Syria in Splinters

Even from the streets of Damascus, it's hard to tell whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the country's determined opposition is winning the battle for the silent majority.


DAMASCUS, Syria — The calm that has reigned along the Syria-Israel border for 37 years was broken on Sunday, May 15, when hundreds of Palestinians and Syrians stormed across the fence separating the two countries in the Golan Heights and the Israeli military shot four dead. While the clashes were undoubtedly inspired by Palestinians keen to commemorate the nakba, or "catastrophe," of Israel’s founding, it may also mark a dirtier phase in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s quest to gain the upper hand over a persistent domestic opposition at home.

It’s hard to imagine the demonstrations could have taken place without Assad’s connivance. No such protests have been held in past years at the Golan border. Access to the region is tightly controlled, and crowds are not allowed to gather without permission from the government. In Damascus, analysts and dissidents have interpreted the event as a direct message from the Assad regime to Israel, the United States, and its internal rivals: Either we remain in power, or there will be chaos.

Within Syria, the dominant narrative is whether the regime has, as it claims, finally gained the "upper hand" over the two-month-old uprising. This idea was first broached by Assad advisor Bouthaina Shaaban in a New York Times interview last week and has been fueled by reports of smaller attendance at protests and a government promise of "national dialogue" on Friday.

Viewed from Damascus, it is easy to believe that the government indeed has the upper hand. Cars have returned to the streets and people to the cafes — in contrast to previous weeks, when streets have emptied after 8 p.m. — and the mood has lightened.

But some Damascenes suggest that the facade is merely because they have gotten used to a "new normal" in Syria. As one local resident puts it: "Whereas a couple of weeks ago we were all in a panic, we may just have got used to the status quo."

That status quo is a growing stalemate between the regime and the protesters, with a silent majority caught between them. It is this crucial middle, consisting of the teachers, doctors, and businessmen of upscale Damascus and the merchants of Aleppo, that Assad hopes to win over by reigniting the Arab-Israeli conflict and through dire warnings of an impending civil war.

Meanwhile, the regime’s critics and its partisans are growing ever more polarized. There are few neutral observers: Some opposition activists paint a rosy picture of the Assad regime’s imminent demise, while government insiders continue to peddle a line that the protesters are Islamist hard-liners seeking to impose a religious state.

It is possible that the government has the upper hand. Thousands of protesters went to the streets once again last Friday, May 13, but their numbers did appear to be lower than in previous weeks. Through a combination of brute force, military sieges of restive towns, and mass arrests — with public buildings turned into holding pens — the government has managed to hold protesters down. Human rights organizations report that more than 850 people have been killed during the uprising, and over 10,000 have been arrested.

One dissident, who has mainly steered clear of the fray, noted that it was still "astounding" that the opposition was able to muster the numbers that it did, given that many towns were pinned down and anyone who protests faces the risk of death. "Last Friday was the worst because there is a sense they [the regime] haven’t broken it," says the dissident. "The army and security are stretched and tired, and look how many people are still out."

There is disagreement about how many are taking to Syria’s streets. Viewed through the narrow lens of YouTube clips, analysts in Damascus estimated the protesters’ total numbers at anywhere between 100,000 to 1 million at the most.

"It is false to put Syria’s protests in the same bracket as Egypt and Tunisia," says one local analyst. "But it is equally disingenuous to separate them entirely — it’s of the same inspiration but with different obstacles."

"Every protester in Syria is worth more than each in Egypt because for every one there may be another hundred too scared to do so," says Mahmoud, a 30-year-old office worker.

Syria’s opposition movement is geographically fractured, which makes it difficult to judge its strength. Protests are scattered far and wide — a fact seen as a weakness by some, because it prevents the opposition from uniting into a coherent movement, but also a testament to the widespread dissatisfaction with the Assad regime. From tiny villages along the Euphrates to the third-largest city of Homs, Syrians — often only tens or hundreds of people — have gathered. And with 3G Internet access down, news of some demonstrations only reaches Damascus days later.

The calm in central areas like Damascus can also be deceiving. Journalists typically trek around the Syrian capital’s old city and then report on the absence of a desire for change when their subjects claim to be satisfied with the current regime. But this is an equally inaccurate picture — many Syrians do not speak their minds with their friends, let alone strangers.

One notable group that has been conspicuously absent from Syria’s protests — in stark contrast with the uprisings that brought down the governments in Egypt and Tunisia — is the top echelons of the country’s young, well-off, and educated population. Many of these people, who are often foreign-educated, are either connected to the regime, have found a way to navigate its systems of patronage, or quite simply aren’t interested in politics. "A bulky strand of middle-class, middle-educated, and politically active people are missing," bemoaned one young Damascene activist.

But two months of uncertainty, in which the government has stoked fears of sectarian strife and now abetted violence on Nakba Day, is taking its toll on a population eager for stability.

"Freedom, what freedom do protesters want?" asked a taxi driver from the southern city of Quneitra who took part in the pro-Palestinian protest on Sunday. "They should be happy with being able to walk around and not have strife all over the place."

But there is also truth to dissidents’ and activists’ claims that they are playing a long game and that their ranks are swelling. More people have been tempted to join, especially as the economy worsens. Several companies in Damascus have shortened working hours with a pay decrease. Tourism has dropped off, and foreign investors are looking away.

In cafes and taxis, political conversations take place in a manner never before seen in Syria under Assad or his father before him. Some of Syria’s elite, which had thus far been insulated from the brutality wielded by the regime, have now been exposed to the reality of how Assad perpetuates his rule.

"I have worked for the government for several years and how can I continue when I see how they have treated the people?" says a female worker in one of the ministries. "I didn’t think they would do this."

As the protests enter their third month, the more imminent danger is that continued violence may tempt protesters to pick up arms. Western diplomats in Damascus said there is evidence some already have, which may account for some, though not all, of the 120 police and security officers shot dead. While the movement has been generally peaceful, many in the tribal areas and in Talkalakh, a besieged city close to the Lebanon border where smuggling is rife, own weapons.

Even though the opposition movement faces significant obstacles, activists profess to believe that they’re slowly winning over the silent majority that will either make or break their revolution.

"This might be a victory for the counterrevolution for the moment," says the dissident. "But the larger picture is still the same. The regime will go sometime — but not overnight, in the way the media want. But what has happened so far has been revolutionary for Syria."

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