Exclusive from Syria: Enemy at the Gates

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The Syrian story has been hijacked by Arab and western media, misleading us by giving the dirty, geo-political game that's afoot in the Middle East, the false aura of a 'just' war
Sanjay Kapoor Damascus

"Let there be civil war in Syria. That would be better than allowing the Muslim brotherhood or the Islamists to take over our country," a Damascus lawyer said defiantly. He had just cast his vote at the referendum on changing the Syrian Constitution. Despair writ large on his young face, this articulate lawyer is seriously thinking of relocating to somewhere else in the Arab world if his vote during the referendum does not lead to the end of the crisis. Indeed, for 59 per cent of those who stepped out to vote on February 26, an end to the crisis is exactly what they desire.

Like many other Syrians, all these years he had never really bothered about his religion or his sect. But, now, he sees the gaze of his friends change towards him. He is no longer seen as just a fellow Syrian, but as an Alawite – the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. As sectarian tensions deepen around him, the young lawyer is also considering shifting out from his largely secular neighbourhood to one where he feels safer.

He is not the only one. Many other professionals, too, have begun to see merit in the divisive suggestions that a minority – the Alawites – has cornered all the benefits in this regime. "Look at the police officer, he is so incompetent, but he has done so well due to his sect," hissed a lawyer from the majority Sunni sect. The list of those who see their country's crisis through a sectarian prism is unending. If the control exercised by Assad's regime disappears – its grip is already loosening – then the entire country would slip into a
vortex of unending sectarian violence, which will shame what happened in nearby Lebanon in the 1980s.

Whoever is choreographing or leading the movement against Assad's regime understands that the best way to debunk all the myths that gave legitimacy to this regime was to show that it can maintain neither communal amity nor peace in the society. Stoking communal and sectarian hatred was one sure way to scramble the order put together by the Ba'athists.

Authoritative sources claim that the bloodbath taking place in the city of Homs has such a violent sectarian shade. For quite a while in Homs, it was not known who was killing whom. When this correspondent visited this extremely windy city, the residents complained of mysterious snipers targeting ordinary citizens and even security men. At that time, there was little clarity about their identity. Even the western and Arab media, who have been lending both content and direction to the anti-Assad discourse, did not know who was fighting whom. It was only later that flesh was added to the fiction of 'Free Syrian Army'.

Reportedly, many of those fighting against the Syrian regulars are mercenaries who had earlier fought in Libya, guided by military advisors from England, France or Qatar, or by hardened rebels of Al-Qaeda. Most of the rebels are Sunni fighters, who have found a cause in history to overthrow the Shia-leaning Alawite, Bashar al-Assad. A satellite grab of a locality in the embattled city of Homs, aired on CNN, turned out to be an Alawite enclave, and not the settlement in Baba Amro where two western journalists were recently killed.

In the last few months, the anti-government groups have tried to disturb the entire area around the capital. Zabadani, 45kms north of Damascus, changed hands twice recently, seized by rebel forces, and then freed by government forces. At 1,175m above sea level, and overlooking the fertile plain of Zabadani, it's famed as a summer resort among rich Damascenes who have their farmhouses and country homes there. These, too, were ransacked during the siege.

 As of now, Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, and Damascus are both firmly in government control, but it will be surprising if the regime does not eventually crack up

According to a diplomat, there is a clear military strategy in the way the rebels have gone about picking out towns to target. Most of these ring Damascus, and if they succeed, they can choke the capital's lifelines and bring the regime to its knees.

Even now it is difficult to venture to places like Hama and Deira. As of now, Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, and Damascus are both firmly in government control, but the manner in which the pressure has been mounted, it will be surprising if the regime does not eventually crack up. EU has been categorical that there would be no foreign intervention of the kind visible in Libya, but noises from an upstart Qatar suggest otherwise.

The Qatari Emir has announced that they are not averse to arming the rebels so that they can defend themselves from State violence. Moreover, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come close to declaring Assad a 'war criminal' for killing his own people. There is an ominous ring to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem 'Navi' Pillay's threat about identifying members of the regime responsible for brutally killing its own people in Homs. The United Nations (UN) taking cognizance of internal violence in a sovereign State and
encouraging member countries for action has interesting implications.

