[Marxism] Jonathan Steele dispatch from Syria

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 15 07:28:24 MDT 2012


http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n06/jonathan-steele/diary

Diary
Jonathan Steele

Roughly twice a week several carloads of people set off from 
middle-class areas of central Damascus for a ‘party’ in the 
unlikely setting of Qudsaya, an impoverished hill town about eight 
miles northwest of the city. As the guests drive up the steep 
streets to the town’s small central square, young men, some with 
scarves wrapped round their faces, look out for signs of danger. 
The ‘party’ is actually a protest against Bashar al-Assad’s 
regime; government security forces may appear at any moment. My 
first two attempts to get to Qudsaya failed when armed police and 
militia showed up at the last minute and the demonstrations were 
cancelled. Along with Barzeh, a northeastern suburb of Damascus, 
Qudsaya is the nearest place to the capital where there are 
regular protests against the regime. The bombardment of Homs has 
monopolised media coverage, but confrontations are going on in 
scores of other towns and now affect several outlying districts of 
Damascus itself. As is the case all over Syria, the majority of 
the protesters in Barzeh and Qudsaya are unemployed young men from 
poor homes. But they are getting more and more support from the 
Damascus middle class.

I finally arrived in Qudsaya early one evening. A young man 
scrambled up a tree where he hung the independence flag – green, 
white and black with three red stars. It first appeared when the 
French mandate ended in 1946, but the Baath Party dumped it when 
it took power in 1963. Now it is the symbol of what activists call 
the intifada or, more hopefully, the thawra (‘revolution’). On the 
dot of seven the lights went out in the blocks of flats on one 
side of the square. ‘Just the usual power cut,’ one of my escorts 
explained, pointing to the buildings opposite where the lights 
were still on. Electricity is rationed throughout Syria and cuts 
of six hours a day are common. Towns where there is unrest get 
longer cuts.

A young man headed up one of the unlit streets carrying a flaming 
torch. About two hundred others followed him, many with flags. One 
sat on a friend’s shoulders and shouted through a loudhailer: ‘We 
are the Arab people! Down with Bashar!’ The others joined in. News 
had come through that Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian ‘citizen journalist’ 
who had been risking his life for weeks, died in Homs the previous 
day along with Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. One of the marchers 
carried a banner with al-Sayed’s name and the message: ‘This day 
is for you.’ After a twenty-minute circuit around the town, with 
shopkeepers looking on impassively, the marchers returned to the 
central square, where a crowd of two thousand waited for the 
speeches to begin. A microphone stood next to a neon sign flashing 
a one-word slogan: erhal (‘leave’), the protesters’ message to Assad.

Young women in hijabs stood to the left of the crowd, chanting as 
enthusiastically as the men, but separated from them by a rope, 
partly to protect them but also to allow them to escape more 
quickly should the security forces appear. One or two bare-headed 
women could be seen in the throng and a small group of them stood 
just beyond it. ‘Welcome, Christian people,’ the first speaker 
shouted, addressing those women. The government claims the 
uprising is sectarian, a view its supporters are keen to disprove. 
‘One, one, the Syrian people are one,’ the crowd chanted and the 
speaker roared: ‘This is the revolution’s vow.’ Row after row of 
people raised their right hands, chanting: ‘We will make our 
country one – Alawites, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Druze and 
Kurds.’ Many of the chants were religious: ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is 
most great’) and ‘Labbayyka Allah’ (‘We obey you, God’). A girl in 
hijab came to the microphone and shouted: ‘We have nothing but our 
hope in God.’ People put their arms round their neighbours’ 
shoulders or waists and launched into a dance invented by 
protesters in Homs. They swayed to the right, then to the left, 
before bending forwards with their heads bowing towards their 
knees. The movement was repeated several times while the chanting 
continued.

‘I’m an atheist but I call out “Allahu Akbar” because it makes 
people feel strong,’ my escort, Anwar, explained on our way home. 
He is a Circassian, a member of a Caucasian minority which fled to 
Syria to escape the tsar’s armies. ‘“Allahu Akbar” is also a 
riposte to a regime slogan that says: “Bashar and nobody else.”’ 
Later, we had a glass of wine in a smoke-filled café in an 
upper-class district of Damascus. Anwar’s friend Rime admitted 
that she was petrified before each ‘party’. ‘Calling out “Allahu 
Akbar” helps to calm me down,’ she said. ‘But there’s another 
thing. In detention they sometimes force prisoners to shout, 
“There is no God but Bashar,” so the protesters want to show there 
is an alternative.’

