In Syria, peaceful protesters struggle amid Damascus shellings

September 7, 2012

Obaida, a 25-year-old resident of this war-rattled capital, was in a hurry. He had a protest to get to in the busy Midhat Basha market, and every second counted.

“If I am late one minute, I might miss it,” said Obaida, glancing at his watch. “In sensitive areas, you can’t protest more than one or two minutes max.”

Indeed, this mid-August demonstration against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lasted just one minute and 36 seconds. But in a city where danger swells with each passing moment, even that counts as a victory, anti-regime activists say. 

Syria’s uprising, which began 18 months ago with peaceful protests, has been overtaken by bloodshed as the country spirals deeper into civil war. Yet the nonviolent movement continues in Damascus, though sometimes in such a fleeting fashion that you might miss it if you blink. Unarmed demonstrators say they are hemmed in by violence, the ever-present threat of detention by security agents — and, to no small degree, by the attrition of former comrades who no longer think peaceful rallies make a difference. 

But the true believers hold out hope of toppling the regime through marches, sit-ins, strikes and campaigns such as boycotting cellphone companies suspected of financing the crackdown. They also aspire to win new support: At the brief Midhat Basha demonstration, participants paired anti-Assad slogans with chants of “Merchants of Damascus, may God protect you,” in an attempt to sway business owners who generally support the regime.

Obaida — who, like other activists interviewed, uses a single-name pseudonym on social media out of concern for his safety — belongs to a group of about 100 people called Damascus Youth for Building the Future, one of several organizations that plan such events on Facebook. His group is composed mostly of university students, and they focus their work on the posh, high-security neighborhoods where senior government officials live and where residents might know little about the uprising beyond the regime-vs.-terrorists narrative on state television.

A few months ago, such locations were considered off-limits for protesters, who largely centered their efforts on the limited rebellious areas in the capital. But Obaida and other activists said they think upmarket areas are home to a “silent majority” that can be won over.

Protests organized by the groups have taken place in the Afeef neighborhood, near the French Embassy and not far from Assad’s house. Others have been held in key squares in the capital, including Al Abbaseen, where the security presence is heavy. In some cases, demonstrators simply toss anti-regime fliers printed with such phrases as “We are determined to continue with our peaceful protests until the regime falls.”

Even if limited in scope, the demonstrations are dangerous. Since the start of the uprising, the regime has deployed security forces around the clock to guard all key squares in the capital and prevent a mass civil protest like the one that took over Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011.

Surprise arrests and house raids targeting activists are rising. Government shelling is common in Damascus.

To prepare for protests, Obaida said, members of his group scope out an area to map the route of a march, identify potential government informants along the way and calculate how long it would take protestors to flee.

Timing is crucial, so all participants set their watches to the time given on BBC’s Arabic-language channel, he said. Protests start at an agreed-upon time, down to the second, and those who arrive late miss out. Quick protests, members said, mean demonstrators can start and finish before security forces arrive.

But as violence engulfs Syria — the United Nations reports the civilian death toll has reached 20,000 — some onetime believers in peaceful protests say the tactic is now futile.

Nadia, an activist, said she abandoned demonstrations when the regime began shelling Damascus, triggering a cycle of violence that she says has extinguished her enthusiasm for a rebel victory.

“I will cry when the regime falls,” she said. “By then, it would not be worth all of the deaths for the sake of toppling it.”

She said she has shifted her focus to more low-profile nonviolent activities, such as helping displaced civilians who have taken shelter in schools.

“The regime believes only in the security solution,” said Abdulrazak, 22, a Damascus-based activist who has also lost faith in the nonviolent route. “If the revolution had continued peacefully, the regime would have annihilated it by now.”

Obaida and other believers note that the daily death toll in Damascus has skyrocketed — estimates hover around 100 people killed each day — since the rebel Free Syrian Army became more militarized. Yet even as he pledges nonviolent tactics, he acknowledges that he backs the armed rebellion.  

“We are peaceful, but we support the FSA,” Obaida said. “The FSA is only defending people from the regime’s attacks.”

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