Syria has always been considered an island of stability in a sea of Middle Eastern turmoil. At its helm is the Assad family’s Baathist regime, governing the country with an iron fist since 1970 aided by an emergency law and powerful police network.
So it came to everyone’s surprise earlier this month – following the arrest of a group of 8- to 13-year-olds scribbling anti-government slogans on the walls of the city of Dara’a – when isolated groups of Syrians stood up to the authorities. “It takes a lot of courage to attack the government,” said one Syrian living in Dubai.
It seemingly takes even more courage to talk about it: with scarce reports from inside Syria, it is increasingly hard to get a good picture of what is going on. Two journalists working for Reuters disappeared on Saturday on their way back to the Lebanese border before being released and last week a Syrian who spoke on the phone with BBC Arabic was also briefly detained for speaking to foreign media. Meanwhile, the cities suffering from dissent are off limits to international journalists.
Despite this, the public façade of the Syrian people remains deceptively positive. A culture of fear – engrained for the last 40 years – has left the Syrian people tight-lipped. An undeclared vow of silence reigns. An architect who travels regularly to Damascus felt the people at the workshop sounded fearful but “if you ask them over the phone they say everything is fine”.
And so they do. In Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city in the north, things are “very calm” according to a lecturer and guide who is currently accompanying a prominent French novelist in the antique Christian cities nearby. “I’m not worried,” said that writer on Monday, as a travel advisory on the French foreign ministry’s website warned against visiting the cities of Latakia and Dara’a. Though one travel agent admitted Damascus was tense, he said he had half a dozen groups still touring Syria. “We’ve had a few cancellations but one group arrived Sunday.” As protests erupted in six cities across the country last Friday, Aleppo was busy hosting its annual “French week”, a cultural fair. Similarly, the Damascus opera is still planning to host a concert at the end of the week. A large-scale cultural forum – with guests from the Hermitage, the Louvre, and British Museum, hosted by the First Lady in April – has, however, been cancelled. Most would say wisely.
The Syrian people, despite the large-scale uprisings, seem to still be toeing the line, at least to the outside world. “Let’s see what the president will have to say,” said one Syrian businessman, commenting on the imminent television appearance of Bashar al Asaad. Though the Syrian government is due to resign today and a set of reforms demanded by the protesters to be implemented, many outside of the country are sceptical, recalling similar announcements during the Regional Baath Congress throughout the past decade. “There is no internal mechanism for it [the regime] to bend,” says Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. “It can only look strong until it breaks.”
Until then, many Syrians will prefer to keep their mouths shut.