Syria’s Days of Dread: Glimpses of a City Under Siege
On March 18th the most serious challenge to four decades of Ba’ath rule and the Assad family in Syria erupted. Protests began in the drought-stricken city of Dera’a on the Jordanian border, following the arrest of several local teenagers by authorities. The wave of demonstrations spread to cities and towns throughout the country, demanding political reform and an end to corruption. Many have called for the regime’s ouster. According to Syrian human rights groups, security forces have killed nearly 1,000 civilians and imprisoned several thousand more. The Syrian government maintains that the violence is the work of anonymous terrorist groups seeking to sow sectarian chaos.
For most of the last year I have studied in Damascus. One month before that year’s end, the uprising began. The world might have cheered the courage of protestors braving snipers and tanks. But my tiny corner of Damascus was filled with the regime’s faithful. It came to resemble nothing so much as a beleaguered fortress, anxiously scanning the horizon for gathering enemies, and sustained by nothing but illusions. For nearly a month, I felt as though I were watching a city slowly descend into madness.
Fog shrouded everything. Securing accurate news became almost impossible. Foreign correspondents were quickly expelled from the country. Several were arrested. Opposition media were the only real source of information, but they relied mostly on smuggled cell phone footage and often on rumors. The pro-regime Syrians who surrounded us insisted that they were liars and traitors and would spend hours dissecting real or perceived errors in the coverage.
Whatever the opposition’s flaws, government media was another creature entirely. The brazenness of it resists description.
The radio stations hosted an endless parade of “ordinary Syrians” to recite a script that came in four or five variations. Most often callers would profess their love for the President. One even referred to him as “Our Prophet.” By the end of my time in Syria I was hearing the regime’s main slogan “With Our Blood, With Our Souls, We Will Sacrifice for You O Bashar!” dozens of times per day.
Some described the blessings of life in Syria. I remember one caller, her voice young, insisting, “There is no poverty in Syria. There just isn’t. Nobody is in need.” Others would make sport of the opposition. Claims that the demonstrators had no concrete demands alternated with declarations that they were radical Islamists with extremist demands.
Less frequent but more ominous were those who called in to describe their plans for Assad’s enemies. One caller said, “We’ll make juice out of their blood, and drink it.” Another chanted in rhyming Arabic verse, “Don’t worry O Bashar/Behind You is a People that Drinks Blood.”
According to State media, the clashes that had killed hundreds of Syrian civilians were instigated by “anonymous groups of infiltrators.” They were few in number, as all of Syria loved Bashar. Yet they were everywhere, as the protests were everywhere. They were in the pay of the Saudis and the Lebanese, or Israel and America. Or both. They had a foreign agenda, or an unknown agenda, or perhaps they were Salafi Islamists. They were even the only force in Syria armed and ready to shoot; President Assad, State media duly reported, had ordered the army to put away its firearms in order to avoid provoking the population that loved him so.
For a while, I refused to accept that anyone would believe it. But I had never seen a whole city living in fear before. One of my friends, a secular Alawite from an army family, burst into our apartment three days after Dera’a exploded. Terrified and hysterical, he bellowed curses at the protestors and fiercely defended the actions of the security forces. My housemate asked how anyone could support firing live ammunition at civilians. Our friend screamed at the top of his lungs, “If it were up to me, I’d have massacred them with tanks!” As far as he was concerned, they were Sunni fanatics, the heralds of an Islamic revolution that would be the end of Syria’s minorities. “Every Alawite in this country is afraid; my whole family is getting their passports together.”
Not only them. Many of our Sunni friends were almost as devoted to the government line as their Alawite counterparts. Anyone who owed their livelihood or status to the government, the army, or the Assad coterie’s many crony corporations now had to live with the daily prospect of losing everything. Many were secular and terrified of a religious revolution. Many more were simply afraid of chaos. Who would dare judge them for it?
Days passed. Surveillance on foreigners tightened. Damascus University began distributing flyers warning Syrian students against the dangers of foreign students, potential conspirators against Syria, and enjoined them to report any suspicious behavior. Some students, including myself, noticed gangs of plainclothes police suddenly loitering outside our apartments all day, every day.