The question of how far the protest movement is controlled by 
Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the major unknowns of 
the Syrian crisis. An even bigger question is the extent of 
support for the resistance a year after the unrest began. No one 
can accurately gauge the size of the movement, but despite its 
surface calm, and the usual traffic jams, Damascus feels like an 
occupied city. Opposition activists whisper at café tables, never 
sure whether the people sitting around them are informers. Many 
activists have gone ‘underground’, living away from home to avoid 
arrest. People use Skype or proxy SMS networks to make it harder 
for the regime to listen in. Many supporters of the regime, as 
well as some in the opposition, see sectarian divisions as fixed: 
they claim that all Alawites, the minority Shia sect from which 
the Assad family comes, are pro-regime, as are ethnic and 
religious minorities, Kurds, Druze, Circassians, Armenians and 
Christian Arabs (totalling about 40 per cent of the population). 
This seems too simple. There are certainly divisions within 
households. I spoke to a Christian who opposed the regime and 
whose wife supported it; a young woman from a secular Sunni family 
said her father backed the regime because he thought the Americans 
were manipulating the uprising, but her mother took the opposite 
view. While they argued about politics at home, in public they 
were part of the silent majority waiting anxiously for what comes 
next.
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Rime, a secular Sunni and committed protester, belongs to a regime 
family: her father is a senior Baath Party member. She says he’s a 
coward. One of her friends is a relative of Assad’s wife, Asma. At 
a recent protest in a Damascus suburb they took refuge in a shop 
when the army started shooting. The owner pulled down the metal 
shutters but was forced to open them when troops threatened to 
smash their way in. The women claimed they had just been out 
shopping, but were ordered to show their IDs. ‘Oh, you’re part of 
Madam’s family,’ a security policeman said, not altogether surprised.

Many wealthier activists have been taking medical supplies, 
blankets and food to the half-dozen suburbs where the army has 
mounted offensives. In recent weeks there have been clashes in 
several suburbs between security forces and the Free Syrian Army, 
a network of locals, out-of-town armed volunteers and a trickle of 
defectors from the regular army. You can load up a car boot and 
deliver supplies to conflict zones easily enough, as long as you 
make sure that there are no army checkpoints along the way. But 
checkpoints are now more frequent and punishments more severe. ‘If 
they catch you, you will be detained for sure. It’s even forbidden 
to have a small first-aid kit in your car,’ Rime said. Supplies 
are delivered via back roads by an organised network, often at 
night. Motorbikes travel from Damascus to Homs.

The government is determined to keep central Damascus free of 
protests. The Syrian football league has been suspended for almost 
a year for fear that supporters would pour out of the grounds 
chanting anti-regime slogans. Crowds are allowed to gather only 
for Friday prayers and funeral processions. The security forces 
are liable to open fire at any sign of protest, as they did on 17 
February at a mosque in Old Mezzeh, a forlorn semi-rural area of 
cactus hedges, vegetable fields and cheaply built concrete houses. 
The main city bypass runs through the area, along with the dual 
carriageway to Beirut. By the side of this road is New Mezzeh, 
which has a university campus, embassies, offices and blocks of 
middle-class flats, many of them occupied by Baath Party and 
government employees. Class is a significant factor in the Syrian 
protests, and the alienation and anger felt by the young 
unemployed who live so close to pro-regime prosperity must have 
contributed to the protest that erupted on 17 February. Class is 
also the reason many better-off Syrians cling to the regime, 
however much they privately deplore the repression. ‘People in 
Aleppo and Damascus don’t like the fact that the tables have been 
turned,’ one analyst said, ‘and that people from the countryside 
are dictating the terms.’

Five people were killed by the security forces in Old Mezzeh. The 
next morning Damascenes woke to discover that it had snowed 
overnight – something that doesn’t happen very often. Mount 
Kassioun, which overlooks the city, glistened a magnificent white. 
More than ten thousand people turned up for the funerals. All went 
well as the procession crossed the Beirut highway on its way to a 
mosque in New Mezzeh. But then people started shouting anti-Assad 
slogans and a group of women raised the independence flag. The 
authorities opened fire with live ammunition. People scattered in 
panic; two died.

