On the day I arrived in Damascus, I was flooded by stories you won’t find in any of the newspapers. Mostly, they related to incidents of violent crime.
In one, a young man approached a car with four officers in it. Standing in front of the vehicle and talking by cell phone, the drivers could not move their car. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, four young men on motorbikes appeared, shot the officers point-blank and sped away.
Shortly before that, on another road, unknown assailants forced an officer to stop his car as they callously killed him and the three children he was traveling with. Horrifically, their bodies were hacked to pieces with sabers.
A high-ranking government supporter recounted these shocking stories to me. He’s convinced that there is no people’s revolt, but rather a series of criminal assaults and the clandestine activities of foreign spies who want to destabilize the country in typical divide and conquer fashion.
People in the street eagerly joined in on the conversation. But it’s impossible to reach your friends by phone. Many do everything they can to avoid journalists-behavior which is highly uncharacteristic of the Syrian people.
Syrian TV lists the names of those soldiers and officers who have been killed, offices which were burned out by the rebels, the heartbreaking scenes of funerals and the grieving relatives of the dead. Conversely, Foreign TV channels broadcast short, grainy videos where it’s difficult to make anything out, though one does get an ominous sense of disaster: the picture flickers as the presenter’s voice announces that a peaceful march was dispersed.He then goes on to list the number of casualties.
And yet against this supposedly inauspicious backdrop, one can walk alone in Damascus at any time, day or night. There is no overt military or police presence on the streets. Not long ago, Syria was one of the safest countries in the world. No checkpoints on the roads, patrols, road-side inspections or other signs of a militarized society. Even now, Syria does not look much like the “bloody dictatorship” described by the foreign media.
Neither the people nor the government knows what is going on in different cities around the country.
The only thing that’s clear is that riots have happened on Fridays throughout mosques in urban population centers around the country; someone attacks the troops; innocent people die. Political demands seem to be immaterial in this so-called revolution. There are rumors that somebody wants to divide the country into 25 emirates.It is also said that Russian and Iranian flags are burned in some regions for their support of Syria while the Israel flag is flown in protest against Assad’s policies.
Such reports are, to say the least, highly dubious. Some are dissatisfied that there are too many Alawites in the government; others blame the Sunnis who are allegedly infected by the propaganda of “pure Islam.” A number of sheiks addressed the media and the authorities, demanding that they stop disparaging the various branches of Islam in attempts to scapegoat them for the civil unrest. Whatever is happening, it doesn’t appear to be connected with religion.
One member of the Ba’ath central committee political bureau, Yasser Hourirh, described the disturbances as follows:
“There is a group of activists; they number no more than 100-150 people. They move around the country, come into different mosques on Fridays and if there are enough people, they cry out from the exits of the mosques , ‘There is no God but Allah!’ But we all state that. Meanwhile, one of them records it on camera, and in the end you get a picture of many protesters at a mosque – the media story is ready.
“People say they were paid for coming to these types of rallies: $100 for half an hour on the square. Such people are released within a couple of days. But those setting houses on fire will stand trial. None of those detained put forward any political demands or social programs. Aren’t they strange revolutionaries?”
“There is another tactic. During a rally, the front rows step aside when a signal is given, as armed militants appear from behind. They shoot at soldiers who are forbidden to use guns. Ten policemen were recently killed in just this way, as two others who had been wounded later died after their throats were cut. Is that really the democratic way?”
“The third tactic is that armed militants in the crowd or concealed positions start shooting at the crowds leaving mosque. The media says that the government kills peaceful people. Our police and army did not have weapons at first. But when they began to be targeted, they were allowed to carry weapons for self-defense only. But the West continues to say that the army is killing unarmed protesters. Why don’t they mention the number of officers killed?”
Professor Hourirh is from Homs and often visits the city, which is constantly in the news. And he is surprised to hear that the instigators come from certain Salafi groups. After the first rallies, representatives of the protesters met with Assad and informed him of their demands. They were reasonable requests related to schools, roads and hospitals. The authorities suggested a plan to resolve the situation. But the rallies went on despite the fact that an agreement had been reached. The protesters do not state political demands, unless one considers the motto “Bashar, leave!” as such.
“Why did they set fire to the house of the mayor, the court building, the anti-drug trafficking committee and the TV channel’s office?” Hourirh demanded. “What’s the idea behind these actions? Why is it called a peaceful demonstration if they carry guns? The videos from Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and BBC were not shot in Syria – they are fakes. They want a repeat of the Libyan scenario. But Syria has a three-million-strong diaspora which will not let them do such a thing to their country. These people have strong worldwide connections with their relatives, and you can’t con them with those fakeries.”
He’s sure that Syria’s problem is not internally generated, but rather the side-effect of its critical stance toward Israel.
“If Syria would keep silent and not demand the return of the Golan Heights, if it didn’t protect the rights of the Palestinians, if it were Iran’s enemy, the West would have called it a democratic country,” he said. “But Syria represents a real locus of opposition for Israel, and the US does not want it. We’ve settled all border disputes with Turkey without any interference on behalf of the West. The US takes care of Israel but not any of the Arab countries. Obama says that the US is a guarantee for Israel. But why is he not giving any guarantees to Palestinians? Why does the US media keep silent when Israel kills Palestinians?”
A persistent call for reforms, according to Hourirh, was heard by Assad and did not bring anyone the expected results.
“The government was looking at Europe with credulous eyes, and we paid doubly for that,” he declared. “The West did not do any good for the country, and people blame us for having trusted them. Damascus is the most ancient city in the world, it can afford to be open, but the West does not want to let the East be open – that’s the paradox. Turkey has followed that path to the end and learned the bitter lesson. For ten years, many new hotels have been built, crowds of foreigners came to Syria, but the West insists that there are no changes in the country. So far, the change we see is that democratization of the economy only makes the poor poorer.”