Syrian activists defiant but frustrated

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 20, 2011 11:34 AM
Syrian activists defiant but frustrated

By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Beneath the lingering enthusiasm there are clear signs of exhaustion in the voice of the young Damascus activist who has been protesting against the autocratic rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for over six months.

"Every night there are protests in Damascus but the protests are just happening, they are not gaining momentum," he said with a sigh. "People were expecting something to happen (in Damascus) but they don't know what," said the activist, who protects his identity by using the pseudonym Alexander Page.

The mood among Syrian activists inside the country is one of staunch defiance to the Assad government, which the United Nations accuses of killing 2,700 anti-government protesters since the largely peaceful uprising began in March.

But activists say they are frustrated that the revolution has settled into a solid stalemate -- demonstrations continue unabated but the government is still firmly in control of the army and security services and willing to use deadly force.

Now some residents of Damascus, many of whom stayed on the sidelines while other parts of the country rose up against Assad, say that six months of bloodshed, with no resolution in sight, have worn them out and they want to return to life before the upheaval started.

"We are tired and we want the protests to stop. Children need to come back to school safely," said Rana, a Damascene housewife and mother of four young children.

HOPES FOR RAMADAN

There were hopes, activist Page says, that the protesters would gain the upper hand during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar marked with fasting and prayer, as nightly protests took place when people filtered out onto the street after evening prayers.

"When Ramadan came in August, there was a lot of adrenaline and people thought the capital would erupt, but people got tired every day and the government was able to disperse the protests in the suburbs," Page told Reuters over Skype, as phones are thought to be tapped by the Syrian authorities.

Residents say Ramadan was a somber affair in the Syrian capital this year and instead of the usual buzz of activity, with families visiting each other and buying new clothes, many stayed home and few went shopping.

"There was a different sense to Ramadan," a resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters. "People didn't buy sweets as they usually do and people were not visiting their families."

Syria prevents most international media from operating in the country, making it difficult to independently verify witness accounts.

Activists say the government is desperately trying to give the impression that the country is not in crisis. Many complain that life in Damascus appears normal to the casual observer, but there is an increased security presence, with many areas of the city crammed with plainclothes police to prevent gatherings.

Others told Reuters that main squares in the capital have filled up with street peddlers who sell cheap electrical goods and toys, but are in fact hired to physically prevent gatherings and spy on citizens.

Activist Page says the listless economy is the most apparent sign that the country is in crisis. "People aren't working. They are just sitting there, doing nothing," he said.

He said people are holding back on spending as they are uncertain of the future. "At my local bakery, people have stopped buying cakes. They are only buying bread," he said.

One Damascus resident told Reuters that he had been trying to sell property in the capital since the uprising started, but falling consumer confidence has made it impossible.

LESSONS FROM LIBYA

Many activists say they are disappointed that their uprising has been sluggish compared to those in Tunisia and Egypt, where pro-democracy movements ousted leaders within weeks; in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh had to leave the country for medical treatment after a bomb attack; and Libya, where rebel forces took the capital in August and ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

But despite being enthused by Gaddafi's fall, activists warn that a Libyan-style revolution is neither possible nor desirable in Syria.

Rami, a student at Damascus University, said that unlike Libya, where foreign powers were quick to step in and support the rebels with NATO strikes, Syria does not have large oil reserves and so will not be helped.

"Libya won and lost. It won because it got rid of Gaddafi but lost because at the same time it authorized foreign interference in its affairs," said Anas, a civil servant.

Nobody interviewed for this article said they wanted international military action in Syria or an armed revolt against the government, like in Libya.

"The revolution is peaceful here," said Olla, a student studying medicine. "This is not the same as Libya; blood is the price we need to pay for what we are asking for," she added.

Syrian activists say the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, but there have been increasing reports of armed attacks on security forces as well as clashes between the army and defecting soldiers.

Syrian authorities say 700 police and soldiers -- and a similar number of civilians -- have been killed since the start of the uprising.

"From the beginning, I knew that the revolution would take a long time for us," said Hamza, a doctor in his late twenties. "But we are unarmed and I don't think the regime with fall when faced only with peaceful protests."

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)