Syrian capital's residents on edge

by Jocelyne Zablit, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 24 2011 05:52 PM | Updated as of May 25 2011 01:52 AM

DAMASCUS, Syria - Damascus remains relatively untouched by the pro-democracy protests roiling Syria, but even supporters of the regime in the capital are becoming edgy about the mounting death toll and wondering where the country is headed.

While on the surface all appears normal in the city, with shops open, traffic jams and crowded sidewalks, it is clear that the unrest is on everyone's mind and that with each new demonstration, casualty and sanction the tension rises a notch.

Many hunker down in their homes at night instead of socializing, while some evening events are being cancelled or moved up so that residents can rush home early.

"Two weeks ago we still believed the government's assertion that everything was under control and that the crisis was over," said one local resident, traditionally a supporter of President Bashar al-Assad.

"But the future suddenly looks dark and I wonder down what path the regime is taking us," added the woman, who like others mentioned in this article refused to be named.

Many people in the metropolis of some four million -- where the Alawite-controlled authoritarian regime has a strong base of support among minority Christians and members of the Sunni bourgeoisie -- seem baffled by the turn of events.

"It is beginning to sink in that this is not going to be over soon and that the country is undergoing major change," said one businessman. "Nothing will be the same as before anymore."

Assad still enjoys strong support in the capital but there are growing fears that the situation is spiralling out of control and that the unrest could eventually hit Damascus and Aleppo, the two major power centers largely spared the violence so far.

According to rights groups, more than 900 people have been killed and thousands more detained by security forces since the protests broke out mid-March with a small demonstration in Damascus that was quickly dispersed.

"I think the day those kids in Daraa were arrested and tortured was really a turning point for all the pent-up anger over widespread corruption among people in the south," said one Damascus resident, referring to the arrest of teenagers caught scrawling anti-government graffiti in the southern town of Daraa as the protests began spreading.

"The pot just blew up."

Reflecting a widespread view, one hotel owner said that with businesses beginning to feel the pinch and a promising tourist season now shattered, a stark reality is settling in.

"People are realizing that this might last many more months and are looking to the government for answers but they're not getting any," he said. "We're offering cut-down prices, we're laying off employees and some of us have been forced to shut down to minimize our losses.

"But then what?"

Hesitant to act at first, Washington and the European Union have slapped Assad and top aides with punitive sanctions amid a chorus of mounting international condemnation.

The regime has responded to the violence by offering some concessions while at the same time launching a fierce crackdown to crush the unrest.

It has also remained defiant in the face of criticism, accusing the United States and European Union of meddling in its internal affairs and incitement.

But some here believe that Assad has all but lost his chance at redressing the situation and fear a long drawn-out crisis.

"It's like an oil stain that keeps getting larger," said one merchant. "I think we are going to see many more dead and the regime could collapse."

Another businessman said that playing against the government was the protesters' use of social media and the Internet to spread their message and reach the outside world.

"When Assad's father Hafez crushed the revolt in Hama in 1982, killing thousands, the massacre went largely unnoticed outside Syria," he said. "But this time they won't be able to hush things up."

The fear factor among the population is also diminishing.

"The majority of revolutions in the world went forth after the wall of fear came crumbling down," said one woman. "And this is what has happened in Syria.

"There is no turning back now."

Still, there are those who insist that Assad is genuinely committed to reforms but needs to be given a chance to implement them. Many are also convinced that foreign agitators, notably from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Lebanon, are feeding the unrest.

"Everyone agrees there is corruption but you can't get rid of it overnight," said one man. "If you uproot this rotten tree too quickly you will take down with it half the country."