Damascus and Aleppo stand aside in struggle against Syrian regime


ANALYSIS:The cities comprise half the population, most of the wealth and will wait for the fighting in the countryside to end

THE PICTURES coming out of vast swathes of the Syrian countryside for almost 16 months have portrayed a widespread anger and defiance matched only by the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

But images from Damascus, the capital, depict a city where life continues almost as normal. The ancient alleyways of central Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, are calm.

Every evening Syrian state television broadcasts footage of guns and explosives seized from “armed gangs”. It airs confessions by men claiming to have been given cash by “outside forces” to stir up trouble in Syria.

Syrians also watch regional television news on outlets such as Al Jazeera, which shows the devastation of Homs and Idlib, two centres of revolt. They are unsure of what to believe but they know their streets are peaceful; “al hamdillallah” (thank God), they say to each other.

The regime claims to have enacted reforms, including parliamentary elections, earlier this year, showing that it is acting on popular demand for change. Its assertions give comfort to many. Syrians in Damascus and Aleppo, the silent majority, are reassured by the billboards and radio broadcasts telling them the regime remains strong and that the “plot” will fail. Military drills carried out by Damascus close to the Turkish border help shore up this sentiment.

Add to the mix the growth of what appears to be jihadi activity. Five major bombings have rocked Damascus and Aleppo over the past six months, killing hundreds and striking terror into the people needed to ensure the revolt succeeds. Late last month, a car bomb, close to a court in the heart of Damascus, was used by the regime to further convince the capital’s citizens that it offers stability. It equates opposition rule with the sight of cars ablaze in the city centre.

Damascenes, or Shuam as they are locally known, are fearful of the rebels and the regime. They hear stories of bloodshed and destruction from people coming into the city. Both sides’ forces are responsible for this.

There is also the threat of the security forces. A Damascus- based analyst said recently that fear of the vicious security forces meant 500 people on the streets of the capital or Aleppo are worth 5,000 under Gadafy or 50,000 under Mubarak.

A scene of utter devastation has taken hold in the districts of Saqba, Arbeen and Harasta, each a 15-minute drive east from the malls and fancy cafes frequented by the sons and daughters of wealthy Damascene families.

I witnessed the smashed homes and mosques when reporting from there last February. Men and women stood in the streets outsides their homes with shock on their faces, bewildered that those with whom they share highway space each and every day ignore the regime’s actions.

Politicians in the US, Europe and elsewhere are searching for a solution that does not involve getting their hands dirty.

Their latest attempt, the UN- Arab League mission, can never achieve its mandate because neither the rebels nor the regime are willing to lay down their arms.

UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan admitted as much in April. Those on the outside are looking to Syrians to topple this ruthless dictatorship.

Solutions to the chaos that has engulfed Syria are elusive, but looking to the inhabitants of Damascus and Aleppo to swing this revolt in favour of the protesters is not one.

There will be no Tahrir moment initiated by city dwellers in these two cities; they will wait for their country brethren to come with fire-power that outguns the regime’s.

Damascus and Aleppo, which comprise almost half of Syria’s population and the vast majority of its wealth, will wait for the mess in the countryside to be resolved. Then the business class will come up with a political solution.

During the 2011-2012 revolt, an opportunity presented itself when city dwellers, had they helped instigate a “Tahrir” in Damascus or Aleppo, could have succeeded in bringing down the regime.

Mass opposition could have overwhelmed the Assad government and forced it to cede control of Syria.

Moreover, if privileged families could have joined such a popular demonstration then today’s Syria could look different.

But for those seeking a route to topple Bashar al-Assad, don’t look to the people of Damascus or Aleppo.

Stephen Starr is an Irish freelance journalist who lived in Syria for five years until February. His book, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, will be launched this evening in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin.

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