Jan 25th 2012

Syrian Snapshot I: A View From the Capital

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.
People pray next to the coffins of people killed in explosion in the Maidan district of Damascus on Friday, at al-Hasan mosque in Damascus (photo: SANA )

Crossing over the Lebanese border into Syria was anticlimactic. It was the second week of January and the lines of people waiting to have their papers checked did not look markedly shorter than during my two previous visits, both having taken place well before popular Arab revolts broke out across the Middle East.

Even security checks – looking into the trunk of our car and the kinds of questions asked by immigration personnel – appeared, if anything, less probing than my earlier experiences.

But two things caught my eye. The first was the posters vilifying certain media networks – Al Jazeera, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, and the BBC – which dotted the walls of the border crossing. One to the right of the counter for “foreigners” hovered over the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) crew in line in front of me. Ah, I thought – the rumors that foreign journalists are now trickling into Syria may be true.

The second noteworthy detail was the whispers among border personnel that a busload of Syrian soldiers being transported from their barracks had been bombed by a roadside IED near Zabadani, a town now claimed by the armed opposition. I have no confirmation of this.

I was worried about my stay in Damascus in the Christian quarter of the Old City. Just four days earlier, on Friday January 6, a suicide bomber had detonated his explosives in a crowded area in Midan – inside the capital – apparently targeting a bus with policemen on board, although the casualties were mostly civilians.

I was keen to see if there were tangible ramifications of this act of terror in the heart of Damascus – ten months into the protests, the city is still largely viewed as being supportive of the government. Damascus counts. No uprising will be complete unless this city of 2.6 million shifts that balance. The capitol will eventually have to be a battlefield for any revolt to succeed, even if only a political one.

Syria is icy cold this time of year, which may account for some of the empty streets that are normally bustling with humanity. But the Friday after the suicide bombing, the streets were noticeably devoid of people and the number of cars driving about were minimal. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, is usually spent with family, so it wasn’t altogether clear if the stillness was due to the previous week’s violence.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s voice greeted us on the radio as my friend and I drove into the country a few days earlier. He was delivering his fifth speech since protests broke out in March last year. It was long-winded and my companion translated every so often. I waited impatiently for these tidbits which kept coming in until well after we were sipping tea in a Damascus hotel lobby where guests and conference attendees were crowding around the TV screens to pass their judgments.

Later that day I met with the first person on my list of regime opponents, most of whom had served prison terms at some point in their lives. I will write in more detail about these men and women later, but they varied from those who desired an overhaul of the regime while keeping Assad’s presidency intact, to those who would not consider dialogue with any part of the existing government. There were some commonalities. All rejected any foreign military intervention and the militarization of the protests. The majority were scathing about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and external opposition groups like the Syrian National Council (SNC), so liberally quoted by the Western media as the definitive voice of the Syrian “opposition.”

“Their decisions are made in America and Turkey,” said one regime critic about the foreign-based Syrian opposition. “I want decisions made in Syria.”

Another one parried: “The external opposition are not an effective part of the opposition. They don’t participate in any political parties here. We want to change the system in a safe way – we don’t want to pay a higher price than necessary. We want national cohesion, we don’t want a collapse of the economy and we don’t want to lose our sovereignty.”

Most of these domestic-based opposition figures I met were disparaging about international sanctions too: “Life is very expensive for the Syrian people now and [the sanctions] will take the country into a vicious cycle of poverty and violence and harm the democratic transition,” says Louay Hussein, leader of the Building the Syrian State movement, who spent seven years in prison during his 20s.

“Sanctions will not affect the authorities, but will affect the people,” claims retired political economist Aref Dalila, an organizer of the 2000-1 Damascus Spring (a period of unusual political and social openness in Syria immediately following Hafez Assad’s death) who was released from a seven-year prison term in 2008. “People are already paying a high cost – prices have risen dramatically, factories have shut down, imports have decreased by around half and unemployment has risen, especially in the tourism sector.”

