Syria's Long Black Tunnel
Sunni versus Alawi
Welcome to the cocktail of the new Syrian revolution.
I returned home to Syria two weeks ago. Many of my friends were surprised that I would make the long trip at this time of gathering war.
For two weeks, I traveled (flew) between Aleppo and Damascus. I talked to rich and poor: bankers, taxi drivers, young protestors from Idlib, rank and file army soldiers stationed in Homs, senior Alawi officers, Christian and tribal Sunni families. I did my best to get a comprehensive view of what people were thinking and how they saw the future.
In what follows, I will present a raw interview-type account of three different encounters that I had. Two were with Taxi drivers. One with a soldier. Even though I had my own car and someone to drive me around, I preferred the taxis to get a better feel.
The First Encounter:
Perhaps the most telling single discussion I had was with a young smart university graduate from Idlib who was driving a taxi which he does not own. Within minutes of his discovering that I lived abroad, he boasted to me that he had taken part in two demonstrations in his home town, Idlib. We arrived at our destination in minutes, but I ask him to keep the meter running. For the next 45 minutes, we talk about the revolution while his car was parked outside my house. Here is a synopsis of our conversation:
Ehsani: Why are you protesting?
He started by describing how his first cousin was killed with 23 other cadets while in service. They were suspected of turning their backs on the army. He described how his village has since gone crazy. He then wonders why I would even ask such a question and proceeds to describe how he is unable to get employed. He calmly talks about corruption and cronyism and how they have infested the ruling party and the business elites. The Aleppo merchants are only interested in money and are in no mood to join the uprising he thought. When he appeared in those Idlib demonstrations, what was the army’s response I wondered? “They just watched,” he said. “I am not going to lie and tell you that they shoot at us.”
“What does the President have to do to gain your support from this point?” I ask. “It is too late. There is nothing” came the quick response”. How long will it take for the revolution to succeed and topple the regime? Four years came the quick response. Naturally, I act surprised. He makes a bet with me that it will be this long. The four years are needed before the country is truly starving and when even the 8-year old is forced to go down onto the streets to join the protests. “Only then, will the regime fall,” was his explanation. He has a facebook page and he urges me to communicate with him to understand more about the revolution after I leave.
The Second Encounter:
The next day, I hear that there is a pro-regime maseera (demonstration) under way. I spend two full hours in the city square in an attempt to understand who the participants are. I quickly realize that the Baath party is largely in charge. It is cold but most young men are asked to make a large circle and dance the dabke. On the other side of the street, groups with a loud speaker are rallying the crowd with songs praising the President and attacking the Emir of Qatar Hamad Al-kalb (the dog). The Syrian TV is present. Reporters are busy handing their own cell phones to people in the crowd asking them what they think. Many grab the phones and launch into a tirade against the Arab league and Emir Hamad while they urge the government to hit the insurgents hard. An important person must have arrived. He is surrounded by tough looking men pushing the crowd. I turn to one of them and wonder who this man is. “Ameen Al Hizb” was the quick response. The VIP makes it to the front of the Massera and listens to the Hamad references, smiles and heads back to his awaiting car in the distance. One last dabke group is left. A group of 7 girls arrive. They are distinctly unattractive. They first join the young boys in the dabke circle. They then form their own mini circle in the middle. Another tough looking man seems to be in charge of this young debke crowd. The square is emptying out as it starts to rain. I decide to grab a taxi. Benzene is not available again it seems. A shortage of taxis is evident. One shows up and only decides to take me when he finds out that my house is on his way home. No Benzene again I ask? He nods and tells me how he will drop me, head home and park the car. Then what will you do I wonder? He quickly snaps back “I will beg”.
Ehsani: How many kids do you have? Answer: Three
Where are you originally from?
Are you a Kurd? Yes.
Are you a naturalized Syrian citizen? Yes.
Ehsani: How much do you need to live a decent life with three kids?
Answer: SYP 20,000 ($285 with SYP at 70 to the Dollar that morning).
Ehsani: How much do you make?
Answer: SYP 15,000 but I pay SYP 4800 in mortgage leaving me with about SYP 10,000 to cover everything for 5 people for a month. I quickly do the math in my head. This is about $ 1 a day per person.
Ehsani: I wonder how you manage. What do your kids demand the most when you get home?
Driver: Farrouj (chicken) which costs SYP 350.
I have three kids myself. The trip is over. I pull out a large money note and hand it to him if he promises that he buys two chickens on his way home after he drops me off. He is shell shocked and tries to refuse it. I insist but only if he keeps his promise to buy the farrouj for the kids.
The Third Encounter:
I get a call from a relative telling me how a young man in his building just came back from serving in Homs. He is allowed to see his family for three days before he needs to return. I ask if I can talk to him. That evening, a 20-year old shows up. He starts by showing me pictures with him in uniform as he sits on the front line of two warring communities in Homs. For the next 30 minutes, he describes how Alawi and Sunni neighborhoods face each other with his unit sitting in between. Both are heavily armed he claims. He seems resigned to the fact that the country faces a long ordeal as sectarian tensions mount. He is a Christian serving with 5 Sunnis. He assures me that the Syrian army is a lot stronger than many believe and that only 10-20% of its capacity has been used thus far.
Ehsani: If Damascus decides to end the Homs insurgency and use its full might, how many people would die?
Ehsani: What about all of Syria?
Soldier: 100,000. Presently, we have orders not to shoot. We gain little by shooting as the guns will be grabbed by others and the anger will ensure that many more join the revolution. Our unit is one of the weakest. Damascus could easily replace us with stronger divisions if the objective were to take over these neighborhoods and kill the armed elements. This is what I expect will happen at some stage, however.
Ehsani: What will you do once you are done with your service?
