DAMASCUS, Syria -- The old city of Damascus, even in these turbulent days, is a timeless place. Clustered around the gilded marble of the Ummayyad mosque, the winding souks are lined with stalls selling carpets and spices, hunkered under half-timbered houses.
The streets do not look very different from photographs taken of them a century ago. Outside this enclave, the population has swelled to two million; suburbs creep up the mountains around the city. But, unlike most of its rapidly changing neighbors, Syria has tried hard to stay the same.
In Lebanon, the old souks are gone, ravaged by civil war and rebuilt as concrete high-rises; in Iraq, invasion unleashed sectarian slaughter. Syria's 23 million people, although they too are a hotchpotch of religion and ethnicity, have lived first under 40 years of stable, stifling rule, first by President Hafez al-Assad and, since 2000, his son, Bashar.
Hafez built a bloated government infrastructure, in which most people worked for the state in undemanding, low-paid jobs. Both the old President and, later, his son discouraged dissent -- occasionally by mass violence, but more often by jailing thousands of opponents, maintaining a vast network of informers, and persuading people that their alternative was the chaos Syrians saw in other countries.
When change came to the Arab world, and the televised revolutions spread, even the most hopeful Syria-watchers thought it was unlikely to happen here. Though the government has in recent years made cautious reforms, the changes are almost exclusively economic rather than political. The politicians here say that change must come gradually and Syrians are not ready for real democracy.
But in the last two months, political opposition has grown from stagnation to white-water rapidity. After a bloody succession of weekly Friday protests, the country and its leaders are looking at a Syria that will never be the same again.
In March, after a dispute between sheikhs and government authorities in the shabby southern town of Deraa, protests flared and the security forces responded by mowing down demonstrators, arresting young men, and locking down the city. Sympathy uprisings began across the country, from Damascus to the coastal towns of Latakia and Banias to the central city of Homs.
Several towns remain under the control of security forces. Activists say around 800 people have been killed in clashes, with a further 27 dead in fighting near Homs since Saturday.
After hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests, the scale of the protests has fallen, but the calm is superficial and tense.
Mohammad, a 20-something from Damascus who spoke on condition that his real name not be revealed, said that he had seen security forces beating and arresting people at protests in the city center in the last month, and that he and his friends now live in fear of their brutality.
"You could lose your life, that's the bottom line," he said, adding that friends in the suburb of Muadhimiya, where the army and security forces have crushed demonstrations, said snipers had shot at a little girl who had opened a window, and that troops were breaking into houses and stealing money.
Friends employed by the government, whether as ordinary employees or merely garbage collectors, had been given sticks and told to go to protests and beat people, he told me. Mohammad added that these (often reluctant) pro-regime thugs were given passwords every Friday, to say in case they were mistakenly arrested.
One Western diplomat said that thousands of people had been "pre-emptively" arrested. Their families were warned that they would not see their relatives again if there were any more protests in their areas. Iranian advisers to the Syrian authorities were, the diplomat said, supervising a crackdown that he found strongly reminiscent of Iran's crushing of the Green movement popular uprising there in 2009.
"The regime looked at Egypt and Tunisia and decided that more violence and faster was their way to go," the diplomat said.
The upheaval has shocked Syria. Even in a country hardwired by constant surveillance never to talk politics, shopkeepers and taxi drivers bring up the situation constantly.
"Syria is a peaceful place, not like Iraq," one said, repeating the kind of comment I hear frequently. "Did you ever have a problem in Syria? Never!" When speaking in public, they usually praise their wise president and blame the unrest on terrorists, drug dealers, al-Jazeera, or the BBC.
National service is compulsory here, and everyone has a relative in the army, so pictures in the daily papers of soldiers killed or wounded in the fighting strike a chord. A woman in the northern city of Aleppo said her eldest son was deployed in Deraa.
"Every time a see a dead soldier on the television, my heart is breaking," she said, adding that she worried about sectarian tension arising out of the unrest, though she too applauded the goodness of the president.
But she, like many other passionate regime supporters, also embraced the changes that the demonstrations have prompted. The government has ended fifty years of emergency law, which had precluded democratic reforms, and has made some smaller gestures, like unblocking Facebook.
Internationally, attitudes to Syria have shifted on a tectonic level. The White House this week announced sanctions on the President, the strongest condemnation yet of his legitimacy. Assad had been courted, until recently, by Western diplomats keen to win over a country worryingly close to Iran and crucial to negotiations on Israel-Palestine issues.
But despite these shocks inside and outside, the regime remains resistant to meaningful change. Young Syrians may now be allowed Facebook, but the security services comb the site for evidence of dissent. Damascus is deserted on Fridays and patrolled by hundreds of plain-clothed security forces and uniformed men with guns.
Mohammad is too afraid to go to protests for the moment. But he said that he and his friends have now seen the true draconian nature of the security forces, and also known what it is to call for freedom in defiance of their brutality. "I was so excited, I couldn't believe something has happened in Syria," he said. "Something that was underground became chanting, in the open. It was incredible, unbelievable."
"Syria will not go back," he said. "It will never go back. Things in Syria are as uncertain as the weather now."Image: AP
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