BY JULIEN BARNES-DACEY from Damascus, Syria
The eyes of the world are on Syria's outlying towns and villages, where the rebels are organizing and where the bodies are piling up. As the U.N. Security Council prepares to meet to discuss the crisis, U.N. monitors are rushing to the town of Mazraat al-Qubeir to investigate claims that at least 78 civilians were killed in cold blood by President Bashar al-Assad's militiamen. If true, the attack would be a grim echo to the gruesome massacre in the town of Houla last month.
But as Syria's periphery descends into chaos, observers may be missing a more subtle deterioration of Assad's authority at the center of his regime. The Syrian capital of Damascus, whose commercial center has been seen as immune from the nationwide unrest, is increasingly turning on the Assad regime -- and widening unrest in the heart of the city now appears to be only a matter of time.
An important moment came last week, when security forces opened fire in the center of Damascus to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators at the end of Hamra Street, located just a few hundred meters away from parliament. Within minutes of the demonstrators gathering, security forces rushed onto the scene, firing into the air to scatter the protesters. The crackdown was notable because it marked an escalation of force by Syrian security services, which had hitherto largely restricted themselves to using batons against demonstrators within the heart of the city.
For 15 months, central Damascus has appeared a bastion of regime support in a sea of unrest. The lack of meaningful protests and violence, the busy cafes and bustling restaurants, and the sight of people apparently continuing their daily lives unaffected by the turmoil have played into the regime's narrative of enduring stability. In contrast to the capital's impoverished suburbs -- home to those most affected by state corruption, brutality, and mismanaged economic liberalization -- those living in the center profited from the last decade of Assad's rule, and did not turn on the regime in great numbers. This section of the population has been emblematic of the so-called "silent majority" -- the middle class that has seemingly sided with the regime out of a desire to maintain its privileged economic position and also out of fear of the violence and chaos that could follow the fall of Assad.
However, according to conversations with old acquaintances, businessmen, shopkeepers, middle-class professionals, and taxi drivers in the capital, the mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. "Don't be fooled by the cafes and restaurants," an old friend, a businessman who once enthusiastically poured forth about the new possibilities opened up in the country under Assad, told me. He spoke of a city deeply on edge and increasingly hostile to the regime.
Another well-off, middle-class man launched into a tirade over the regime's incompetence and its willingness to push the country to civil war for the sake of preserving power. Syrians with the means to do so -- even including many who had previously made commitments to seeing the conflict through from within the country -- are now making plans to leave, and an exodus of middle-class professionals is expected come the end of the school year.
This hollowing-out of regime support in the capital, which is increasingly visible to visitors and residents alike, suggests the potential dawn of a new phase in Syria's long struggle. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike over recent days -- locking their stores shut or sitting outside and refusing to do business in response to the Houla killings -- marked an important escalation of local defiance. Previous calls for strikes, by contrast, had withered out unsuccessfully.
To be sure, many continue to back the regime within the capital, particularly some minorities who fear, as one Alawite told me, being driven out of Damascus. To many in this group, there is a clear solution to Syria's crisis: The Assad regime should be striking back with even more force to overcome foreign-backed "terrorists."
But cracks in the support of former regime stalwarts are increasingly evident. Even one member of the parliamentary opposition -- dismissed by most of Syria's revolutionaries as regime stooges -- told me that "the regime is crumbling" and that change is now inevitable. "We want to keep the state but get rid of the regime," the parliamentarian said.
Foreign observers also think the Assad regime is on its way to collapse. "Everyone here, even the street cleaners, accept that Bashar can no longer be the driving force of the country," one diplomat in Damascus told me. "The regime is finished."
The changing dynamic has not only been sparked by increased support for the opposition -- indeed, many Damascenes struggle to identify their vision for Syria's future -- but by a sense that the regime is no longer able to fulfill its most basic pledges of ensuring security and stability within the confines of the capital. Criminality is on the rise: Bodies are turning up in city morgues, and kidnappings, rape, and petty crime are all appearing in a city that has long been one of the safest capitals in the Middle East. Meanwhile, there has been a noticeable escalation in the clashes between Assad's security forces and Free Syrian Army fighters across Damascus's suburbs, many areas of which fall under effective rebel control at night.
Anti-regime protests are also fast approaching the very heart of power. Whereas they were once confined to the farthest suburbs of the capital -- the likes of Harasta and Douma -- they are spreading to districts like Midan and Kafr Sousa, just minutes from downtown Damascus. One Western diplomat who continues to live in the city center told me that the nightly mortar attacks and gunfire from the suburbs had increased noticeably in intensity over previous weeks.
Some Syrians cite the May 10 attack, where car bombs exploded outside an intelligence building during the morning rush hour, killing at least 55 people, as a turning point, highlighting the threat of violence that regime tactics were bringing upon their heads. "We suddenly panicked," one middle-aged Syrian told me. "Our children were out, and we knew it could be them [killed in the attack]."
International sanctions are also beginning to bite, pushing up prices and creating new shortages and hardships for ordinary Syrians. Passing through the eastern gate of Bab Sharqi, a Christian quarter one afternoon, I came across a line of people several hundred meters long queuing for cooking gas. Tensions were clearly fraying at the front, with people shouting and elbowing their way to the front to demand first access to a truck that plainly didn't have enough supplies for the entire crowd. Elsewhere, those businesses that haven't closed are suffering unprecedented economic pain: The lobby and restaurants of the Four Seasons hotel, once a hive of business activity, now lie eerily empty -- a lone pianist providing the soundtrack for a city at the end of its rope.
As shown by its use of live fire on Hamra Street, the regime appears to be growing ever more forceful in pushing back, seeking to fall back on its still substantial military advantage to quash the threat. The day after the violent dispersal of the protest, pickup trucks openly loaded with mortars were shown on Syrian TV driving through the restive district of Midan -- a clear warning to the local population. During my visit, security measures for entry into the heart of the city tightened -- including increased barricades and new road closures -- as did precautions outside the homes of key regime figures. These could well be signs of a regime on its back foot.
It is near impossible to truly gauge the balance of power in Damascus and Syria at large today. But the capital gives off the impression of a city on the brink. For many this brings a sense of deep foreboding. The emergence of widespread unrest in Damascus could prove fatal to the regime's lingering pretensions to legitimacy and control, likely provoking a brutal and bloody response. As one man, speaking with a sense of deep trepidation, told me: "We know that it will come our way in the end, of course."
-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 07/06/2012
-Julien Barnes-Dacey is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and was based in Syria from 2007 to 2010