Photo Gallery: Syria on the Brink


'They Can Only Kill and Hope' Journey Through a Divided Syria

Violence committed by thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad has prompted thousands of Syrians to flee to Lebanon and Turkey. Sources in the country describe growing opposition to a system based on nepotism and secret police. Meanwhile, pockets of rebellion are continuing unchecked.

In the Syrian city of Ariha, the cherry trees are covered with deep red fruit. It is harvest time and the cherries are sweet, but no one comes to pick them.

Two weeks ago, after the regime's elite troops had transformed peaceful demonstrations in the nearby provincial capital Idlib into bloodbaths, two young men tried to save the cherry harvest. They loaded their small truck full of cherries and took off for the port city of Latakia in western Syria.

They didn't make it very far. A military patrol stopped the two men in front of a sugar refinery and shot them dead.

In Turmoil

Syria is in turmoil, but there is no widespread revolution like there is in Libya. Instead, the country has disintegrated into a surreal patchwork of places where it is tense but quiet, and combat zones in which the regime's most loyal units are killing people indiscriminately. There are cities that fear has transformed into ghost towns, and more than 10,000 Syrians have already fled to Turkey and Lebanon.

What began in mid-March in the country's far south as a revolt of local tribes against the government's arrest and torture of young people has gradually spread to almost every city in the country. For two months, a kind of peculiar equilibrium reigned between the two sides. Every Friday, after noon prayers, hundreds or even thousands of peaceful protesters marched through Daraa, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Idlib and the Damascus suburbs. Every Friday, rooftop snipers and soldiers posted along the roads shot and killed dozens of people. The dead were carried to their graves on Saturdays. Sometimes even the funeral processions came under fire. Things were quiet from Sunday to Thursday -- until the next Friday.

But since early June, when residents of Jisr al-Shughour on the Turkish border began shooting at advancing army units, parts of the north have descended into civil war. Up to 30,000 soldiers with the Republican Guard and the army's Fourth Tank Division, under the command of the president's younger brother, Maher Assad, have attacked one village after the next. At the same time, however, the security forces have withdrawn from other cities. People seem nervous in downtown Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two biggest cities. Around 10,000, perhaps even 15,000 Assad opponents have been arrested, and the opposition claims that more than 1,300 have been killed.

But as confusingly inconsistent as the political situation is, there is great similarity among the images one sees while driving through the oppressed country. In hilly areas across the country, from the Al-Ansariyyah Mountains in the north to the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains near Damascus, the cherry trees are covered with blood-red, overripe fruit. The owners of the orchards are not harvesting the fruit -- because they are afraid of being arrested at one of the ubiquitous military checkpoints, because the roads are closed, preventing them from transporting the harvest to the cities, and because no one would venture out into the streets to buy them if they did.

In Madaya, a mountain resort town an hour's drive west of Damascus, a supermarket owner stands in his fruit section and says unapologetically, seemingly oblivious to his open shop door: "There is no road back to reconciliation with this regime. They have shed too much blood." Even here, in this idyllic town, two people were killed during a Friday protest.

Cemetery-Like Calm

Syria, a precarious multiethnic country with a Sunni majority and Christian, Druze and Alawite minorities, had remained calm even as other Arab dictatorships were already beginning to totter. This was surprising, given that the Assad clan, which has been in power for the last 40 years, has filled most top posts in the military, intelligence services and government with members of the Alawite minority, a Shiite group within Islam that makes up only 10 percent of the population. It is also surprising given that the relatives of President Bashar Assad have secured ownership of the most profitable monopolies for themselves and treat the country like their private property.

It is an explosive mixture reminiscent of the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, where it was popular hatred of the greedy ruling clans that largely contributed to their overthrow.

But there is one achievement of the Assad dictatorship that has discouraged many from demanding change: peace and a cemetery-like calm.

This relative calm was paired with a deliberately stoked fear of the Sunni majority and of an Islamist takeover. Syria borders Iraq, and since 2003 the Syrians have experienced wave after wave of refugees, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing their country, first from the Americans, then from Sunni jihadists, then from Shiite death squads and, finally, from the random killing. This left a deep impression on the Syrians.

While hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Tunis and Cairo, the young Facebook activists in Damascus only managed to bring a few hundred protesters into the streets. They were promptly beaten by the police and arrested.

As recently as the end of January, Assad declared that his country was "immune to such unrest." A young Syrian blogger wrote: "It hurts badly that so far the ship of the revolution has been sailing on without us."

Deadly Response

Then came Daraa, where 15 youths were arrested for painting anti-government graffiti. Their fathers and the local sheikh went to the provincial intelligence chief, Atif Najib, a cousin of the president, to plead their cases, arguing that those arrested were just children.

Forget them, Najib allegedly said, and send me your wives so that I can make more children for you. The man's exact words have long been lost in the wild embellishments of the story. But it was enough to encourage the tribes of Daraa to take to the streets, burn down the court building and the party headquarters, occupy a square in the center of the town and assert their power in their own way. And they certainly didn't use Facebook to do so.

The regime's response was deadly. For weeks, Daraa was attacked, surrounded and put under siege. More than 400 people died in the gunfire or in torture cells. Suddenly it seemed that the rebellion had reached Syria. Early in the conflict, it was rumored that President Assad was going to give a speech, a great speech of national reconciliation, his best speech yet.

In a speech before the parliament on March 30, he complained of foreign conspiracies and malicious campaigns by satellite broadcasters, and saying that anyone who wanted a "fight" could have it. In between threats, he told jokes and laughed at his own wisecracks.

Critics today say that Assad's laughter on that day was a crescendo that marked the beginning of his demise. "At that time, the security forces had already shot and killed more than 100 people. If he had only uttered one sentence expressing regret over their deaths, and if he had remained serious, he could have saved the situation," says one of the very few political analysts in Damascus who speak with both sides: with the committees of protesters and with those supporters of the president who know how futile the killing is.

'Other than Violence, They Have No Solution'

It was not the resistance to the system itself that drove people to the barricades, but the regime's immoderate, brutal reaction, says the Damascus political insider, who did not want to be identified by name. The "closeness to the people" that Assad liked to invoke apparently represented nothing but the distance between the soldiers' weapons and the protesters, the informant says bitterly. "There are no longer any policies. Other than violence, they have no solution. They can only kill and hope."

Back in 1970, Hafez Assad, the current president's father, who was defense minister at the time, had the rest of the cabinet arrested and staged a coup in the name of what he called a "corrective movement." Hafez Assad became Syrian president in 1971, a position he would hold until 2000. Ever since the 1970 coup, violence has consistently been the ultimate tool of power in the country. But in the days of Assad senior, there was no Internet, and neither YouTube nor camera phones existed, so that the killing remained invisible.

When the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in armed resistance in the city of Hama in early 1982, killing dozens of party officials, intelligence agents and their families, Hafez Assad had the city surrounded and bombarded as if it were enemy territory. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people died in the massacre, which went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Assad pursued his policies like a game of chess -- coldly, intelligently and methodically. He positioned Syria as a "front-line state" against Israel, and in 1991, he effortlessly switched sides and supported the Americans in their campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He had planned everything carefully, but his succession didn't quite go according to his plans.

The first-born son Basil was his intended successor. But he died in a car accident in 1994 when he tried to drive his Mercedes around the tight curves in front of the Damascus airport at 200 kilometers per hour.

Giggling in Uniform

As a result, the second-eldest son, Bashar Assad, was chosen instead. After having been brought home to be groomed as the heir to the throne, he assumed the presidency in the summer of 2000, after the death of his father. He was in the unusual position of being a dictator who had not had to shoot his way to power, but simply took over his father's position.

Even after a decade in office, Bashar Assad still looks like someone who became president by mistake. He always seems a little uncertain or confused, sometimes overcompensating with exaggerated gestures. On the largest poster displayed on a wall near the university, he looks as if he were giggling in his medal-laden uniform, while his father, on the next poster, merely shows his predator's smile.

Assad junior promised to put an end to the personality cult surrounding his father and remove the ubiquitous presidential portraits. He was the most prominent member of the Syrian Computer Society. But the "Damascus spring" of small freedoms and great hopes ended after only a year. The system simply continued, as if it had been set on autopilot by a dead man.