Russia and China understand what is implicit in these noises. Expectedly, the Chinese foreign minister, who visited Damascus recently, has cautioned the West from committing the folly of pursuing their Libya policy here as well. Russia, too, has followed suit. Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has written about the conspiracy that is unfolding in Syria. However, the Syrian story has been hijacked by the Arab and western media, which does not allow a contrarian view of what's unfolding in the region of the Old Levant.

Syrians are a worried lot. They are in a state of panic when they watch channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia detailing the killings in Homs and Hama. Most of them have not seen blood on the streets. It is this fear of a bloody future, images of which are available aplenty from Homs and their bleeding neighbours in Iraq and Libya, which is compelling many Syrians to search for a political solution.

Lively debates are now visible on Facebook, and in Syria's fledgling independent magazines like Forward or Syria Today, about why the country is in this mess. Some obviously support President Bashar al-Assad and value the promise of sectarian and communal stability that he offers above all else; there are others who want change.

"Everything should go. The security forces are one thing that the Syrians want an end to," suggests an article in Forward. This article lends voice to the anger of ordinary Syrians against the security apparatus. "We cannot open our mouth in protest against the government. We will just be picked up by them," said a downtown shopkeeper.

The new Constitution the Syrians have voted for promises radical change in the way the country has been run all these 50 years. It will end the control of Ba'ath party and usher in multiparty democracy. However, the speed at which events are moving suggests that the western powers backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are queering President Assad's pitch, have their own timeline.

The recent 'Friends of Syria' conference of world leaders in Tunisia and suggestions of providing military aid to Syrian rebels clearly indicate that they would not wait for Assad to implement all that he is promising. The appointment of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan as the UN and Arab League's special envoy to deal with Syria, and bring an end to the cycle of violence, is expected to hasten this process.

When Kofi Annan visits Damascus, he could well be thrown off by its relative tranquility and the unhurried manner in which Damascenes go about their business of life. General Dabi, who was carefully chosen to head the Arab League Observer Mission to Syria last year, had felt that there was no "apocalyptic situation" in Syria. His report was rejected by the Qatar-led Arab League as it did not fit into their scheme of things, and the matter was referred to the UN Security Council. Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution, which would have meant going a step closer to doing a Libya on Syria. India had voted for the resolution, but with amendments.

For someone fed on hysterical reports in the western press and on TV, Damascus comes as a big surprise. There is little security at the airport. And the road from the airport could go to Damascus, Beirut or beyond – so close is the Syrian capital to Lebanon.

On Thursday night, the old part of the city comes alive with young people. It could be any place in the world, with music billowing out of speeding cars and the young hanging out at cafés. Famous restaurants like 'Naranj', which counts President Assad and other celebrities among its regular patrons, are full of beautiful people. To uninformed eyes, this does not look like the capital of a country where the next big revolution is likely to take place.

Initially, even the western and Arab media did not know who was fighting whom in Homs. It was only later that flesh was added to the fiction of ‘Free Syrian Army’

However, this calm is deceptive. Three months ago, when this correspondent visited Damascus, trouble seemed at a distance. Now violence has begun to knock on the doors of Damascus. Cities and towns in the periphery of the capital are showing increasing engagement between the rebels ('armed gangs', according to the government) and the security forces.

Since then, the narrative put together by the government about the crisis in the country has changed. Compared to the past, there is now a ready acceptance of how the violence has spread to different parts of the country, and even to the suburbs of the capital.

This growing unease is visible at other levels too. Fear of trouble is also making police authorities treat Friday prayers as a threat to peace. Earlier, a demonstration in Damascus had turned ugly. Detractors of the regime had then shouted with glee that the protestors had reached the gates of the presidential palace, and that the day was not very far when their growing support will drive out the president.

This correspondent found the streets of the capital totally deserted. It seemed as if curfew had been imposed there. Even the famous Umayyad Mosque was empty. People were encouraged to respond to the Friday prayers – telecast live on national TV – from the comfort of their homes.

As a pall of violence hangs over Damascus, economy and business are badly haemorrhaged. Much of the miserable state of the economy is a result of sanctions announced by the European Union against the Syrian government as well as heavyweight Syrian businessmen. Now businesses can no longer transfer money outside of Syria, do business abroad, or work with foreign firms. These businessmen have been blacklisted and barred from travelling to Europe and the US.

Banking restrictions have also been imposed on Syrians as their Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards have been cancelled. Syrian oil cannot be imported by EU or US companies. Letters of credit in foreign banks cannot be issued to Syrians, and money transfer cannot be made in US dollars.

