6 Aug 2011

Denial in Damascus as Syria revolts

Syria is in open revolt with hundreds killed, weekly protests now daily and chants against the president in every corner of the country, writes a Syria expert for Channel 4 News.

Syria is in revolt but Damascus is in denial (Image: Getty)

Damascus and the second city Aleppo are islands of relative peace in a country at war with itself.

In Egypt, the capital brought the rest of the country with it, as it overthrew the regime. In Syria, the opposite is happening, writes Sakhr Al-Makhadhi for Channel 4 News.

Five months into the uprising and Aleppo feels like a world away from the army lockdown in Hama, just 90 miles to the south.

“It’s like nothing’s happening,” one resident tells me. Part of that may be due to inertia, part of it may be freeloading on the rest of the country’s revolution.

Whatever the reason, the rest of Syria is not impressed.

Placards have been held during demonstrations mocking Aleppines for their inaction.

During last Friday’s countrywide protests, demonstrators were asked to carry signs that read “your silence is killing us” – a message to the rest of the Arab world, but one that could also be directed at Aleppo.

Down in Damascus, large-scale protests have reached the suburbs, where troops have sealed off entire neighbourhoods to prevent the angry gatherings moving into the city centre. In the heart of town, demonstrations rarely last more than a few minutes before police move in and start rounding people up.

Revolution rejected?

But there is little appetite for revolution among some of the capital’s residents. In the sprawling gated compounds at the northern edge of the city live some of the country’s richest businessmen and their families.

They have prospered under Bashar Al-Assad‘s economic liberalisation and they are in no rush to see the regime overthrown.

Every week Facebook invitations go out for all-night rooftop parties. Elegant young things dance into the early hours, sipping cocktails that cost twice as much as the average Syrian earns in a day. “The last days of the raj,” one diplomat has been quoted as saying.

By night they party, and by day they shop. Glitzy malls that wouldn’t look out of place in London offer the latest Italian designer outfits and plenty of opportunities to bury your head in the sand in air-conditioned comfort.

It is not just those who have profited from the regime who are scared about its downfall – religious minorities have a lot to fear. While Christians have fled Iraq, and have long formed the bulk of the Lebanese expat community in the West, they are protected under Syrian law.

This staunchly secular regime fought a battle against Islamic extremists in the 1970s and 80s, and they are keen to remind minorities of this.

Aleppo and Damascus are home to two of the country’s biggest Christian communities. As many as one-in-three Aleppines are thought to be non-Muslim.

Whether demonstrators can convince Damascus and Aleppo to buy into this revolution will have a profound impact on whether the regime can cling on to power. As long as the city-based business classes and the minorities – the government’s core constituencies – stand by the regime, it is unlikely to fall.

On 15 March, a few dozen people marched through Souq Al-Hamidiya, the capital’s main shopping street. It was that unprecedented stand against one of the region’s most water-tight police states that set the country on fire.

The revolution started in Damascus, and it will finish there too.