Damascus residents breathe a sigh of relief as scores of security checkpoints come down

AMMAN: Before 2011, Abu Malek’s 20-minute trip from his home in southeast Damascus to his job at the Ministry of Education in the city center was unremarkable: a commute comparable to any other in the world.

But after anti-government protests began in 2011 and gave way to what became a years-long civil war, government security personnel in Damascus added checkpoint after checkpoint to the 42-year-old’s route.

Some days, Abu Malek says, the trip took more than two hours by bus—forcing him to leave home at 6:30 in the morning to make it through the five checkpoints on the way to work.

Even so, Abu Malek regularly arrived at his office a full hour late or more. His colleagues arrived late too, he says, though his employers at the Ministry understood that “checkpoints are unpredictable and change from day to day.”

Today, however, Abu Malek says his daily routine is changing for the better. With only two checkpoints between him and his work, he feels he can “go anywhere, at any time with no problems.”

A forklift removes roadblocks in Damascus city center on May 8. Photo courtesy of Your Guide in Damascus.

Since recapturing the last rebel-held pockets in and around Damascus in May, the Syrian government has removed scores of security and military checkpoints in the city, enabling residents like Abu Malek to move around relatively freely for the first time in years.

With checkpoints coming down and the Syrian government in full control of the capital for the first time since 2011, a handful of Damascenes tell Syria Direct that increased mobility and a greater sense of security has transformed some neighborhoods near former frontlines from “ghost towns” to spaces buzzing with life late into the evening.

‘Room to breathe’

Security checkpoints first started appearing in the streets of Damascus in the spring of 2011, in an attempt to contain anti-government protests. Later, as armed opposition factions captured and held territory in and around the capital and the scale of the conflict increased, the number of checkpoints rose to match.

By the end of 2017, government forces and allied militias ran around 280 checkpoints in urban and rural Damascus, according to statistics gathered by the Damascus-based pro-opposition news site Voice of the Capital. Syria Direct was not able to independently confirm this number.  

But after recapturing former rebel strongholds such as East Ghouta and south Damascus earlier this year, the Syrian government began to relax the intense security presence in the streets of the capital. Only a handful of checkpoints at the edges of Damascus are slated to remain, Russian news outlet Sputnik reported in May, citing unnamed Syrian government sources.

Outer Damascus governor Alaa Munir Ibrahim announced in late May that 90 percent of the roadblocks in the province have now been removed.

The ongoing removal of Damascus checkpoints, a handful of residents say, has not only relieved them of hours of waiting every day but also of the cost of paying bribes and the inconvenience of facing “harassment” by officers at security points.

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A member of the Syrian army checks the identification card of the passengers at a checkpoint in Damascus in June 2013. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.

Abu Salem, a 46-year-old businessman who owns several clothing shops in the eastern Damascus suburb of Duweilea, says the removal of the checkpoints has allowed him to lower prices in his stores.

In past years, when trucking clothes from his supplier in Damascus city center to his stores, Abu Salem says he was obliged to pay bribes at checkpoints, compensate drivers for any delays and cover the cost of goods ruined by security officers searching for smuggled goods.

At the time, the costs incurred at the checkpoints led the businessman to raise prices, “sending customers running,” he says. Now, both delays and costs are down.

University of Damascus law student Ahmad—who, like all the Damascus residents quoted in this report, asked not to be identified by his full name for fear of repercussions for speaking to the media—is attending his classes regularly for the first time in years, he says, now that checkpoints have been removed.

The 22-year-old avoided leaving his home to travel to the university, in part, due to his fear of “harassment” by the officers guarding the checkpoints, who would “force you to pay them or else they would arrest you.”

With the removal of the checkpoints in recent weeks came “an incredible sense of mental relief,” says Ahmad.

In al-Asali, a south Damascus suburb neighboring the formerly Islamic State-held districts of al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, 24-year-old resident Hadifa remembers how streets in his neighborhood would empty after 8:00pm in recent years. “People were scared either of the checkpoints or kidnappings,” he tells Syria Direct.

Now, the streets of al-Asali are filled with people even late into the night. “There is no longer anything to fear,” says Hadifa.

Law student Ahmad compares life after the removal of the checkpoints to “rising from the dead.” Now, he says, “we have space for hope and room to breathe.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Mohamed Zuhair Hamidi

Mohamed is from Aleppo city and lived in Outer Damascus. He moved to Jordan in 2013 and worked with a human rights organization. He began training with Syria Direct in order to develop his skills in independent journalism, hoping to serve the needs of his people.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.