A Syrian Activist Speaks From Damascus

A young man involved in the opposition movement discusses the mood in Damascus, his torture, and what activists want from the outside world

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Still from an activist-recorded video shows protesters chanting slogans in the Al-Midan area of Damascus / Reuters

One of the more pernicious myths of the Syrian uprising is that the country's capital is "quiet" and therefore the movement is more of a countryside phenomenon that lacks the sufficient backing of the metropolitan elite. In fact, the protest movement first took hold in Damascus' Old City on March 15, as a group of 40 people gathered in the al-Hamidiyeh souk chanting, "God, Syria, Freedom -- that is enough." The following day, March 16, 150 demonstrators convened outside the Ministry of the Interior building in central Damascus to rally against the jailing of 21 human rights activists. One protester, Suhair Atassi, a veteran human rights campaigner, was severely beaten by security forces the previous month after she attended a candlelight vigil in another part of the city. Since the early months of the uprising, the outlying suburbs of Damascus have been a hotbed of protest that have been met with the same barbaric reprisals documented in Deraa, Homs, and Hama.

This past weekend saw two separate but galvanizing events that show anti-regime agitation persists in Damascus. First, there was the savage attack on celebrated Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat by regime security officials, which has led to a Facebook campaign of Syrians adopting the artist's portrait as their profile photos (there's also this eloquent tribute to his defiant spirit.) The 60-year-old satirist, whose hands were broken, has long mocked Arab dictators with his pen; he was once threatened with death by Saddam Hussein. Early Thursday morning, masked men assaulted him up in his own car, then forced him into an SUV, beat him again, and dropped him by a roadside in the middle of nowhere. He was only discovered hours later.

The Democracy ReportNext, Saturday's prayer gathering at the Al-Rifai Mosque in the Kafar Sousseh neighborhood of Damascus became an act of opposition. Worshipers at the mosque, chanting revolutionary slogans, attempted to take to the streets but were trapped inside by security forces and shabbiha gangs, which then stormed the mosque. The regime forces used live rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas and electric tasers on the worshipers, two of whom were killed; the imam of the mosque, Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai, was also injured in the melee. (Here's a video of the cleric in hospital.)

Because they live at the epicenter of a police state with 17 different intelligence apparatuses, Damascenes have had to use art, music, and religion as the main tribunes of disgust and revolutionary fervor. Water fountains in the capital have been colored with red ink, samizdat leaflets have been left in microbuses headed toward Assad-friendly neighborhoods, and helium balloons have been floated in a manner redolent of Belarus's slightly absurdist but still provocative bouts of spontaneous "clapping". Messages have even been painted on stray cats.

One Damascene I spoke with recently over Facebook instant messenger, a Palestinian man I'll call Yusuf, explained how the revolution has registered -- and been horribly repressed -- right on Assad's Damascus doorstep.  I was put in touch with Yusuf through a Syrian oppositionist I've befriended through my work at the Henry Jackson Society. Without giving away too much that might compromise Yusuf's anonymity, I can say that he's a young man involved in the Damascene art scene. He can't flee Syria because his name is on the border guards' list of suspects. Our go-between explained, "He's scared that the regime is going to rape his sisters. He and his friends used to integrate fine with everyone. Now they're hiding in their homes."

Yusuf's story is one that I've come to see many times in the Syrian revolution: youth undaunted by the depredations of a totalitarianism. His photos on Facebook suggest a happy, cosmopolitan life. When I offered to try and help him emigrate (by petitioning the UK Home Office, say, or calling UNRWA), he demurred but thanked me anyway and hoped that we might meet someday in a free Syria. Here's what he told me.

What is the mood in Damascus like now?

Anger and frustration.

Do you think most of the city is against the regime?

Damascus is so diversified demographically. Some people are silent because they are afraid. Some are with the regime. They came from other cities and villages and they work here as they don't have any other job opportunities in other places So the economic factor determines their thinking.

How do you see the revolution developing now? Will sanctions from the U.S. and Europe help bring Assad down, or will you need a military intervention?

We are not developed at the planning and management levels. We say we are against military intervention but we know this regime is so strong that it can't be brought down realistically by peaceful protests. We have been into this for six months now. But sanctions alone are not enough. This is something for sure. There is a lot of money in the hands of the regime. They control the country's resources.

Won't the regime eventually run out of money?

They cannot run short of money any[time] soon. It will take years. They don't spend money on public services and they will go further with this. They can get the support from Iran. No matter how marginal it is, Iran will back them.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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