Lebanon, too, has been discouraged from making any transactions with Syria. Syrian businesses are finding it claustrophobic that all their dollar transactions have to go through the US. All these sanctions created a scare in the minds of Syrians, and they rushed to the banks to save their investment and park their funds in foreign banks. By a rough estimate, 100 billion Syrian pounds, or $6.4 billion, or a third of the total deposits, has scooted out of the country. This process is still underway.

This is not the first time sanctions have been imposed on Syria – that was in the 1980s – but this time around, the country's economy had been integrated more with the world economy ever since Bashar al-Assad imposed economic reforms in 2005. Now, this squeeze means that tourism – once the main source of foreign exchange – has dried up. All the top hotels are in bad shape. Due to poor occupancy, some of them have closed shop. Turkish hotel group 'Dedeman' moved out of Syria when it failed to meet its contractual obligation towards the Syrian government – occupancy had fallen to single digit.

Many boutique hotels in the older part of the capital have shuttered down after tourists did not show up for many months. Tourism sputtered to a halt after travel advisories by western countries discouraged insurance companies from underwriting travel to Syria.

Some of the hotels that are open find it difficult to retain their staff. Those who still have jobs have taken a major salary cut. Buffet meals have gone out of the menu as it is not viable. Only some of the specialty restaurants manage to stay afloat.

Although the Syrian economy is free of debt and relatively self-sufficient, the visible pain is due to some of the changes Bashar, the modernizer, brought to the economy. Not only was agriculture discouraged, but there was a greater attempt to withdraw the State from business and create a facilitating environment for private businesses. Due to this, areas primarily dependent on agriculture were pauperized and there was considerable rural to urban migration. Much of this new labour force was absorbed in the tourism sector that has now gone bust.

"We are extremely poor in the rural areas, but this government has done nothing for the rural poor. Only the cronies and corrupt have prospered," said an angry government employee, whose low salary does not allow him to make two ends meet. Corruption is so rampant in the regime that the city is abuzz with apocryphal stories of the riches of some of the top leaders. An aide of a senior minister drew close to this correspondent and said that his boss was very corrupt, and there was no way he could do anything. "I am praying that he goes soon," he said.

Senior Assad, who created the feared security apparatus of Syria, was conscious of how to control rage among the masses. Even as this apparatus struck fear in people's hearts, the regime followed policies that took care of the basic needs of the masses.
Small irrigation projects and power stations in the rural areas guaranteed good crops as well as local employment. Old Assad's policies were abandoned when his son began wooing the West.

Zabadani, 45kms north of Damascus, changed hands twice recently, seized by rebel forces, and then freed by government forces. Farmhouses and country homes owned by rich Damascenes were ransacked during the siege

 

For a short while, the young Assad was the darling of the western world and seen as the most popular leader in the region. Things soured up after the Arab Spring in Bahrain, where the majority Shia community tried to oust the Sunni king, who ran to Saudi Arabia for support. It was at this juncture that the construct of a 'Shia crescent' comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah began to gain currency in the Sunni Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their western friends took it upon themselves to neuter this alliance before it bared its fangs. Since then these forces have been controlling the Syria narrative, including the figures of people killed. Interestingly, the UN and human rights bodies are using figures originating in London – figures that are unconfirmed by their own admission. The London-based outfit generating these figures, Syrian sources allege, is funded by western intelligence agencies. Save for the Russians and the Chinese, no one is listening to Damascus.

Even the referendum has been rubbished by the West, which seems in a tearing hurry to throw out Bashar al-Assad, who continues to enjoy popularity in his country. A western diplomat believes that about 60 per cent of the people still support him. Minorities, comprising 35-40 per cent of the population, see their very survival as contingent on Assad's continuance.

"If Assad goes, then Syria will be purged of its minorities," claimed an advocate. Others breathed patriotism when they claimed that saving Assad is really about saving a welfare State that provides free education, protection to minorities and free healthcare. "All these privileges will go away if Assad goes away," claimed Naamat, a former manager in a company. "Saving this government is a matter of life and death for the people of Syria now."

Many believe, with people like Naamat in a majority, Assad will survive the sanctions, the violence and the rest. And if he implements the new Constitution and shows that he is walking resolutely on the road to democracy, he could still have a chance of survival. Otherwise the enemy is staring at the gates.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012

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