Posts Tagged ‘opposition’

The shabeehah were out in force last night, hundreds of young men armed with sticks and batons, sitting outside the main mosques of Meedan and Kafr Souseh, waiting for protests to emerge. Large green public buses ferried them into the centre so that they could stand around, intimidate and make the odd arbitrary ‘arrest’. A young guy in a cream coloured shirt lead in handcuffs towards a minivan, the curtains pulled shut.

Qaboun, north east of the Old City, has experienced growing demonstrations over the past two weeks. Last night however, it was completely deserted. The only proof of the neighbourhood’s dissent is the opposition graffiti on the walls which has since been blacked out by loyalists, leaving ugly dark patches on the white walls. Pro-regime slogans have been scribbled next to them in denial of the area’s growing frustration and anger.

Further east, Harasta was in complete darkness. The region is regularly denied electricity by the regime to thwart opposition attempts to organise and mobilise. Residential buildings shrouded in a gloomy dark loomed above the beams of car headlights below. “It’s as if there’s a war”, said our taxi driver. Despite the blackout, a few shops were still open, lit by torches and candles. A glowing furnace provided the only light in a pizza shop.

The deliberate power outages will have been particularly annoying as residents of Harasta hoped to spend their Ramadan evenings watching the season’s best television series and staying up all night eating and socialising. People did their best to enjoy their Friday evenings, gathering outside on plastic chairs or congregating in front of the few shops with a generator. But still, the area was eerily quiet.

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With the arrival of Ramadan, Syrians held their breath. Both regime supporters and opposition activists expected the first day of the holy month to be an eventful one. With reports of over 100 killed in Hama on Sunday, few people believed that Monday would be quiet.

The government attack on Hama which began on Sunday continued into the following day, bringing the death toll there to 150. When the tank shelling finally stopped in the evening, the cities residents came back onto the streets once again to demand the downfall of the regime. There are also reports of fresh attacks on Deir az-Zour and Alboukemal in the east of the country. Footage shows an endless line of military flat-bed trucks carrying tanks towards Deir az-Zour.

However, despite rumours floating around the activist circles in Damascus, the capital saw few protests. Optimistic opposition supporters whispered of an unprecedented demonstration on Umawiyeen roundabout. Unsurprisingly, it failed to materialise.

Speaking to several young Syrians who are usually out on the streets on Fridays, ‘shouting for freedom’, it quickly became clear that most, if not all of them, would be at home on the first night of Ramadan. I can’t blame them for preferring a leisurely Iftar meal with the family followed by a night of sheesha and TV rather than being chased around the streets of Damascus by regime goons.

The suffocating security presence was also a defining factor. Large numbers of shabeehah, positioned on key intersections in groups of up to 100, did a very good job of deterring open opposition. While initially the term shabeehah was used for plainclothes thugs, the definition has since been widened. The men I saw on Monday night wielding truncheons, wooden sticks and electric cables are a cross between a militia and an irregular police force. Most wear some sort of uniform, work alongside regular police officers and are rumoured to be paid by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and one of the most powerful businessmen in Syria.

But despite the intimidating presence of the shabeehah, street life continued in Damascus. As to be expected on the first night of Ramadan, the city was far quieter than usual, but men, women and children still strolled through the streets, ignoring the occasional arbitrary arrest of suspected demonstrators.

While the oft-repeated phrase ‘every day will be like a Friday’ might have been an exaggeration, the coming week, and this weekend in particular, will be a better indication of what Ramadan will bring to Syria.

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There is no doubt that after months of widespread demonstrations and over 1000 people killed, Syria has changed irrevocably. Whether that is for the better remains to be seen.

Despite the ongoing and ever brutal crackdown by the army and security services, there have been a few encouraging signs over the past few weeks. Most significantly, at least as far as the international community is concerned, foreign journalists have been let back into the country. Granted, it’s a very small number and the government won’t be allowing them out of arm’s reach of the ever-present official minders but it is at least a step in the right direction.

The local news has made (small) progress as well. SANA covered the recent opposition meeting in Damascus, an unprecedented acknowledgment that there are in fact Syrians who do not worship Assad.

But we should not get ahead of ourselves. While significant in the Syrian context, they are nonetheless miniscule steps towards serious negotiation. Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that the president would ever willingly accept democratic transition. With over 1000 dead and countless more forced to flee their homes, it is even more unlikely that the Syrian people will accept anything less. Syria is facing a long, drawn-out and very uncertain conflict.

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