Too true. I was the only guest staying in the charming 17th century converted Damascene house nestled along narrow cobblestone streets in Damascus’ Old City. The famed boutique hotel with intricately painted ceilings and carved mother-of-pearl-encrusted wooden doors is usually impossible to book.

The only apparent benefit of sanctions was that I could sit in my pajamas for my morning tea and croissant in the hotel’s petite courtyard, unencumbered by chiding looks from other guests or staff. There was one woman manning the place during the day, replaced by a gentleman in the evening. My second night there, he called me at 3am when I had not yet returned to the hotel to check on my safety: “I was worried,” he said, “you know, because of what’s going on.”

Worried they may be, but that didn’t stop reportedly tens of thousands of Syrians flooding into Ummayyad Square – named after the Ummayyad Caliphate whose capital was Damascus – in support of their president earlier that day. A makeshift stage was erected in front of the imposing Assad Library, where supporters chanted pro-regime slogans and condemned the machinations of foreign leaders against the Syrian state. Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were particularly singled out for derision.

The masses were in for a surprise though. Assad himself, accompanied by his wife Asma and two of their children, swung by to speak to the jubilant crowd – and some said also to quell long-circulating rumors that his family had fled Syria.

I had heard about this rally the night before from the young pro-Assad son of an anti-regime woman who had seen notices on Facebook. That surprised me – Facebook was not available, except via proxy websites, during my last visit. It had been re-introduced to Syrians in February 2011, the year of the Arab revolts.

I went to the square with low expectations. News reports in the West rarely cover pro-regime gatherings, and almost always suggest that participants are forced to attend, are engaging out of fear, or are bused in by the government – sometimes even paid to join the throngs.

I only managed to reach the square after the president’s departure, when many had already departed, and some were still trickling out of the square. Still, crowds lingered to chant pro-Assad songs, dance the traditional “dabke” and wave flags – including Hezbollah ones to mark support for the Resistance. They were women and men, young and old, religious and secular, soldiers and civilians, well-heeled and not – certainly, none looked “forced” to participate in the gathering.

By comparison, take a look at this YouTube video of the same square ostensibly filmed during Assad’s speech. The square looks almost empty and it appears his voice has been added into the footage, suggesting a low turnout even at the rally’s peak. I didn’t get to the square until after Assad’s departure, but even then, you can see the stark difference in crowd size between the two video clips – a testament to the ferocity of the media battle for narratives over Syria these days.

The celebrations went on long after my frozen hands decided to seek refuge indoors. An earlier meeting had been postponed because of road blocks around the square that cut off access to many parts of the city, so I met up instead with Ammar Ismail, persona non grata in the Western hemisphere and an online activist in the cyberwar over Syrian narratives.

Ismail leads a frenzied online presence via his web-based Damascus News Network (DNN) available on Facebook. Through video footage, pictures and articles, the social media site offers counter-narratives to Western-dominated ones on Syria, but Ismail, a self-proclaimed nationalist, is often critical of the regime too.

He claims a news article referring to him as the “head of the Syrian Electronic Army” caught the eye of the European Union, which accuses Ismail of hacking websites on behalf of the Syrian government – allegedly because “its IP addresses indicates that it is collocated in facilities which belong to the Syrian government,” according to a CNN Article. He was one of a handful of Syrian nationals whose assets were frozen by the EU in November – no hackers or cyberwarriors on the opposition side received similar punishment. His recent venture to encourage cooperation between the Italian and Syrian textile industries suffered, and Ismail was forced to shutter the business.

In the past few days, Ismail has been forced to relocate his young family as a precaution against death threats. His son will have to be home-schooled for a while, he says, exclaiming: “how does my right to exercise freedom of speech become an issue for the EU?” Ismail plans to file legal proceedings against the European Union shortly.

Damascus is bizarrely open for a city that has been the target of opposition groups intent on splintering the regime by first swaying the capitol from its pro-regime bent. The internet is bustling with competing narratives, the airways open to the vilified foreign media networks accused by Assad’s government of fueling and propagandizing the protests.

