Middle East

Syrians still divided over country's future

Boys look out at Damascus from a nearby hill (1 March 2012)
Image caption Many Syrians have not yet made up their minds about the uprising

The BBC Arabic Service's Omar Abdel-Razek has recently returned from reporting in Syria where he was able to travel to three cities. He found Syrians anxious about the future and undecided about whether to back the government or those seeking its overthrow.

On the road from Damascus airport to the centre of the Syrian capital, my taxi driver told me about his country's special nature.

He explained that in the past people never took nationality or religion into account when dealing with each other.

"Syrians grew up in classes without ever asking another about his religion or sect," he said.

But as the taxi driver felt more at ease, he began to express his anger towards the Syrian government.

"How can the country's people be subjected to the rule of a small sect that allows Iran to propagate Shia ideas to poor Sunni Syrians for the price of $100 per child?" he asked, referring to the Alawites, a Shia heterodox sect, to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

Fearful minorities

Such comments from my driver - who was from Zabadani, a predominantly Sunni town in the mountains north-west of Damascus that has seen frequent protests - may not represent the whole truth, of course. But it is a point of view that most Syrians are not prepared to state in public.

Image caption The regime's supporters blame a "media conspiracy" for what is happening in Syria

An Alawite who had fled from the central Syrian city of Homs meanwhile told me about the slogans of the protesters and armed groups demanding the overthrow of the regime.

He said they frequently cursed the late President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, and shouted: "The Alawite to the coffin and the Christian to Beirut."

Many Christians - who together with Alawites make up about 10% of Syria's population - also feel they are walking a tightrope, scared of falling between the hammer of the regime and anvil of the rebels, and apprehensive about what the revolution may bring.

Across Syria, you will receive different answers to the question of who is "playing the sectarian card" in the uprising.

The opposition accuses the regime of seeking to sow panic and fear in a country where there are 29 religious minorities and ethnicities.

The regime meanwhile accuses the opposition of militarising the conflict and of "Wahhabism", the strict interpretation of Sunni Islam adhered to by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both countries that have condemned the crackdown on protests and advocated arming rebel groups.

Media war

State media and government spokespersons are invoking the experiences of other Arab states, including Iraq and Libya, when warning of what might happen if "mercenary elements" succeed.

Syrians who accept this message repeat the affirmation that their country is being targeted by outside powers and that "the Arabs are the first to betray them".

Despite this, the authorities have not jammed "hostile" foreign satellite channels or blocked internet services nationwide.

However, telecommunications are frequently cut in opposition strongholds and I found it hard to receive calls or text messages from overseas and to communicate via the internet from my hotel, using services such as Skype.

Moreover, state media boasted while I was in Syria that Air Force Intelligence had been able to monitor communications between Arab satellite TV stations and activists on the ground in Homs, and that they had hacked the activists' satellite phones.

'With or against us'

Arab journalists visiting Syria are viewed with suspicion by both the government and the opposition alike - there is no middle ground.

The regime's supporters blame a "media conspiracy" for what is happening in Syria, noting that the Arab TV stations "supported" the uprising from the start.

Image caption Hamadiya market in central Damascus was bustling despite the power cuts

The opposition meanwhile categorises every report from foreign media as "with us" or "against us", and does not hesitate to accuse organisations of pro-regime bias.

Journalists covering the opposition side and the armed resistance are smuggled across the borders with Lebanon and Turkey, while those granted a visa from the Syrian authorities - as I was - have to adhere to their rules.

I only visited three cities - Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia - but no-one told me who to meet or what to say. One simple event provoked laughter though.

One evening in Damascus, I persuaded my colleague to return to our hotel as he was feeling ill. I then wandered through the city markets and street alone. The next day, he received a telephone call from a member of the security services asking him what I had been doing.

As it happens, I had interviewed a member of the opposition right in the middle of a demonstration by Assad supporters. He described the government supporters all around him as "simpletons who the regime and state media had fattened on fear".

'Security state'

However, it is fair to say that part of the barrier of fear has been broken. Many Syrians say things and speak about issues that were forbidden a year ago.

But fear does remain, a legacy of the past.

Image caption The regime is betting on class and sectarian interests to keep it in power

There are four pillars of the security apparatus in Syria - Military Intelligence, the General Security Directorate, Air Force Intelligence, and the Political Security Directorate - and they do not necessarily agree with each other.

It reminded me of what had happened to me when I arrived at Damascus airport with my equipment. I had to deal with representatives of all four agencies at the same time.

The first decided that my satellite phone was prohibited; the second searched my protective jacket and helmet and let them through, the third searched my computer equipment and personal belongings, while the fourth checked my papers.

They finished with an apology, but it showed a desire to follow the rules more out of fear than out of a desire to mitigate risk.

Maintaining privileges

The question I tried to ask everyone I met in Syria was whether they thought the regime could contain this crisis. One journalist close to power answered simply: "Maybe, but it will be a miracle."

Equally, it seems pretty certain that many Syrians have not yet made up their minds. And some are furious at both the regime and the opposition, accusing them both of destroying the country.

You can walk around Damascus at night and, despite the electricity cuts, the restaurants and cafes are full and buzzing. Here, they do not hear the conflict or see the blood.

The regime is betting on class and sectarian interests to keep it in power.

Image caption The army remains committed to national defence and the preservation of the state

To counter the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and United States, the government has tried to institute a bartering system to sell what goods and produce it has in return for goods it does not have.

It has also sought to mitigate electricity shortages by ending the state's monopoly on power generation and getting the private sector involved. This has helped the regime co-opt businessmen and dissipate the public outrage over the power cuts.

Meanwhile, the army has remained coherent in its commitment to national defence and the preservation of the state - or the perhaps the privileges enjoyed by its commanders.

During my trip to Syria, I became used to seeing the coffins of dead soldiers at airports, surrounded by weeping relatives.

I overheard the stories of conscripts from rural areas; some of them spoke of their heroics but others spoke of the suspicion that their commanders treated them with, fearful of them leaving and not returning to their military service.

According to many, the army is the only thing standing between the survival of the regime and its fall.

Around the BBC