A Year Abroad in Syria
While on a year abroad in Damascus, Roisin Blake saw the beginnings of the uprising in Syria
by Roisin Blake
Saturday 14th May 2011, 08:54 BST
With people unwilling to discuss their views for fear of the repercussions, families who are separated at this time of uncertainty speak in code on the telephone. But they always make sure to refer to protesters as ‘bad people’ for the benefit of secret policemen listening in on the call.
Before President Bashar al-Assad’s first speech on 30 March, the mood was hopeful for reform – an end to political corruption and restricted freedom. But when he placed the blame firmly outside of the country, blindly denying any internal problems, the atmosphere turned bitter. Those that I spoke to had grown resentful that Bashar had rejected his second chance to let Syria progress.
The first chance had come at the start of his time in power. Some had heralded Bashar as a great reformer, a Western-educated free-thinker who would be a breath of fresh air after his conservative father, Hafez. His background was promising: he had studied in London and his wife had grown up there. Together, they were supposed to be a progressive power couple.
The introduction of high-speed internet and the removal of some of his father’s closest advisors seemed to support this theory but, in reality, much stayed the same. Widespread institutional corruption remained and the secret police maintained the pressure on ordinary civilians to not speak out against the regime.
The protests began in earnest in late March of this year but, merely weeks before, the Assad family gave an interview in Vogue, nauseatingly explaining that a chandelier made of comic books was the children’s choice: “[Our] house is run on wildly democratic principles,” cooed Asma al-Assad.
This blatant denial of the authoritarian nature of their rule angered many people ad prompted them to protest. Their sense of injustice was particularly encouraged by the large numbers of political prisoners being held, who exist as proof that the Assad household enjoy the last trace of democracy in the country.
As the anti-government protests were spreading across the country a few weeks ago, central Damascus was full of pro-Assad demonstrations – convoys of cars waving Syrian flags, calling: “My spirit, my blood, I sacrifice for you, Bashar.”
The volume of blood currently being sacrificed for the ideal of freedom is difficult to say, restricted as that information is by the Syrian government. Human Rights organisations put the deathtoll at over 600.
Bashar’s second speech on 16 April was yet another chance for him to put a stop to the unrest. But his ministerial address was too little, too late, and full of hollow, desperate promises of reform. Although he admitted many of the social problems faced by Syria – unemployment, corruption and a lack of interest in people’s problems across a number of state institutions – many Syrians felt that he did not say anything new. He certainly did not admit that the regime itself was at the root of these issues.
Some Syrians view Bashar al-Assad as a force for peace – someone whose aggressive brand of secularism successfully ensures violent sectarianism remains a rarity. Yet Bashar’s unwillingness to bring about change in this time of national uproar suggests his underlying fear that, without the regime, a lethal war between the Sunni majority and Shia ruling class might occur.
Currently, in the army, open praying is banned and every Syrian young man is taught: “There is no God in the army.’ From an outsider’s point of view, it certainly seems that religion plays a less dominant role in Syrian society than in neighbouring Lebanon’s, where symbols of personal faith are displayed at every turn.
In truth, Bashar is not the only one with fears of budding sectarian strife. Some people fear that the toppling of the current Syrian regime could reignite sectarian violence in Lebanon. The Israeli government fears that the tenuous 40-year ceasefire with Syria would not survive a change of government, particularly if an Islamic extremist group were to seize power.
The current prevailing mood is one of uncertainty and fear: fear that Syria will become like the conflict-ridden Beirut of the 1980s, or the looted, violent Baghdad of the early 2000s.
With quiet streets and shops closing early across the city, the people of Damascus are expecting the worst.