Graphics by Alex
Damascus — This observer lost count more than a year ago of the sheer number of predictions by analysts and lobbyists that the “tipping point” signaling the Assad government’s collapse was a sure thing and would happen any time now. “It’s just a matter of days, not weeks” President Obama declared back in 2011.
But not the tipping point that the rebel promoters were hoping for, including the NATO countries.
Rather, the momentum here has tipped in favor of the current regime due to its capacity to maintain a slowly rising level of popular support, and good relations with key foreign supporters during the current run up to next year’s Presidential election. Then, it will be up to the Syrian voters to decide who stays, goes, and/or joins in their next government.
I base my tentative conclusions, on among others, the following factors.
The Syrian population here is so tired, so exhausted and beaten down, the killing has gone on for so long, and the Syrian people, like Iranians and others I have observed, appear to exhibit a distinctly noticeable, profound and almost moral and religious bond with their countrymen and they personally feel acutely their country’s suffering. Such that people on the streets are very shocked and incredulous at what is going on and many in fact feel less strongly about either side in the conflict and just want the slaughter to end and for life to return to ‘normal’ even without deep revolutionary-across the board-changes for now.
Also, according to students, about five days ago the Tishereen War Panorama Museum was hit with four or five rebel projectiles. The military museum was built to celebrate the October 1973 Yom Kippur War (“Tishreen” means “October” in Arabic), and this main tourist attraction is only two miles northeast of the Old City in Damascus.
One also experiences here an attitude that the Assad government is showing signs of learning some serious lessons about the direction that Syria must move in. While number estimates are difficult, increasing number of Syrians appears to believe that the current regime is the best solution — at least for now. For now, meaning, until next year’s election.
One also notices in Syria these days that people appear (maybe influenced a bit by the recent spring weather) somewhat more optimistic that things are getting “better” — warmer weather means less need for mazot (heating oil), people are car-pooling more to decrease dependence on limited benzene, some flour, still often difficult to find due to rebel burning fields, theft from supply warehouses and Turkish-condoned destruction of a majority of
manufacturing enterprises in Aleppo, is appearing to a degree, brought in from bordering countries. Many of the shortages — partly caused by the US-led sanctions — are for now somehow less severe due to the ingenuity of the Syrian people and the government too has been employing some shrewd countermeasures.
This observer along with others has been critical of the Lebanese government for not doing more for the Syrian and Palestinian refugees forced into their country by the current crisis. While still a serious problem, there has finally developed a life-line of sorts operating from Lebanon into Syria. More consumer goods now move officially from the Masnaa Syrian-Lebanese border crossing where vehicles are checked, and much more food stuffs and essential goods arrive into Syria via many other routes — smuggling routes established between the two countries when the French created Lebanon back in 1943.
From Chtoura to Majdal and Anjar, one comes across lines of massive fuel tankers as well as trucks loaded with Bekaa valley vegetables like onions, potatoes, carrots, squash, radishes, wheat, barley, lentil, beets, zucchini,
cabbage, cauliflower and beans of different varieties. According to my favorite driver, Ahmad, government’s regulations require that these large vehicles line up until 4 p.m. so as not to jam the narrow, potholed and frankly dangerous cliff-hanging roads.
Even Ahmad has become involved in the import business. No longer does he transport up to five passengers. Only me who rides “shotgun.” This is because he fills the trunk of his taxi and the back seat with about a dozen tanks of pressurized cooking gas. Ahmad pays $16 per filled tank in Lebanon and sells them in Syria for $50 each. I am not sure why he needs me to ride with him and why he gives me such a great price, but having an American on board seems to help in some way with some of the checkpoints. Maybe the novelty distracts the soldiers somehow from his cargo and they decide to cut him some slack.
For about a decade, starting at about age seven, this observer would almost never miss a Saturday matinee at the Victory theater in Milwaukie, Oregon. I have known since that time that riding shotgun, whether on a stage coach or covered wagon, was not the best seat because you might catch an arrow from “wild Injuns on the warpath” or a bullet from road bandits.
Things have not changed so much. Riding shotgun from Beirut to Damascus with a dozen tanks of pressurized gas invites instant immolation from a snipers bullet fired from some hill overlooking the main highway. Trying to
make a joke, my driver reminds me from time to time that the US M24 specially adapted Remington Model 700 sniper rifle, some of which are in the hands of rebels around here, has a supposed range of more than two miles
and one bullet into one tank and it’s all over for the both of us.
More seriously, regular views are expressed in Syria about the support levels for the current regime vs. support for the rebels. Admittedly based on nothing very scientific, this observer tends to agree with what he has been
hearing from a cross section of the local population that the regime has the fairly strong backing of around 30% of the population. Less than half of that for the rebels. Syrian minorities, including Christians, Shi’a and Alawites,
among others, cast with the regime because they are afraid of the Wahabist/Salafist jihadi types and the breaking up of their country.
One teenager who I asked why she supports the current regime explained that the Assad regime is doing their best and despite the rising prices that her parents chronically complain about she is grateful that, “despite all the rising prices the government has not allowed the cost of telephone service to increase so I can chat with my friends just like before!” The kid has a point because during this crisis and all the rumors ricocheting around people are
staying in contact with loved ones more than ever it seems.
A bit more than 50% do not seem to express firm support for either side and just want the killing to stop and for some sort of normalcy to return, while at the same time expressing an opinion something like, “how did our country get into this mess. Let the foreigners go home and we can deal with our problems ourselves.” Tragically, this plea does not appear to be acted on anytime soon in Washington DC, Paris, London or Brussels, given the new
pledges this week of more “non-lethal” aid to the rebel factions.
If ever there were meaning- and logic-destroying non-sequiturs as in the past few days it is hard to remember when. Faced with the tipping point moving away from the foreign forces and toward the Syrian government and majority population, the “Friends of Syria” has stretched beyond recognition the meaning of ordinary phrases like “defensive APC’s,” “non-lethal devices to help pinpoint the locations of the Syrian Arab Army troops,” “weapons to protect the civilian population,” as well as “humanitarian sanctions” that supposedly but don’t exempt food and medicines. In fact all of the new Friends of Syria “breakthrough assistance” targets Syria’s civilian population and all are lethal given the uses to which they are put.
History instructs us that as a result of American wars, from Vietnam to the Middle East — that it is the civilian population who will pay the price of the Obama administration’s just announced “humanitarian assistance” to
selected groups in Syria. This history is well known here by Syrians who understand well the strange paradox of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement this week of Washington’s desire to speed up the political process aimed at ending the crisis in Syria by backing the armed Wahabist/Salafist jihadi groups in the country.
This week’s US and European decisions to back Syria’s rebels with direct aid will only lead to more bloodshed and encourage “terrorism” in the war-torn country, according to two Sheiks from Syria’s largest tribe who held court recently during tea in the lobby of the Dama Rose Hotel here.
What Washington fears, according to the same interlocutor from the Russian embassy who spoke with this observer for nearly two hours, is the confirmation that the Syrian opposition is ready to immediately enter into negotiations with the Syrian government without preconditions and that President Assad’s departure or even his future status will not be part of the process. The Russians’ belief that the rebels are finally coming around to a more realistic approach is gaining support from the population here as well as military and political players. This is more than anathema to Washington and its allies.