Laura de Jong: Notes from Damascus


Last week my colleague and I defied the travel advice of the Dutch embassy and the Syrian consulate and traveled to Damascus. I was curious to see what I would see on the streets, how tight the security really was, how objective the Western press is in reporting the events, and most importantly, what do Syrians think of the situation.

We got our visa without any problems and were warmly welcomed, in the typical Syrian hospitality, into the country. We were free to travel within the city and passed the grass fields of the capital after Iftar, and spent our evenings in the old city. The most telling impression of my trip was the public condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. I was able to openly discuss current events with several of our Syrian counterparts and what stood out was just how an overwhelming majority of people was engaging in debates on the issues in public. Before the uprising began in March, this was unthinkable. Any critique of the Syrian government was held indoors, out of earshot of the famed secret police.

Syrians lived in constant fear of being arrest by Assad’s uncompromising secret police who assured public acceptance of his regime. The police could be anywhere, the gentleman sitting next to you in the sheesah café, an unassuming young man standing on the corner of the street talking on the mobile phone. Or the not-so-secret group of men guarding a residential area and questioning any passersby.

Of equal import was hearing Syrians describe the core motivation behind the demands for Assad’s ouster: ubiquitous corruption which particularly increased when Assad took charge in 2000. In recent years corruption has become the norm and mired business in all sectors.

The Syrians I met told me how the country had experienced some economic growth prior to Hafez Assad’s son coming into power but corruption is now responsible for the lack of economic growth in the country. It has seeped through government walls into the private sector. Money is, for instance, laundered in residential real estates, making it increasingly impossible to find reasonably priced housing. The root of the corruption lies within the favoritism accorded to Alawite family members of government staff. These favored employees, Syrians tell us, have shown they are not willing to work which further bogs down bureaucracy. Only with a bribe will a stack of forms move from one desk to another in quicker speed. The hardworking intellectuals in the public sector are few and, lest one forget, most of the security forces are from Alawites.

Not all Alawites are government employees. There are Alawites who lead deprived lives in the mountainous areas of the northern part of the country. This is overlooked by anti-regime protestors who tend to block them all as one: as less educated, malicious and other unfair stereotypes that have come to be associated with being Alawite.

I wanted to get opinions on how accurately people felt the western media was reporting on events.

Almost everyone agreed that the international media was correct in reporting the Assad regime’s indiscriminate arrest of young men from poor suburbs of Damascus. In the absence of men, often women and children were arrested.

They spoke of harrowing stories that we’ve come to be familiar with: the detained men are beaten in detention centers for days. When they seem unimportant, they are released. Those who are considered more “important” are beaten and left to their fate for weeks before being released ─ that is, if they’ve survived.

Busses full of militia and secret police stand ready outside the city to quickly reach the scene of a potential protest. I was told that the homes of most Damascene protesters are in the poverty stricken suburbs. Over the years, these areas were not as strictly patrolled as the inner city; there was less of security presence. The uprising thus caught the regime off guard.

So much so, that First Lady Asma al-Assad, who was giving a speech at the Harvard Arab World conference, told the crowd that events in Tunisia and Libya would never reach Syria. One day later, unrest in Syria broke, marking the beginning of the uprising that continues to date.

The solution to the corruption ─ according to almost every Syrian I spoke to said ─ is education. Teach the children the fundamentals of ruling a morally upright and responsible government and gradually the culture will change.

I walked away recognizing that Syria’s future is unclear; its people do not seem to have a plan. Most believe the revolution will most likely continue until the end of the year. They are divided on what form the transition will take with some believing that it will be gradual and will include elements from the current regime while others insist it will be a drastic departure from the Alawite dominated dispensation.

However the future unfolds, it is clear there’s no room for Assad’s ruthless iron fist which has been rejected by the Syrians and decried by the international community.

The protestors have succeeded in one vital thing: changing the course of the country’s political narrative and jolting it out of its inertia.

(The writer is a consultant in healthcare, and lives in the Netherlands. She can be reached at: laura_dejong@rocketmail.com)