Whatever the fate of Mosul or Raqqa or the future of Idlib, Isis and Nusrah are still in conflict – just when the conflict was supposed to be about to end
The Syrian government has been advertising its victories of late. A vast international fair in Damascus, the reconstruction of the old city of Homs – though it has a long, long way to go – and a spankingly restored Sheraton Hotel next to the still sepulchral ruins of eastern Aleppo. But you cannot wash away either the darkness or the ghosts. For in the past few weeks, security officers, police officials and other servants of the Syrian state have suddenly – shockingly for the regime – become victims of assassins, from Aleppo in the north to Damascus.
The latest murder, just a week ago, cost the life of a Syrian police major in Aleppo, a man who (so Aleppo friends tell me) was widely respected, one of the more moderate figures in the security state who refused to take bribes from both businessmen and local tribes. Refusing “baksheesh” on a grand scale in a Middle East long suffering from the cancer of corruption is almost worthy of a medal of valour. Or death. Major Ali Ibrahim was in fact trying to arrest a man for alleged corruption – a member of the Al-Bagaran tribe which had, on and off, fought the Syrian army during the war. He was met by a fusillade of gunfire and killed instantly.
Perhaps the most astonishing was that of Major Somar Zeidan, one of the most interesting figures in the Syrian security services in the north of the country whom – quite by chance – I knew. We met all of six years ago when I was in the already bullet-scarred ancient soukh of Aleppo. A tall army officer in combat fatigues and wearing a steel helmet, Zeidan looked at my companion and I with something between vexation and humour. He had just recaptured a small street of shops from the rebels, and bread was being distributed to civilians who were standing alongside walls newly graffitied with the slogans of Islamist militias. “We are the brigades of 1980,” the slogans said – that was the year the first Muslim Brotherhood uprising threatened the empire of Hafez al-Assad, whose son now rules Syria. These newly invigorated “brigades” now held this corner of the soukh but Zeidan and his soldiers had just driven them out. The road was covered in spent cartridge cases, a sniper still fired from 150 yards away.