Robert Fisk: Yes, there's violence, but some Syrians think it's time to return

There has been a rebel surge – but most of the country is still under Bashar al-Assad's iron rule

Robert Fisk
Thursday 26 July 2012 09:12
A Syrian rebel stands near a vandalized portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city center of Selehattin, near Aleppo,
A Syrian rebel stands near a vandalized portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city center of Selehattin, near Aleppo,

A Syrian friend calls me early. "Just to let you know we're going back – things are OK now in the Mezzeh area." I wonder. Then a Lebanese colleague tells me that three Syrian friends of hers have just called to say goodbye, they're going back to Damascus with their families now that the fighting has died down.

Then the same woman calls to tell me that she spoke to a friend in Aleppo on Tuesday night to check on his welfare. "He was in a packed restaurant in the centre of the city – it was difficult to hear what he was saying over the noise." The lines of posh Syrian cars outside Beirut restaurants last weekend – belonging to supporters of the regime taking a brief "holiday" from Syria – have suddenly vanished from the streets.

A body blow to the Baath party last week, of course. But could Bashar now be winning – however briefly – against all the odds? Of the rebellion's capacity to survive, there is no doubt; the BBC's extraordinary and brave report from the fighting in Aleppo proves that. But calls to Damascus tell the same story. No gunfire in many areas last night.

I call a Syrian lady – well educated, middle class – who fled to Damascus on Thursday. She muses on how Bashar might have got away with it if he had responded well to the first violence in Deraa after a 13-year-old was tortured to death.

"You know, we were prepared to give him a chance," she said. "Before all this, he was young, different, maybe kind, he said he was a reformist – he was goofy, sure, but he wasn't bad. We did think that in 2005 [after the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri] there was a conspiracy against Syria. Then in his first speech after Deraa in March last year, after a lot of people thought things might still be different, he started talking about a 'conspiracy' again, that he would not be 'hurried into reforms'. He started almost laughing at one point. Nothing indicated a sense of responsibility. That was when the regime's opportunity was squandered."

But it was an error to think Bashar ran Syria, this woman told me. Syria is run by an oligarchy – all for one and one for all – and an oligarchy gives no freedom to its leader, she said. "I never expected to see helicopter gunships hovering over my balcony for six hours. We had all said that the regime would never behave in Damascus as it behaved in other towns. But there were 20 dead in my area – and Syrian television showed a government soldier kicking a dead man's head. I don't see how any regime can continue after this…"

How long would the President last, then? "Bashar will not run away from Damascus – this is rubbish in Western newspapers." Then came the killer line. "A month or two, maybe…"

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