‘It was almost romantic,’ a lawyer who lives in New Mezzeh told 
me, ‘the snowflakes falling, the girls with posters, the 
determination, the courage. My neighbours in New Mezzeh are mainly 
pious Sunnis. They go to the mosque to pray, but they’re not 
Islamists. People’s energy is amazing. They were singing in the 
mosque. It’s unheard of to sing in a mosque.’

I went to Old Mezzeh the next morning. The two killed at the 
previous day’s funeral were buried at dawn and the mood was grim. 
Young men with scarves at the ready to cover their faces stood in 
groups along the winding street. They didn’t expect to see any 
strangers and stared at me. Metal rubbish bins were drawn up, 
ready to be pulled across the road to make a barricade. Rocks and 
broken flagstones were on hand. Almost all the grocery shops were 
shuttered – a sign of protest – and an independence flag hung from 
a tree.

My guide took me to his parents’ house. His father told me how 
close he and his son had come to being killed during the Friday 
protest. They’d decided not to go to the Saturday funeral. 
Protests had started in Old Mezzeh four months earlier ‘because of 
injustice’, he said. When I asked him to specify the injustices, 
he laughed. ‘A pile of injustices as tall as the Himalayas.’ TV 
news had just announced that the German president was resigning. 
‘He quit merely on suspicion of corruption. How far is that from 
our situation here? The president and his family have taken 
everything from the country. He has given all the best jobs to his 
Alawite friends. I haven’t liked them for forty years.’ The four 
or five Alawite families who lived in Old Mezzeh left last summer.

To check whether it was safe for us to leave, my guide’s father 
and his elderly wife went out for a stroll. They reported that 
there were armed police close by the house. We carried on talking, 
hoping there would be no heavy knock on the door. After half an 
hour the coast was clear and we hurried back to the car. When I 
contacted the family three days later, I learned they had left Old 
Mezzeh. The security police had raided houses nearby on two 
successive nights, taking away about twenty young men.

The government’s answer to the unrest has been to alternate 
repression with promises of dialogue and reform. One of the 
Damascus spring’s many surprises is how outspoken the ‘old 
opposition’ – politicians not from the Baath Party, for example – 
has been. Hassan Abbas, an academic sociologist, founded the Human 
Rights Association of Syria last year to monitor the regime’s 
claims. He is a veteran of the Damascus spring of 2000, when the 
president was new and many hoped he would relax his father’s 
political controls. Nothing came of it and in 2005 more than two 
hundred intellectuals, writers and politicians signed the Damascus 
Declaration, which called for peaceful change, dialogue with the 
regime and mutual respect. The regime imprisoned 12 of the 
signatories. So when last May, two months after the protests 
began, Assad began talking of dialogue, Abbas was sceptical. He 
refused to take part until the government withdrew its troops and 
put a stop to the mass arrests. During the summer and autumn the 
government organised the drafting of a new constitution. 
Parliament brought in four new laws which were claimed to be major 
reforms: on political parties, elections, new media and the press. 
‘Each one contains a clause that keeps decision-making in 
government and Baath Party hands,’ Abbas said. No new political 
party can be registered without the approval of a committee, 
presided over by the interior minister. The state television 
channels still don’t allow opposition leaders to take part in live 
discussions. They pre-record occasional interviews but broadcast 
only the answers they find acceptable. ‘We’ve entered a war of 
resistance, a prolonged guerrilla war like El Salvador in the 
1980s,’ Abbas says. ‘This could last for years.’ Though he 
initially supported the intervention in Libya, he is against 
anything similar in Syria: ‘it would inflame the whole region.’

