Roving thoughts and provocations

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Twilight in Damascus

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian refugees in a camp near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, Hatay province, December 5, 2011

One morning last week, while visiting a friend’s house on the outskirts of the old city of Damascus, I heard high-pitched voices shouting “Irhal ya Bashar!” (“Leave, o Bashar”). I peered out the window onto the street but couldn’t see anything. Later, when I went out, I tracked the chants to children innocently swinging to and fro on a large rusty metal swing in the street. The protest chant against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would be nothing out of the ordinary in Homs, the city near the Lebanese border that has been a center of the Syrian revolt, but to hear it from children’s mouths in the heart of the capital shows how far the revolution has spread.

Over the last couple of weeks, with the Arab League’s decision to further isolate Syria with sweeping economic sanctions, the mood in Damascus has rapidly blackened. More people appear to have lost faith in the regime. There are increasingly frequent power cuts, and suddenly, lines of people with plastic containers snaking around petrol stations as supplies of mazout, heating oil, run low. At the souks, I’ll still see traders opening the wooden doors to their shops, aromas of spices and coffee floating out; or men and young boys in tatty leather flipflops pushing boxes of goods stamped “Made in China” on metal trolleys. (China remains one of Syria’s dwindling number of allies and hasn’t applied any economic sanctions.) But many families are no longer buying meat or eggs. “They’ve gone up to 8 SYP from 5 SYP each,” said one vendor apologetically when I went to buy a dozen last week. It is not just eggs—prices of all household products are rising. A canister of cooking gas has risen to 1000 SYP from 250 SYP. The dollar last week hit 60 SYP (It was 45 SYP only one year ago). Since foreign currency is scarce, those with spare cash have started buying gold. A war is coming, some people say.

For almost nine months, the revolt has pitted large numbers of aggrieved Syrians determined to remain in the streets against a regime that has few qualms about suppressing them with lethal violence. Outside the capital, where the bulk of the bloodshed has taken place, the crackdown has resulted in some 4,000 documented deaths. Many I talk to believe the true toll is far higher. Inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have been motivated by sheer disgust at authoritarian government and lack of opportunity rather than sectarian interests. (The Assad family belong to the country’s Alawite minority, which make up roughly ten percent of the population; three quarters of Syrians are Sunnis.) But some of the violence has now taken on a sectarian cast as the Alawite-controlled security forces and thugs lead the crackdown and dominate state jobs, which are seen as cushy in a country with unemployment in the double digits. When I stayed in Homs last summer, a mixed Alawite-Sunni city of 1.5 million, security forces would open fire as soon as protesters went out; hundreds have been killed there alone.

In Hama, a homogenous conservative Sunni city about 130 miles north of Damascus, there are not such divides. In early July, after a bloody weekend in which over 70 protesters were shot dead, security forces backed out. (Hama is the site of a 1982 massacre of Islamists—the most violent crackdown in Syrian history—and the regime may have judged it best to avoid attracting further such attention to the city.) When I visited shortly after, civilian committees were popping up to take the government’s place. On Fridays, after the weekly prayer, thousands poured into the squares waving roses and olive branches; men roped an area off for women and boys cleaned the streets. But on the eve of Ramadan at the start of August the regime decided it had to end this open revolt and retook the city in a three-day assault.

In contrast, life in Damascus has seemed somewhat removed from the crisis. But the capital has not been a hub of support for the regime as is often portrayed. Behind closed doors of ramshackle houses in the north-eastern suburb of Harasta, just ten minutes from the center, young men lift T-shirts and roll up trouser legs to reveal bruises and cuts. Many are beaten during demonstrations or detained in security cells for days at a time. They, like most satellite towns and suburbs around the city such as Moadimiyah and Qaboun, have long been up in arms.

In central Damascus, people are avidly following news of the crackdown, even if the regime’s control of the media allows for only patchy knowledge. They get updates from friends and relatives—mainly in person or in code, since phones are monitored. For those with a connection, the Internet is the preferred mode, and many have learned how to use software to get around Internet monitoring. Thousands of people have watched YouTube videos of protesters, activists and children who have been tortured, often to death, their corpses returned to their families black and blue from beatings, scarred with red marks from electric shocks, with bullet holes and, in the worse cases, castrated. They feel, with a sense of horror, their own growing numbness to the bloody scenes.

For months, people in the capital have been split over the crackdown. By the summer regime supporters had spray-painted yellow Al Jazeera logos on the city’s green garbage bins to show their disgust at the Arab satellite news organization’s coverage of the uprising (state media frequently blames the channel for fabricating the uprising). Other graffitti downtown thanks ad-Dounia, a pro-regime channel. In recent weeks, however, those who remain loyal to the regime—and there are many—are less outspoken. Now they are growing fearful.

