Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
The last Friday of Ramadan in Damascus: Assad maintains a vice-like grip on Syria’s capital
26/08/2011, for Syria Comment
By anonymous in Damascus
The last Friday of Ramadan held a lot of expectation for the opposition activists in Damascus. While protests have certainly picked up pace over the last month they still haven’t managed to unsettle the capital, the bastion of pro-regime support. So the opposition hoped that today would see a suitably dramatic finale to the holy month. But during a tour of the capital after the midday prayers, it was clear that few protests had managed to gain enough momentum to beat the overwhelming security presence. In hot spots like Midan and Kafr Souseh, hundreds of shabeehah, the regime’s thugs, stand guard along with regular police officers and soldiers. Mukhabarat agents, the secret police, keep a watchful eye over everything, loitering in leather jackets next to their cars, occasionally barking orders into walkie-talkies. The shabeehah are better armed than on previous Fridays. Along with the usual batons and sticks many are also equipped with assault rifles and shotguns. A few carry riot gear. Pick-up trucks laden with paramilitary soldiers prowl the main streets of Midan.
But there is little sign of the opposition. Groups of 3 or 4, young men often dressed in white jalabiyahs, hang around leaning on cars, waiting for something to kick off but sufficient numbers never appear. Without a large group of protestors they wouldn’t stand a chance against the shabeehah. The few brave enough to start chanting are quickly beaten up and dragged off. An old bus parked beneath an underpass, its windows sealed with metal bars, acts as a holding cell for those unlucky enough to be arrested.
The lack of protestors is not surprising given the suffocating security presence. Abu Suleiman (not his real name), our guide for the day, explains that most of the residents of areas like Midan and Qaboun are committed opposition supporters: they have lost too many of their sons, experienced too much repression, to be anything but angry at the regime. But in recent weeks, the opposition movement in these key neighbourhoods has perhaps even diminished. While protests occur more frequently throughout the week , flaring up at unpredictable times and places, they are also smaller. After months of sweeping security operations, thousands of demonstrators have been locked away in Damascus’ secret prisons. The movement is currently short on participants.
But the move towards smaller protests is also, in part, a deliberate change in tactics. Small protests, which finish just as quickly as they appear, are a lot harder to track down and break up. The model is also being used in neighbourhoods where the opposition could never get away with large scale protests. A young activist heavily involved in the movement described to me a flash-mob which occurred along the Four Seasons Boulevard, next to the 5 star hotel of the same name and one of the wealthiest areas of Damascus. A small mosque is squeezed in between the boutique shops and trendy cafes, a token symbol of Islam and tradition next to all the consumerism and affluence. As the evening tarawih prayers finished, a group of no more than 25 started chanting anti-regime slogans, a daring display of opposition in the pro-Assad stronghold. They were quickly chased away by government supporters, apparently led by a general’s son who happened to be sipping a frapuccino in the Costa next door, but it would still have sent tremors through Assad’s support base in this fiercely loyalist part of town.
But as we near the end of Ramadan, opposition activists will be assessing the gains of the past month. Although many have been willing to risk death or imprisonment, the protests in the capital will not have worried Mr Assad unduly. Damascus, comparatively quiet throughout all of the past 5 months of uprising, has experienced a few upsets during the holy month but for the most part life continues unaffected. Commerce is still relatively healthy and many of the city’s inhabitants remain in comfortable denial of the death and chaos that has swept across the rest of their country. While pressure is increasing on the regime, most significantly due to international condemnation and economic weakness, Assad maintains a vice-like grip on Syria’s capital.
By another anonymous for Syria Comment
August 29, 2011
I was stuck for 4 hours yesterday on the Homs-Hama highway in Rastan. It was a car park from 5 to 9 pm with thousands of angry and frustrated families, busses and truck drivers. Rastanians were walking between cars chatting with the people and serving them water and sweets on Iftar/sunset time. The army was there too but they were not worried. I asked many rastan residents about the reason of the roadblock. Got several conflicting details to one story.. an oil tank accident on the strategic Rastan dam bridge. Felt satisfaction and some sort of pride in the eyes of many of the young Rastan shabab I talked with. It seemed like a made up story. The bridge had tar or oil spilled all over the bridge. The army brought trucks of sand and spread it all over the 0.5 km long bridge so cars to skid! The army who spent hours to fix this and clean the bridge and spread the sand wasn’t happy for sure. Saw some civilians working with the army to clean the bridge. Later when I crossed the bridge I looked for any signs of the accident or the truck but never saw any. It was either that some of the Rastan people spilled the oil on the bridge to sabotage the road or a real accident and the army cleaned everything. Later today there was news that army is surrounding Rastan. I don’t want to jump to conclusions. You make your own.