Damascus ‘Bubble’ Belies Violent Reality of Assad’s Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad
More than 14 months into the Syrian uprising, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is projecting a facade of normality belied by a breakdown in security and a proliferation of defensive emplacements. Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Syria marked Traffic Day this month with five programs on state-run television and radio fostering road safety and responsible driving.

On the streets of the capital Damascus, motorists are lulled by sprinklers feeding lush traffic circles studded with yellow and purple spring flowers. The theme of benevolent government is underlined by news in Tishrin, the state-run paper, which reports that the state spent 80 million Syrian pounds ($1.25 million) last year treating more than 19,700 people bitten by stray dogs.

More than 14 months into the Syrian uprising, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is projecting a facade of normality belied by a breakdown in security and a proliferation of defensive emplacements. Sandbags, blast walls and heavily armed men seek to protect government buildings in Damascus, where suicide bombers killed at least 55 and injured almost 400 in twin attacks on May 10.

Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second city, need to appear normal and under control to support the government’s narrative, Rime Allaf, associate fellow of London-based Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, said in a telephone interview from Vienna.

“Damascus, and to a certain extent Aleppo, are living in a bubble which it’s essential for the regime to keep alive,” Allaf said. “This sense of normalcy is what the Syrian regime has strived to keep even as Homs and Hama and Daraa were going through hell.”

Aleppo Protests

There are signs that unrest is creeping closer to the two cities. Syrian forces battled rebels on the outskirts of Damascus and several loud explosions shook the capital on May 20, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Last week, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Aleppo to protest against a government crackdown on university students earlier this month.

Syria influences the Middle East region, both because of its close ties to Iran’s government and because of its six-decade long enmity toward Israel. The risk of its domestic conflict spreading abroad were underlined yesterday when at least two people died and more than a dozen were injured in clashes in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Supporters and opponents of Assad’s government traded gun and rocket fire following the death of an anti-Syrian cleric on May 20. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are meanwhile funding the opposition, while the U.S. and U.K. are helping it to organize.

‘Breaking the Spell’

The Assad government has portrayed the unrest, which the United Nations estimates has killed as many as 10,000 people, as a conspiracy and the protesters as radical Islamists bent on destroying peaceful coexistence among the country’s Muslim and Christian sects. Much of the country is at peace, the government says.

“This is a show,” Burhan Ghalioun, head of the main opposition Syrian National Council, said in a phone interview from Paris. “The news of bombings, destruction of towns and cities and the deaths is breaking the spell. They are in a state of denial and they need to hide the truth so they can remain in that state. Truth is the last thing that will be revealed by this regime.”

The Syrian administration has survived a year of revolt that has toppled other long-standing governments. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out a month later and faces trial, while Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was killed in October and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced through a negotiated settlement in February.


“Mubarak and Ben Ali were dictator-lite compared to Assad,” Allaf said. “Most knew Assad would last longer, but thought that it would be more difficult for him than it has been, and that there would be more pressure from the outside world, which many expected couldn’t wait to get rid of him.”

Assad supporters have a different take. Omran al-Zoabi, a lawyer who’s a member of the ruling Baath party, said “the secret to Syria’s survival is that what’s happening here is not an Arab Spring.”

With a large, gold-framed photograph of Assad in military dress to his side, al-Zoabi said in an interview at the Damascus’ Lawyers Syndicate that the president will emerge stronger from the crisis.

‘In Our Heart’

Rabaa Shaalan, a 35-year-old mother of three who helps organize a weekly pro-Assad youth rally in front of the Central Bank, insisted “the regime will not fall.” As she spoke, her mobile phone rang, trilling a pro-government song called “In Our Heart We Chant Bashar.” She said her phone’s ringtone, like the photos of Assad on a pendant she wears, three pins on her lapel and her keychain, were expressions of her love for the 46 year-old president.

The belief among Assad supporters that the government is winning has several causes, Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said in an interview on May 15.

Assad has been given a breathing space by the international community and not least by UN envoy Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan, which has failed to stop the bloodshed, he said. In addition, there’s not yet been any major organized effort to arm the opposition, allowing the government to continue its use of violence and intimidation, he said.

“Plus, the Iraq war in particular has seared a real indelible mark on this particular U.S. administration which is why it and other Western powers have up until now not provided the support and backing for what we all know is what is required” to unseat the government, Shaikh said.

‘Largely Paralyzed’

The U.S. is supplying medical and communications equipment to rebels, not arms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on May 16. The Washington Post had reported that the U.S. is helping to co-ordinate the provision of military materiel funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states.

“Instead of extending a helping hand to Syria, some Arab countries are funding and arming and hosting terrorists,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said yesterday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, said the regime has “reached a plateau but certainly not a solution or a situation that they can sustain for very long.”

“Yes, they are trying to project normalcy, but the country is still largely paralyzed, the economy continues to be in very bad shape, they remain isolated and Damascus barely sputters along,” Salem said in a telephone interview.

Jasmine and Roses

“At the same time, the opposition also in a way is taking a breather because they realize their first approach didn’t work,” he said.

In central Damascus, there’s little open criticism of the government. An unmarried Sunni woman, who like many Damascenes asked not be to be named because she fears for her security, said that while she feels sympathy for fellow Sunnis who are being killed in the government’s crackdown, she and her family also worry about the losses they will suffer if they support the opposition. Others talk about relatives, neighbors or friends who were arrested, tortured and released by the security forces.

The streets of the city bustle with traffic during the day as Damascenes head to work and children go to school. In the cool spring evenings, families stroll down tree-shaded streets and past bushes of jasmine and roses, enjoying an ice cream or a shawarma sandwich. Diners fill sidewalk cafes in the upscale Abu Rummaneh area, playing backgammon, smoking waterpipes or enjoying the songs of Julio Iglesias playing in the background.

Bomb Defusal

A couple of kilometers away, on the outskirts of the capital, opposition and government forces were engaged in clashes. FM radio stations regularly break into popular Arabic songs to report news, such as the dismantling of bombs. On a recent Friday afternoon, the day of prayer when Damascus sometimes sees brief anti-government demonstrations, a presenter on the pro-government Addounia TV said: “No incidents have been registered until now in Damascus, not even a single explosion.”

Whatever the government’s message, the country has already changed, said Aaron Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who served Republican and Democratic secretaries of state as a Middle East negotiator and analyst.

Speaking in an interview from Washington on May 14, Miller said, “Whatever transpires, the Syria that we’ve come to know, Syria under the Assads, has fundamentally been changed.”

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