But the old mechanism of revolts and repression doesn't work anymore today. In fact, it has reversed itself. Violence no longer leads to subjugation, but rather rage and resistance, and more violence begets even more rage. The rules of Hama no longer apply, not even in Hama.

Complex Situation

The demonstrations continue in Hama, an old city on the Orontes River, where more than 60 people were shot dead on June 3. But the police and the army have withdrawn from the city center in the meantime. The military has blocked off access to Hama via the highway from Damascus. But the picture changes as soon as one reaches the city via secondary roads. Every evening, people take to the streets -- white-collar workers, farmers, businesspeople -- and no one stops them. They have defied the fear of being killed, and yet they still stop at a red light. They clean the streets, and volunteers distribute water and food.

A statue of Assad in the center of the town has disappeared. It was not destroyed, however, "but removed by the police," says a man in his early 30s, who clearly finds this amusing. He says that he grew up with fear, and that fear has been with him his entire life. "To overcome that fear, I marched along with them every day," he says, "even after I was injured 10 days ago and saw others dying in front of me." He wife is pregnant and about to give birth. "I want my daughter to grow up in freedom," he says.

The residents of the surrounding Sunni villages are increasingly fearful that Maher Assad's Republican Guard troops could appear any day. "We have bought weapons," says Abu Mahmoud, a farmer from the village of Mala.

The situation in the country is contradictory. In Kabun, a suburb in northeastern Damascus, the protesters, now unopposed, take to the streets every evening. When they pass the local police academy, they salute and chant: "The police want the overthrow of the regime!" Then they keep walking, unchallenged. In the Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria, the army has reportedly also stopped shooting.

Indiscriminate Violence

In the northwest, on the other hand, the killings are becoming more and more gruesome and indiscriminate. Two weeks ago, the regime announced that "armed groups" had killed 120 soldiers in Jisr al-Shughour. The news was surprising, given that the country has had up to a dozen competing intelligence agencies for decades, each branch of the military had its own intelligence agency, and all of these agencies were kept in check by other groups of spies bitterly competing with each other. It was a system Hafez Assad had carefully and deliberately devised. To this day, there is a saying that whenever two Syrians are sitting together, there is always someone from an intelligence agency between them.

Hence it was hard to believe that, in this police state, mysterious "armed groups" had apparently managed to kill 120 soldiers and then disappear without trace and without suffering any casualties of their own. The regime might as well have reported an invasion by extraterrestrials.

Regardless of its veracity, the story of the 120 dead soldiers spread. Who had killed them? Regime opponents quickly came up with their own version of the alleged incident: The men had refused to obey an order to fire at unarmed demonstrators and had therefore been executed -- shot in the back by their own officers and intelligence agents. It soon became clear that this story was also false and that, in fact, there were no 120 dead soldiers. Instead, 20 to 30 people, some of them soldiers, had been shot dead by local residents defending their city.

Provocateurs at Large

A cameraman with the state television station, who was sent to Jisr al-Shughour by the military, shakes his head as he describes how his team suddenly came under fire. According to the official story, "terrorists" were supposedly to blame for the shooting, he recalls. "But there was no one there. The shots were coming from the direction we had come from, and they suddenly stopped. The only people there were the soldiers."

It is a paradoxical propaganda strategy. Assad's intelligence services are secretly inciting the very violence that Assad is publicly warning against. They are provoking the beginnings of the very civil war against which the regime has portrayed itself as a bulwark for years. In March, the Shabiha, a plainclothes militia, was allegedly active in the region near Latakia. There, militia members apparently masqueraded as an Alawite mob in Sunni areas, and as a Sunni mob in Alawite areas, in a bid to incite violence between the two groups.

A relative of people living in the village of Qafr Yeh says that local provocateurs were caught trying to burn down the houses of Sunnis. "The elders from both groups there got together and forced the provocateurs to leave the village," says the relative. "But this doesn't work everywhere."

