A man named Yazan shuffles into a cafe in the Old City of Damascus. "Sorry I'm late," he says, quickly ordering a Smirnoff and a toshka, a sandwich of meat and cheese. "But I was arguing with all my friends who've joined pro-Bashar [Al-Assad] Facebook groups. They always tell me to be quiet.”
I met the 23-year old Damascus University student and other Syrians during a two-week stay in the country. I left just before Al-Assad's speech to the nation in which he promised reform but blamed the growing anti-regime protests in the country on a “huge conspiracy” against Syria. The speech left my contacts unimpressed, deflated and anxious.
Yazan calls himself Jason Bourne, a joking reference to the enigmatic character in the Robert Ludlum thrillers. He carries his data in his pocket on a USB stick, and when he talks with a friend on the phone about anything remotely political, they speak in Spanish. He is one of legions of Syrians who have internalized the paranoia that has been the hallmark of life under the Baath Party regime. The vast network of Syria's security agencies, the feared mukhabarat, has turned Syria into a kingdom of silence, he tells me.
Desktops in Damascus internet cafes are set to photos of Al-Assad with ubiquitous slogans like "We will not kneel [to the world] as long as you're our president," Youths have gathered around cubicles the past week to watch graphic YouTube videos of the clashes in the southern town of Dara’a and sign on to Facebook to check updates on the "Syrian Revolution 2011" page. The regime finally opened access to Facebook and YouTube in February after a block since 2007.
In hotel lobbies and businesses, televisions are set to state programming that ignores the protests, but staff members peek at graphic footage from Dara’a on their phones. Facial expressions are exchanged, but words aren’t shared. "Syria has consistently used psychological warfare to keep people tied down," says Abdulhamid, a human rights activist who fled Syria in 2005. "The best way to control someone is to have them police themselves."
Phone conversations and text-messages are usually camouflaged by code. The few foreign journalists in Syria these days file their stories anonymously for fear of being kicked out. Western diplomats speak in hushed tones and refer to hot-spots, like Dara’a–the nexus of the anti-regime protests over the past two weeks–as “the place.” Many go so far as to remove the batteries from their mobile phones during conversations for fear that GPS tracking devices have been installed in their SIM cards.
A portrait of Bashar greets travellers at Damascus International Airport, "Yes to Modernization and Development"
On the streets, photographs of Al-Assad–Bashar in military regalia, Bashar with children, Bashar with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar surrounded by Clipart-produced hearts, flowers, and stars –hang in almost every shop and on every car window. "His eyes are always on us. It's like North Korea in the Middle East, says Yazan, adding with a laugh, “Except we have better food.”
But the balm of humor is starting to lose its effect. Human rights groups say the protests demanding political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption have left more than sixty people dead. The turmoil started in February after the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Dara’a. Smaller protests were also reported in the cities of Homs, Hama, Latakia and Damascus.
Some Syrians have also taken to the streets of Damascus to declare “God, Syria, Bashar only.” Many seem willing to give Al-Assad time to tackle the crisis, and they ask what alternative there is to the current regime. They point to the sectarian bloodshed in neighboring Iraq, a country also ruled by a Baath Party regime until the ousted of Saddam Hussein in 2003–and they fear that any future democracy would eventually give way to undemocratic Islamists seeking a religious state. “I’m caught between two fires,” Yazan tells me. “I respect Bashar in many ways, but I still feel like I’m in a prison.”
I set out to Dara’a four times. When I searched for a translator to accompany me, many legitimately cited fear and refused to join me for the trip south toward the Jordanian border. Eight drivers refused to drive me the 62 miles from Damascus. One offered to drive me to nearby Bosra, where a separate cab driver then took me to Dara’a.
Seven miles from the town’s center, “civilians” waved our car down. “There’s nothing to see here, leave,” one ordered, while his companions all looked on at the cloud of black smoke in the distance hanging over Dara’a. On the drive back to Bosra, my driver was shaking and refused to talk to me. He played his Fairuz music as loud as he could. “Delete my number from your phone. And all the pictures you took with me in it. Don’t tell anyone I drove you there,” he instructed after receiving his fare.
Eventually I found a driver who was willing to take me to Dara’a. We went there three times. “Like you, a journalist, I have to watch my back here, too,” he said. “You have to understand, if I get caught, I don’t have immunity like you do. None of us have immunity here.”
Outside the main pockets of heavy protests in Dara’a, the town were eerily quiet throughout the week. Few were out and colorful advertisements for the Syrian Youth Parliament (a recent initiative approved by the government) line the streets. One evening, military were camped out at every corner. Many civilians refused to talk to me. Near the museum, two teenagers declined to be photographed but threw me a peace-sign when I got out my camera in front of the town’s museum, where a portrait of a blue-eyed Bashar was lit by spotlight.
In addition to the protesters, there are signs of quiet personal defiance. I met a young journalist from Dara’a who said he quit his job at a state newspaper because he couldn’t "spread lies" any longer. "God willing, it's the beginning of the end,” he explains. “That day was the first day I said 'no.’ We've been taught to fear all our lives–fear the government, fear wars–but Dara’a will hopefully be the country's wake-up call."
In Damascus, I interviewed a young Syrian activist and blogger who was so fearful of arrest he requested that I not even mention his anonymous pen name. "There's no unified and established opposition in Syria,” he said. “But in the meantime, we're gaining a foothold." The president's speech left him completely disappointed, but just a few days before when the government resigned, he told me that Syria’s political space was finally opening up.
That’s what the Al-Assad regime wants the world to believe. In this it has achieved some surprising success, such as an adoring profile of First Lady Asma Al-Assad in the February issue of American Vogue. At the “Arab Youth of Today” conference hosted by a Harvard Alumni Association a day before the unrest began, Asma Al-Assad was introduced as a force that has “unleashed civil society in Syria.”
At the conference, which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, I asked her if and how Syria was addressing the problems at the roots of the uprisings across the region. “The uprisings in other countries in the region are specific to those countries,” she said. “We didn’t need an uprising to happen to realize we aren’t where we need to be. We started reform years ago.” Afterwards, one man quickly came up to me, asking me if I thought the First Lady had answered my question. After chatting, another man soon approached me and whispered, “That was one of the First Lady’s aides,” he said. “Watch who you talk to.”