Monday, January 25, 2016

Russian pilots give hope to Syrians

The Russian Air Force, by its presence in Syria, has upset figures on the board of the “Great Chess Game” in West Asia. It has given hope to supporters of al-Assad about his personal survival, even though not ensuring an early end to the war.

“We shall restore everything that has been destroyed”
“Russia’s involvement has given us hope,” said 25-year-old Amir Suliman, a resident of Aleppo. “Now we expect that the war will finally be over and we shall return to our homes.” Aleppo, Syria’s “economic capital,” has for several years now been divided into sectors controlled by the Syrian army and various groups, including the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front.

We meet Suliman at Latakia Airport where he is waiting for a Ministry of Emergency Situations plane to take him to Russia amidst the backdrop of the roar of Russian SU aircraft engines.

“My mother is Russian and my father is Syrian,” says Suliman. “Militants captured our house in Aleppo, so we had to flee to Latakia. I am now flying to St. Petersburg to continue my studies for a degree in architecture at the mining institute there. I hope that by the time I graduate the war in Syria will be over and architects will be in demand again. We shall restore everything that has been destroyed.”

It is hard to say now when this will happen and when Suliman will be able to return home and see his family. Hostilities are under way just 30 kilometres to the north of Latakia, where Syrian government troops are trying to establish control over the border with Turkey and from where rebels are receiving reinforcements and ammunition.

Residents of Lattakia on the Mediterranean coast, 2010. Source:  Natalia Seliverstova / RIA Novosti

In Latakia, there are no visible signs of war although, in August 2011, there was fighting in the streets of the city. Local residents gather in cafes in the evenings and on weekends, they have dinner parties and attend dance nights and weddings. During the day local residents can be seen at the beach. Women wear swimsuits and appear relaxed, going about their business in an easygoing manner. Clearly, these people have no wish to see terrorists take control, because they would then have to either flee the country or wear a niqab.

“We have many issues with Assad,” says history teacher Gadir Uassuf. “But they all pale in comparison with the danger presented by ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. All throughout the years of the crisis, the Syrian opposition has not been able to offer an alternative to Bashar (al-Assad). We do not see peaceful areas ‘liberated’ by them where they have established a normal life ‘without Bashar.’ This is why the Syrian president himself has turned from a politician who had his strengths and weaknesses into a symbol of resistance to foreign terrorists, who have come here from all over the world. What needs to be done now is to banish them and then we shall start rebuilding normal life and criticizing Assad.”

Latakia, a city of contrasts
Yet Russian journalists and service personnel working in Latakia have been advised against visiting Sunni and Palestinian neighborhoods, where support for Assad, and consequently approval of the Russian Air Force operation, is much lower than among Alawites who form one of the government’s main pillars of support.

In August 2011 Latakia’s Palestinian districts became the scene of an armed anti-government revolt. In order to suppress it, the authorities deployed gunboats to the Latakia coast to fire at the rebels. Now, the situation in Latakia is much calmer: all that reminds one of the events of five years ago are checkpoints around the Palestinian neighborhoods and bullet holes in nearby buildings. However, beyond the checkpoints, there lies a completely different Latakia with dusty streets, poor shops and women in hijabs accompanied by numerous children.

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