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Archive for July, 2011

I used a previous post, The Damascus Bubble, as the basis for a longer article for Our Man In, an interesting project which has only recently been started up. The website acts as a platform for young and upcoming writers from around the world. If you’re interested in a career in journalism, it’s a good place to start.

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Boys at a pro-regime demonstration, sorry, ‘celebration’, just outside the Old City:

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There’s a lot of speculation as to what will happen once Ramadan starts on either 1st or 2nd July. No one doubts that the violence will escalate but to what degree and for how long is open to speculation.

Business in the Middle East slows down considerably as Ramadan lethargy sets in and one would expect that it would have a similar effect on an uprising. No one wants to shout for the downfall of the regime when you haven’t had a drop to drink since 4 in the morning. The problem with that argument, as a recent article in the National explained, is that “Ramadan will be like a month of Fridays. Every night people will leave the mosques and protest”.

One young Syrian that I spoke to predicted that Fridays alone will continue to be the big protest day but that gatherings will be on a scale greater than seen before as more people attend prayers during the month of Ramadan.

Whatever happens, there’s a good chance that August will be the defining month in the Syrian uprising.

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Thank you Russia

To follow up a previous post (The Russian factor), here’s a picture of a banner on the Merjeh overpass:

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Pro-government rallies in Syria are a bit like carnivals. There’s lots of noise, music and colourful banners, and the whole family gets to join in. Mum, dad, kids and crazy, old grandpa all come along for the fun.

Except I’ve also found carnivals and funfairs slightly creepy. There’s something vaguely sinister about all that forced fun. It’s not natural. The same thing applies to the demonstrations. While there is no doubt that people are there by choice, grateful for the opportunity to show that many Syrians are still faithful to their leader, the chain smoking mukhabarat agents and truncheon wielding policemen keep you somewhat on edge.

These pre-ordained and rigidly controlled spectacles of loyalty are even more frequent now than they were at the start of the Syrian unrest 4 months ago. And they’ve evolved. The first demonstrations were more like late night drag races. Hardcore supporters would screech around the new city, honking their horns and keeping everyone awake at night.

Later, the demonstrations took the form of mass car rallies, the Arab version of vintage automobile enthusiast gatherings in Kent. Thousands of cars, minivans, buses and taxis took part in a perpetual orbit around the Ummayad roundabout. If Syria had any environmentalists, they wouldn’t have been happy.

The government took things further a week or two later when they encouraged about half of the Damascus population to take to the streets, this time on foot. When I say encouraged, I mean it in the mukhabarat’s sense of the word. School children and government employees were bussed in from across Damascus. University students were pushed out of their accommodation and threatened with arrest should they decide to stay at home. Security agents herded students out of the campus and then refused entry to anyone trying to get back in. Because if you’re in class, then you’re not out on the streets declaring your love for Bashar.

But these were badly organised, uncouth affairs. As the opposition protests evolved and matured, so too would the pro-government rallies. Recent events, and they are now indeed events, involve stages, speeches and live music. The guys with little stalls selling flags and Bashar t-shirts turn up hours before to secure the best positions. Invitations are now even sent out via text message to the entire population of Damascus.

Where to next for pro-government rallies? Expectations have been raised and regime supporters will now want ever greater events. Maybe celebrity appearances would be a good starting point; it seems to work at American election gatherings.

And as Ramadan sets in, few people will want to shout and wave banners while they fast. But even in the evenings they will need more reason to leave home and their favourite Ramadan season TV series. Might I suggest free, government-sponsored Iftar meals on Umaween Square followed by some chanting and flag waving?

Government supporters outside the Four Seasons hotel on their way to a rally.

More supporters heading to the same rally

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Internet access has been a bit  restricted as of late so I haven’t had the chance to update Today’s Reading for a while. Unreliable connections and a need to dodge the internet po-po keeps my blog posts less frequent than I would like.

 

President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators bodes about as well for Syria’s economy as it does for democracy. The bloody affair has spooked investors and derailed at least three major Gulf investment projects, according to Al Arabiya. It has also virtually extinguished the tourism industry, previously one of Syria’s fastest-growing sectors.

The IMF lowered its growth projections for Syria in April to 3 percent, down from 3.2 percent in 2010, but the Institute of International Finance’s prediction that the Syrian economy will shrink by 3 percent this year is starting to look more likely. U.S. and European sanctions — some directed at Assad and his top aides — could make things worse for the cash-strapped country. Syria, which has no credit rating, cannot borrow on the international lending market and has traditionally relied on Gulf monarchies such as Kuwait for cash infusions. But according to a recent report, Iran, Syria’s ally to the east, may help keep Damascus afloat with a $5.8 billion loan.

 

Of course the biggest news today is the Syrian parliament’s adoption of a new draft law to allow parties other than the Baath party to be formed. Sounds like a big deal but government opponents aren’t celebrating in the streets just yet. Opposition groups have either dismissed them as either symbolic or too little too late.

 

 

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The Russian factor

Along with the usual Syrian flags and posters of a stern looking Bashar al Assad, the shops selling patriotic paraphernalia across Damascus have more recently added another item to their stock: the red, blue and white of the Russian flag. Since it vetoed a United Nations motion to condemn the regime crackdown in Syria, Russia has become the pro-government supporters’ favourite foreign backer. A close look at the pictures of a pro-regime mob attacking the US embassy, angry at the ambassador’s recent trip to the besieged city of Hama, reveals a Russian banner held aloft by one of the would-be embassy invaders.

The Russian-Syrian alliance is by no means new and was forged during the Soviet period on the back of socialist ideals and a mutual desire to antagonise the West. Military interests have kept the two countries cosy since then. Since 1971 Russia has leased port facilities in Tartous for its navy. These were falling into disrepair until 2008, and the South Ossetia War, when Russia decided that it wanted to revamp its naval capabilities in the Mediterranean. There have also been negotiations over deploying Russian Iskander missiles in the country.

The Russian Cultural Centre, down the road from the Syrian Central Bank, is looking a bit tatty around the edges these days but still remains active as a instrument of soft power, encouraging young Syrians to learn Russian and develop life-long bonds with Russian culture.

Cultural exchanges are fine but as the government response to the uprising becomes increasingly bloody, Russia is not doing its international image any good by stubbornly backing a regime which, in this blogger’s humble opinion, will not be around in the long-term.

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