Two Americans studying at the Institute were arrested for a period of two weeks. One was friends with one of the students in our program. Later, the police detained two of our students for traveling late at night. The latter was interrogated for five hours, and her Palestinian traveling companion was held blindfolded at the station until deemed unthreatening.
That frayed some nerves. The response of our university colleagues frayed more.
Our program manager told the student to think of her detention as a “positive learning experience.” Our teachers, people we thought insightful and considered friends, turned overnight into brittle spokesmen for the regime’s official script and the conspiracy theories on which it rested. They would sit together in the office watching the satellite channels for hours, and occasionally shout abuse at the screen.
For weeks a debate raged among the American students. The teachers were employees of a police state. Were they putting on a show for our benefit, or did they really believe it? Were they lying to us, or to themselves? Each possibility was unsettling in its own way.
On March 29, two weeks after the rebellion began, the regime organized enormous pro-government demonstrations in Damascus in an attempt to cow the opposition. Soldiers dressed as civilians, government employees and their families, even school children were enlisted in the effort. Hundreds of thousands turned out.
The streets were a scene from Orwell’s 1984. The President’s face, the President’s name, the President’s slogans covered the city. The roads were filled with cars traveling in groups, honking and shouting their support for the government. How many did so out of conviction? How many from fear or promise of reward? I’ll never know for sure.
The government’s message was clear: “Protests might reign in Dera’a, but we rule in Damascus.” Our teachers and pro-government friends took great comfort in it.
I could only see an entire city trying to convince itself that it was not afraid.
Next came President Assad’s speech. It had been delayed a dozen times, apparently in an effort to build suspense and project aloofness. The government’s spokesmen had promised he would unveil major reforms—dozens of Syrians were dead, after all.
In the event, the speech lacked focus, content, and grace. He mumbled about conspiracies, recapitulated the last ten years of regional history, and said that Dera’a was a lovely city. He mocked the Arab satellite channels and laughed at his own jokes.
Members of the parliament, one from each region and sect, interrupted at choreographed moments to shower him with praise. One declared, “The Arab world is too small for you! You should lead the whole planet!”
Still, moments of truth shone through. Assad took special care to mock the fashionable theory that he was, deep down, a reformer whose better angels were frustrated by the “old guard” around him. “You don’t hold me back,” he told the parliamentarians busy praising him in verse. “You’re the ones who push me forward!” The choreographed panegyrics resumed.
We had been watching the speech with our teachers. As it became clear that the President would offer nothing but theater, the teachers began to leave the room without a word. Class was cancelled for the day. One student asked the program director what she thought of the speech. “Amazing. Wonderful. So much was said between the lines.” Despair was written on her face.
We exited the building. Outside, a Kurdish friend of ours was waiting. He waved us over. “Did you see that bullshit?” His voice was low and filled with rage. “This isn’t over. It’ll never be over. This is a fucking revolution.”
Shortly after the protests spread to Lattakia, I remember sitting in the teachers’ office, watching footage BBC Arabic had obtained of shootings in the city: first the awful sound of bullets, then a hundred civilians sprinting in all directions, screaming. Two teachers, both Alawites from just outside Lattakia, were watching with me. One couldn’t even speak; head in her hands, she just whimpered. The other, our program director, was resolutely determined to project normalcy. In a calm voice, she described how inconsistencies in BBC coverage proved that the footage was unreliable. With her free hand, she wiped tears from both eyes.
A few moments later, her phone rang. It was her brother from Lattakia. After a brief conversation punctuated by curses and cries of dismay, she hung up the phone. Her brother had told her that trucks were moving into the province carrying boxes of weapons covered by a veneer of potatoes. Private citizens had begun setting up checkpoints on the major roads.
The menacing echoes hung in the air, unspoken. Lebanon. Iraq. Hama. The dread on my teachers’ faces spoke for them: It’s happening again.
Every Friday the demonstrations spread from city to city, growing larger and larger. As the dead multiplied, those around us clung ever more ferociously to the government line: the protesters were few, the violence was the work of anonymous infiltrators, all of Syria stood with Bashar. The complaints against Al-Jazeera, BBC Arabic, and the other satellite networks grew shriller. Why were they devoting so much coverage to protests that didn’t exist? Why were they implying that the security forces were responsible for protestors’ deaths? Didn’t they know about the infiltrators?
