Posted by Joshua on Monday, February 20th, 2012
Before the observers left, hundreds of townspeople gathered in the main square to shout slogans and call for freedom.
Anas told me he knew that Zabadani’s moment of “freedom” wouldn’t last; the Army could come back in whenever it wanted to. “It will be a black end,” he said flatly. “But we will have to face it.” He added, “I’m sorry to say this, but the Alawites are involved in the repression, and there will be a sectarian civil war.”….
But at other times it was evident that the regime could not entirely control what we saw. Clock Tower Square, in central Homs, is where the first demonstrations were bloodily suppressed; reportedly, scores of protesters died there in April, when the Army attacked during a sit-in. When we visited, the large plaza was almost deserted. The bus let us off three blocks away, in front of an old café, but before I had walked a block the minders nervously called everyone back. A tall, burly man with a salt-and-pepper beard was bellowing, in English, “Why are you here? This is not where you need to be.” He waved toward the neighborhoods that were held by the rebels. “Go to Baba Amr, go to Khalidiya, that’s where you should go!” The minders tried to herd us back onto the bus, but the bearded man, who I later discovered was a prominent lawyer, had everyone’s attention. He shouted that terrible things were happening in his city. When asked who was responsible, he suggested that the regime was using thugs to intimidate people. “Army or security or military, I don’t know!” he yelled. “They are wearing sports shoes! You know a military wearing sports shoes?” He added, “I trust the men in uniforms with helmets and boots. I don’t trust these men with sports shoes.” Men in long black leather jackets appeared at the edges of the crowd: Mukhabarat or Shabiha. They stood close together and whispered, and some moved in toward the bearded man. A few old men emerged from the café and tried to coax him inside, but he shook them off. A reporter asked, “How is life here?”
“Life?” the man shouted, waving his arms. “There is no life! There isn’t life here in Syria.” Men crowded around, yelling angrily in order to drown him out. One of them called to us, “You can go anywhere you like in Homs! Everything is fine.” Another man challenged him: “You want NATO to come to Syria? Is that what you want?” There was shouting and pushing; the secret police swarmed. The bearded man called to the reporters, “Take my name! Tomorrow my name will be on the board,” referring to a list of Homs’s daily dead. Then the crowd descended into chaos, and he was pulled away….
Out on the street, a number of men had gathered, and one of them, a wiry, forthright man in his forties, said his name was Maher. Like the shopkeeper, he was a Christian. He had worked abroad for years on oil rigs owned by an American company, but he decided a few months ago to return home to protect his family; the rebels, he explained, were occupying houses, to use as bases from which to attack the government. A few days before, though, the Army had taken control of a few streets, and some shops had reopened; people could go to work, and their children could attend school. Gunfire broke out from the direction of Khalidiya, and Maher’s eyes roved up and down the street. “I am not a supporter of the President or a member of the Baath, my friend,” he pronounced. “But I have seen the truth.” Echoing the government’s line, he said that the rebels were drug dealers, criminals, members of Al Qaeda. He spoke of their torture and execution
houses, where they slit victims’ throats like sheep. Once, he said, an old man and woman were asked for their I.D.s at a rebel roadblock, and the two were shot dead merely because they were Alawite.
“The government should be tough,” he said. “I don’t mind staying in my house for three days to let the government clear all the houses, because they are hiding in innocent people’s houses.”….
Over the rooftops, I saw columns of black smoke rising from where the fighting was taking place. A government minder who had accompanied me was shocked. He asked worriedly, “Is Syria going to be like Iraq?” Until that moment, he hadn’t really understood the extent of the country’s problems; he confessed that he had never seen an anti- government demonstration. He asked, “Are we in denial?”
The same day, the diplomat in Damascus told me that it was too late to stop Syria from sliding into civil war. “We’re watching a country go off the edge,” he said. “This is going to be ugly.” He had hoped that there could be a negotiated settlement, similar to the recent one in Yemen—a “soft landing, whereby the Assads can get in a plane with all of their toys and fly to Dubai or wherever.” But Russia was stubbornly opposed; no one knew how to negotiate with the rebels amid the violence; and, until the opposition convinced the Alawites that they were not the targets of the uprising, a détente with the Army seemed unlikely.
“Most of the officer class is Alawite, and there are very few senior officers defecting,” the diplomat said. But the government could not hold on forever. With unrest all over the country, the Army was spread thin, and on the front lines food and fuel were running short. The troops were tired and increasingly demoralized. Even though the regime had cut off electricity, food, and medical care to rebel areas, the opposition was gaining confidence. Another diplomat in Damascus said, “Fear has gone from the people and it has not been reintroduced. People have come out on the streets, and they’ve stayed out.” He added, “I never had any doubt about the regime’s capacity for violence, but I didn’t realize how stupid its leaders were. We warned them that, once they started shooting people, sooner or later people would start shooting back. Even if they were to try a reform process, it wouldn’t fix things now. They’re now obliged to carry it off with repression.”
The newspaper editor in Damascus suggested, conversely, that the country was stuck with Assad. “The collapse of the regime will lead to atrocities, communities targeting communities, as in Rwanda,” he said. “You can blame whom you like, but this is a fact. The state has to continue functioning, because, if it doesn’t, then, as in Homs now, there will be sectarian violence. That’s why the decision was taken to go strictly, heavily, into the suburbs, with all the loss of life that we’re seeing. So this idea of Assad stepping down won’t happen, because he is the Army. The only way to save the country is to support the regime to change itself. All the other scenarios lead to civil war, sectarian violence, and a failed state.” Assad’s best hope, he suggested, was a combination of unrelenting violence toward the active rebels and greater reforms to persuade the moderates…..
In Damascus, I met Aimad al-Khatib, a Sunni businessman in his fifties who embodied the chaotic interplay of Syria’s factions. He had recently been abducted, in Homs, by three men who forced their way into his car at gunpoint. After making him hand over his money, his I.D. card, and his cell phone, they took the car and drove off. Khatib went to the local rebel authorities, and, in an hour, they caught the culprits. “They handed me the keys to my car, the money, everything except the cell phone, but gave me money to reimburse me for it,” Khatib said. “They showed me the men they had caught, and, after I identified them, they began beating them in front of me. The people that robbed me are the same ones killing people with I.D. cards that show them to be Alawites.” Khatib is a leader of the Syrian National Solidarity Party, one of four new parties granted legal status in December.
He told me that he had been part of an attempt to broker a dialogue between the government and the opposition, but had given up when it became obvious that the regime was intent on using force. He expressed a kind of cynical resignation. The Russians were supporting Bashar, in order to preserve their international prestige; Saudi Arabia was against him, in order to weaken Iran; Turkey wanted to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Khatib hoped for “a real national-unity government, in which not even the Alawites will be excluded.” But, with violence spreading across the country, it seemed too late for that. “What will happen? ” I asked.
“There will be a civil war.”
“When will it begin?”
“It’s already begun.” Few people in Syria were so outspoken, and I asked Khatib if he was concerned about his safety. He smiled wanly and said, “If God wants to take my soul, let him have it.”