Conflict & Justice

Syria's capital tense as military fans out across country


Pigeons fly outside the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria's capital, on April 2, 2011.


Anwar Amro

DAMASCUS, Syria — As Syria's military on Wednesday continued to fan out across the country in its effort to silence ever-growing protests here, the mood in the capital grew tense.

Central Damascus — where most foreigners living in Syria reside — was eerily quiet on Wednesday. During the past week of Easter festivities, the Christian quarters of the city, which usually brim with daily, celebratory parades and Passion of the Christ-style crucifixion re-enactments, were empty.

Mass was canceled.

The situation in the country has deteriorated rapidly since April 22, which many Syrians are now calling Bloody Good Friday — more than 100 people were killed in some of the worst violence since the protests began.

That morning, too, a tense energy could be felt throughout the capital. The streets were empty, except for buses filled with plain-clothed, armed men carrying wooden batons and guns. Hundreds of them stood in crowds on corners near the city’s main squares, waiting to disperse crowds.

“It’s really starting to be felt in day-to-day life, even if you’re not living in the areas where the protests are happening,” one Damascus resident said.

(Read: In Syria, how a single act of violence ignited protests that swept the country.)

The Syrian military has in recent days been deployed to the cities of Daraa, Banias and Homs, where protests against the Syrian regime have been the largest. Human rights groups say that at least 400 Syrians have been killed so far by the government crackdown on the pro-reform demonstrations that began in earnest on March 18.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an investigation into the violence and the U.N. Security Council is expected to meet on Wednesday to discuss a draft resolution condemning the government’s actions.

The U.S. Department of State urged its residents on Tuesday to "depart immediately" while commercial flights out of the country were still available.

As both the protests and the subsequent crackdowns intensify, some neighborhoods of the capital — which has so far largely been spared from violence — shopkeepers have begun rationing bread. It is becoming scarce, people say, as citizens stockpile food and other supplies in their homes.

“We’re getting more and more nervous that [the protests] will enter the capital,” said one man, a resident of Damascus who is originally from Tadmore — the eastern town next to the Roman ruins of Palmyra. In order to block protesters from entering the capital’s center — which would signal a symbolic victory for the protest movement — the government has blocked roads to the capital with cement pilings, trucks and burning debris.

Syrians everywhere say there is a constant and paranoid presence of secret police interrogating and arresting residents. Last Saturday, the young man from Tadmore attended a funeral there for a resident of his town who had been killed in a previous demonstration. Police stood on rooftops and walked alongside the crowd, he said, taking notes and names.

When some mourners began chanting pro-reform slogans and ripping down pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they were arrested.

“They next day, I got a visit. I managed to convince them my reason for being there was not political,” he said.

He and others say that despite the formal announcement on April 21 that the country’s decades-long state of emergency would be lifted, security and repression is at a fever pitch.

“If anything, [the secret police network] has gotten bigger — much bigger,” he said.

(Read: Who are Syria's secret security forces?)

Human rights activists say the level of violence has ruled out the possibility for peaceful reform.

“Syrian society is too complex to be forced one way or the other,” Camille Otrakji, a Syrian political blogger living in Montreal, said, disagreeing that the window for peaceful change had passed. “If the leadership manages to introduce its promised reforms such as the media freedom law and the new political parties law, I think to most Syrians this will be satisfactory, especially if modifications to Syria's constitution addressed the unpopular item number 8, which guarantees the Ba'ath party its leading role in Syrian politics.”

He added: “But before dialog starts, the army needs to withdraw and the demonstrators must stop for a few weeks.”

This story was written and reported by a GlobalPost correspondent in Damascus. The reporter's identity has been withheld for security reasons.