In Damascus, the government propaganda machine initially distributed fake images of burning churches. Then it was said that President Assad had given in to demands to rehire hundreds of female teachers who wore the full veil and had been dismissed some time ago. But no one had made such a demand. Instead, Assad is simply orchestrating a compromise with the Sunni hardliners so that he can portray himself as a protector of the Christians -- against precisely those radicals he is supporting.

Who's in Charge?

Many Syrians, who are accustomed to the most absurd of plots, are now asking themselves a completely different question: Who exactly is in charge in Damascus? This is becoming less and less clear with each new day of protests, killings, senseless propaganda and presidential silence. In a world that, after decades of prescribed lies, automatically lends credence to every rumor, the tiniest details can soon mushroom into conspiracy theories.

On the fifth floor of the Al-Shami Hospital in Damascus, where senior members of the regime are treated, guards were posted in the hallways and in front of elevators for an entire week in April. A rumor quickly spread that the president's brother Maher Assad had shot Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, after he had complained bitterly about the indiscriminate killing in his native region of Daraa.

There was a rumor that it was because of Maher Assad that Bouthaina Shaaban, the president's spokeswoman, was no longer appearing on television. Assad had allegedly slapped her after she had complained about being publicly humiliated and called a liar. She had said that the people in Daraa were protesting for a justified cause, and that from then on, no one there would be shot. But Maher Assad's thugs were back to shooting protesters the next day.

There is no evidence to support any of this, but neither is there evidence that it is false. And why did President Assad refuse to take United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's telephone call recently? Could it be that Assad was no longer in charge? Has his brother Maher, the supreme commander of the military, already turned himself into the country's de facto leader with his wave of killings?

Regime Is Running Out of Money

The president has been silent for weeks, a silence that made the words of another Syrian seem all the more striking. Ironically, it was Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin on his mother's side and the richest of the greedy flock of relatives, who gave an interview  to the New York Times on May 9. Makhlouf, the most reviled man in the country, controls Syria's largest mobile phone company, a construction group, insurance companies, banks and the first chain of duty-free supermarkets.

In 2008, the US government accused Makhlouf of using the Syrian intelligence agencies to threaten his business rivals. The very first groups of protesters were chanting "Rami, harami," or "Rami, the thief." In the Times interview, he whispered dark warnings in the style of a Mafia godfather. "Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime," Makhlouf said, adding: "Don't let us suffer, don't put a lot of pressure on the president, don't push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do." Although the president has the last word, Makhlouf said, policies are formulated as "a joint decision."

Makhlouf also put to rest the half-century-old doctrine that Israel is the enemy. So far the Syrians have guaranteed peace in Israel, Makhlouf said, but this would not continue if the Assad family were not allowed to remain in power. "If there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel," he said.

His cousin Bashar was reportedly beside himself with rage over the interview. Two days later, the Syrian ambassador in Washington sheepishly distanced himself from Makhlouf's remarks, saying that the businessman had clearly not been speaking on behalf of the Syrian government, that his words reflected his personal views, and that he could absolutely not be associated with official functions in Syria.

The bombshell came last Thursday, when the tycoon declared that he would sell his businesses, give the proceeds to the poor and devote himself to charitable work from now on. This could not have been a voluntary decision. The departure of the hated Makhlouf is urgently needed.

The Saudi Approach

When the protests began, President Assad somewhat prematurely promised benefits based on the Saudi Arabian model: salary increases of up to 30 percent for government employees, as well as a 25-percent reduction in the price of diesel fuel, which was already heavily subsidized. But now Syrian oil is running low, foreign tourists and investors are staying away and money is getting tight. The president recently told associates that the promises were not a good idea, saying: "We don't have the money for it!" According to an economic expert with a Western embassy in Damascus, Bashad's wealthy cousin is being coerced to save the regime from bankruptcy.

The lurching family business is still keeping itself afloat, partly because no alternatives are in sight yet. The prominent civil rights activists who penned the "Damascus Declaration" in 2005 have a program, but no followers. The protest movement in the streets has followers, but no program that extends beyond deposing the regime.

