The road to Damascus is strewn with evil and anarchy
Published 03/05/2011 | 08:00
In Damascus, the posters - in their tens of thousands around the streets - read: "Anxious or calm, you must obey the law." But pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez have been taken down, by the security police no less, in case they inflame Syrians.
There are thieves with steel-tipped rubber coshes on the Damascus airport road at night, and in the terminal the cops ask arriving passengers to declare iPods and laptops. In the village of Hala outside Deraa, Muslim inhabitants told their Christian neighbours to join the demonstrations against the regime - or leave. Out of the darkness of Syria come such tales.
And they are true. Syrians arriving in Lebanon are bringing the most specific details of what is going on inside their country, of Fifth Brigade soldiers fighting the armed units of Maher Assad's Fourth Brigade outside Deraa, of random killings around Damascus by the ever-growing armed bands of Shabiha ("the mafia") from the Alawite mountains, of massive stocking up of food. One woman has just left her mother in the capital with 10 kilos of pasta, 10 kilos of rice, five kilos of sugar, box after box of drinking water.
In Deraa - surrounded, without electricity or water or supplies - the price of bread has risen 500% and men are smuggling food into the city over the fields at night.
But it is the killings which terrify the people. Are they committed by the Shabiha from the port city of Lattakia - created by the Assad family in the 70s to control smuggling and protection rackets - or by the secret police to sow a fear that might break the uprising against Assad? Or by the murderers who thrive amid anarchy and lawlessness? Three men carrying sacks of vegetables outside Damascus at night were confronted by armed men last week.
They refused to stop. So they were executed.
The Syrian government is appealing to the minorities - to the Christians and the Kurds - to stay loyal to the authorities; minorities have always been safe in Syria, and many have stayed away from protests against the regime. But in the village of Hala, Christian shops are shut as their owners contemplate what are clearly sectarian demands to join in the uprising against Assad. In an attempt to rid Syria of "foreign" influence, the ministry of education has ordered a number of schools to end all English teaching - even banning the names of schools in French and English from school uniforms. Even the kindergarten where the President's two young children are educated has been subject to the prohibitions.
There are bright lights, of course, not least among the brave men and women who are using the internet and Facebook to keep open the flow of information from Syria. Yet Syrians in Lebanon say that the Syrian security police - often appointed through graft rather than any technical or detective abilities - simply do not understand the technology that is being used against them.
Meanwhile, rumours of army defections continue, including splits in the Fifth Brigade at Deraa, whose commander's name can now be confirmed as General Mohamed Saleh al-Rifai. According to Syrians arriving in Lebanon, the highways are used by hundreds of packed military trucks although the streets of most cities - including Damascus - are virtually empty at night.
Shops are closing early, gunfire is often heard, checkpoints at night are often manned by armed men in civilian clothes. Darkness indeed.