From Jordan, the road to Damascus runs past Dera’a. On any ordinary Saturday this journey would be mundane, 70 miles of straight road punctuated by the occasional roadside café. But today, Saturday 2 April 2011, is different. Yesterday, Syrians took to the streets for the third Friday running. The southern town of Dera’a was again the epicentre of anti-government demonstrations; today, a line of army vehicles blocks the sliproad into the town.
The demonstrations that have rocked Syria over the past few weeks are the first for almost 50 years – until now, protest here was unheard of. Since 1963 Syria has officially been at war with Israel, and the subsequent emergency law means that public gatherings, demonstrations and criticism of the Ba’athist government and President Bashar al-Assad are all illegal. But the tide of disaffection sweeping the Middle East is finally penetrating Syria’s borders. In early March, a group of Dera’a schoolchildren were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti. The arrests lit the touch paper. After Friday prayers – the focus for demonstrators from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain – a small group held a sit-in protest in the town’s main mosque. And the security forces were waiting for them. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 100 protesters have been killed since that first Friday.
From Dera’a the protests spread to the northern coastal resort of Latakia, and then on 1 April to the Damascus suburb of Douma – the closest they’ve come yet to the government’s power base. Not that you’d know it as a visitor arriving in the capital. When I arrive at my hotel and turn on the television, the state-controlled news channel is showing live footage of a huge pro-government rally outside the parliament. Thousands of people crowd the streets holding aloft placards of President Bashar al-Assad. There is no mention of Dera’a, or Douma, or the dozens estimated to have been killed.
The demonstrations that have rocked Syria over the past few weeks are the first for almost 50 years – until now, protest here was unheard of
But there is a sign that something is wrong: the phone networks are down. When I finally manage to meet Leila, one of the young Syrians who have been trying to organise opposition rallies since the start of the Arab Spring, she is convinced that it is a government tactic. ‘On Friday, we all received a text message saying that the President is giving us 60 minutes of calls for free. And then the networks went down. So this is just one of their dirty tricks, to try to stop us organizing.’
Leila’s theory is tempting: this is, after all, a country where the government controls the mobile networks and where Facebook was until recently blocked. But other Syrians are scornful. ‘Of course the networks are going to go down,’ one tells me. ‘Everyone got 60 free minutes so they are all trying to use them at once.’
And this is the problem in Syria – it’s so hard to get to the truth. I have come in on a tourist visa and am acutely aware that probing too openly for information will get me deported, or worse. Several Westerners have been arrested at protests over the past few weeks, including one American student who was held for a week after taking his BlackBerry out of his pocket at a demonstration. He was interrogated, accused of being a spy or a journalist, and unceremoniously kicked out of the country. In his speech on 30 March, President Assad blamed foreign conspirators for the recent unrest in his country. This is not a good place to be an outsider asking questions.
‘Going to the protests is not safe for you,’ Leila tells me. ‘You could cover your head and pass as a Syrian, but as soon as you speak they’ll know you’re foreign.’
Blacked-out Mercedes and leather jackets
‘They’ are the mukhabarat – the secret police. And they’re ubiquitous; on every street corner, in cheap leather jackets, smoking and watching. Syrians draw comfort from the fact that they’re not really secret at all – ‘I can spot the mukhabarat easier that I can spot my own mother,’ says Omar, a student in his early 20s – but their presence has a chilling effect. As we walk through the old city, a blacked-out Mercedes drives past. ‘That is not a car I want to go in,’ he says. Omar has had a visit from the mukhabarat before, when he was a photographer at a Syrian newspaper. ‘They came to my house one day. I don’t really know why because I hadn’t done anything controversial. But they scared me just by coming and asking questions about what I do, and I don’t want another visit from them.’
The fear for ordinary Syrians is that from one Friday to the next, no-one knows what will happen or where
Unsurprisingly, Omar hasn’t taken part in the protests. But what is surprising is that he’s not particularly in favour of the protests at all. The problem, he says, is that no-one really knows who the demonstrators are. ‘They could be Islamists, or extremists, or just people who will turn out to be every bit as corrupt as the current government. People are protesting because there have been protests everywhere else in the Middle East, but I don’t think a lot of them have thought it through. Syria at the moment isn’t free, and I don’t like Assad, but at least the country’s stable.’
Leila, however, is adamant that the Syrian protests have nothing to do with Islamism. ‘It’s just people who are fed up and are coming together,’ she says. I have no-one else’s word to go on, and Damascus is not the place to conduct a straw poll. So four days after the protests, I decide to ignore Leila’s advice and go to see the suburb of Douma for myself.
Quite why the protests should have come here is unclear, because Douma is entirely unremarkable. Around two kilometres from the centre of Damascus and well off the tourist trail, this looks like any other Syrian neighbourhood. But the bakery and falafel stores are closed, and there is nobody out on the streets. This is clearly a neighbourhood in hiding or in mourning – or most likely a bit of both. At least eight people from the suburb were shot dead on 1 April. My plan had been to go into some shops, to try to speak with some people, but the sight of a polished black car driving slowly down the street sees me hailing the nearest taxi.
As the week draws on my Syrian friends begin to get nervous. On Wednesday evening as we sit eating fatteh at a pavement café, Houssein, a young businessman, gets a call from his mother. She thinks she can hear gunfire in the street outside their house in West Damascus. He laughs at her and tells her it must be fireworks, but after he hangs up he is noticeably quieter.
A state of fear
The fear for ordinary Syrians is that from one Friday to the next, no-one knows what will happen or where. Two months ago protests in Syria would have been unthinkable. And when the protests did begin, no-one believed they would reach Damascus. ‘Stay in your hotel on Friday,’ says Omar. ‘The protests could happen in Douma, or the old city, or there might not be any protests at all. But that’s what makes it dangerous – you can’t predict it.’
When Friday comes I walk down to the main Umayyad Mosque just before midday. The streets are deserted – crossing the road in Damascus usually involves walking out into a flow of oncoming traffic, but today the roads are empty. But Friday prayers finish and the streets stay quiet, at least in Damascus. In Dera’a, the protests start again, and another 28 are killed. So Syria remains in suspended animation – relieved that another week is over, nervously anticipating the next, and wondering when, and how, this most unpredictable of Middle East revolutions will end.
Names have been changed.
Marian Chapman is a freelance journalist.