Walk into a Damascene café or business and you are likely to see television screens broadcasting the pro-regime Addounia network or state-sponsored Al Ekhbariya Soriyah alongside the much-maligned Al Jazeera or US-backed Al Hurra. It almost seems like the regime is saying “bring us your worst – we have little to fear.”

A world away, in Homs, Deraa, Idlib, Douma, Zabadani and other Syrian hot spots the battle for narratives is harder fought. These are the cities and towns where people are reportedly dying by the dozens each day. I had a trip planned to some of these places – one that did not materialize after France 2 cameraman Gilles Jacquier was killed by a projectile while on a government-accompanied tour of Homs. But although I felt as though I might actually be safer in the immediate aftermath of Jacquier’s death, some apparently thought otherwise.

This Syrian conflict has layers and layers that we have not yet peeled within the pages of our sanctified newspapers and online repartees. I have seen very little verifiable professional reportage from the main areas of conflict. Most of the “storyline” is taking place in capital cities where competing governments appear determined to decide Syria’s future. The Syrian people are just cannon fodder. I am not sure their lives are even considered, as long as their bodies, alive or dead, lying on streets or taking part in rallies/protests, provide these storylines a way to feed into their vying narratives.

Damascus is inexpensive. The food – even in hole-in-the-wall cafes – is better than in most cities out for a quick tourist buck. The people are hospitable, even chivalrous. You feel safe walking the streets and talking to strangers. Today, people discuss politics in the open – that is surely a step up for the authoritarian state. The mood though, is cautious, worried and even angry. But the rage swings both ways – there are those to the right of the regime who are threatening to take up their own arms if the Syrian government does not protect them against opposition gunmen. While there appears to be a domestic stalemate today, that could easily turn if sectarian battles escalate.

I have seen gruesome still photos of casualties that don’t inform me if the victim is Sunni, Christian, Kurd, Druze or Alawite, but the sheer volume of these photos and footage suggests to me that some in Syria now think nothing of making snuff films to further their narratives. Is the shooting soldier really a member of the regular armed forces or someone donning a uniform to make it appear so? Is the bearded guy with the weapon really a militarized gunman or is that a trick of the regime?

The answers may be a long time coming, but one thing is certain: there are efforts underway by both sides to sway public opinion, and that effort is not by any means limited to those inside Syria. What do the majority of Syrians want? That is still the million dollar question, and the answer appears to shift with each major development – sometimes with optimism, usually with pessimism. If I were to wager on the outcome of this crisis though, I would firmly place my bets on the Syrian people rejecting these interventions and reaching their own national consensus on a democratic transition that ensures sovereignty. If civil war is to be averted, there are only a few options out of this conflict after all – and the one that offers the least chaos is the one most likely to appeal to the Syrian majority.




Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Oct 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s approach today is similar: first, insulate its citizens from a virulent pathogenic contagion with draconian public-health measures aimed at containing and mitigating the spread of the disease, and then – and only then – make judicious use of monetary and fiscal policy to reinforce the post-lockdown snapback. This is very different from the approach taken in the US, where the post-lockdown debate is more about using monetary and fiscal policies as front-line instruments of economic liberation, rather than relying on disciplined public-health measures aimed at virus containment........ This underscores the sharp contrast between China’s COVID-first strategy and the America-first approach of US President Donald Trump’s administration. In China, unlike the US, there is no political and public resistance to masks, social distancing, and aggressive testing as requisite norms of the COVID-19 era. Meanwhile, the US is in the midst of its third serious wave of infection while China continues to exercise prompt and effective control over new outbreaks. Earlier this autumn, for example, some nine million citizens in Qingdao were tested in just five days after a relatively small outbreak affecting fewer than 20 residents. By contrast, Trump wears his own experience with COVID-19 infection as some perverse badge of courage, rather than as a warning of what may lie ahead."
Oct 20th 2020
EXTRACTS: Disney has announced a significant restructuring of its media and entertainment business, boldly placing most of its growth ambitions and investments into its recently launched streaming service, Disney+…. From a corporate strategy perspective, the move is remarkable on two fronts. Firstly, the sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented….Let’s not forget that it was just last year that Disney held a near 40% revenue share of the US box office….. The fact that in just seven months of the pandemic breaking out, Disney decided to reinvent itself primarily around streaming speaks volumes about its expectations regarding the pandemic length. Clearly the group decided that waiting it out was no longer an option.”
Oct 10th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrection, martial law, and civil war in the United States......... Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast....... While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil........ Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented."
Oct 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published an article in the New York Times that articulated what has come to be known as the Friedman doctrine: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” It was a theme he had developed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, where he argued that the “one and only” responsibility business owes to society is the pursuit of profits within the legal rules of the game. The Friedman doctrine put its stamp on our era. It legitimized the freewheeling capitalism that produced economic insecurity, fueled rising inequality, deepened regional divides, and intensified climate change and other environmental problems. Ultimately, it also led to a social and political backlash. Many large businesses have responded by engaging in – or paying lip service to – the notion of corporate social responsibility."
Oct 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is well on its way to becoming a cashless society. More than 600 million Chinese already use Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay to pay for much of what they purchase. Between them, the two companies control approximately 90% of China’s mobile payments market, which totaled some $17 trillion in 2019. A wide variety of sectors throughout China have since adopted Blockchain to pay bills, settle disputes in court and track shipments. The Chinese government understands that, via Blockchain, the issuance of its own cryptocurrency is an excellent way to track and record the movement of payments, goods and people."
Oct 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant........But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too."
Oct 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "...... the economic pain inflicted by COVID-19 is not being borne by publicly traded companies. It is falling on small businesses and individual service proprietors – from dry cleaners to restaurants to entertainment providers – that are not listed on the stock market (which leans more toward manufacturing). These smaller players simply do not have the capital needed to survive a shock of this duration and magnitude. And government programs that have helped keep them afloat for a while are beginning to lapse, raising the risk of a snowball effect in the event of a second wave."
Oct 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. "
Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."
Sep 29th 2020
While today's mounting global disruptions have accelerated an ongoing shift in global power dynamics, neither China's rise nor the emergence of COVID-19 can be blamed for the West's lost primacy. The United States and the United Kingdom took care of that on their own, with a complacent Europe watching it happen.
Sep 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is clear: the world cannot trust Xi’s dictatorship. The sooner we recognize this and act together, the sooner the Beijing bullies will have to behave better. The world will be safer and more prosperous for it."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Four years of political turmoil under Trump may well end with massive violence akin to a civil war. Trump is priming his base to act violently, and with over 390 million firearms in the hands of Americans, one can only imagine the calamitous consequences if violence is to erupt between his supporters and those who oppose him..... The Republican leadership in every state and every municipality are the prime body that can stop this potential calamity from occurring. Time is of the essence. Should the Republican Party as a whole fall short of taking a stand against Trump at this juncture, they will subject the nation to turmoil unseen since the Civil War. Not a single Republican leader will be able to claim that he or she were not warned."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I continue to expect this broad dollar index to plunge by as much as 35% by the end of 2021. This reflects three considerations: rapid deterioration in US macroeconomic imbalances, the ascendancy of the euro and the renminbi as viable alternatives, and the end of that special aura of American exceptionalism that has given the dollar Teflon-like resilience for most of the post-World War II era."
Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."
Sep 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s footprint in global foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased notably since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. That served to bring Chinese overseas FDI closer to a level that one would expect, based on the country’s weight in the global economy. China accounted for about 12% of global cross-border mergers and acquisitions and 9% of announced greenfield FDI projects between 2013 and 2018. Chinese overseas FDI rose from $10 billion in 2005 (0.5% of Chinese GDP) to nearly $180 billion in 2017 (1.5% of GDP). Likewise, annual construction contracts awarded to Chinese companies increased from $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion in 2017."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Emergence and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 have created and still creating health issues, economic challenges, political crises and social conflicts around the world. These challenges and conflicts lead the international community to re-evaluate global governance and international structures, which is based on the second world-war and post-cold war. The pandemic will emerge a new era of international society that will not be similar to the pre-Corona world."