The situation in Syria: a first hand account

A portrait of President Assad in Midan, Syria. Brian Stoddard

Emeritus Professor Brian Stoddart, former Vice-Chancellor at La Trobe University, returned recently from an extended assignment working with universities in Syria.

Below is his account of his time in a country now racked by anti-government protests and simmering sectarian tension.

Immediately before the current troubles visitors to Syria found both revelation and paradox. The revelation: a fascinating and richly historied place.

The paradox: trying to match that place with western media imagery. Inevitably, though, visitors left bearing great affection for Syria and its peoples, one American friend impressed at the warmth of his reception despite the actions and accusations levelled at Syria by his country. That affection most likely now has been replaced by bewilderment.

Most of those visitors were there for short periods, attracted according to one blogger by Syria’s exotic nature and its cheapness. For me, the spell was longer and more formal, working on a European Union-funded higher education development project (now suspended), reporting indirectly to a Minister now proscribed by the Americans.

Damascene first and foremost

Living near the magnificent Umayyad Mosque, I met new friends daily: Sunni, Christian, Shia, Alawite, Druze. In Hariqa, the business district next to the massive and humming Hamadiye souk and where I caught taxis every day, the same working mix was evident as it was in the myriad of shops and restaurants near my house.

Current reports have Damascus shops open only a few hours a day. Tourism has collapsed, and it was earning 23% of Syria’s foreign income. The absence of all those visitors will help produce a 3% decline in national economic growth this year, adding to the already hard conditions that helped produce the current situation. My shopkeeper, antique seller and restaurant friends are now doing it even tougher than through the global financial crisis.

Most visitors to Syria arrived to find an apparently mixed, harmonious and complex population that got on, and had done so for ever with episodes like the 1860 Christian massacre exception rather than rule. People in Damascus, for example, have a reputation for being Damascenes first then something else second.

That is, their origins and practices were recognised, but for the most part combined with a community identity. The ability to create a united community helped Syrians survive the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire and see off later imperial forays.

The myth and the reality

That positive visitor encounter contrasted markedly with the filtered western media images of Syria: pro-Iranian hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, unwavering supporter and supplier of Hamas and Hezbollah, fiercely anti-Israel zealots, supplier of insurgents in Iraq, intransigent enemy of the west.

Any visitors interested in their surroundings, of course, could see tensions. Most Damascenes and Syrians might eventually suggest in conversation that they thought “a little more democracy” would be good. They worried about rising economic pressures and living costs. They worried about opportunities for their children.

Yes, the Baath Party had long ruled autocratically. Yes, President Bashar Al Assad was a dynastic second generation regional leader now under pressure. Yes, civil liberties in the Western sense were under-developed. Yes, political debate was little tolerated.

Many Syrian friends, though, thought the country would loosen over time. At the beginning of his rule the President showed a propensity for reform that might reappear. He favoured a market economy, and sought a rebuilding of good relations with the west.

European aid and development funds, like the higher education project, flowed in to help Syria deal with declining oil revenues, water shortage problems and drought, and the challenge of “smartly” educating a very young, growing population.

A new generation with different expectations

Those young people are flocking into universities, as “modern” as any students anywhere, hence the higher education project as a lever for future economic growth. This is where the on-the-ground observer really sees a mismatch between the received and the represented version of Syria.

The younger generations have a world view and aspirational vitality, their fashion is modern, the use of technology is spreading fast, as demonstrated by the present role of Twitter and other social media as sources of information about the uprisings.

From that vibrant and welcoming condition of a few months ago, those same encouraged visitors must now be confused and dismayed. Bashar al-Assad himself is the best starting point. This western-trained ophthalmologist who introduced IT to Syria and created the first “Damascus Spring” is now apparently the same man ordering brother Maher‘s 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard crackdown on dissidents with bloody results most notably now in Hama but also in Daraa, Lattakia, Homs, Deir el-Zour and elsewhere with horrific loss of life as reported by Human Rights Watch.

Blood on the streets

“Verified” reports are still difficult to come by, but it now seems certain that thousands have died, even more “disappeared”.

The numerous internal intelligence agencies are back with a vengeance, scouring entire suburbs for “troublemakers” and taking them away. A few months ago a colleague lost his passport. It was found by a high ranking Air Force intelligence officer who promptly handed it over at a meeting in his office, complete with a warm welcome to Syria and best wishes for the project. No doubt that officer is now currently otherwise engaged.

In Hariqa, where I caught taxis, and in the Midan, the olden day start point for the Haj caravans to Mecca but where I walked past the myriads of sweet shops at weekends, there are now lockdowns, demonstrations and clashes instead of bartering and coffee drinking.

Damascene friends report that confusion prevails alongside mistrust – who among friends or even families can now be trusted?

That is reflected in the more nuanced reports now emerging despite the regime’s crackdown on foreign and local media. For anyone who saw what seemed to be emerging in Syria by late last year, those reports are very worrying, because they carry the air of severe civil discord, perhaps to the level of a civil conflict that changes everything now and into the future.

Staring into the sectarian abyss

Not long ago I was in a Homs restaurant when the street was immediately filled by a massive crowd celebrating victory by a local professional football club. Now reports place Homs at the possible start of serious sectarian strife.

Recently three Alawite families, not connected to the al-Assad regime though from the same minority social group as the President, were reportedly killed by Salafis, Sunni descendants of one of Islam’s foundational groups now more literalist than fundamentalist but with a long history of tension with the Alawites and sometimes associated with the Muslim Brotherhood according to some observers. In retaliation, the Shabbiha (Alawite militia) reportedly went in search of and found Salafist victims.

Some commentators suggest Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite minority regime will tough it out, having nowhere else to go and fearing for their futures if overthrown. The endgame is unclear.

What has changed recently, however, is the collapse in publicly unified support for Bashar expressed through massive posters on buildings, pictures in car windows and on houses, the innumerable trinkets like key chains, fridge magnets and paperweights. The specialist souvenir shop near the Roman arch on Straight Street crammed with Bashar memorabilia must now see very little business.

Balanced reports from agencies like the International Crisis Group suggest there are elements of truth to regime claims that the uprising is spurred by Islamists, armed gangs and dissidents.

Local issues certainly underpin disturbances in places like Deraa and outer suburbs in Damascus where life is hard economically. In one of those suburbs just before last Xmas families and kids, braving the winter cold, crowded a travelling amusement show crammed into a narrow alley between two of the raw cemented apartment blocks that characterise these areas. It was the only entertainment seen for a long time. Services in those suburbs are minimal, work is hard to come by and discontent has brewed, all under that general picture of social unity now smashed.

If the Homs story is right, and it is affirmed by normally reliable quarters, this development is dangerous because it undercuts the prime notable feature visitors recognised – the toleration of others. This struggle is not now straightforwardly about regime change, it is resembling a massive and complex internal cultural clash, perhaps even a sectarian struggle. That seemed not remotely possible a few months ago, underlining the rapidity with which Syria has changed for the worse.

If discontent has now morphed into full blown sectarian strife, then Syria and the region really are in trouble. Some writers even suggest this might create a situation like that which wrecked Lebanon earlier. If that becomes even remotely so, it will have catastrophic and destabilising results for the region as well as for Syria itself.

It all seems so very far from what I and others saw in our daily interactions with Syrians in all walks of life literally just weeks ago.

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