Damascus must fall. This seems to be the reigning sentiment of most Syrians. For the revolution to be successful, the large and ancient city must revolt. But this is much easier said than done, and at the very least, residents of Damascus can expect plain-clothed security thugs, bribes for the impoverished to support the president, and possibly hundreds of deaths. These despotic tactics, some of which are already being deployed in the suburbs and towns across the country, have so far been rarely deployed in downtown Damascus.
In Midan, a suburb just outside of the main city, protests have been ongoing for the past month. In fact, various reports are stating that numerous suburbs have been wardened off by both security guards and physical barriers. SANA, the state-run news network, has been blasting nonstop stories of sectarian violence, trying to scare up the normally peaceful coexistence between Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, and Alawites within the nation’s capital. Billboards and flyers have been sent out warning of terrorists and insurgencies battling for control. Although few in the nation believe such stories (especially given the history of the al Assad family on human rights), this hasn’t stopped the international news media from latching onto stories of Syrians supporting their ruler.
It is reminiscent of Mubarak before his decline. CNN, BBC, and numerous other international media outlets reported earnestly on the pro-government supporters that had taken to the streets to show their love for the then-President of Egypt. Little attention was paid to the fact that within Arab police states, a common tactic is for security officials to head to the poorest part of town and bribe the inhabitants with money and homes in return for their support. In fact, even after it was revealed through texts and documents that this was the exact strategy employed by the Mubarak regime, the news media still referred to those coerced into loyalty as “supporters.”
It seems this same tactic is taking place in Syria. Giant parades for Bashar al Assad are being reported on as if they sprung organically from the people. These shows of support harken back to Bashar’s birthdays when the entire town, despite having to work, goes out for a few hours to dance in front of cameras. Little children are bribed with sweets and the older population is bribed with goods. I have personally seen government hacks encouraging populations to dance for the cameras and celebrate wildly even though many in the crowd were complaining of being tired. It is a phenomenon well known throughout the Arab world and is often met with snide comments by those in the privacy of their own living rooms.
Yet the media acceptance of such parades does allow the Syrian government to twist the sentiment of its population. It can show that those inside the city of Damascus love the president so much they cannot help but kiss his picture and hang it up all over their homes and that the residents just outside are so mad they are willing to set blockades made of tires on fire (an action actually attributed to Assad’s forces but blamed on the residents of the suburbs). Soon the idea of a civil divide becomes very real for certain citizens without access to the outside. With Internet restricted and a serious lack of journalists inside the country, many within Syria are not getting the same picture that those of us on the outside are. Instead they are being told of armed civillians killing hundreds of police officers. Pictures of Bashar standing in front of his adoring public are being distributed everywhere, including in the cellophane wrapping of bread.
For Damascus to fall, there needs to be a catalyst. The recent massacres in Jisr al Shugour, mass graves in Daraa, and the military invasion of Homs has yet to be enough. Perhaps the protests in Damascus’s sister city, Aleppo, will help spur on demonstrations. That, combined with aid now reaching Northern Syria thanks to a new Turkish relief package, might help the citizens realize they are not completely alone in this. Yet for those trapped on the fifth floor of a Damascan apartment complex, any real help seems miles away.