Editor's Notes: As Assad tries to hang on

A friend of mine recently visited the Syrian capital, where he had previously been a student. This column sets out the impressions of Damascus he conveyed to me on his return.

Syria Pro-government rally 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria Pro-government rally 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In times of tension, on Qamariyah Street, one of the main streets of the Old City, they put down this metal grille with an Israeli flag on it. A great big metal thing laid out on the cobble stones, and you have to walk on it to get past. You have to trample on the Israeli flag.
So, they put it out during the Gaza war. They put it out when [Hezbollah commander Imad] Mughniyeh was blown up across town three years ago – that was during the year when I was studying in Damascus. And, obviously, when I went back just now for a short return visit, the flag was out there again.
Whenever there’s any trouble, the regime blames Israel, blames the Mossad. And out comes the Israeli flag on Qamariyah Street.
The difference this time is that when Bashar [Assad], in his speech at the end of March, slammed “external forces” for organizing the protests – by which he meant the Mossad, of course – people ridiculed the idea. Everybody knows this has nothing to do with the Mossad.
He’s trying to hang on, that’s for sure. And until very recently, in Damascus at least, you really didn’t feel the instability. I was in the city on the day he spoke in parliament, and we didn’t hear that report that some woman tried to attack or stop his car when he drove away. We’d heard a rumor that there had been a gunfight at a government building in Mezze, a suburb of the capital. But nothing more than that.
What was striking to me on this last trip, though, was the massive upsurge of the Bashar Assad personality cult. Don’t get me wrong, when I was there studying, his face was everywhere, too. Huge posters running up the entire sides of buildings. Banners. Portraits. Serious Bashar. Pensive Bashar. Thumbs-up Bashar. Bashar in his Ray-Bans.
But it’s even more intense now. The man is inescapable. I saw cars where every single panel carried a different portrait of the president. And the Syrian flag, that’s everywhere now too. Playing up the patriotism.
Even in the clubs, they’ve started playing a quasi-patriotic anthem with a house beat. Dance for Syria.
AS A foreigner, doing my year of Arabic study in Damascus, I didn’t feel the repression of the regime, not in the same way as my Syrian friends did. Barely at all, in fact.
If I’d have been caught smoking cannabis, for instance, I imagine I would have been kicked out of the country. And that would have been that. But I have friends who know people who were thrown in jail and simply disappeared for doing that. They haven’t heard from them since. And they don’t dare try to go visit them for fear they might end up meeting the same fate.
A fellow foreign student had the secret police come to his apartment once to tell him to stop throwing parties. He thinks it was the local club owners who informed on him, because they thought he was taking away their clientele. But the mukhabarat just told him to send everyone home. That was it. Plainly, there was a policy in the regime to make foreigners feel comfortable as long as we didn’t push our luck.
But for my Syrian friends, it’s very different. I have friends who have been hit, beaten, arrested. I’d been invited to a bonfire party to celebrate Kurdish new year. It got shut down. A friend was hit by a policeman. Others were taken away for hours.
Some of my friends are dissidents, sure. Remember, it doesn’t take very much to be a dissident. It would be enough to discuss that the government is not good and that you need change to be considered a dissident.
Unlike most people in Damascus, some of my friends did a little more than that; some of them did go to pro-reform protests. One, who took part in a recent rally in Umayyad Square, said almost all of those who were with her were arrested.
They were all released a few hours later... except for one. He’s still being held, or was as of last week. Maybe his name was on a list, maybe he had been named in the past as a troublemaker? Nobody knows. Nobody ever knows. They were in the square with banners – not attacking the regime, just saying “We need reform.” My friend said she realized it was time to run. Why? Because uniformed security people were picking people up.
So for my Syrian friends, yes, the regime is pretty scary. The emergency laws mean you can’t say anything, anything at all, against the regime. Those laws mean the government can spy on you and arrest you any time they want, for no reason whatsoever. They mean that anyone around you could be reporting on you, and that you can disappear at any moment. So people want change, sure, but it’s scary to demand it.
There are also all kinds of corruptions that people loathe. That you have to pay :a little fee” when you rent an apartment, for the mukhabarat. A little fee to get paperwork done quickly. And that people can and do use the mukhabarat to settle scores; to inform on other people. But that’s minor stuff.
While I was there, all the residents of a UN-rented house were thrown out of the country, in an instant. Good-bye, and no more visas for you. The rumor was that someone had said something a bit offensive, or written something on a blog. But it happened so quickly – it always happens so quickly, and you can never quite know why.
DID WE talk about Israel? Even my “dissident” friends would be too scared to so much as muse about what it might be like to visit Tel Aviv, in case someone within earshot worked for the secret police.
