A year into the Syrian popular uprising, not much is happening on the streets of Damascus. At least, this is the impression that arises from a first walk around the centre of Syria's capital. Unlike Homs, Idlib or other Syrian cities, Damascus looks unruffled by a nationwide crisis that has destroyed thousands of lives, gutted buildings and neighbourhoods, pitted Syrians against each other, and thwarted all diplomatic efforts to find a solution. Here, the shops and restaurants are open, the streets are filled with people going about their daily business. A calm atmosphere is interrupted only by the hum of power-generators placed in front of shops, switched on during power-cuts that can last more than three hours.
Soon, however, the appearance of a composed, normally operating city begins to appear more of a façade. The early signals are the overt presence of contingents of the mukhabarat (the pervasive though once-invisible security police) and pro-government demonstrators around the city's landmark saba’ bahrat (Square of the Seven Fountains). Then you begin to notice the regime's treatment of people, who are stopped and checked continuously.
No wonder that "the checkpoint" has become a favoured theme of Syrians' new political jokes (one, for example, compares soldiers to the men who check lottery-card: "A drunk man arrives at a checkpoint and is asked for his ID. He hands it over. The soldier scrutinises it carefully, while looking for the same name on a long list he holds. The drunk leans his head towards the list, then up at the soldier and asks quietly, 'Am I winning?'").
There are other signs of fear, even paranoia. After a demonstration of about 20,000 people in February 2012 in the Mezzah area of Damascus, close to the presidential palace, a system of military checkpoints encircled the heart of the city and disconnected it from its suburbs - an obvious attempt to prevent dissent sneaking into the central streets and squares. The same effort to preserve an obedient face is behind the frequent loyalist gatherings, where portraits of Bashar al-Assad are waved and propagandist banners and billboards scorn the universal conspiracy against Syria’s sovereignty and hail the president’s reform process.
Damascenes’ daily life has become harder. The increasing economic pressures are worsened by the collapse of the Syrian currency, accelerated by the economic sanctions imposed by Arab and European states. In March 2011, one US dollar was worth 44 Syrian pounds; in February 2012 the figure was close to 100. The price of almost everything has risen. Most shop owners are forced to remove or change price-tags almost every day. A single egg, 5 pounds a few months ago, now costs around 10.
The divisions between people have intensified and deepened, leading to a retreat to core identities. The state’s tactics in response to the uprising have included indiscriminate killing (including of children and women), collective punishment, arbitrary arrest and torture. People in all walks of life are deeply affected, placing Syria’s mosaic under huge pressure. This too suits the regime, which has invested many efforts in portraying the unrest as sectarian.
In the early stages of the crisis, on 24 March 2011, President Assad’s long-term adviser Bouthaina Shaaban described the protest movement as a sectarian fitna (connoting seditious or religious unrest); official discourse, constantly recycled through state-owned television channels and newspapers, aims to terrorise the public (in particular minorities such as Alawites and Christians) by emphasising the danger of Salafi / Sunni extremism. This has succeeded to a degree, by reinforcing these minorities’ territorial and sectarian identities and narrowing their view of what is going on in the country.
So although Damascus has avoided the worst of the conflict, and the authorities have worked hard to maintain the an obedient facade through its security deployments and “spontaneous rallies”, after all not everything is calm and quiet on the Damascus front. Life has lost its normalcy. The economy is crumbling, the social fabric is tearing, the city’s peace is undermined by car-bombs (four in recent months), and the quality of life is threatened by severe power-shortages and economic crisis.
In the midst of all that, the most challenging question facing Syrians is where their country is heading. The bloodshed, including sectarian violence, threatens the diversity that is at the heart of Syrian society. If the regime’s violent crackdown continues, it might well lead to a collapse of an already endangered social balance. Then, there will be one and only one option left for the country: civil war, the sectarian civil war that everyone fears.