This ain’t no Syrian Spring!

Published: October 28, 2011 - 20:20 Updated: February 1, 2012 - 17:19

Is the rebellion in Homs enough to bend the might of the Assad regime? A journey to the conflict zone reveals no easy answers to this schizophrenic reality

Sanjay Kapoor Damascus (Syria)

 “Things are very grim in Homs. Killings have not stopped in the last few months,” a young man whispered to this writer in a Damascus Hotel. Nervously looking over his shoulder to ascertain whether he was being watched, he extracted a promise that nothing he says should be attributed to him. “My family is in Homs and every day there is gunfire and killings. I fear for their safety.” He claimed there was sniper fire and confrontation between security forces and protestors. 

In some ways, Homs weighed heavily on the interacti on Syrian officials had with the visiting Indian delegation. Surprisingly, there was no effort to deny the growing spiral of violence in the Homs province. What was trenchantly different (from the picture one gets from the western media) was the narrative of the government about the perpetrators of violence. The US and Israel call Syria a sponsor and abettor of terrorism for supporting Iran and Hezbollah, but Syria in turn has labelled as terrorists those who are fighting its security forces. 

A foreign diplomat endorsed the Syrian government’s claim that arms were brought in through the open borders ofTurkeyandLebanon, and generously distributed among 14-year-olds to fight Assad’s army. He also agreed with the government’s point of view that hardened mercenaries, who had served in Afghanistan, are taking on the army. 

This view lent strength to what Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the delegation. The minister claimed the attempt was to do a Benghazion Syria by establishing a transitional government in Homs and Hama, but it had been foiled. 

Bouthaina Shaaban, the president’s political advisor, hinted at the grand conspiracy to divvy up Syria so that there is only one regional hegemon –Israel. Arab Spring had opened up a Pandora’s Box of competing forces to take control of this region. Retreat of the old order and resurrection of old hostilities had provided Islamic radicals new opportunities to repackage themselves for filling up the power vacuum. Happenings in Egypt,Libya andTunisia are indicators that western-style secularism imposed with a heavy hand by Arab Nationalist governments was feeding deep resentment in those societies, and hostile forces were taking advantage of this. 

Despite strong reluctance, the authorities eventually agreed to allow a small delegation of Indian journalists to ascertain for themselves about what was happening in Homs. 

The journey from Damascus to Homs was uneventful. Contrary to this writer’s experience of other conflict areas, there was no troop movement on the road. Speeding through the desert plains around Greater Damascus, where so many wars have been fought for the domination of this ancient civilisation, it became clear that violence is inherent in the way history has unfolded here over thousands of years. 

Winds are very strong in the corridor leading to Homs city. Evidence: most of the trees are bizarrely tilted at 60 degrees towards Damascus. What needed to be checked in Homs was whether what was happening there was enough to bend the might of the Bashar al-Assad regime. 

Save for some security at the roundabout leading to the city, there was no hint of the army or police. As we sped into the city, we found most of the shops closed and only some stragglers around. The few cars on the road were showing due respect to the traffic lights, suggesting that law and order had not collapsed. We espied an armoured personnel carrier parked in a corner and some army men in fatigues walking around. The scene suggested completion of a military operation. This observation, however, was misplaced. As our vehicle reached what was explained to us as the city’s downtown, some young people came towards us. Soon they were shouting a slogan: “Allah,Syria, Bashar Assad” – a theme song of sorts for Assad supporters. We were told by some locals that miscreants were creating trouble and had little support. Nearly all of them expressed support for the al-Assad regime. It was baffling to see a reality that supported such contrary interpretation; an earlier BBC programme from inside Homs had shown street demonstrations demanding Asaad’s ouster. The locals we met were so overjoyed and welcoming that they brought ice cream and chocolates for us. 

Next halt was the hospital where, according to allegations of Turkey-based opposition groups, the soldiers had gone about shooting patients. The mood inside the hospital was angry. A thickset soldier with bloodshot eyes and wearing a heavy anti-flak jacket with an AK rifle in his handle furiously gesticulated at us to follow him. He pointed out at a little child in heavy bandages and under sedation. There was a woman on the next bed. And then another. All of them shot by someone who had entered their house and sprayed them with bullets. “Look at what they are doing,” said that soldier through a translator. 

Some distance away, an extremely tough-looking and well-built man was lying on the bed, apparently shot in the stomach. This writer was told that he was an army general who had been shot in an ambush. When our ‘minder’ tried to suggest things had improved, an articulate doctor contradicted it saying, “Not if last night was any indication.” The previous night, she says, there was a lot of firing and killings. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), too, had been fired. “I don’t know how I managed to reach the hospital.” 

According to this doctor, most of the patients had shots either in the head or the neck, and “most of these injuries are grievous as the bullets used by the terrorists explode inside the body”. Someone from the government added, “The snipers are targeting the locals. Our army does not have trained snipers. We are losing a lot of our men.” The same scenes of people expressing support for Asaad were repeated when we stepped out of the hospital.Indiawas added to the long list of those who matter to them after Allah,Syria, Assad and so on. A few yards away, a bus was blocking the road. We were told that a few hours earlier this bus had been ambushed by terrorists while it was carrying army personnel, injuring 15 soldiers, who had been taken to another army hospital. 

We were told to leave the city lest similar fate befell us. Next halt was the Governor House. An imposing white bungalow, the place looked surprisingly lax on security. No road blocks or other devises to delay bomb-laden cars, for instance. Clearly, the terrorists were confined to a small section of the city, and armed only with personal weapons. 

The governor looked nervous while meeting the media. Clearly, he had not been briefed by Damascus about what to tell us and how much. So he started by saying that the terrorists were locals armed by outsiders. They were not “outsiders”. He agreed the government had earlier failed to handle the problem properly, but now it was only a matter of time for these people to be captured. Another official revealed that 95 per cent of the “terrorists” had been picked up and only 5 per cent remained at large. He reeled out some figures of the dead and the injured, but they seem too low for a six-month-long insurrection. 

As we head back to Damascus, the schizophrenic reality of Homs and Syria continues to bewilder us. 

The writer was part of a delegation sponsored by the Syrian government which visited Syria recently 

Is the rebellion in Homs enough to bend the might of the Al Assad regime? A journey to the conflict zone reveals no easy answers to this schizophrenic reality
Sanjay Kapoor Damascus (Syria)

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