A friend of mine – a liberal friend of mine – told me that when she was a child, all of her nightmares were of Israelis coming into her room and shooting her down. That was inculcated at home and at school.
The regime draws a distinction between Jews and Israelis. Another friend went to school with two Jews, she said, and they were treated fine. A local synagogue was robbed while I was there; that wasn’t seen as anything but a crime. But kids are taught that their Israeli counterparts are given rockets to fire. There are often e-mails circulating with photographs of purported Israeli massacres. It’s Jews good, Israelis bad, that’s for sure.
REALLY, I would have told you, until the past few days, that Assad was managing to keep the lid on the discontent. I would have said he was going to prevail.
He’d been pretty clever, allowing a certain amount of reform and relaxation of restrictions.
There’s been a gradual reduction in the length of compulsory military service. It’s meant to be coming down to 18 months in a few weeks’ time. Stateless Kurds are being granted citizenship.
In the Old City over recent years, “After 7” cool bars and clubs have sprung up. It’s very touristy. Those clubs were all still open when I visited now. I played backgammon in the 24-hour, all male bars.
The entertainment has been affordable for a lot of people, certainly for the middle classes. So people have been able to have some fun, and that reduces the resentments.
The middle class was feeling some improvements, so why take the terrible risks involved in putting yourself out there demanding more?
The Internet has been a key barometer. When I first arrived as a student, there were very few Internet cafes, and the Internet functioned incredibly slowly. It took ages to open a site; the system would crash all the time.
Gradually, it improved – more Internet cafes, faster surfing. People started using Facebook and YouTube. Assad’s wife, Asma, was reaching out to Syrians via the Web, filming clips talking about women’s rights, maintaining a Facebook page. She was seen as quite progressive.
But then some of those sites got banned. Someone had posted a picture of Bashar’s wife with her skirt blown up by the wind, or something. That’s what I heard, anyway. I imagine that wasn’t the only consideration.
For a while, still, foreigners could get around the ban. You gave the cafe guy the nod and he would play along. But then that got harder, too. You’d have to show your passport and they’d write down what sites you were going to. Or he’d say he couldn’t do it. It was too risky.
When I went back now, Facebook and YouTube were open. I don’t know if they’ve been shut down in the past few days. And BBC Arabic was being broadcast. That had been banned in the past as well. (The BBC, like other foreign media, has not been allowed to send in correspondents, but its Syrian staffer has been reporting for the BBC’s English service.) There’s been limited footage, from mobile devices, and people speaking from inside apartments, but it’s on. Reporting protests in Deraa. Reporting the regime’s claims of agent provocateurs. Al-Jazeera is also giving full coverage, and it was on in Damascus last week.
I think they realized that if they close down Facebook and YouTube and the BBC again, people would get very angry; so they haven’t. They’ve been prepared to take the risk of a little liberalization. This is the regime trying to find the middle ground. Trying to show signs of progressiveness. But it’s a risky, delicate business.
In Damascus, all the shops have TVs up on the wall – even the local bakeries. The owner will look you over when you come in. If you’re a foreigner they won’t care. But when the TV is showing protests in Deraa, if lots of people come in, they’ll turn it off, worried that there might be secret police.
SO, LIKE I said, I’d have thought until recently that Assad would manage to preserve stability. Three months ago, I’d have said the regime was stable, because so many people were ultimately comfortable-ish with the situation, or they could live with it, at least. And the price of any opposition was so high. And they remembered past instabilities and didn’t want a return to that.
Even as recently as last week, while we all knew there was trouble in Kurdish areas to the northwest and Deraa to the south, Damascus seemed calm. (Then came demonstrations at Damascus University on Monday, which involved people from Deraa showing solidarity, with the report of one fatality.)
There were lots of pro-Assad rallies while I was there just now. The police were stopping students on their way to school, telling them, “You’re not expected at school now. You are expected at the pro- Assad rally.”
But his speech certainly didn’t go down well. A week earlier, his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban had promised the imminent cancellation of the emergency laws. So she’d set expectations high. And he promised nothing. People thought it was a farce. One of my friends wrote on Facebook something to the effect of “now I see your true smile, Bashar.” He got followed for a while after that.
And the protests aren’t dying out, they’re spreading. Deraa, where a friend of a friend was among those killed, is sealed off. More and more people are getting killed all over the place. Bouthaina said he didn’t give the orders to open fire, but plenty of people think he’s very much in control.
So now, I’m not so sure that Assad can survive this. Every Friday people are getting killed. Other days too.
If you’ve understood what I’ve told you about Syria, you’ll realize that the very fact that these protests keep erupting, well, that’s quite impressive. Until very recently, it would have been unthinkable.