x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrians' choice is loyalty or mutiny

Bashar Al Assad is either a courageous captain, or a man in denial that he is at the helm of a sinking ship - it depends on who you ask. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Syrian demonstrators wave a portrait of their embattled president Bashar Al Assad during a march in his support in the central city of Homs on Sunday.
Syrian demonstrators wave a portrait of their embattled president Bashar Al Assad during a march in his support in the central city of Homs on Sunday.

DAMASCUS // The riotous enthusiasm that erupted in the Opera House in Damascus when Bashar Al Assad concluded his latest speech signalled no let up in a conflict that has already killed more than 60,000 people.

Pumping their fists in the air and shouting "With our blood and souls we redeem you, Bashar!", the president's supporters were delighted with his combative and confident display. They saw their champion as they needed to see him - unapologetic, unwavering, unbowed.

It was more than the usual political theatre. This was the outpouring of a sector of Syrian society that has irrevocably nailed its colours to the mast of the president's ship.

While his opponents say the vessel is taking water fast, his followers believe it is inherently and eternally seaworthy. Any sign of vacillation or backsliding from the man at the helm is unacceptable.

In a struggle they see as existential, there is no alternative but to stay the course. The front lines of a savage battle for survival is no place for doubts. They wanted to hear a righteous conviction that matched and reinforced their own, and he delivered.

"I feel invigorated by our president's speech. I feel stronger, more powerful, I am inspired," said a young army officer fighting in Mr Al Assad's military. He has seen friends and relatives killed and wounded in battle, but he is certain they fell in the noblest of causes, one he describes as defeating a coalition of violent, Islamist extremism and pro-Israeli western neo-colonialism.

The young officer said Mr Al Assad's speech, delivered live on television on Monday, was flawless.

"Did you hear it? Did you listen to every word? It was the perfect analysis of the situation we are in, and the perfect plan for ending the crisis," he said in ardent admiration.

Mr Al Assad offered no quick fix, or easy way out, the soldier explained. It would require more sacrifice and hardship but would end in victory.

"Believe me, I know, you cannot talk to the people we are fighting, they are not men with whom you sit and discuss issues, they are ignorant and only know killing," he said.

In his speech, the Syrian president said: "We are in the right - we are, were and always will be with right and with justice."

The fight would continue for as long a single "terrorist" remained alive on Syrian soil, he said.

Mr Al Assad's opponents may not have heard what they wanted - they want his resignation, his apologies, some want his head - but they did get what they expected. Previous speeches were defiant calls to arms and this one was no different.

"I was so angry during the speech that I was cursing about it in front of my son, which is something I try never to do," said a middle-class mother of two from Damascus.

Out with friends, she had hurriedly had to hush her youngest boy, aged 5, as he repeated verbatim one of the colourful and insulting epithets he had overheard his mother aiming at the TV screen during the presidential address.

She wants Mr Al Assad's rule to end as soon as possible, and for him to stand trial for war crimes. Like the soldier, she has lost relatives in the spiralling war.

In advance, the president's speech was billed as offering a peace plan. It had duly been preceded by a flurry of high-level international diplomacy, replete with the vaguest of hints progress was being made on the political front.

"There was no peace plan, Assad's programme is that everyone who disagrees with him must surrender or die, he couldn't have said it more clearly," the mother said. "Believe me, there will be no surrender, the rebels will fight on."

Between those opposed to Mr Al Assad and those who remain his supporters is a swath of anxious people who have never taken to the streets to demonstrate, let alone pick up a rifle, on behalf of either side. They are the civilians, often referred to as the "silent majority", inhabiting an increasingly unbearable twilight zone.

Abu Mohesin is one of them, a man in his late fifties trying to keep himself and his family alive - fed, clothed and heated - in a cold Damascus winter. He is afraid of both government forces and armed rebel factions, and has already moved out of his home in a Damascus suburb after it became the centre of a free-fire area between the regime troops and opposition militants.

"Nothing has been solved, nothing has changed," he said of the speech. "I'm not surprised."

Those hoping to find an elusive, workable compromise, perhaps embodied best by the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and the likes of Abu Mohesin, have discovered the middle ground in Syria to be a killing field, not a landscape for hardheaded, good-faith political bargaining.

"I was in the crossfire before and I am still in the crossfire, that is the reality for me," Abu Mohesin said. "My job is to keep trying to survive one day at a time as my country is destroyed."

psands@thenational.ae