The National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, the 
biggest opposition movement, held a conference in Damascus in 
September attended by more than 350 representatives. There were 
also conferences in Saudi Arabia and Paris for supporters who felt 
that returning home was too dangerous. The NCC provides an 
umbrella for 15 unofficial parties, mostly on the left and 
including Kurdish and Assyriac parties. The NCC, unlike the Syrian 
National Council, the group of exiles recently recognised by 
Britain and other Western governments, also opposes foreign 
military intervention. I went to see the committee’s leader, 
Hassan Abdul Azim, in his office in central Damascus. Sitting 
under a photograph of Nasser, he pointed proudly to the conference 
table where the Damascus Declaration had been announced at an 
illegal press conference in 2005. Azim supported the latest Arab 
League initiative, which called on Assad to transfer power to his 
vice-president and form a government of national unity – ‘as long 
as the opposition is in the majority’. But he didn’t endorse the 
proposal, recently put forward by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that 
arms be supplied to the Free Syrian Army. ‘It would complicate the 
situation and lead to civil war and a sectarian conflict. We want 
political, economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime to stop 
the violence. It’s the only way.’

Overshadowing all my conversations in Damascus was the daily news 
of artillery barrages in Homs. Although the superficially tranquil 
capital sometimes seemed as remote from Homs as London or Paris, 
you didn’t have to go far to meet people from the city. My hotel 
began to fill up with wealthy refugees, people who could afford 
not to stay in crowded flats with relatives or friends. In cafés 
visited by activists I was introduced to less affluent escapees. A 
19-year-old girl from Khaldiya, a Sunni district of Homs, spoke of 
a friend being gang-raped by soldiers and militia, and an elderly 
man shot as he emerged from a mosque. Her father was wounded with 
a bayonet when troops burst into the house searching for weapons. 
A dentist from Zabadani in the mountains near Lebanon said that 70 
per cent of its population of 35,000 fled to safer towns during 
army attacks in January.

The government is reluctant to accept that anyone has been 
displaced. As a result the United Nations High Commission for 
Refugees, which mounted a large government-backed programme to 
help people who fled to Syria from Iraq, can do little for Syrians 
fleeing their own crisis. The collapse in everyday law enforcement 
has caused a rise in criminality, which particularly affects 
groups with little protection, like the 100,000 Iraqis registered 
with the UNHCR. ‘Iraqis were welcomed initially but are seen now 
as pro-government,’ a senior UN official said. An aid worker spoke 
of ‘a wave of protest, which everyone is surfing – smugglers, 
criminals, you name it. They’re all calling for democracy because 
it’s good for their business to have lawlessness.’

The fact that minorities are often the first victims of chaos is a 
major concern of Syria’s Christians, some 10 per cent of the 
population. The country has a long history of tolerance towards 
its many denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, 
Armenians, Greek Catholics and some Protestants. ‘We are in a time 
of banditry, stealing and private terrorism. It’s much worse even 
than two months ago,’ Gregorios III, the patriarch of the 
country’s 350,000 Greek Catholics, told me. He says that in his 
hometown of Khabab in Deraa province, which is largely populated 
by Greek Catholics, strangers knock on people’s doors and demand 
money or cooking gas and olive oil. On the other hand, Christians 
have started to show solidarity with Muslims: in Daraya, a suburb 
of Damascus, church bells rang and hundreds of Christians joined 
the funeral of three Muslims killed by the army. But Gregorios 
declines to criticise the government’s use of force or the mass 
arrests by security police. ‘The image in Europe is that the army 
is attacking people for its own sake. That is stupid. The army has 
to come into people’s houses to search for revolutionaries. We are 
in a time of war.’

Amid all the talk of humanitarian crisis, there has been very 
little coverage until recently of the relief work being done by 
the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red 
Crescent. When Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, called 
for ‘humanitarian corridors’ to provide aid for victims of the 
conflict, he seemed not to know that aid was already getting 
through. The ICRC spokesman in Damascus, Saleh Dabbakeh, told me 
that when the ICRC called for a daily two-hour pause in the 
shelling of Homs and other cities, it was widely reported as if no 
aid had yet got in though what was actually sought was increased 
access.

Many opposition activists treat the Red Crescent as a 
pro-government body and in January Abdul Razaq Jbeiro, its 
secretary-general, was shot dead while travelling in a Red 
Crescent vehicle. ‘Many people here say that if we’re not with 
them, we’re against them,’ Khaled Erksoussi, the Red Crescent’s 
operations chief, said as he showed me round their response unit. 
‘It would be easy to be on one side. It’s much harder to be in the 
middle. At the beginning of the protests, people in the street 
didn’t know who to call in case of injury for fear of capture. 
There was no trust. Now we have gained it. We have a hotline and 
provide first aid at home, if people prefer that. Ambulances take 
people home if they don’t wish to go to hospital.’ The Red 
Crescent has to negotiate with the government and rebel commanders 
for access to conflict zones. It is usually harder to get 
permission from rebel or Free Syrian Army leaders than from the 
government: some competent authority needs to order and maintain 
any ceasefire and ambulance crews often ask callers to the hotline 
to make safe-passage arrangements themselves and ring back when 
they have guarantees from a legitimate commander.

