All quiet in Damascus despite protests across Syria

May 3, 2011

Even as protests spread across Syria, the capital has mostly remained quiet.

Anti-government demonstrations have erupted in all corners of the country in the past six weeks, meeting a fierce government crackdown along the way. But though people in Damascus watch the events with concern, most doubt that the scenes being broadcast on television from across the country will be repeated here.

About 500 people marched in the Midan area of the capital Friday and reportedly shouted pro-freedom slogans. But for the most part in Damascus, the heart of the Sunni business class, residents say they have too much to lose to join in.

Damascus is wealthier than other parts of the country, with property prices in several areas of the capital rivaling those in big European and American cities. Traditionally, the major families in Damascus that make up the bulk of the city’s economy have looked down on country folk, sentiments that predate the formation of the state, when tribal norms prevailed.

A woman from Abbasiyeen Square in northern Damascus said that two weeks ago, protesters from the restive town of Douma came “to our doors and asked us to take to the streets.”

“No one did because we are too scared to lose what we have. This is civil war,” she added. Like others interviewed for this article, she spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Security forces took control of the coastal town of Baniyas on Tuesday, the Reuters news service reported, and the human rights group Insan said that it had verified nearly 3,000 arrests across the country since the uprising began but that the actual number could exceed 8,000.

One Christian girl in the capital said the anti-government demonstrations were the product of a foreign plot, a common view among the country’s Christian community but also a reflection of the scale of division between urban and rural Syrians.

“I went home to my village in Bsier [south of Damascus] for Easter. We didn’t see anything,” she said. “The army is there to protect the people. They waved us through checkpoints and said hello.”

Ghaith, a suit-maker in the shopping area of Shaalan in the city center, said: “Everyone wants change, but it takes time. If someone comes into my shop and asks for a suit to be made, and when I don’t have it right away, he then breaks up my shop. Is this reasonable? Things take time in Syria.”

The sense of fear that descended on the city several weeks ago when rumors spread from other parts of the country that Syria was in revolt has today evolved into an uneasiness. Most people are going about their daily lives. Cafes are filling up, and more cars are on the streets. But business is down, and primary and high schools recently announced that they would close at noon because fewer students are attending class.

A man who owns a company that imports cars and other goods from Jordan and Lebanon said he is running out of money to pay his employees. Many residents were also unsettled by news last week that more than 200 members of the Baath Party had resigned in protest of the shooting of demonstrators.

Damascus has been the scene of the largest pro-regime demonstrations in the country, and many here seem to share a feeling that the broader population remains loyal to the government. But the city’s residents increasingly find themselves caught in the crossfire of a media war, unsure of whom to believe.

State newspapers publish images of security personnel and soldiers killed by “unknown armed gangs.” The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency has reported that it uncovered “distortion campaigns against Syria” led by al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the BBC. The pro-government news organization said that “such campaigns, however, are never [going] to weaken the Syrians nor to shake their strong convictions or morale.”

On Friday afternoon, hackers took control of the Web site of Tishreen, a state-owned newspaper, and broadcast revolutionary music on the Web site of the Syrian parliament.

One woman said there is no middle ground in this situation. “There is either pro- or anti-government supporters, and, of course, most people in Damascus are with the president,” she said. “There is very little logical argument taking place.”

After the protest here Friday, many questioned why anyone in Damascus would take to the streets.

“I have friends in Douma, and they are telling me they have no bread, they have nothing to eat. We do not want things to arrive to this here, for freedom or not,” said Ruba, a pharmacist.

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