The two sides are only gradually coming together. But hardly anything is more urgently needed than unity, insists one of the organizers of a first joint conference. He lists all the groups and subgroups of eternal members of the opposition: "The Communists, the Nasserists, the signatories to the Damascus Declaration, the intellectuals -- they all have to join forces now!" he says. The only problem, the organizer claims, is that they haven't been able to find the right location for a meeting yet -- a new experience for small groups of dissidents who were previously used to meeting in smoke-filled back rooms. Apparently none of the large hotels in Damascus is willing to host their conference. "We don't want it for free -- we'll pay for it. But the managers have said quite openly: We have no interest in the revolution."

This is unfortunately the opposition's position, he says with a grim smile, as he smokes a water pipe in a café. An uprising is raging outside, he adds, and they still haven't found a hotel willing to rent them a conference room.

Good Coffee

The house of Assad will not fall that quickly, says the Syrian manager of the local office of a foreign company. His father, a wanted member of the opposition, was forced to flee the country and died, impoverished, in exile. He says that he wants to go to the "Gemini," one of the elegant cafés in a park on Abu Rumani street. It belongs to the son of Muhammad al-Khuly, the former head of the air force intelligence agency, who allegedly ordered an assassin to put his unknowing, pregnant girlfriend, together with explosives, on board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv in 1986. The Gemini may be a curious choice but, as he says, "the cappuccino is so good there!"

The location is idyllic and the Gemini is full. Prices there are unaffordable for most Syrians. "No one here defends the regime out of conviction," the manager says, "not even the Alawites. We have become a nation of opportunists. It doesn't matter who's in charge, as long as we have our peace and quiet." That was always the deal with the regime: It would guarantee peace and stability, and in return Syrians would accept the fact that "the mafia treats the country like its private property."

But now the basis of this unspoken agreement is disappearing, says the manager, explaining that the regime can no longer hold up its end of the deal: peace and stability.

The cappuccino arrives, complete with the brown outline of a fern drawn into the white foam. The manager takes a spoonful of sugar and pours it gingerly onto the foam. The sugar stays on top. "Like our regime," he says. "It simply isn't going under, the way the regimes did in Egypt and Tunisia." After a few seconds, the first sugar crystals melt into the foam, and soon the little pile of sugar begins disintegrating at the edges. "It's the same way here. More people, including me, are taking a wait-and-see approach, but the less stability remains, the more people will turn away."

In fact, even the affluent neighborhoods where there have been no protest marches to date have been eroding for some time. Tansim Kafr Souseh in western Damascus, where high-end condominium buildings were built in recent years and apartments sell for half a million to a million US dollars, is more likely to be the home of the regime's beneficiaries than its opponents. Nevertheless, the police have also closed a park in the middle of this upmarket neighborhood.

A Fateful Friday at the Mosque

"Officially, it was for renovations," scoffs a doctor who could afford to move there. "The truth is that they are afraid whenever more than three people congregate anywhere." He had been watching the blurred videos of the clashes in Daraa and Jisr al-Shughour on a satellite broadcaster's station on television until now, he says. That was until the Friday before last, when the doctor, a moderately religious Sunni Muslim, attended Friday prayers, as he often does, at the ostentatious Rifai Mosque.

There had already been clashes in front of the mosque once before, on April 1. He had never felt that the imam, Osama Rifai, the grandson of the mosque's founder, had a political agenda, but instead had had the impression that he preached uplifting messages about moral conduct.

On that Friday, says the doctor, the 60-year-old imam had begun his sermon very quietly by asking: "Why did Bouazizi set himself on fire?" He was referring to the Tunisian vegetable merchant whose suicide became the spark that triggered the Arab revolutions. "Because he was being treated unjustly. We too are experiencing injustice!"

The doctor remembers how quiet the congregation was at that point. "We all held our breath and thought to ourselves: When will he be arrested? When will we be arrested?" According to the doctor, hardly anyone was pleased about the imam's courage. "We were all just afraid."

Rifai continued to speak, connecting the dots between the injustices inflicted on the street vendor and the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as the acts of violence in Syria. He was outspoken in his criticism: "What is this, using tanks to shoot at protesters who might be carrying pistols, at most? Isn't that injustice?"

And what happened next? Nothing, says the doctor. No one was arrested.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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