Sami Latif (not his real name), a Sunni doctor from Homs, takes a 
critical view of the black-and-white way the conflict is usually 
portrayed. A longtime critic of the regime, he now describes 
himself as neutral. He says he lost confidence in the opposition’s 
claims when he was told by friends who took part in demonstrations 
in Deraa and Homs that long before the Free Syrian Army became 
involved protesters were using guns. He says that sometimes they 
shot civilians by mistake and covered it up. ‘It doesn’t mean the 
violence of the regime is not huge,’ Latif said. ‘We’ve seen them 
beating and torturing people in the street. But I believed in the 
movement’s peacefulness and honesty and it was a shock.’ The 
recent assassinations of critics of the opposition worry him. 
Facebook carries a blacklist of so-called awayni 
(‘collaborators’). Top of the list was Ahmad Sadiq, imam of a 
mosque in Damascus. On 16 February he was shot dead while 
unloading his car.
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Latif says he ‘started having doubts about the media coverage when 
al-Jazeera claimed two hundred people died on the day the UN 
Security Council resolution was debated. My friend in Homs said it 
was more like sixty. I remembered the siege of Nahr al-Bared in 
Lebanon a few years ago. It sustained four months of artillery 
shelling from the Lebanese army. When it was over TV pictures 
showed more buildings flattened than in Homs. Yet total casualties 
over that period were 450.’ Latif’s argument is that the 
opposition is weak and ‘they know they cannot achieve the regime’s 
fall in the way it happened in Egypt. They want people to 
sympathise with Syrians so they exaggerate to get the world’s 
attention and create a big dossier at the UN Human Rights Council 
to put as much pressure as possible on Assad to resign.’ He was 
angry that the Syrian National Council was formally recognised by 
the West. ‘We feel they’re stealing the revolution from us. Most 
of them live outside Syria and no one has elected them.’

Some in the opposition still believe that dialogue with the regime 
is possible. Louai Hussein, a writer and journalist who spent 
seven years in prison in the 1980s without being put on trial and 
was briefly detained again last March, is the founder of an 
unlicensed NGO called Building the Syrian State. He not only 
rejects the idea of foreign governments sending weapons to the 
Free Syrian Army but believes that the FSA and local defence 
committees should not have taken up arms at all. The struggle 
against the regime should be carried out peacefully with 
demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience. He wants a 
dialogue that would be more like a negotiation between equals than 
anything that has taken place so far. ‘The regime expects a 
dialogue in which it is the presiding power while we are nothing 
more than complainants or petitioners. They treat the crisis as a 
small problem. We reject that kind of dialogue. We only accept 
dialogue if it’s about transferring power and not if it’s led by 
the regime.’ He was frustrated by his experiences last year, when 
he met Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s political and media adviser, six 
times. He put forward numerous proposals for reform, among them 
agreed rules on how long demonstrations could last and requiring 
security police to have their names and numbers clearly displayed 
on their uniforms. Although he was told that the president had 
approved several ideas, no real changes were implemented. He also 
met the vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa, four times, but nothing 
came of that either.

Most members of the opposition called for a boycott of last 
month’s referendum that approved Assad’s new constitution. One 
person who didn’t is Kadri Jamil, an old Communist Party member 
and leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation – but 
then he served on the committee that drafted it. Many criticise 
the powers the new constitution gives the president – MPs won’t 
have the right to hold a vote of no confidence in any government 
he appoints – but Jamil points to such successes as the removal of 
the Baath Party’s monopoly of power: new political parties will 
now be able to compete for seats in parliament and there will be 
contested direct elections for the presidency. Two years ago such 
changes would have seemed enormous.

