Patrick Cockburn: Why war is marching on the road to Damascus

A special dispatch from the Syrian capital reveals why the city's residents expect the worst

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Damascus feels like a city expecting the worst to happen and seeing no way to avoid it. War is spreading across the country and is unlikely to spare the capital. Rebels speak of stepping up attacks in the city and could easily do so in the next few weeks.

I spent the last week in Damascus and the atmosphere reminds me of Beirut in 1975 at the start of the 15-year civil war. Again and again in conversations, people realistically laid out for me the nasty things that are all too likely to happen, but few were able to produce plausible ideas on how disaster might be averted.

"I wish people abroad would stop talking about a civil war starting here because it is still the people against the government," said one committed member of the opposition as we sat in a café in Damascus (everybody I spoke to has to be nameless, for obvious reasons). She believed that it was only the heavy presence of the security forces that were suppressing mass popular protest in the days after the Houla massacre.

She may have been right, but in practice not a lot was happening. There was less traffic on the streets and foreign TV stations made much play of YouTube postings showing merchants shutting their shops in protest at the Houla slaughter. But, driving around Damascus, the strike's success was difficult to judge since so many shops and restaurants are shut anyway because of the lack of tourists and the impact of sanctions.

The rebels could probably start a campaign of bombings and selective assassinations fairly easily in Damascus. This is not a sign that they are militarily strong, but it would be easy for a movement lacking arms and experienced fighters to spread instability by these means. The rebels can do this using as bases strongholds in and around the city such as Douma, which they more or less control.

None of this is good news for the people of Damascus since government retaliation and collective punishments are likely to be savage and sustained. It is depressing that Damascus, one of the more beautiful cities in the world, is on the edge of becoming the victim of the same sort of hatred, fear and destruction that have convulsed Beirut, Baghdad and Belfast over the past 50 years.

Sectarianism is deepening. Christians are fearful and are all too aware of what happened to their co-religionists in Iraq after 2003. Opposition members in Damascus often blandly blame the rise in sectarian fears on the authorities. "The government is just trying to frighten people," said one Christian human rights activist. "People here have never had a problem with each other." He pointed out that the French had tried to secure their imperial rule by exploiting communal and religious differences, but they had failed.

Unfortunately for Syria, the activist had got his history wrong. In 1860 Muslim mobs burst into the Christian quarter of Damascus and slaughtered between 5,000 and 10,000 people (the Ottoman authorities restored order – a hint here, perhaps, on how other governments might deter official connivance in sectarian murder – by hanging their own governor and 56 of his officials for dereliction of duty and shooting a hundred of their soldiers who had taken part in the massacre).

The present Syrian government may be trying to stir up sectarian strife in order to ensure that the minorities – Alawite, Christian, Druze and Kurd – remain on its side. But it did not invent these communal differences, though the opposition has been trying to play them down. I asked one diplomat long resident in Damascus what he thought of the picture of the Syrian crisis presented to the outside world by YouTube pictures posted by the opposition. "They are deceptive," he answered dryly. "For instance, when they show anti-government demonstrations, the activists always edit out the bit where the crowd shouts 'death to the Alawites!'"

The government probably does have a core constituency that will fight to the death. How big it is, nobody knows. One opposition militant, released from jail last year, believed the majority of Syrians are prepared to pay any price to overthrow the regime. "People want their freedom even if there is an earthquake," he said. "Things will get worse, but the struggle will not be long, and Assad will go." He denied that the opposition wanted revenge, saying "I was in Hama in 1982 when the government killed 40,000 people [the usual figure given is 10,000] over 27 days, but nobody is looking for revenge today."

Sincere though my friend in Damascus was about the government's lack of support – "five per cent of Syrians fight for the regime and 10 per cent support them" – he appeared consumed by bitterness and rage about the treatment of himself and his family, who between them have spent 65 years in jail. It was difficult to believe that the regime's past crimes would be as easily forgiven as he claimed.

At the heart of the Syrian crisis is a revolution against the police state run by the Assad family for 40 years. But there are two parallel struggles going on that taint and complicate this popular uprising. One is the struggle of the Sunni Arab powers, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, against the Shia. The other is the US and Saudi-led confrontation with Iran, whose most important ally in the Arab world is Syria. Weapons from Saudi Arabia are now reported to be reaching the insurgents. Iraqi officials say that al-Qa'ida fighters in Diyala province north-east of Baghdad, notorious for massacring Shia villagers and travellers, have headed back to Syria.

Understandable self-deception by activists in Damascus is matched by less justifiable self-deception outside the country. Recent suggestions, such as the establishment of a humanitarian "safe haven" on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, are a recipe for war (and will terrify Armenians in Aleppo and Kurds in Qamishli, both communities having dark memories of Turkish rule). Alternatively, pumping in weapons paid for by the Saudi absolute monarchy whose motives are primarily sectarian and anti-Iranian, will only exacerbate the violence.

President Bashar al-Assad will not go quietly and believes he does not have to go at all. Here lies the problem at the heart of the Syrian crisis, where Russia has some right on its side and President Putin's critics are mistaken. Mr Assad's regime is being asked to reform itself and, at the same time, to drop dead politically and pass out of existence. These aims are contradictory. Why should the Syrian government modify its behaviour if the true purpose of international pressure is regime change?

Regimes changed in Iraq and Libya because they were defeated in war by the Western powers (the Libyan rebels would not have lasted a week without Nato support).

If the Western powers are not going to go to war in Syria, and can't get the Turks to do their dirty work for them, then they should push for reform and power-sharing that leaves a modified version of the Assad regime in place. This would be difficult for the Russians to oppose and would relieve the fears of Iran. The alternative may be a long war that will tear Syria apart.

Kofi Annan's warning

Syria is moving perilously close to "all-out war", with its conflict at risk of spilling over into other countries, the UN peace envoy Kofi Annan warned yesterday.

Mr Annan's chilling prediction came on the same day security officials reported that gun battles between pro- and anti-Assad groups in northern Lebanon had killed at least seven and wounded 22. In Syria itself, two civilians were killed – one during an army raid in Damascus, another by gunfire in Homs.

Speaking to Arab League members yesterday, Mr Annan said: "The spectre of all-out civil war, with a worrying sectarian dimension, grows by the day." The UN envoy further stressed that it was vital "to keep our goals firmly in view: stopping the killing, helping the suffering population, securing a political transition – and, I would add, ensuring that the crisis does not spread to the neighbours".

He said that the massacre at Houla, in which 108 people were killed, was appalling. The killings, believed by UN monitors to have been the work pro-Assad militias and soldiers, caused worldwide outrage last weekend.

Mr Annan criticised President Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan. Qatar urged the UN to set a deadline for the plan, saying there should be no more "stalling". Russia also came under fire from Syrian opposition groups, who said it was becoming part of the problem by supporting President Assad.

Sanchez Manning

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