Syria, Under Siege Inside and Out, Does Not Budge – By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
DAMASCUS, Syria — During his most recent news conference, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem interrupted the flow of questions by waving a small white piece of paper indicating that he had important news.
“I just received a note from the committee advising on the new constitution!” said the portly, white-haired minister, announcing only that one new provision bans “discrimination between political parties.”
Such creaky political theater spoke volumes about the way President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been handling the crisis engulfing Syria since March. Rather than responding to the motivations and demands behind the antigovernment uprising, opponents and political analysts say, the government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot. The regime offers meager crumbs of political change, while avoiding the sweeping reforms that might defuse public anger and ease its international isolation.
At the same time, its violent efforts to combat the uprising have pushed a once-peaceful opposition to take up arms, analysts here said.
“Nine months into this crisis the government has nothing to offer except a military, security solution,” said Hassan Abdel Azim, a 79-year-old warhorse among Syrian dissidents, sitting in his cramped office, decorated only with a photograph of the late Egyptian Arab nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Senior government officials — including President Assad — and their supporters reel off a strikingly uniform explanation for the uprisings, blaming foreign agents and denying official responsibility for the violence.
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News to be broadcast on Wednesday. In the interview, Mr. Assad denied ordering a crackdown. “We don’t kill our people,” he said. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Virtually none in the Syrian government link the uprisings there to the common sentiment inspiring revolutions across the Arab world, to a public fed up with the status quo. Instead, they say that the United States and Israel, allied with certain quisling Arab governments, are plotting to destroy Syria, to silence its lone, independent Arab voice and to weaken it regional ally, Iran. To achieve this aim, they say, they are arming and financing Muslim fundamentalist mercenaries who enter Syria from abroad.
“Syria is one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world and they are targeting Syria,” said Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential political and media advisor, warning that the West will rue the day that it enabled Islamist regimes. She rejected the idea that any true Syrian could rise against the government, saying, “Colonialism has always found agents inside the country.”
But that view does not seem to explain events unfolding on the streets.
The seemingly routine flow of life in central Damascus could leave the impression that there is no crisis, or that the security approach is effective. Yet beneath the mundane, unease grips this capital as fear of civil war supplants hopes for a peaceful transition to democracy. Damascus residents describe the restive suburbs as severed from the city by government checkpoints, and while the security forces control those areas by day, the night belongs to the rebels. A request to visit the suburbs was denied “for your own safety” by a Syrian government official.
Protesters hold “flying demonstrations” inside the city, trying to subvert the control of security forces with a few people gathering briefly to be filmed shouting antigovernment slogans. Damascenes say that they have become so accustomed to hearing slogans chanted in the background, given the almost daily progovernment rallies organized by the government, that it takes a couple minutes to register that people are cursing President Assad. By the time they seek the source, the protesters have faded away.
Yet security forces seem omnipresent, usually materializing in minutes. Government critics say myriad supporters have been recruited into the shabiha, or thugs, as the loyalist forces are known.
A recent flash demonstration near the central Cham Palace Hotel was dispersed by a group of waiters who flew out of a nearby cafe with truncheons, said an eyewitness. Many university campuses remain tense because student members of the ruling Baath Party have been reporting antigovernment classmates to the secret police.
A young professional said that one of his workers filming a long line of people waiting for scarce cooking gas bottles was severely beaten by security agents who showed up within two minutes to arrest him. It is a common fate described for those seen filming, and the government just banned iPhones.
“It was just a long queue, nothing political,” said the professional, speaking anonymously like many Syrians for fear of reprisals. “They think that if they hide everything it will go away, but it won’t.”
To leaven the tension, Syrians trade wry jokes: “Hey, did you hear that all the garbage men have defected from the government? They actually started cleaning the streets!”
There seems to be no common ground between what the government suggests will restore calm versus what the protesters demand.
“They are not negotiating, which is frightening,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report, a business newsletter.
But government officials seem to believe a new constitution — even if the president handpicked the committee devising it — is a major concession that will bring pluralism and end the unrest. “We are making all the steps that need to be made for our people and for our country,” Ms. Shaaban said.
Critics scoff at what they call business as usual — noting that Mr. Assad has never fulfilled repeated pledges to make political changes since he inherited the presidency from his father in 2000. A national dialogue, promised since March, has stalled, with the opposition demanding that the violence stop first.
The grass-roots protest movement could also care less. While the current circa 1973 Constitution clearly needs changing to remove all its socialist, central party rhetoric, government opponents note that it falsely guaranteed basic rights like the freedom to assemble. The state of emergency in place since 1963 that negated basic rights has ostensibly been lifted, but the government is still shooting protesters dead, they said.
The United Nations has put the death toll at 4,000 civilians, while government opponents estimate the number of political prisoners at anywhere from around 15,000 to more than 40,000.
Armed attacks against government targets are increasing, which Syrians outside the government ascribe to armed defectors quitting the military. They find the idea of alien infiltrators laughable.
Government supporters warn darkly that a gruesome, sectarian civil war like the one that plagued Iraq may be at hand. “If you are a Christian or an Alawite you will be slain,” said Cherif Abaza, a former member of Parliament. Dissidents accuse the government of fear-mongering and abetting the violence by arming the Alawites, which officials deny.
“That is ridiculous,” Ms. Shaaban said. “Is there any government in the world that pushes for a civil war?”
Supporters of the protest movement argue that communal hatred expressed toward the Alawites, the heterodox Muslim sect, stems less from their sect than their domination of the regime, starting with Mr. Assad, and especially the dreaded secret police. But that distinction is fading.
After President Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, Alawites so prevailed as undercover agents that people feared naming the sect in public. The preferred euphemism was “the Germans.” Now, in a sign of both alienation and diminishing fear, some Syrians call them “mundas,” or infiltrators in Arabic. The government uses that word to describe the supposed armed Islamist gangs.
Gauging shifts in support for the government is also difficult. The regime has clearly lost control over large swaths of the country, but the fear about what comes next seems a common sentiment in Damascus that has kept the city in line.
“We are scared it will be death by I.D. card, poverty and the Iraq scenario,” said a businessman interviewed amidst the bazaars of old Damascus. “We want change, we just don’t want blood.”