Soldier: “Get out of here as fast as I can. I don’t care where I go.” His cousin is sitting next to him nods in agreement. “I will swim across to Cyprus soon,” he adds.
The Aleppo Business Community:
The following morning I accompany my father to the heart of the Aleppo business world. From a nondescript “dekkane” (store), super astute men seem to run an operation with a turnover of nearly $20 million a year. Forget about fancy offices or executive secretaries. This is how generations of this family have conducted business – under the radar screen. How many men make up the extended family with the same family name, I ask? Nearly 5,000 I am told.
Ehsani: What has stopped the Aleppo business community from joining the uprising?
Store owner: In Aleppo, the people are wise. They are not interested in taking the country into the majhoul (unknown). We are not interested in sulta (ruling). We want stability.
Ehsani: How much of what is going on in the country is due to sectarian tensions between Sunnis like yourselves and Alawis?
Store owner: We really don’t care who is ruling the country. We care about stability and justice. We are not happy with the corruption and injustice. He then asked me if I had visited the Aleppo court system. The corruption there is mind boggling, I am quickly told. Judges pay between SYP 5 and 10 million to get the job. Every case can be negotiated and priced with his “kateb” (clerk) outside. Many times, individuals who have committed murder can walk away after a short sentence if they pay enough and change the sentence down from capital punishment (iidam). Many operatives in the court have witnesses for hire at their disposal. With enough money, you can buy any testimony-shahade.
As I leave, one man describes how tribal infighting will take this country down the tubes should the regime fall and law and order disappears. You have no idea how much vengeance (tarat) exists between our ashaer (tribes) here in Aleppo, I am reminded.
On the Economy:
The economy is reeling after nearly a year of unrest. To be sure, this is not surprising. During the early months, the local currency was largely stable. The Syrian Central Bank has always used the stable currency exchange rate as a metric of its successful management of the economy. Or, so they thought. For years, everyone was comfortable that the SYP will stay within a reasonable range thanks to ample foreign exchange reserves and a willingness to intervene when needed. This long-held assumption was severely tested as of late. The SYP has by now lost nearly 50% of its value against the Dollar. The Central bank has been powerless to stop it. No one in the country has offered an explanation. People are totally in the dark. For example, It is impossible to know the exact level of reserves at the Central Bank. This number is a national security matter. Logically, the political leadership has realized that this is a long ordeal which dictates that it is perhaps better off holding on to whatever reserves it has rather than wasting them on a futile currency intervention.
The recent devaluation to SYP 73 (the rate earlier today) has caused havoc in the business community. Most sellers of goods and commodities refuse to sell inventories unless they adjust the prices to the new rate. This is why prices have nearly doubled as talk of SYP at 100 makes the rounds. A prominent businessman describes how his local sheikh urged him and others to sell their old inventories at the old exchange rate which was his true cost. He was torn about what to do at first but then decided to ignore the advice and sell at the higher prices to reflect the new exchange rate. The exchange rate of the SYP is now nearly every household’s discussion. Every social meeting starts with the latest rate from an hour ago. The economy is entering a dollarization phase. For any commercial transaction to take place, finding where the latest exchange rate is comes first. As the effects of this currency devaluation filter through, prices at the retail level are likely to head higher. The government does not seem to have the resources to increase the salaries this time. Those on fixed incomes are being crushed.
According to one of my dear friends, it is impossible to model the final outcome of this crisis. What will happen to the regime and whether it will survive is impossible to forecast. One particularly astute observer assured me that the regime cannot last beyond the end of this year. Again, the person who stuck in my head the most was the young student from Idlib. Indeed, every Syrian who is in the military or who has served there in the past seemed to believe that it will be “years” before the regime is weakened enough to lose. This sentiment was shared by even those in the opposition that I spoke to. Syrians inside the country seem to be well aware of the might of the Syrian army and the security services. Perhaps this is why the hardcore elements of the opposition are pleading for foreign intervention. I think that it is highly unlikely that the regime will lose to the opposition without some form of foreign intervention and/or the Russians turning their back. Niether appears to be on the horizon.
Talk of corruption and cronyism were on everyone’s lips. This subject has been the source of much of the anger that motivates the opposition. On the last day of my visit to Syria, I heard an analogy to describe the present condition of the regime that struck me as particularly apt. It went like this:
Bashar is driving a bus packed with passengers. Many have been on that bus for years. Those closest to him occupy the front rows of the bus. The uprising is about new faces who also want to board the packed bus. But, for them to jump in, the driver has to throw some of the current passengers of the bus to make room. Bashar looks in the rear view mirror. Who should he pick to throw off the bus? The old Baathists? Members of the Qiyadeh al-Qutriya (The Baath Regional Leadership)? Members of the family? But those are the people who have stuck with him and helped him survive for nearly a year when few gave him a chance. Does it make any sense to throw aside his loyalists and let in new faces who are publicly asking for his head? Any rationale driver will stay the course as he realizes that changing the driver and turning over the whole bus are the true motivations of his enemies.
During one extremely interesting gathering, I was struck by how politically savvy nearly every Syrian has become. The most interesting and passionate remarks I had heard on this trip came from the women who I met. During this same dinner, I asked what if anything could Bashar have done differently?
“When the opposition wanted the regime to pull back a step, he should have pulled back four. With the extra space at their disposal, there was more room for them to debate and argue amongst each other leaving the leadership with more time and breathing space to contemplate their next move”.
I know that I speak for 23 million other Syrians when I worry about where this country is heading. Years ago, I used to speak of buckling our seat belts. Since the crisis started, I have referred to the country having entered a long black tunnel. As we approach the first year anniversary of these events, I wonder where in the dark tunnel we find ourselves. My pessimistic nature tells me that we are still at its beginning.
Ehsani - Syrian-American Banker: email@example.com