As the deadlock continues, Western governments are bent on 
tightening sanctions. In Damascus few support the idea. They worry 
about a replay of Iraq in the 1990s when sanctions left Saddam 
Hussein’s regime untouched but impoverished the nation. EU 
sanctions on Syria’s oil exports, the country’s largest source of 
foreign exchange as well as government revenue, have led to a 
sharp drop in output and a surge in unemployment and inflation. 
Private companies have been cutting jobs at an alarming rate, 
forcing many to look for work in Lebanon and the Gulf. The 
transport disruption caused by the fighting has dealt a further 
blow to production: in many cities workers can’t get to their 
factories. The refusal of Arab states to deal with the Syrian 
Central Bank has damaged regional trade as businessmen find it 
hard to get credit or payments are delayed.

Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who now runs a private 
consultancy, estimates that growth dropped by 6 per cent last year 
and will be down by at least another 2 per cent in the first six 
months of this year. Inflation was 17 per cent last year and could 
reach 20 per cent by the end of March. Bottles of cooking gas, 
which almost every household relies on, have gone up in price by 
80 per cent. But he doesn’t believe the regime will be undermined 
by sanctions in the short term, since Syria is self-sufficient in 
basic foodstuffs. When the crisis began last year, the country had 
foreign exchange reserves of $17 billion and a national debt of 
only 10 per cent of GDP, a ratio European countries would envy. 
The souvenir and antique shops of Damascus’s Old City are empty of 
customers, as the owners ply their worry-beads and drink tea with 
friends – but tourism is less important here than in Egypt or Tunisia.

Sukkar believes he is part of a ‘silent majority who want to see 
reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy’. He 
criticises the regime for ‘still acting like God’, but believes it 
is showing more willingness to compromise. He is concerned, 
however, about the way Syria is being treated by other states. The 
US reaction was to be expected: the surprise was that Turkey and 
Qatar, who were among Syria’s closest allies two years ago, have 
turned on Assad and his Alawite regime. Qatar seems to be 
following the American script, in which Iran is a regional threat 
and anything that weakens the Alawite Shias will be a blow to the 
Shia regime in Tehran. But there is more to Turkey’s volte-face. 
In Sukkar’s view, Turkey wants a toehold in Europe, the Caspian 
Sea and the Middle East: this is the ‘new Ottomanism’. Syria has 
always been Turkey’s gateway to the Middle East but since the Arab 
spring the Islamists in Turkey have become more ambitious. They 
support the Islamist opposition to Assad because they see the 
Muslim Brotherhood, their ideological partner, as the future power 
throughout the region.

And then there’s Russia and China. The Western media have largely 
caricatured them as defenders of the regime thanks to their vetoes 
of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria. But in the days 
before the vote on 4 February diplomats in New York had been 
working with two separate drafts, trying to find a compromise 
text. Far from siding with Assad, the Russian draft differed 
little from the Moroccan one the West supported. It condemned the 
authorities’ ‘disproportionate use of force’. It called for an 
immediate ceasefire. The two substantive differences were that the 
Russian draft said the political process should start ‘without 
preconditions’ while the Western-backed draft supported the Arab 
League’s call for Assad to transfer power to his vice-president 
before a dialogue could begin. In the event of non-compliance, the 
Western draft threatened ‘further measures’. The Russians had no 
such clause. For reasons that are still not clear, the West 
decided to ambush the Russians and Chinese and put the Moroccan 
draft to a sudden vote just before Sergei Lavrov, the Russian 
foreign minister, was due to visit Assad to conduct negotiations. 
The West knew that in its regime-changing form the Russians and 
Chinese would have no choice but to veto the resolution. If the 
Russians had been less diplomatic, they might have put their own 
draft to a sudden vote. We might then today be shouting at the 
West for vetoing a solution.

Few analysts in Syria or outside it expect the regime to fall 
soon. Nor is there any sign of the army splitting. The drip-drip 
of defections to the Free Syrian Army is confined mainly to young 
and inexperienced conscripts. The offensives in Deraa, Idlib and 
Homs have been led by the 4th Armoured Division, which is well 
equipped and well trained, and has an officer corps largely made 
up of Alawites. It is commanded by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s 
younger brother. Alawite officers from the division are reported 
to have been seconded to Sunni units to check up on their loyalty 
and performance.

