Editor’s Note: The author’s identity has been concealed for the protection of the writer.
Damascus’s Tahrir Square is empty.
The royal blue street signs directing traffic to the roundabout—modest compared to its world-famous Cairo counterpart—look increasingly ironic. For residents wishing for a quick and cathartic revolution like Egypt’s, the insignificance of their Liberation Square is salt in a long-festering wound. For others who fear the unknown alternative that would replace the flawed but familiar status quo, it is a relief.
From life-as-mostly-normal Damascus, the Egyptian square seems only slightly further away from the city that has rapidly become the figurative Syrian Tahrir: Hama, to the north, a city as famous for its beautiful watermills as it is for unpunished massacres, past and present. News reports estimated 200 dead in Hama this past weekend alone. As forces crack down on other cities, so far more than 2,000 Syrians have died at government hands.
Throughout the actual spring and now summer of the insipidly named “Arab Spring,” many Damascenes have been watching wearily, battered by a series of obfuscating narratives cultivated by a regime that is fighting for domestic not international legitimacy. Every day, through its state-owned TV and newspapers, the Assad regime broadcasts to Syrians its justifications for the brutal military crackdown on their fellow Syrians. They proffer evidence that ongoing protests against the government have been orchestrated—or infiltrated—by foreign-armed terrorists. We are treated daily to alleged confessions by Syrians who are supposedly paid to be terrorists; bedside interviews with allegedly wounded Syrian soldiers, with zoomed-in shots of bloodstained sheets; videos of alleged arms caches; and footage of alleged protesters, their weapons circled in red.
The foreign plot/paid to protest narrative has not been as easy for Syrians to dismiss as it was when similarly invoked by dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. There are many reasons for this: a lack of independent journalists reporting on the situation while a sophisticated Syrian propaganda machine operates at full force; the relative sanity and charisma, compared to other authoritarian leaders, of Assad and his Vogue-worthy wife; the disorganization of the demonstrators and opposition (and the possibility some of them are indeed armed). And then there is the argument that Western democracies lie and commit atrocities too without being stripped of their mandate to govern—"weapons of mass destruction" and the invasion of Iraq being the favored examples.
Thus the discussion among Syrians hesitating to join the protests, aside from a well-justified fear of being shot dead or disappeared, is not whether Assad is in power legitimately—most concede he is not—but rather, whether he is really the biggest evil they face. Wedged between Beirut and Baghdad, Syrians do not take the relative security provided by the regime for granted and many are loathe to give it up—even if it has come at the expense of their basic rights and liberties and potentially worse, a politically neutered population.
Aside from introducing considerable doubt about who the protesters are, the regime has also called into question what it is they really want. The not-so-implicit suggestion is that they won’t stop until they achieve some sort of extreme Salafist Sunni theocracy, where minorities will be slaughtered or else severely repressed. For Christians, they need look no further than recent church burnings in Egypt or the near extinction of Christians in Iraq for what some consider credible precedent for what could happen to them. Among Alawites, who to many Syrians are synonymous with the regime, there is the dread that they can only survive if they continue to rule the country, because payback—forty years in the making—will be merciless.