x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Asked about politics, cabbies in Damascus drive off in all directions

Six-and-a-half taxi rides, and as many conversations with the drivers, are not a scientific poll, but do offer insight into the mood of Damascus, uneasy capital of a country in revolution, reports Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent

Syrian government soldiers check the identity card of a taxi driver in a Damascus suburb. Taxi drivers have had a street level view of the 13-month long crisis.
Syrian government soldiers check the identity card of a taxi driver in a Damascus suburb. Taxi drivers have had a street level view of the 13-month long crisis.

Six-and-a-half taxi rides, and as many conversations with the drivers, are not a scientific poll, but do offer insight into the mood of Damascus, uneasy capital of a country in revolution, reports Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent

DAMASCUS // Before the uprising began last March, Syrian taxi drivers, like almost everyone else here, avoided any mention of politics except for occasional pro-forma expressions of adoration for the president, Bashar Al Assad, that may or may not have been sincere.

More than a year of revolt that has shaken Syria's 40-year-old autocracy, however, loosened tongues, including those of the men who sit crouched for long hours each day behind the steering wheels of Syria's ramshackle fleet of yellow taxis.

Any Syrian will tell you that some, even many, of those drivers are undercover agents, or, at the very least, informants, an inevitable fact of life in a police state.

Many others though are just ordinary men, often working two jobs, trying to earn a living in what is becoming an increasingly expensive country.

Both secret police and the ordinary taxi drivers are, of course, woven into the fabric of Damascene society. They are very much part of what this complicated place is.

So, onto the taxi rides, all of which took place as I ran errands last week.

"There is a conspiracy against Syria, an international war. Everyone is against us because we are against Israel," said driver No 1.

In his early 20s, he has lived in a suburb of southern Damascus for years but is originally from Homs. He didn't say if he was a Sunni, a Christian or an Alawite and I didn't ask - sect or ethnicity, just like social class or educational level, often has limited bearing as to whether the person you are talking to is with or against Mr Al Assad.

"There are armed gangs and terrorists and the government is fighting them. That's what is happening in Homs," he said. "But things are getting better. This will all be over soon enough. The conspiracy will be defeated."

His only real worry seemed to be the economy.

"The world has declared economic war on us and when this is over, they'll have pushed us back 20 years," he said.

Driver No 2, a 25-year-old father of one, was a refugee from the Golan Heights, living now in Saida Zeynab, a Damascus suburb popular with Iranian pilgrims and, of late, heavily involved in anti-Assad protests.

"This regime is murderous," he said, after an assurance that I would not turn him into the authorities. He was detained for two months last year for taking part in protests, subsequently freed and has since then resumed his role in demonstrations.

"People just want freedom and rights," he said, acknowledging that, even in his neighbourhood, opposition groups were beginning to arm themselves.

"They're taking up weapons in response to the regime's violence," he said. "We wanted a peaceful revolution, but the regime sent its army out to kill the Syrian people."

I ask about sectarian violence, and driver No 2 says he is a Sunni, that Iran and Hizbollah are supporting the Syrian regime - dominated by minority Alawites, a Shiite sect - for religious reasons.

"They're giving them guns in the Shiite religious schools in Saida Zeynab," he said. "There are sectarian problems, in Homs there was sectarian violence, but it will not be a sectarian war. We Sunnis do not hate Christians or Alawites, just the regime."

He sadly shrugged off questions about how and when the crisis might end, after lamenting that Nato or the United Nations would not intervene militarily to topple the regime. "There is no solution. There will be no solution, no peace."

Driver No 4 was a short ride. A resident of Masarken Barzeh, a district of the capital close to the demonstration hot spots of Barzeh and the Ghoota, he was brief and to the point. "Protesters are dogs," he said.

The next taxi, another crumbling yellow car, had a driver who was from Midan, a focal point for protests. He was pro-regime, a picture of Mr Al Assad was on his mobile phone. That caused him some grief.

"I drove through a Free Syrian Army checkpoint in Saqba and they stopped me, searched the car and saw my phone and dragged me out and shouted at me. They wouldn't let me drive through," he said.

His major gripe was that the opposition talked about freedom but did not want to respect his right to support Syria's president. "The opposition are always talking about democracy and rights. Well, I support

President Assad and freedom means I have the right to do that," he said. "That's how I know the opposition are liars. They are not interested in politics or discussion. They are just interested in violence."

Next, driver No 5, a Druze from Sweida. He complains about the economy, and prefers not to talk politics. Life has been hard, he says, since he lost his manufacturing job years ago and is only getting more difficult. His car is so broken down it can hardly move.

Driver No 6, a resident of the Ghoota, was cheerful and talkative, laughing often at the absurdities of all that has happened over the past 13 months of uprising. "All the time [the regime] are saying the uprising is finished. They've said that every day for the last year," he said.

"They've finished it in Saqba so many times I've lost count. They send in the army, finish the uprising and then a few weeks later send in the army again to finish the uprising."

He too dismissed talk of sectarian conflict, and was unimpressed by the international political swirl around Syria. "Russia, China, America, Europe all claim to have the Syrian people's interests close to their hearts but none of them care about us," he said.

"Nor does the Syrian regime, of course. No one cares about us, we're here on our own, with harder and harder lives. All I am sure about is that we are the ones who will be picking up the bill for all of this. We will pay the blood and the money".

The frank comments are a sign that things have changed in Syria. Plus some signal the direction people here see themselves heading.

The half of the six-and-a-half drivers wasn't really a ride at all. He asked where I wanted to go and quoted a price so exorbitant I was amazed he wasn't blushing from shame.

His car had red heart pillows scatted across the dashboard, lit by neon tube lights. All part of Syria's rich tapestry.

psands@thenational.ae