Louai Besharal/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-regime protesters in front of a mural of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during a rally, Damascus, December 2, 2011

Rallies in support of the government continue to be staged frequently, but are mainly orchestrated affairs that schoolchildren and workers are compelled to attend (although some do voluntarily). Such productions are hard to take seriously when expressed as hysterical love for the president himself: his face adorning posters, flags and t-shirts, while children in blue smocks call “Abu Hafez”—Father of Hafez—a reference to the possibility that Bashar’s son Hafez might take power after him. His supporters are dubbed mnhibbakjji, which means “we love you.”

Conversations I have had with government supporters no longer follow a rational chain of thought. “It’s the security forces, not the president,” one woman, a Christian, told me. Yes, I replied, but if that’s the case then you have an even bigger problem—a president without control and the need to dismantle the whole system. And what about all the people who have been killed? Another pause and she responded with a torment of fears: “Yes, that’s terrible. But there are gangs! They have been killing, too. The outside world is doing this! And we can’t have the Muslim Brotherhood take over!” Worries like this are widely expressed among the Christian community, which has mainly clung to the regime’s side, if only out of fear of what might take its place.

There are many more who now regard the regime’s behavior as atrocious, even if they don’t actively show it. Some anxiously pull me inside their shops to talk. “What do you think will happen?” says a Palestinian shopkeeper. “Will it be a civil war or a slow-burn collapse?” asks a tradesman from the restless suburb of Zamalka. Security remains omnipresent, but with the unending violence and growing effects of sanctions people are increasingly willing to speak out. One man told me last week, “you can now be arrested for being thought to be thinking something, not even saying it,” but added that they could not lock everyone up.

All this has upended the social realities of only a year ago. In the decade between the time Bashar took power and the uprising, Damascus became a livelier city. Bars proliferated, tourists sparked a boom in boutique hotels and restaurants, Arabic students flooded in, and Syrians became connected to the outside world. Beneath the surface, things were kept under the same tight control as they had been under Bashar’s father. Dissidents languished in prison. Bloggers were arrested. Security agents, an ever-present brigade of men with leather jackets, moustaches, and cigarettes lurked on street corners and poked their noses into even the smallest affairs. People had to navigate corruption and frequent humiliation, from being insulted by security agents to not being able to find work. But this dark, murky side of the government could still somehow be ignored by the apathetic, hedonistic, or hopeful who were willing to stay out of political matters.

With the now daily horrors of the uprising, the regime’s grip on the country can no longer be ignored. It even inspires black humor. People circulate video clips, spoofs or animated cartoons sending up Bashar and the shabiha, a term rarely heard before March but now ubiquitously used to refer regime loyalists. In one animation posted on YouTube, Bashar is seen playing “Who Wants to Kill a Million?,” modelled on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Another, made at a moment early in the uprising when the opposition was entirely peaceful but the government was trying to claim they had weapons shows one man telling another than the opposition is armed. “Oh, with what?,” asks the other, aghast. “Four megapixels!” says the other, pulling out a banned camera phone that gives a grainy picture of what is going on inside the country.

A joke is circulating among the liberal classes in Damascus in which a woman tries to persuade her husband to make love to her by riffing on a protest chant: “He who does not take part, has no honor!” Many of the wealthier are discussing exit plans to places such as France where their children can grow up without a pervasive sense of danger and psychological stress. Others are keen to stick it out at home, but the heaviness of the decision weighs on their minds, and weekend trips to Beirut become a necessary escape. Some people try to outdo one another with their revolutionary credentials. Hama, for example, gets credit for lasting a month outside government control, while Deir Ezzor, a tribal city in the east that is far removed from the centers of power, has become one of the hotbeds of the uprising. Thus a Christian activist from Hama with a boyfriend from Deir Ezzor trumps a dissident from central Damascus. Homsis—residents of Homs—used to be the butt of jokes; now Homsi men are considered a desirable catch for Syrian girls.

As the crackdown hammers on, elements of the protest movement itself are becoming increasingly militarized. Rag-tag groups of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army, joined by some civilian volunteers, have been defending protesters. They have simple weapons—grenades and guns—smuggled in across borders, mainly from Lebanon where the price of weapons has risen, but they are growing more and more audacious. They have made increasing numbers of targeted attacks against intelligence buildings and the security checkpoints that have proliferated across the country; last month they even shot at two buildings in the capital. There are also more frequent reports of sporadic gunfire.

This is no match for a regime armed with tanks, a loyal security service, and fanatical thugs, and people fear that things will get worse before they get better. Yet there is widespread feeling of amazement that the revolt has lasted this long – and that it continues—and touches so many. Older men chastise themselves for having silently put up with this regime for four decades until taught by their sons and daughters that enough was enough. “I’m embarassed,” a middle-aged professional in Damascus confided. “We focused on navigating our own lives and now our children are paying the price.” One man told me he has not yet been to register his newly-born daughter with the authorities. “I am waiting for after—after—so I can call her Thawra,” Arabic for revolution.

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