in line to buy gas from a private seller at more than double the government subsidised rate. The regime blames tightening western sanctions for fuel shortages and strangling economic recovery.
Parts of northern Syria remain beyond Mr Assad’s authority. The last opposition stronghold is northern Idlib province, now controlled by hardline Islamist militants and crowded with about 3m civilians. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces dominate the north-east, spearheaded by Kurdish militias. Neighbouring Turkey is their primary enemy and they have sought Damascus’s protection in the past. Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw US troops has left the Kurds feeling more vulnerable.
Even football reveals Syria’s deep divisions. On social media, opposition activists outside the capital congratulated Australia for its win. Many called for a boycott on supporting Syria’s players, whom they dubbed “the barrel bomb team” after weapons favoured by the regime. “Get out, Bashar’s little chickens,” tweeted one exiled Syrian activist.
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London and Michael Peel in Brussels