For security reasons, we met at one of the most crowded squares in Damascus and then drove through traffic-clogged streets to the old city. We walked through the narrow, cobblestone streets where no cars could fit and anyone tailing us would get lost.
I was on my way to meet some leaders of the Local Coordinating Committees, the loose-knit group spearheading the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The activists I met represent one sector of the protesters: mostly young, secular, and middle class.
They had been fighting for seven months, facing tear gas, arrest, and death. The United Nations estimated that the government had killed more than 3,000 civilians by mid-October.
“You can’t believe the violence. I am scared. We are all scared,” Taim, one of the protesters I met in Old Damascus, tells me. “But I can see the new Syria is emerging from the struggle.”
Opposition leaders outside Syria were calling for foreign military intervention to topple Assad. Ahmad, age twenty-nine, says activists inside the country take a different view. Like the others, he asked that only his first name be used.
“He who has not suffered cannot speak,” he tells me. “The exiled leaders can say whatever they want, but not many people agree with them.”
Leen, a forty-four-year-old woman college professor, says activists have closely watched the results of foreign intervention. “Libya will have a new dictator with American backing,” she says. “We don’t want another dictator in Syria.”
The activists also oppose foreign economic sanctions because they hurt the poor more than government officials. “Sanctions are not a good idea because they put pressure on all society,” says Leen.
And they are not making a Facebook Revolution, Ahmad adds with a big smile. Their high-tech tools mostly consist of speaking in code over mobile phones. “Come to the wedding today at 3 p.m.,” for example, alerts people of the time for an upcoming demonstration.
Leen says the government closely monitors Facebook. So they use social networking sites to alert the outside world, not each other. “We do use Facebook,” says Leen, “but only when a VIP plans to attend a demonstration—a journalist or actor everyone knows.”
Activists have gotten highly creative. One group of young women painted ping pong balls with the word “freedom,” the main slogan of the opposition. They then dumped them down a hill towards a popular walking area for passersby to read. Others put red dye in a Damascus fountain to symbolize the blood spilled by the government. It took government minions an embarrassing afternoon to drain and refill the fountain.
Last March, when the street demonstrations began in the southern city of Dara, protesters demanded reform. But failure to meet popular demands and a harsh government crackdown quickly led to calls for the overthrow of Assad’s government and the establishment of a parliamentary system with fair elections and multiple parties.
Protesters never strictly followed a Gandhi-style campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. When government forces fired tear gas or shot into crowds, the protesters sometimes hurled rocks back.
On March 20, less than one week into the protests, demonstrators in Dara burned an office of the ruling Baath party as well as the local courthouse. Demonstrators tried to remain nonviolent but became frustrated with government repression.
Mahmood, a twenty-six-year-old activist from Dara, tells me, “People in Dara used Molotovs and rifles. But it was a reaction to the government arresting and killing protesters.”
More recently, activists in the city of Homs in central Syria have set up armed roadblocks to keep out army troops and to kill informers. Both sides now appear to be using targeted assassinations.
A government hit squad likely murdered Syrian Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo in October. That same month, the government accused extremist members of the opposition of murdering Sariya Hassoun, son of Syria’s grand mufti.
The Assad government astutely plays up such violent incidents to portray protesters as Taliban-inspired fanatics intent on imposing an Islamic state. It accuses demonstrators of killing more than 1,100 security personnel so far.
Wafaa Dieb is a medical doctor who lives in the northern city of Tartus. “I don’t want Syria to become like Afghanistan,” she says. “I don’t want to stay home; I want to be able to work.”
The opposition includes some Muslim extremists. But the vast majority of political Islamists oppose such violent actions, according to Mohammad al-Habash, a member of the Syrian parliament and head of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus.
He explains that Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities make up about one-third of the population. Most Sunnis are moderate. He argues that given those demographics, extremists could not impose an Islamic state, even if they so desired.
Habash says the Islamic protesters favor a moderate form of government such as exists in Turkey. “Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the new generation, believes we have to find some way to separate church and state,” he says. “Most of them call for a civil state.”
Constant demonstrations, combined with U.S. and European economic sanctions, have sent the Syrian economy into a tailspin. The Syrian GDP grew by 3.2 percent last year but the IMF predicts a 2 percent drop this year.
The big question remains: Will the Syrian people blame the Assad government or the protesters for the country’s problems?
I got a partial answer from a very unusual trip. Syrian authorities organized a media visit to Dara. We visited an elementary school in order for the government to show that life had returned to normal. All was going according to plan when the children came out for morning recess.
Spotting the TV cameras, however, some of the sixth graders suddenly began chanting, “Freedom, Freedom.” Government officials went pale.
Other students then began chanting support for President Assad. Here, in front of the whole world, stood the divided Syria.
Veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich writes regularly for The Progressive. He received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his coverage of Syria.