Watching Syria Sadly

For anyone who has been to Damascus and Syria in the past few years and inevitably fallen for both, there is a current air of unreality in imagining that the locals no longer risk travelling on the road north, and that the road to the airport has seen what amounts to military action.  There are reports of heavy skirmishes on the fringes of Damascus, and over the past weekend there was said to have been serious military action in areas near Damascus that had become perennial protest sites.  This is unimaginable for a place whose people have been so warm to foreigners, even ones from countries whose motives the Syrians have suspicions about.  “You are welcome in Syria” became a familiar expression for the visitors whose numbers were increasing steadily before the troubles began about a year ago.

From the outside, of course, it is really difficult for anyone to be really certain about what is happening and about the likely chain of events.  This was exacerbated for much of the past year by the fact that outside journalists could not get inside Syria, so were reduced to sitting in Beirut or elsewhere and making observations and predictions based upon events elsewhere in the so-called “Arab Awakening” (a term with uneasy historical evocations).  The real reportage came from what became known as “sources that cannot be independently verified”, for the most part the bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers who spread news and images of events from the heart of events.

There is high drama amidst this social media reportage: just a week or so ago the “followers” of Red Razan, an outspoken feminist protester in Damascus, were alarmed by news that she was arrested by security forces while on her way to a conference in Jordan.  A few anxious days later she was released and now campaigns for the freeing of other detainees who have not been so lucky.  Of course, much of this still “cannot be independently verified”, but unless there is a huge and complex conspiracy at work, then the general lines of what is happening in Syria and increasingly in Damascus are becoming discernible.

The Local Coordinating Committees have been particularly active on Twitter, bringing to-the-minute news of events and, especially, the deaths of the “martyrs” whose numbers seem to be rising inexorably.  It was little time ago that a tally of 30 deaths in a day was seen as monstrous.  At present that number and more has become the norm.  There is clearly an ugly, ugly story building in Syria with no obvious denouement, other than bad with internal divisions and mistrusts almost innumerable, as “Ehsani” reports. ( )

In addition to the blogs, Tweets and Likes of the past months standing out from the general ruck of generalised reportage so, too, have a rare few sources of brilliant insight.  High on the list is the work of Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group who is based in Damascus and who has brought balance to much of the other analysis.  For example, at a time when much of the other reportage was saying that Bashar al-Assad was finished, Harling pointed out that the regime still had a huge amount of domestic support.  The fact, then, that Harling now sees that support waning is an observation well worth registering. ( ).  Early on, too, the work of Joshua Landis, an American academic expert, brought much needed detail and knowledge to an otherwise one-dimensional debate, and still does.( ) In Australia, the young academic Matthew Gray, another Syria specialist, was also important in helping those interested get to a reasonably informed view beyond the banal “Bashar is a tyrant everyone wants him gone” mantra.

That is especially important now as Hague and Clinton, understudied by Australia’s international ego Kevin Rudd, attempt to bully the Russians on side for some sort of “action”, and in so doing bolster the posturing coming out of Saudi Arabia in the form of the Arab League mission.  The idea of the Saudis instructing their neighbours to embrace democracy would be laughable were it not so wretchedly serious for the inhabitants of Syria.  The Hague-Clinton-Rudd squadron might well remember that saying about “careful what you wish for” – after all, they only have to think back to Iraq and Afghanistan.  If they thought those were complicated, then stir the possum in Syria and see what happens.

In the early days reports from friends in Damascus had the place quiet, and it was odd thinking of life going on as normal while in Homs and Lattakia and Hama, then increasingly elsewhere, things were clearly not quiet.  The same might be said of colleagues and friends in Aleppo where the original distance from events was soon narrowed considerably.  Over the past several weeks in Damascus, the LCCs have been reporting activity in what they described as “suburbs of Damascus” but which in many cases are outlying towns, some of them well away, like Yarbroud up in the Anti-Lebanon ranges to the northwest of Damascus.  Gradually, though, Damascus has been ringed by protest centres.  Zabadany to the immediate west and, like its neighbour Bloudan usually a summer holiday haven for rich Gulf Arabs has been a real hotspot.  To the immediate southeast of the Old City of Damascus places like Zamalka and Saqba join the east and north flashpoints like Douma, Harasta and Mesraba.

Many of these places were not that far at all from my house in the Old City, and some reports have the seeds of the current movement sprouting in Hariqa, the area next to the great souk Hammadiye and through which I walked each day in search of a taxi to work.  Though not that far out some of those “outer” areas, some of them in the Ghouta which was the fruit and market garden area that made Damascus famous in much earlier times, show a different Damascus, one where unemployment and economic stress have added to whatever other crosscuts have been present and enhance the generally inflammatory atmosphere.

If current reports are accurate, then friends and colleagues in Damascus will now be far more worried than they were earlier, even if they are not admitting it and claiming that all is well enough.  There are reports of tanks in the suburbs near where I worked, and those car bombs went off not so far from there either.  The Midan and the Shaghour, where I walked regularly just to the southeast of the Old City walls and the old staging post for the Haj caravan trails, are seeing demonstrations regularly, just as they did in the days of the French presence and the earlier Ottoman one.

So are my friends and colleagues coping with all this while the Saudis and the Americans and the Brits and, let it be said, the Aussies tango about in search of a “meaningful UN resolution” which to many, of course, is an oxymoron.?  I do not know.   Yes, the regional political consequences of a full scale civil war could be catastrophic, but such a conflict would be even more devastating for all those ordinary people in shops, offices and restaurants I knew and admired because they love their country and want to see it great again,  and want to welcome everyone else there to experience just how marvellous it is.

Safe days ahead my friends, I hope.  Inshallah

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