x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Authorities and protesters split on whether Syrian rebellion is over

A fading revolt, or only a lull in the battle? Syrian authorities say they have broken the back of the rebellion, but dissidents say they will fight on for genuine reform.

DAMASCUS // The traffic is back: the frustrating rush-hour logjams that had thinned in recent weeks as people opted to stay at home. In the more upmarket parts of town, the wealthy take apparently carefree strolls in the warm spring sunshine.

These are signs of a normality that, the Syrian government says, is beginning to return as its campaign to put down an unprecedented two-month uprising takes effect.

Taleb Kadi Amin, a former government official who retains close links to the Syrian authorities, sadi: "I can say today that we have passed over the crisis, security is returning and we are starting to leave the situation behind."

His comments were echoed by Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to the president Bashar al Assad who declared that the worst was over. "I hope we are witnessing the end of the story," she told The New York Times.

"I think we've passed the most dangerous moment. I hope so, I think so."

Despite those buoyant official assessments there are constant reminders, even in the capital - largely isolated from events in the uprising's focal points of Deraa, Homs and Banias - that the rebellion is far from over.

At night, bursts of machinegun fire have torn the silence over the southern suburbs of Damascus, as security units and the army swept through the Maadamiya district.

Ordinary Syrians travelling into the heart of the capital, at least from the south, must pass through checkpoints manned either by armed police or soldiers, who have thrown up cement-and-sandbag fighting positions in the road. Traffic builds up as passengers' identities are cross-checked against names on a lengthy list.

Inside Damascus proper, security reinforcements remain on standby in key locations to prevent demonstrations or sit-ins. Fast private internet connections have been blocked and new advertising hoardings urge Syrians to embrace the true freedom of law and order provided by the state, not the false liberty of chaos offered by protesters.

The normally ubiquitous pictures of Mr Assad, which proliferated even more widely in the early days of the uprising, have been disappearing from cars and buildings, including a large poster from the state-run daily newspaper al Thawra. Analysts say this is to prevent them being defaced in acts of political vandalism that, until recently, were utterly unthinkable.

There is another pressing - and, to the government and employees alike - unwelcome reminder that the crisis is far from receding. Increasing numbers of employees in private companies, not those with sinecures in state bureaucracies, say they are facing cutbacks and job losses. The latest happened only this week: employees of two large aluminium factories said the doors of the plant had been shut, and staff at a third were put on notice that their jobs will not be there in two months if things carry on as they are.

Some civil-rights campaigners acknowledge that the security forces have bludgeoned the momentum away from opposition activists and forced many off the streets with mass arrests, armoured military units and a communications blackout.

But any brute-force victory over the protesters will be temporary at best, political activists, analysts and even some pro-government officials and advisers caution.

"The authorities think the protests are the problem, but they're not," one dissident said. "They're the symptom of the problem.

"If there are no protests, the conditions that led to them are still there, and on top of that we now have the consequences of the protests and the government's hard reaction to them. There has been blood spilled and people will not forget what has happened."

A civil-rights campaigner said the authorities were "mistaken" if they believed the danger to their monopoly on power had peaked and was now ebbing.

"The dangerous time for them is in six months, or a year, or whenever, when people see the reforms they have been promised have not happened," he said. "That is what they need to worry about, not dealing with a few protesters in the street this week or next week."

Mr Assad has pledged a raft of political reforms, and has already dropped the reviled martial laws, although little has changed on the ground.

Hints have also been given that the constitution making Syria a one-party state will be changed, to usher in a more democratic system of decision-making. The authorities say these reforms are already happening, but can be completed only when security is restored and what it calls a militant Islamist insurrection defeated.

Many Syrians - arguably the overwhelming majority, although reliably canvassing public opinion is impossible - believe Mr Assad should be given time and space to deliver on his promises.

His opponents insist, however, that the president is either unwilling or unable to bring about real political change to the autocratic system of government established four decades ago by his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al Assad.

Mr Amin, the former government official, insisted that the younger Assad can still be an agent of reform and that the outbreak of demonstrations had shown Syria's elite they can no longer do business as they have done for the past 40 years. "After this crisis, the authorities understand that now they need to be serious about reforms, political and economic, that they must do it and do it now," he said. "There will be big changes. The leadership understands the problems on the ground."

That view, however, was brushed aside by an adviser to the government who said he saw little sign the increased freedoms and equality of opportunity demanded by Syrians would materialise .

"They are still living from Friday to Friday. It's crisis management. There is no long-term strategy," he said. "I don't see them having the map that shows the way out of this."

While anecdotally there is protest fatigue among many Syrians, the young activists playing a key role in the uprising have not been deterred by arrests, beatings and other acts of intimidation.

One dissident released by the security services after being arrested for the first time and jailed for more than two weeks said: "They made me sign a promise that I would not go to another protest, but of course I will."

He said he had been beaten by his interrogators every day and had shared a cell with dozens of other activists and ordinary people gobbled up in mass arbitrary arrests.

"After that, I'm less afraid than before," he said. "There is still fear, but not so much as there was. The protests are not finished, the military solution hasn't stopped this.

"It will stop when we can walk freely in the street without the security coming and arresting us for no reason. It will stop when I'm allowed to live my life."

psands@thenational.ae