Among young activists in Damascus, there is pessimism. When I 
asked the group that organised my trip to Qudsaya if they wanted 
Nato to bomb the regime’s military assets, as happened in Libya, 
they all said no. What did they expect to happen? There was a 
nervous laugh. ‘We are secular,’ Anwar said, ‘but we just hope in 
God – though that’s not a solution.’ Their confusion reminded me 
of the mood among Iraqis before the American invasion. While 
Saddam’s regime was widely detested, Iraqis feared chaos, upheaval 
and sectarian conflict and suspected they would be victims of the 
whims of outside powers.

The tragedy of Syria’s arrested revolution is that last year’s 
optimism and energy have been undermined by the gradual 
militarisation of parts of the opposition. If the regime wanted to 
provoke its opponents into taking up arms, it has succeeded. ‘I 
feel a great opportunity has been lost,’ said a European 
intellectual who has lived in Damascus for the last decade and a 
half. ‘I was impressed by the way Syrians took responsibility for 
their lives by peaceful means, and by how reasonable and balanced 
people are in their views. I’ve heard no calls for revenge. But 
now we’re in a phase of disintegration, close to civil war or 
perhaps in civil war already. The idealism is in danger of being 
crushed. The regime is playing a very cynical game. They deny the 
fact that the opposition movement comes from inside. They have no 
intention of conducting genuine elections, and even if they did, 
they wouldn’t be able to.’

Can anything bridge the gap? Under Russian coaxing the government 
seems to have accepted international mediation. If a ceasefire 
follows, it would be a major step. The Russian and Chinese vetoes 
met with outrage in the West, but in Damascus the silent majority 
felt only relief. The Libyan model of Nato bombing was the one 
Western governments, flushed with their triumph in toppling 
Gaddafi, had in mind for Syria. What Syrians remember is the Iraqi 
model: more than a million Iraqis fled into Syria from a country 
tipped into civil war. Mediation will require the opposition and 
their Western and Arab League backers to drop their insistence on 
Assad’s departure before talks begin.

Sukkar, the economist, is even-handed. ‘Unfortunately, neither 
side is willing to compromise. Both sides are to blame. The regime 
has used force but the opposition is pretty well armed and getting 
more so. Russia is extremely important in putting pressure on the 
regime. We also need someone who could put pressure on the 
opposition. Their increasing militancy only makes the regime more 
determined to maintain a hard line. But the opposition can feel 
confident that the regime has already been weakened enough to 
negotiate.’ Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry spokesman, argues 
that members of the opposition are refusing to negotiate for fear 
of being called regime toadies. ‘No one dares to confront the 
street and say we need dialogue. Once they say it the street will 
treat them as though they are like the regime.’

Jamil, the opposition politician, believes that the vetoes have 
made it easier to open negotiations because they make it clear 
that the Syrians have to solve the crisis on their own. ‘A very 
big political decision is needed for dialogue to start,’ he said. 
‘The experience of the last 11 months shows that the regime cannot 
stop the protests and the protests cannot remove the regime.’ In 
his view the regime carries 70 per cent of the responsibility for 
the violence. So it must demonstrate its good intentions by 
releasing all detainees and creating a government of national unity.

Russia has offered to chair preliminary talks, but the opposition 
is suspicious. ‘They’re not neutral and they haven’t given us 
evidence that the Syrian authorities are serious,’ Louai Hussein 
said. The most realistic hope for mediation lies with the UN. The 
recent appointment of Kofi Annan as the special envoy for Ban 
Ki-moon and the Arab League was the best news Syria’s silent 
majority has had for months. In spite of Hillary Clinton’s 
rhetoric, Washington may be backing away from demanding Assad’s 
resignation. The signs are that the US and the Arab League fear 
that to support the opposition is to encourage the rise of the 
Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Clinton told the BBC in 
February that there was ‘every possibility’ of civil war in Syria. 
‘Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably 
expedite it. We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: 
al-Qaida, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming 
to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried 
about what could come next.’ It sounded like a retreat.

Whether or not Annan will be able to do anything, the real 
question is how a transition to a new political system can be 
negotiated. If negotiations succeed, could there be free elections 
for parliament this year? Might they result in a coalition between 
the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baathists, creating a balance 
between a largely Islamist polity and a secular army, the formula 
which was once unique to Turkey but, thanks to the Arab Spring, 
has already spread to Egypt and Tunisia? We are getting ahead of 
ourselves. First there must be a ceasefire.

8 March




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