In this revolt, economic circumstances divide the protester from the onlooker

Wed, Feb 1, 2012, 00:00

DAMASCUS LETTER:THE PREVALENT feelings in Damascus after 10 months of protests are of uncertainty about the future and waiting for an end. Many want to turn back the clock to last February, before civil unrest engulfed the country. Others are praying for the swift end of Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

In recent weeks violent incidents between protesters and the security services, as well as between defecting soldiers and the regular army have crept closer to Damascus – a city watching a revolution unfold all around it.

Everyday life for millions of Damascenes has changed dramatically. Staples, from cigarettes to eggs, have risen in price by as much as 60 per cent. Heating oil and cooking gas must be booked weeks in advance. Those who can afford meat, stockpile; those who cannot go without.

The regime continues to claim all is fine in Syria, and that it is fighting armed gangs while implementing reforms, though the concrete anti-blast barriers now guarding dozens of security buildings tell a different story.

In this country of many religions divisions are widespread and deep-rooted, with minorities remaining broadly pro-regime.

“We are with [the regime] because we are afraid of the Sunni; we don’t want our women to be forced to wear the niqab,” said a Christian man from a town outside the capital. Alawites, the Shia sect from which President Bashar al-Assad hails, remain defiantly in support of the regime. Christians too.

“It is all an American conspiracy,” remarked a Christian schoolteacher recently, echoing Assad’s most recent public comments. But the unrest, for so long the realm and remit of the countryside, is sneaking closer to the capital.

On December 17th a demonstration outside a mosque in Midan saw the security forces fire on protesters. Until recently the use of live ammunition to suppress dissent had been unheard of in the capital.

The so-called Free Syrian Army, bands of rebel soldiers now spread across the country, managed attacks against several key government and military buildings inside Damascus last month.

Even schoolchildren gathering in groups on the street after classes cause panic. Flash demonstrations – whereby protesters gather for minutes at a time before blending back into the local environment – are becoming increasingly visible.

Commercial interests are also increasingly worried. “Business is down at least 40 per cent, but we have to wait out this crisis,” said a prominent businessman. Others have said they are powerless to persuade the authorities to stop their onslaught.

Fear and divisions between Syria’s religious groups are growing. In Qatana, a largely Sunni town 22km west of the capital where demonstrations occur weekly, residents are faced with an escalating security situation.

“A car approached a checkpoint and turned around last week,” said a lawyer from the town. “Soldiers came out from the undergrowth and fired in the air. All the passengers around me in the bus held their heads in their laps. We are not used to this.”

Animosity among Sunnis and minorities is growing: Christians and Druze civilians in the town regularly report protesters to the secret police and security.

In this revolt it is has been economic circumstance that has divided the protester from the onlooker.

The working-class suburbs of Qaboun, Harasta, Kisweh and Saqba that circle the capital have railed against the regime and the state has cracked down violently in response.

In the middle are the Damascenes, who wait for a resolution to the unrest, over coffees and huka water pipes.

A 28-year-old dentist from the wealthy Malki area of Damascus, whose family have been without cooking gas for several weeks says there is no solution to the unrest.

“If the regime stays it will continue killing; if it goes the country will go into meltdown and maybe civil war.”

Stephen Starr is an Irish freelance journalist and author of Revolt: Eye-Witness to the Syrian Uprising, due to be published in May