DAMASCUS: Damascus is a city divided. Any attempt to gauge the level of government support after two years of conflict in the country is an inconclusive ramble through competing narratives formed by conspiracy theories, fear and conflicting agendas.
Now entering its third year, the conflict in Syria has drawn in every actor. The result has been to entrench loyalist and opposition mindsets and now, more than ever, the city is in a state of tense stalemate.
Security and economic – even cultural – conditions in the city are evidently deteriorating. Daily life is an increasingly difficult exercise: navigating checkpoints, road closures and looping bureaucracy. Prices for even staple goods have skyrocketed. Rampant kidnappings make taxis a no-go at night. Fights are common. Friendships fray.
There is no denying life for those in the capital is becoming harder, but the question of who is to blame – the government or the rebels – depends on who you are and where you come from. Sect is a primary – but not conclusive – indicator. Financial class and interests are major factors.
Sari, my translator, is a 26-year-old unemployed journalist, a Christian and a fierce Assad supporter.
Despite losing his job in the deteriorating economic conditions and spending three out of six nights staying at friends because of clashes in his neighborhood east of the city, he is adamant it’s the rebels who dragged him and his countrymen into their predicament:
“I still support the government. Why did they [the opposition] take to the streets? There was nothing wrong here. We had peace, work, plenty of money. It was stupid. They didn’t know what they wanted.”
Saluting a government soldier as he passes a checkpoint with the respectful “Yaatik al-aafieh,” Sari receives a frantic call from his mother, telling him not to come home because of the fighting.
Loyalist mentality is not difficult to find in the center of the city, where the army holds an evidently firm grip.
In the Old City, loyalist militia, known as the Popular Committees, mostly made up of Christian civilians armed to defend their neighborhoods, man the entrances to the World Heritage site. In a sign interpreted variously as either a signal of the need to bolster the army or as a show of loyalist strength, many of the civilian militia recently acquired crisp new government military fatigues.
A series of bomb blasts in the capital – attributed, depending on who you talk to, to Islamist ‘terrorists’ or the government aiming to instill fear in the population – have stripped the city of the pretense of security.
Sipping a cappuccino at an upmarket cafe downtown, one prominent businessman – a factory owner and a Sunni – maintains the Syrian army is strong, offering evidence that the revolution has been hijacked by foreign-backed Islamists intent on dividing Syria.
“Nusra [Front] are coming here, bombing our city. They are foreigners, encouraged by Turkey, who want to bring the very ugliest form of Shariah to Syria,” he says. “I challenge any pollster to come here and measure the support for the government. I am absolutely certain that 75 percent of the country supports Assad.”
Probed on why the government would resort to using civilian militia, the businessman said the army – designed for battle with Israel – was holding “thousands” in reserve and that the civilian defense was more of an indication of loyalty.
Another Sunni family tells The Daily Star that they left fractious Harasta – one of the first Damascus neighborhoods where demonstrations broke out – out of fear.
Now running a still profitable business in the mixed neighborhood of Jaramana, Abu Ahmad says he is grateful to the army for maintaining order.
“There was not one person who demonstrated in Harasta who could read. They were illiterate and angry. They would rather see the country destroyed,” he says.
In central Abbasiyyin Square, where rebels made their most concerted push into the center from neighboring rebel-held Jobar early last month, the army is now in full control. Entry to Jobar via the square is impossible, with sandbagged checkpoints stationed at 50-meter intervals. Adjoining the square, the Hafez sports stadium has been transformed into a military compound, some say even housing tanks.
The Daily Star, in Damascus on an official visa, was allowed to move freely and unaccompanied through the capital, although strongly advised not to enter “hot areas” – the predominantly Sunni neighborhoods to the south and eastern outskirts of the capital – where fighting is raging. Even outside those areas, the blast of artillery pounding areas ringing the capital – Jobar, Qaboun, Daraya, Ghouta, Midan and Douma – punctuates conversation at alarmingly frequent intervals.
Black smoke drifts over the horizon and mortars can be heard whizzing from military compounds atop Mount Qassioiun into Daraya below.
While the opposition neighborhoods are inaccessible, so too are their opinions. Doubtless, those fighting government forces hold a very different view from those in the center under the firm grip of the army.
The mukhabarat, secret police, are still omnipresent and residents talk in hushed tones about the fear of informants. Stories abound of arrests and detention merely for holding an ID card from the “wrong neighborhood” or being accused of watching “opposition channels” like Al-Jazeera.
Walking through the Old City, one long-term resident points out known intelligence operatives at juice stalls and food vendors.
“No one here will talk to you and even if they do, you can’t be sure of what they are saying,” the resident says, estimating that the vast majority of people “are against the government but won’t say so.”
“People talk about the fear barrier being broken; well, that hasn’t quite happened in Damascus yet.”
Other indicators of public opinion are found in the details. The once-ubiquitous Assad memorabilia is harder to find and the frenzied pro-government rallies have long ceased.
The army may be on top in the capital, but after two years, it has so far failed to dislodge the rebels. Both sides are clearly committed to the long fight.
For the time being, moneyed Damascenes will sip their $3 cappuccinos determinedly, even if the saucers rattle from the thud of the mortars only 2 km away. But, as the rebels move ever closer, and as the economy, security and culture of the capital slowly erode, loyalties will be tested.
Ordinary Syrians in Damascus will invariable question who is to blame for their increasing woes. Whether that blame will mobilize one way or the other is dubious. Whoever wins out militarily will inherit a thoroughly polarized society.
“Some people support the government out of fear. Others hate the government out of fear. The only things in common now are fear, and a desire for this to stop,” one resident says.
“Everybody just wants it to stop.”