Try to stay peaceful – By The Economist
Here and there the protest movement is resurgent—and it still disavows violence
THE trunk of a tree in one of the orchards ringing the cool mountain town of Zabadani, close to the border with Lebanon, is splintered and burned black from a shell that landed at its roots, but green leaves still sprout at the top. “It’s like our revolution,” says a local man. “You can hurt it but it stays alive and still grows.”
Three months after forces loyal to President Bashar Assad shelled the town to regain control of it, its peaceful protest movement has proved resilient. Much of the town is again under opposition control. But the gun-toting men of the Free Syrian Army, a group of armed men and defectors who held Zabadani for almost a month, have been replaced by citizens with walkie-talkies co-ordinating their activities. Cockerels crow and tractors rumble along the streets. At an evening gathering, women who stitch the Syrian independence flag onto scarves and sweatbands worn by children sing protest songs. The sound of their voices and clapping drifts through open windows across the fertile valley.
You can see the marks of shelling by government forces as it retook control of Zabadani, just a hop from Damascus and with some 40,000 people, on February 11th. More recently, however, the regime has backed off. Army checkpoints dot the roads in and out of town. Security forces guard government buildings, but they do not venture as far as “Freedom Square”, as the central plaza is now called. Life seems normal again.
Fifteen months of protests have not quenched Zabadani’s revolutionary zeal. Every night after prayers in the mosque, men gather in the square and parade around the city shouting against Mr Assad as others on motorcycles zoom around waving the independence flag; the women voted to join in on Sundays and Wednesdays only. With the danger gone for the time being, Mr Assad’s foes have brought back the spirit of the early days of a revolution that has proved more tenacious in the rural areas around Damascus than farther afield. People in Zabadani speak openly against the regime. Minivans rush around the city blaring catchy anti-Assad tunes.
Violence plainly prevails in the hotbeds of Idleb, a north-western province, and in Homs, Syria’s third city. In Zabadani and elsewhere, protesters still preach civil disobedience while also seeking to promote harmony between the religious sects. Women berate any young man who says he wants to take up arms. A small group of locals has just produced the eighth issue of Oxygen, a weekly newspaper that features news, puzzles, caricatures and the occasional contribution from Kamal Labwani, a local veteran dissident.
Unlike many of Syria’s cities, Zabadani is not a sectarian, polarised place. A sense of solidarity has been reinforced because many of Zabadani’s Christians have joined the protests, whereas many Christians in Damascus still back the regime because they are afraid of what might come after it. “We have a long history of coexistence in Zabadani,” says a Christian woman in her 50s. “This killing is against our religion.” The local priest turns up to every funeral of the Sunni protesters who have been killed, while the local activists come to take part in special church services.
But this mood may not last. People in Zabadani are angered by the too-slow deployment of UN observers under the peace plan of Kofi Annan, the UN’s former secretary-general. Residents say the UN men who visited last week stayed for too short a time and showed no interest in the town. The men of the Free Syrian Army may not be on the streets, but they continue their target practice on tin cans. “Here we only fight if we have to,” says a student-cum-military leader, who reckons there are 450 men in Zabadani’s Free Syrian Army, only 50 of whom are defectors. He fingers his handgun, hidden but as ubiquitous as the walkie-talkies in the town: “If the UN plan fails we will come back stronger and with a better strategy than before.”