Fear and Trembling in Damascus: A Pretense of Calm in Syria's Capital

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Al-Arabiya / EPA

A video image from al-Arabiya shows people protesting in the Barzeh area of Damascus

The capital of Syria has the illusion of calm. But do not trust appearances. In fact, trust is a very precious commodity in Damascus nowadays. The city, according to residents, is swarming with secret police. Nobody dares speak out against the government. In central districts of the capital, the number of street peddlers seems to have quadrupled. The scuttlebutt is that the extra sales force is being employed by the government to spy on and even beat anyone attempting to rally. Indeed, while small protests have materialized in some suburbs, they have been quickly broken up by baton-wielding thugs.

It is almost impossible to gauge the significance of the crisis going on in the rest of the country. "There are no problems in Syria," a taxi driver spat out in response to a question, his cigarette almost falling out of his mouth and his eyes widening. To strangers, the citizens of Damascus are quick to applaud President Bashar Assad and blame terrorists and gun smugglers for the unrest. That is the official government line. However, as rapport is built and conversations ease, it is clear that few believe what they preach. "Outside Damascus, it's a big problem. Many have been killed," the rugged taxi driver admitted suddenly, sheepishly.

The view from broad is that Syria is the very model of tyrannical repression. Following in Barack Obama's footsteps, the European Union slapped sanctions on Assad on Monday after one of the bloodiest weekends in the country's nine-week uprising. Local human-rights activists say the repression has so far left more than 1,000 people dead. E.U. foreign ministers condemned the "ongoing repression in Syria and the unacceptable violence" wreaked on peaceful protests and called for the end of mass arrests and torture and for the Assad government to allow in aid workers, medics and journalists.

Antigovernment activists in Syria are unimpressed. "Nothing will change here," an activist in Damascus said. "Obama placed sanctions on Assad last week, and look at what happened this weekend." Syria is reeling after a weekend when security forces fired into crowds of mourners who took part in a funeral procession for antigovernment protesters killed last week. The death toll on Fridays has been falling steadily since April 22, when more than 100 people were killed. (Friday is the Islamic holy day and the occasion for people gathered to pray at mosques to then band together to march in protest.) But that doesn't mean the government has relented in its shooting spree. On May 20, police fired on demonstrations across the country, killing at least 44 people, according to human-rights groups outside Syria that collate the names of the dead.

And the government has also opened fire on the funerals of those who died. In Syria, as is customary elsewhere in the sweltering Middle East, funerals are often held the day after a person dies. In Homs, a central city that has become a hub for the antigovernment movement, 11 more people died when police fired on mourners carrying coffins on their shoulders on major roads.

Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for Syria and Lebanon, said there have been no signs that the Syrian government has become any less brutal since the start of the protests in mid-March. "I haven't seen the government show more restraint," he said. "The government has not got to a stage where they are more tolerant of protests," he added. International rhetoric and sanctions, it seems, have not had much effect so far.

Fearful of being tailed in Damascus, revolutionaries are traveling out of the capital to protest. One activist, who will be referred to as Ammar, said that every Thursday he travels to Homs to protest. "In Homs I could get shot, but in Damascus I'll get arrested and thrown in jail before we can even organize a protest," he said, speaking in a smoky old Damascene café, confident that the ambient noise of the lively room would drown out his dissenting views. It is well known, he said, that phones and e-mails are tapped. Ammar will talk only in person.

But stories from beyond Damascus are trickling into the capital. Another activist, who asked to be referred to as Noor, moved to Damascus this year to study. She says accounts are leaking out from friends and family back home of atrocities committed by security forces. On May 21, in Noor's sandy eastern hometown, near the Iraqi border, 17-year-old activist Mohammed Akram al-Tumeh poured lamp oil over his body and set himself alight in a central street only hours after he was released from prison for protesting. Noor's friends say that when the police released Tumeh, he was covered in bruises, and there are rumors that he was sexually abused in jail. Tumeh died on May 22.

With YouTube full of graphic videos showing children dying of bullet wounds and old men bleeding to death in the back of pickup trucks, Noor says that more and more Syrians who sat on the fence before for fear of the secret police are now willing to rise up. It remains to be seen whether the self-immolation of Tumeh will fully parallel that of the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose death ignited antigovernment protests across the Middle East.

For Noor, the question of whether sanctions will work is immaterial. She believes that in Syria, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt, anger will eventually overtake fear. Says Noor: "I know that I will be arrested or killed if I go out and protest in Damascus. But after learning what has happened to Syrians, I can't sit at home. That is as bad as watching it happen in front of you and not doing anything."