Damascus merchants put up shutters in challenge to Assad


In the biggest act of civil disobedience by Damascus merchants in Syria’s 15-month-old uprising, many stores have been closed for a week in protest against the massacre of more than 100 people in Houla on May 25.

The closures have affected districts all across the capital, from the Old City market to opposition areas where 70 percent of stores appeared shut despite what shopkeepers said were attacks and threats by security forces to force them to reopen.

“We want to participate in the strike but at the same time we are afraid of the reaction of the security police,” said Mohammed, who owns a clothes shop in the traditional al-Hamidiya souk - a long, covered walkway that cuts through the Old City.

Widespread closures in the capital, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, represent a major challenge to the Syrian leader and Mohammed said security forces had broken open his locked shop door a few days ago to intimidate him.

Mohammed, who asked to only use his first name to avoid identification by police, said that the action was a piecemeal attempt that he and other merchants have tacitly agreed to in protest against the killing of 108 civilians in Houla in violence blamed by the United Nations on army shelling and pro-Assad militiamen.

“The strike does send a political message,” he said, although admitting that the opposition movement was still weak.

Since the attack, Mohammed has opened the shutters to give the impression that his shop is open, but the door is in fact closed while he sits outside in case the police return. During a tour of the Hamidiya souk it appeared that around half of the shops remained shut.

Most Syrians to buy their goods from small local merchants, rather than modern supermarkets, and the dampening effect of the strike is tangible in Damascus’ lonely streets.

The Hamidiya souk, a centuries-old cobblestoned street linked to a maze of smaller alleyways winding through the capital, used to be a hive of activity where rich businessmen would make deals and sell merchandise over sugared tea. Now it stands quiet, a backwater in the center of the capital.

Sunni Muslim merchants have traditionally formed the core of the business community in the Syrian capital and in the commercial hub Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city.

Assad, and his late father - from Syria’s minority Alawite sect - forged close ties with the Sunni merchant class, who helped prevent a collapse of the Syrian pound last year by keeping their cash in the bank while everyone rushed to exchange weak pounds for dollars.

However, Assad is losing support among merchants who are suffering from a stagnant business climate and Western sanctions imposed to put pressure on the defiant president.

And Assad’s crackdown on the uprising by Syria’s majority Sunnis has lost him many supporters who are enraged by the deaths of more than 10,000 fellow citizens at the hands of Assad loyalists.

70 percent of shops closed

More than 70 percent of shops are on strike in Sunni opposition districts outside the Old city such as Midan, where activists say government forces have shot and killed demonstrators at weekly protests.

“We open our shops for an hour a day so people can buy essentials,” said Midan-based supermarket owner Amin, who also asked Reuters only to use his first name. Like Mohammed in Hamidiya, many shop owners in Midan sit in front of their businesses so they can open up quickly if security personnel arrive.

Markets in Damascus have been subject to a heavy security presence over the past week, with new checkpoints erected at their entrances, residents say.

Even districts of Damascus that are predominantly Christian, a minority group that Assad’s supporters say will stick by the leader against the largely Sunni revolt, have reported a large number of shop closures.

And in towns on the Damascus outskirts, many of which have witnessed army raids and widespread arrests, residents say the markets have been empty for weeks.

Damascus residents, whether they support the strike or not, say the shop closures have compounded the already dire economic situation. Prices have soared over the past 15 months and sanctions have cut vital trade links.

Many Syrians are unable to buy anything but the bare essentials. Syrian government figures put annual consumer price inflation at 31 percent in April, but residents say basic goods such as sugar, vegetable oil and eggs have doubled in price.

Not all are 100 percent behind the campaign of civil disobedience.

“I feel bad about what happened to the people of Houla,” said a restaurant owner in the Kafr Souseh district, where most shops are on strike. “But I have three employees to pay and what use is a strike?” he said, echoing the sentiments of many frustrated businessmen.

For others, the loss in earnings is justified by the disruption they are causing to the heart of the capital where state security forces have been scrambling to give an impression of calm and control while the rest of the country crumbles.

“Strikes are less dangerous than open demonstrations,” said a high school teacher from the capital. “We need strikes in shops, schools and universities. It’s a safer way to express ourselves.”