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SYRIA: Driving Into a Divided Land

Mona Alami

DAMASCUS, Aug 19 2011 (IPS) - Scores of buses carrying Syrians out of the country are waiting in uneven lines on the Lebanese-Syrian border for their paperwork to be processed. There are no Arab or Western tourists eager to cross to the other side, usually seen in hordes this time of year.

“It’s completely dead for the season. We are barely working, and the situation is worsening day by day since the beginning of the unrest,” says Youssef, a taxi driver.

Since Mar. 15 and the beginning of the “Syrian Revolution”, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been rocked by pro-democracy protests. A violent crackdown by the government has followed. So far, there have been more than 2,000 fatalities and at least 12,000 arrests, according to activists and NGOs.

A highway cuts through the white and reddish mountains leading to the Syrian capital, Damascus. Here, posters of late president Hafez al-Assad – who handed the reigns of the country to his son, Bashar, before his death in 2000 – adorn the high grey walls of military bases punctuating the landscape.

The national anthem and patriotic Syrian songs play continuously on the radio. In between, the broadcaster reads out messages, all naturally in support of the country’s regime. “We salute our leader,” she says at one point. As if to emphasize her words, a sign on the road reads, “Hafez al-Assad, our leader forever.”

Beyond the large plain and its long highways, Damascus appears in its haphazard glory. The city is a mix of new whitewashed stone buildings amidst elegant as well as rundown houses, built in the Turkish Ottoman or French mandate style. The stern facades of official government buildings show a strong Soviet influence.

The resulting architectural dichotomy between old and new, beauty and ugliness, seems to pervade every street corner. Abu Rumaneh area leading to the new Four Seasons Hotel boasts glossy plush stores selling designer goods. In the chic Melki area, where the old bourgeoisie and nouveau riche reside, flowerbeds and green lawns line colourful pathways in the middle of the streets.

Here, people’s loyalties are divided between those supporting the regime and those with the protestors. All complain about extensive misinformation being circulated from both sides of the divide.

“We do not know what news media to trust any more,” says Hassan, a resident of Melki. “We often receive phone calls from our friends warning us not to take the Mazzeh road that leads to our neighborhood because of reports of gunfire, when the streets are in fact totally calm.”

Away from the richer areas, and on the streets of the city’s more popular souk areas, the story is different.

“Protesters are unrelenting. We are organising short protests at night, mostly after the Tawarih Ramadan prayers to escape the scrutiny of intelligence services,” says Abou Alaa, a local resident.

Off-duty military men and customs officers patrol the streets. Some men, clearly intelligence personnel, stand conspicuously on street corners wearing dark glasses, mingling with the effervescent crowds.

Wherever you go in Damascus, the streets are buzzing with rumours.

“Some say the violence should be blamed on thugs, radical Islamists, or militants,” says Hani, a local resident. “But I believe the protesters are peaceful, they want to be acknowledged and make ends meet. The government could do more.”

Someone not familiar with the modus operandi of the Assad regime would find that a harmless statement. But those who know how things used to be before the uprising realise that lifting the shroud of silence that has been suffocating the country for over 40 years is no small feat. But now, in coffee shops and taxi cabs, more and more people are willing to express their opinion.

“Damascus and Aleppo (Syria’s two largest cities) are rallying. They are like two enormous saucepans requiring some time to heat, that have now come to the boil. Protests are taking place in the Mouhajireen area in the centre of Damascus, a few kilometres away from the Central Bank,” says a Damascus-based economist.

Thousands also demonstrated this week in Saad Allah Al Jabri Square, in the mainly quiet city Aleppo.

An army bus passes by with three pictures plastered on its side, of Hafez al Assad, one of Bashar, and one of a hawk, the country’s coat of arms representing the military. It is a holy trinity that now seems endangered by a receding atmosphere of fear.

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