Fear of Assad's 'ghosts' brings a sinister calm to streets of capital

Syria's protesters have been quietened – for now. Khalid Ali reports from Damascus
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In Damascus, stronghold of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, everything is not as it seems.

Come nightfall, the scrupulously manicured boys and girls still catch each other's eyes amid the shadows of the city's parks and gardens, much as they always have done.

And in the fashion hub of Salhiyeh, close to where a statue of Assad's notorious father looks down on shoppers hunting for cut-price jeans and trendy hijabs, families sit around sipping fresh orange or pomegranate juice from the cheerful, brightly-lit drinks stalls.

Even the government is trying its best. Since the anti-government uprising began in mid-March, mysterious billboard posters have appeared on bus-stops around the capital proclaiming in Arabic that "Syria is OK", along with other, faintly Orwellian slogans.

Yet peer beneath the surface and it is clear that things are far from OK.

Though a semblance of normality hangs over Syria's ancient capital, the reach of the police state is obvious to those who look for it. As the world focuses its attention on the relative success in Libya, elsewhere in the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad's regime is still killing people – another 13 yesterday, activists said. Six of them died in the capital, a city under silent siege by its own government, where the uprising is yet to catch light.

Driving around the streets of central Damascus in his minibus, a middle-aged activist called Houssam displayed his flair for spotting the tell-tale signs of Syria's vast network of awaayani, or spies.

"You see those sweet-sellers there on the pavement," he said, motoring down a road near Salhiyeh in central Damascus. "They are secret police." A little later he jabs his finger towards some flower stalls. "You see them too?" he asked, keeping one hand on the wheel. "They are with the government."

The numbers of street hawkers selling their goods from pavement stands has increased noticeably recently. Usually it would be illegal, but right now government seems to be turning a blind eye – not least to the second-hand book dealers outside the parliament building.

But if Houssam is to be believed, their ambivalence is understandable. Most of the stallholders are working for the secret police, he said. "As soon as there is a demonstration they take their sticks and knives and attack the protesters," he claimed.

There are other, much more worrying signs. Close to the enormous Umawiyeen Square in western Damascus this week, three groups of around 20 men were lounging in the sun beneath the shade of some streetside trees. Dressed in shirts and trousers and sitting on deck chairs or lying on the grass, they looked like middle-aged businessmen enjoying a summer picnic. Not so, said Houssam.

"They are shabiha," he said, referring to the notorious loyalist militias who have killed scores of protesters across the country since March.

Umawiyeen, a giant spoke-wheel roundabout which connects Damascus to its western suburbs, is one of the two main squares which protesters have been trying to occupy since March.

So far they have failed. But the government knows that to maintain its grip on Damascus it needs to prevent a "Tahrir Square" type scenario, with huge numbers of activists claiming a toehold in the heart of the capital just as they did in Cairo back in February.

Bashar al-Assad, no doubt mindful of the pathetic images showing a caged Hosni Mubarak standing trial in Egypt last month, is willing to prevent his own demise at any cost. The shabiha, or "ghosts", are designed to do just that.

So far it appears to be working. One activist, a dental laboratory assistant in his twenties, laughed when asked why the demonstrations were not gaining traction in the capital. "It's impossible," he explained. "They have 200 soldiers on one of the roads leading into central Damascus."

On a trip to the area he was talking about, a wide residential street which connects the capital's restive eastern suburbs to Abbassiyyin Square – the other main roundabout in Damascus – it is easy to understand the problem.

Lurking in some of the driveways were gangs of shabiha. Nearby were three empty green passenger buses, their back windows caked in dust. Some of these buses, which were unveiled by the government to great fanfare last year, are now being used to ferry troops around to various protest hotspots.

On Thursday alone, as thousands of people attended a rally in the eastern suburb of Douma, The Independent saw five of them heading towards Abbassiyyin. One soldier had a jagged bayonet propped upright against his plastic seat.

Just off Abbassiyyin is Syria's national football stadium. Until recently it was the venue for international matches, but in May Fifa ruled that Damascus was not safe any more. Now, according to activists, it is used to quarter the army. Visiting the stadium this week, three soldiers were sat perched on top of the western stand, their legs dangling over the side like schoolboys on a swing.

Elsewhere the deteriorating security situation in Damascus has led to other problems. Syria's tourist industry, which had been steadily growing for five years, has crashed. It doesn't help that anyone who does make it here cannot withdraw money from the ATMs, as Visa and MasterCard have been made redundant due to the sanctions.

Damascus has not yet succumbed to the protest movement in quite the same way as other cities around Syria, and for the time being an uneasy calm prevails. But with no end in sight to the crisis, it is difficult for residents to know what the future holds.

Names have been changed. Khalid Ali is a pseudonym for a reporter working in Damascus.