After a week filled with promises — about lifting the hatedstate of emergency, granting the right for peaceful protests, abolishing kangaroo state security courts — the Syrian regime brutally shot down its own credibility along with hundreds of its citizens late last month.
As Executive went to press, the crackdown was continuing relentlessly, with the military increasingly involved alongside security forces and irregular troops loyal to the regime in closing off cities, raiding homes and shooting protesters.
Fridays in Damascus are now filled with fear. On each day of prayer, groups of armed men take up position all over the capital, near mosques, ministries, court houses, intersections and entry roads. They are literally everywhere, brandishing their often-identical clubs, ready and eager, it seems, to beat anybody who dares utter the slightest expression of dissent. The weapons are not there for show. Since the protests started in early March after a group of children were arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti in Daraa, more than 300 people have been killed. Most are gunshot victims, many others were beaten to death by clubs, and some had their skulls cracked open by the rifle butts of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.
But the “wall of fear,” which has been the main obstacle to this wave of unrest, now seems to be crumbling, along with Syrians’ faith in their government’s explanation for the killings. The protests have been unrelenting, and when word of the massacres of the so-called “Great Friday”protests on April 22 started to reach everyday Syrians, more and more people in Damascus were openly tuning in to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the slaughter. State television was no longer automatically switched on as customers entered the stores, though discussing the images remained sensitive.
One shopkeeper on the outskirts of Damascus waited until a ‘customer’ in a telltale leather jacket left the store before nodding towards the television set on the ceiling and angrily pulling an imaginary trigger. “They’re killing Syrians,” he said. “This is not good. I don’t agree withthis.”
The Syrian government, meanwhile, insists that they are not responsible for the killing, but by banning nearly all foreign journalists from the country and chasing after the rest, they pull the rug out from under their own credibility. Thus, while most of the horrific videos posted to the Internet from inside Syria still carry the disclaimer “unconfirmed” when broadcast on major news stations, there is little doubt, if any, regarding the veracity of what they show: the Syrian regime is murdering its citizens, and it is not about to stop.
The regime’s initially erratic response to the uprisings, alternating between still unfulfilled promises of reform and brutal violence, seemed to indicate dissent at the top on how to handle the unrest. But the killing of more than one hundred people in one day on April 22 must be seen as clear evidence that those who see any concession as a sign of weakness have won the argument.
Syria is no Egypt. Where the Egyptian president was sacrificed by his military in a last ditch attempt to hold onto power, the Syrian president — according to many observers — is firmly in power and the Egyptian solution, where a near-senile figurehead was ousted to protect the political-economic elite, is simply not feasible. This is Assad’s Syria. Moreover, the international community — notably the United States, the European Union, Russia and China — are refraining from putting real pressure on the regime to stop the violence for varying reasons. Israel itself seems to have lent tacit support to their arch enemy Assad. “You want to work with the devil you know,” seems to be the message from Jerusalem.
This leaves the demonstrators on their own, against a brutal regime that has nowhere to go and is fighting for its own survival. As it has shown in the past — when it bombed the city of Hama in 1982 and killed at least 10,000 of its own citizens to quell a revolt — the Syrian regime’s willingness to shed blood knows few limits. As one resident of Damascus recently put it: “They will kill millions to hold on to power. Millions. This is not Egypt.”
Ellen Hastings is the pseudonym of a journalist in Damascus