By Tamara Qiblawi, Claudia Otto and Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
Updated 1 hour ago Sep 13, 2018
Damascus, Syria (CNN) - The once-desolate marketplace of Shaalan has sprung back to life. Shops shuttered for years have reopened their doors, glitzy new restaurants spill onto sidewalks and the traffic jams that were once a main feature of the Syrian capital have returned with a vengeance.
For years, the red beams of tracer bullets streaked the skies of Damascus. The rattle of guns and bangs of explosions were staples of the city's soundscape. Residents who had been known to pass long hours on balconies retreated into the corridors of their homes.
"I lived in constant fear of losing my loved ones," says the Damascus native Mohammad Hassan. "We felt that we aged by two decades."
In 2012, Syria's rebels took over large swaths of the Damascus countryside. Government forces pounded the suburbs with airstrikes. Rebels launched rockets into the city.
This past May, the last of the fighters that once surrounded Damascus either surrendered or withdrew to northwestern Syria, after government forces laid siege to the rebel strongholds and shelled them incessantly for over a month. The withdrawal of the fighters relieved the capital of a nearly six-year rebel chokehold, though Damascus is now encircled by wastelands of rubble, and thousands of people have flocked to nearby displacement camps.
In all of Syria today, only the province of Idlib remains in rebel hands, and the Syrian government has already declared victory.
Yet much of the country -- which CNN is visiting with the permission of the government -- is in tatters.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad is cash-strapped, and its prospects of rebuilding are dim thanks to Western sanctions slapped on the regime for the war crimes it has been repeatedly accused of. The government also leaves behind it a blood-stained history that took a toll on nearly every Syrian family. Now, Damascus faces a reckoning. Syrians are picking up the pieces and, they say, the country will never be as it was before the war -- nor should it.
"I feel happiness mixed with pain," says Hassan, an actor, as he takes a drag from his cigarette. "I'm happy that it's over, but I'm sad for all the people that didn't survive to see us finish this phase," he says.
"I feel victorious on a personal level. I didn't lose. I stayed in the country and believe in it ... it turns out that my choice wasn't wrong," he says. "Did you know that we got to a point where we thought God was against us?"
'I want rule of law'
As the rebels recede, the political landscape of Syria appears to be changing. Several political parties calling themselves the new "opposition" have cropped up in recent years, typically tight-lipped Damascenes debate among themselves about the problems of the state, social media posts alleging corrupt practices are not uncommon and taxi drivers will complain to anyone who cares to listen about government maltreatment.
"Look! They let the Iranians in before us!" one Syrian journalist protests loudly in front of security forces as the crowd outside the Damascus International Fair, a decades-old commercial exhibition, turns into a virtual mosh pit.
And the renewed candidness on the streets can also be found on media outlets staunchly supportive of the regime. Last week, well-known Syrian TV anchor Nizar al-Farra chastised the government for a newly placed travel ban on Syrian men who could not produce papers proving they had served in the army. The ban was partially lifted days later.
"How do the government agencies that made this decision see citizens? Just a flock of sheep? ... If they're harmed by this ban, then who cares?" said Farra in a 10-minute tirade on government-aligned Sama TV.
In 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, Assad's government decreed that political groups other than his own Baath party would be allowed to register, ostensibly ending decades of single-party rule in Syria. The decree was part of a series of reforms passed by Assad in an apparent attempt to quell the uprising.
Anti-government protesters dismissed the move as a sham -- nonviolent protests were being met with brute force, demonstrators were targeted in mass arrests. Thousands are believed to have died in prison, according to rights groups.
Still, several members of civil society inside Damascus say that they have been able to win more wiggle room amid the carnage of war, and that the current landscape is a far cry from the iron fist that Assad and his father before him have typically wielded over the country.
But Abdel Latif al-Binni, a founding member of a new political party called Syria First, says the moves he's seeing will hardly suffice, and that Syria must undergo democratic transition.
"Some things have changed, but the mindset has not changed," he says. "Today, I want rule of law. I want a true multi-party system. I want a real separation of powers. I want a true and peaceful political transition.
"I want to be like any country that wants its political situation to evolve."
These days, the government in Damascus must reckon with a war-hardened people who are more "empowered," argues one parliamentarian.
"We stood still. We're resilient. We stood still not to have Syria ruled by a one-party system," says Fares Shehabi, who represents Aleppo in the Syrian parliament.
"We didn't pay this price just to sit and see things go backwards. We gave all this sacrifice -- our army gave the biggest sacrifice -- civilians gave sacrifices, and in economy and in our infrastructure and in our futures, to see a better Syria," says Shehabi.
Actor Hassan agrees. "Today we are in pain and our pain needs to speak," he says. "We need to keep speaking until we can uncover what happened in these eight years."
Shehabi is an outspoken Syrian-American businessman from Aleppo who has been under sanctions from the European Union since 2011 for being an important financial supporter of the Assad regime -- which he denies.
Instead, he says, he tried to keep Aleppo alive economically in the early days of the civil war, while keeping jihadi extremism out.
He insists that Syrians today are angry with the West for backing armed, predominantly Islamist, rebels that tried to topple the Syrian government.
He argues that the central government's triumph over them saved Syria from the fate of Libya, which seven years after its uprising-turned-armed conflict began remains in the throes of war, and Iraq, which has been rocked by violence for 15 years.
"(The West) chose the wrong horse. And I'm telling you we are not Libya. We don't want to be like Libya. We don't want to be like Iraq also," says Shehabi.
Syria, he says, is winning a "Pyrrhic victory." Today the government presides over 6.1 million internally displaced people, large expanses of Syria are in ruins and the cost of rebuilding the country is $388 billion, according to UN estimates. No country, including the government's main ally, Russia, has yet offered to help pay for the reconstruction.
And hundreds of thousands of people perished in Syria's war. Many thousands have also been wounded and, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 81,000 people have disappeared.
"On both sides, we have no choice but to ask for people to forgive to the best possible degree, and to ask for accountability to a reasonable degree," says al-Binni. "If we wanted to hold everyone accountable, all of Syria would have to go to the gallows."
Living with the wreckage
At this year's Damascus International Fair, Prime Minister Imad Khamis spoke of "the good tidings of victory by the Syrian Arab Army." While a rebel mortar hit the fair's gates at last year's festival, this one opened with great fanfare, the flags of 48 participating countries flying near the entrance.
But just outside the sprawling exhibition of some 1,700 local and international companies, the wreckage of Syria's former rebel-held suburbs stretches for miles. Not a building has been left unscathed and there is not a construction crane in sight.
Hussam Ghaboura shovels the rubble inside his small inner courtyard in the former rebel town of Douma.
"It would be better for me to tear this down and rebuild ... but I can't afford that," he says.
The government, he adds, has not provided support.
And few here can refurbish their homes as Ghaboura has. Barely scraping together enough money for a daily meal, many make do in damaged apartments with no electricity and running water.
Outside, the marketplace buzzes with flies and dust fills the air. A muezzin issues a crackling call to prayer from the all but destroyed Grand Mosque of Douma.
Vendor Alaa Abu Fares places vegetables chosen by a customer on a weighing scale, and furtively opens the bag to reveal wilted eggplants. "You see, people here can only afford to buy bad food," says Alaa.
"And that's all we can afford to sell."
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