The Syrians around me felt that Al-Jazeera, which had always had credibility with them for taking a hard line against the US, Israel, and their regional allies, had suddenly, inexplicably turned on them. “They were totally reliable when it came to Egypt,” I heard from more than one regime supporter. “For some reason, they’re just getting everything wrong now.”
Syrian television evidently felt pressure to produce some of the ubiquitous but always-unidentified “infiltrators.” In one class we were shown footage of beggars and the mentally ill confessing to committing all sorts of bizarre crimes for pay. State media would also broadcast from cities that had recently witnessed protests, interviewing small groups of young men praising the President. “With our blood, with our souls . . .” they would mumble, eyes on the ground. During such moments, some of our friends professed great satisfaction: “See! This is the real face of the Syrian people!”
The pervasive denial grew oppressive. One of my friends, who just a week earlier, had expressed the belief that the uprising would spread rapidly to Hama and Homs, two of Syria’s largest cities (“All they need is a single word to rebel,” he’d said) , now insisted that security had everything in hand. “It’s all been a huge exaggeration,” another of our teachers explained. “You’ll see. Next week, you’ll see.”
None of them loved the government; in a way, this was saddest of all. They served it because they saw no other choice. And now they lied on its behalf, justifying the butchery it committed against their fellow citizens. What manner of desperation must weigh upon a man for him to abase himself in this way?
Talk of evacuation slowly accelerated. Messages went back and forth between Damascus and the administration in DC, but everyone wanted to wait and see whether matters might still improve. Our program director had sent a situation report to the administration and asked us to translate it: “The students are getting along just fine. Everything is normal . . . There’s no need to worry. I hope that we will complete the program with our students without any problems . . . Everything is okay.”
The next day, sitting at the university, I heard a few dozen voices chanting, “With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you O Bashar!” At first I didn’t pay attention. Then they switched to chanting, “With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you, O Dera’a!” My ears perked up; this was how the rebels chanted. Then they switched again, this time to, “With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you O Martyrs!” I stood up and saw people running from all over the building, either to get a good look or to flee the campus. Their point made, the protesters quickly dispersed.
To appreciate the significance of this, one must understand that up until this point, the rebellion had thrived mostly in the margins of Syria. Damascus University is located near the heart of the regime. The Ministry of Defense, the Presidential Library and the First Lady’s office are all in walking distance. The protest was not large, no more than a few dozen, but it had delivered its message: “We can reach you even here.”
In shock, I posted a brief status update about what had occurred on my Facebook profile. An Israeli professor saw it, and asked me to upload footage. I told him I had none to offer. Within minutes I deleted his comment and my response. The next day the program director called me into her office. The mukhabarat had seen the message, the comment, and who had made it. “It was good you deleted that comment. Don’t ever do it again.” Perhaps, she intimated, I should consider leaving the country.
Another weekend, another Friday, another round of protests. They continued to spread. The program director walked in, harried and anxious. One student asked a question, and the answer turned into a rant. Minutes passed, and the rant became a horror story. She lived in a rough neighborhood, mukhayam filasteen, grown out of a Palestinian refugee camp. That weekend, somebody had painted large “X”s over the doors of every home owned by Alawites. The implied death threat had sent her and her family fleeing across the city to stay with relatives. “I don’t know what’s going on in Syria anymore,” she said. “I don’t recognize my own country.”
The next day, at another branch of the university, another demonstration sprang up. Some reports say that it ended only in beatings, others say that a protestor was killed exactly where I interned twice a week. We still don’t know.
I brought the news to our program director. She didn’t want to hear about it; she’d just finished explaining to me that the Mossad was behind the protests because “they want to see chaos in my country.”
“I want to know what happened.” If someone was killed where we were studying, I was not ready for more talk of a “positive learning experience.”
Within seconds her “I-am-not-afraid” façade crumbled. She began screaming, “What business is this of yours!” again and again. “I don’t believe in your talk of human rights! You’re acting inhumanly! You just want to see chaos in my country!”
Just like the Israelis. She didn’t say it. She didn’t need to.
“You’re wrong,” was all I could say, as she left the room in a rage. How do you answer madness?
Twelve hours later the evacuation orders came.