Monday, 2 May 2011

Observations from Syria

I arrived in Syria on the day of President Assad’s disastrous speech to the Syrian Parliament, the day that both supporters and critics were shocked at his blasé attitude to those who had fallen in Deraa, just a few days before. Coming from the UK, I didn’t know what to expect- a country on the brink of revolution? Guards and secret police at every corner? Tanks outside the airport? A friend of mine, Muhammad Radwan, had been arrested a few days earlier and so, I half expected to be escorted away for questioning upon landing in the city; however, things are rarely as we imagine them to be. My first few weeks in Damascus were extraordinary in their very ordinariness, café culture was still thriving, tourists (albeit fewer than usual) were still pouring in to enjoy Syria’s historical and cultural riches and young Damascenes continued to pack the capital’s bars and discothèques.
Although a certain shadow of uncertainty did darken everyone’s thoughts and with each passing day, news from cities such as Dara’a, Lattakia, Jableh, Hewran, Homs and many, many more became increasingly bloody and alarming. To date, Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively calm throughout and many have told me that they did not believe this was a revolution but a ‘foreign conspiracy’, others refused outright that their country should be dragged into what they saw would become a bloody mess, a civil war even. One woman said that the government should hit hard ‘massacre them….these bastards trying to destroy our country’. I was surprised by such attitudes; this was not the Syrian elite talking but ordinary middle to lower class men and women.
Following ‘Great Friday’, in fact the bloodiest Friday since the uprising began, the anti demonstrator rhetoric seems to be escalating, fingers being pointed at al-Jazeera for biased reporting and Syrians increasingly concerned by the sectarian element that has come to play. Over the past few days, official and unofficial checkpoints have been set up around Damascus and at one of these a man was brutally beaten by the very same demonstrators asking for rights and humane treatment from their government. His crime? Born and bred in Damascus to an Alawite father and Sunni mother, when he tried to pass the checkpoint back home into Damascus, he said he was a local and when the ‘guards’ at the checkpoint identified his surname as Alawite, they decided to teach him and his kind a lesson.
Christians have been similarly intimidated with notes left in the church collection box with the simple threat ‘you’re next’ and services interrupted on Easter Sunday by armed gangs.
Despite analyst’s attempts to play down the sectarian threat to Syria, whether it be real or unreal, minorities in the capital are worried about the implications of a Sunni overthrow of the regime. One woman told me that never before in her life had she felt that being Christian set her apart from her compatriots. She said Syrians had been able to wear what they wanted, had been able to worship in a mosque or, in a church or, not worship at all and no questions were ever asked. Now she felt that she had to be careful who she spoke to and what about. With, Lebanon only a half an hour away from Damascus, it is not surprising that Syrians look at the many similarities and fear that a similar situation could unfold.
Another theory, proposed by some Syrians, is that of a military coup d’état- an attempted overthrow of the undermined Bashar by his own army. Analysts and observers outside the country have noted the younger Assad’s comparatively more liberal style, his efforts to open up the country economically and crack down on the all pervasive and much feared intelligence service or, mukhabarat. The economic liberalisation which has meant an expansion in Syria’s private sector and a scaling back of the public sector has proved very popular with the urban upper classes; but spelt disaster for the lower classes, who have watched as the socialist social contract put in place by Hafez el-Assad slowly disappears from beneath them. Clearly, this has caused much anger and frustration for the majority of Syrians, thirty percent of whom live below the poverty line. This frustration can only have been magnified by the elite of Damascus and Aleppo who enjoy the good life, shopping in trendy malls that have sprung up throughout the country, enjoying their flashy cars and dining in five star restaurants. This level of inequality, under any circumstances, would have led to a social uprising sooner or, later. But there is also a likelihood that it has been exacerbated by elements within the army and intelligence, who have been affronted by the younger Assad’s audacity in forgetting his family’s allegiances and Alawite sectarian ties.
Although under-reported by the western media, many Syrians have noted an inexplicable lack of co-ordination in the ground-attacks being carried out on both civilians and soldiers, verging on chaos. On the day I finally left Damascus, I was surprised to find the airport road completely lined by army personnel and heavy artillery. My car was stopped at many checkpoints, security men asking for my ID and shouting to each other “Sooriya el-Assad” (Assad’s Syria) and “Allah, Sooriya, Bashar wa bas” (God, Syria, Bashar…only). I had never seen Damascus like this. I eventually found out that the army presence was in response to an earlier incident where a jeep carrying Lebanese number plates had raced up the length of the airport road, zig-zagging from side to side, spraying the road with bullets. A friend who had been driving on the road was forced to swerve to the side and throw himself into a ditch.
If we assume that democracy protesters would have no interest in causing such chaos and the official army would certainly not wish to disrupt the main road leading to Damascus International Airport then one can only conclude that this, and other similar incidents, have been carried out by the ‘conspirators’ that Syrian TV have so zealously been pointing a finger at. The question now is simply: Are these conspirators foreign or, Syrian? If the latter, this is certainly a much more sinister possibility, signalling the likelihood of civil war.

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