Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country – supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike – he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.
This is the fourth in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return. Catch up by reading his comments on Syria’s armed opposition , the country’s protest movement, and sectarianism in Syria.
Al Jazeera: State media continues to air footage from Damascus and Aleppo showing calm residential areas and busy downtown districts. Are the country’s two main cities unaffected by the unrest?
Nir Rosen: Superficially, life appears to go on relatively normally in the central districts of the two main cities – as well as in Latakia, and other smaller cities where the opposition is weak. Restaurants are often full, even if less so than before. Government ministries function normally, even if they are not planning for many new projects. Public works continue and you can still see construction taking place.
Even public transportation functions normally, with buses accessing all parts of the country. I travelled throughout Syria by bus. Buses will sometimes circumvent a “hot zone” or stop at its perimeter, rather than enter it.
But in reality, people are privately concerned. Demonstrations sometimes take place even in central Damascus and the sound of gunfire can occasionally be heard. Almost everybody knows someone who was arrested for protesting or carrying out any other anti-government activities.
Some of the elite residents might assist the uprising in a clandestine fashion. Their children might take part in demonstrations in universities, or they might beat up demonstrators in universities. Nobody can live in denial anymore about the crisis they face.
In the streets, there is a much more visible presence of armed men in civilian attire, often a leather jacket and blue jeans with a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder.
There are frequent displays of support for the regime, whether rallies or convoys of cars blasting pro-regime music and waving flags.
Even within Damascus and Aleppo there are checkpoints around opposition strongholds. There are checkpoints as you leave Damascus proper and begin to enter the vast urban working class areas surrounding it. There has been an increase in a security presence with some roads closed and trucks full of soldiers or mukhabarat [“secret police”] driving on main highways. Before the evening prayers or Friday noon prayers, thousands of soldiers and mukhabarat are posted in front of mosques in anticipation of demonstrations – and sentries are posted on bridges and roundabouts.
AJ: What is the situation in the Damascus suburbs and how does this affect residents in Damascus city?
NR: Once you leave the relative normality of central Damascus you are very much in a different world. Military and security checkpoints demand identification and search vehicles and passengers, including those on buses. Often they have notebooks full of names of those wanted by the authorities. They sit behind piles of sandbags, or stand in the entrance to neighbourhoods, or on bridges leaving or entering Damascus. Some are dressed in full military uniform and some in random civilian clothes and with beards – which is banned in the army – but with ammunition pouches, giving them the appearance of militia members.
These areas can often feel occupied, with patrols of soldiers or security officers, frequent raids, people hurriedly walking home, or to shops, without looking at each other or talking.
The rich in Damascus and Aleppo continue their lives, going to parties and clubs and cafes, but their servants who live in the suburbs face daily challenges coming in to the city. They might be demonstrating, or living in fear of demonstrators, or they might get arrested and ask their wealthy employers to contact security to release them. Recently, well-to-do residents of Damascus’ Mazzeh area have also witnessed security operations, especially after a funeral for a slain protester turned into a large anti-Assad rally.
The elite might face challenges going to the airport, or to the suburbs to visit relatives. Many are afraid of leaving their safe zones. Even in Damascus there are now power cuts in many neighborhoods. The suburbs experience “random” blackouts – which often coincide with demonstrations or with security raids.
In opposition strongholds, the cycle of demonstrations and funerals governs much of daily life. There are now more frequent gun-battles there.
AJ: What is the most dangerous place in Syria?
NR: It is difficult to say. It depends on the posture of security forces on any given day, and whether some opposition provocation may have led them to pursue some form of collective punishment.
But the opposition strongholds of Homs are probably the most dangerous parts of the country.
AJ: What is the situation in opposition strongholds?
NR: In opposition strongholds – such as in Homs – there are mountains of putrid garbage, because public services have stopped. Only bakeries or grocery shops are occasionally open.
Electricity is off for most of the day or even for most of the past few months. Children have not been to school for months in opposition strongholds. In such places, entire communities are engaged in rebellion and survival.
Thousands of families have had to flee – either temporarily or permanently – to safer areas, because they are on the front lines. Their homes or apartment buildings may have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. There is a process of separation of the sects taking place as well, with suspicion and intimidation of the “other” who can no longer be trusted.
In much of Homs, Deraa and other towns or villages there are many neighbourhoods that appear deserted. One can walk past hundreds of shops that are closed, where every wall is marked with bullet holes and the streets have a post-apocalyptic feeling. In these areas, the few people on the street will run when they cross streets or lines of fire to avoid the many snipers whose shots can regularly be heard.
“The sound of gunfire has become so routine in much of Syria that locals do not even react unless it appears dangerously close.”
– Nir Rosen
The sound of gunfire has become so routine in much of Syria that locals do not even react unless it appears dangerously close. I was walking through Homs’ Bab Dreib district, past armed opposition checkpoints, when the sound of sniper fire not far away made me jump in terror. A man and his children who were standing outside their house laughed at me for reacting. “Why don’t you jump on the ground too?” laughed the man. In commercial areas of opposition strongholds, at the first sign of trouble, shopkeepers hastily put down their shutters and people on the street hide inside the shops until the streets are clear again.
Convoys of trucks carrying security officers and soldiers can be seen throughout Syria’s highways. Some cities or towns are surrounded and have multiple checkpoints leading to them. Others are divided into sectors and are also full of checkpoints. Even there, opposition activists know how to circumvent these roadblocks. In these areas life comes to a standstill in the afternoon and streets empty.
The opposition has its own sentries and checkpoints in its strongholds, sometimes with weapons in plain sight. They easily identify vehicles or people who don’t belong and stop them to find out if they pose a threat.
AJ: Have the violence and sanctions imposed on Bashar al-Assad’s government affected the country’s economy?
NR: The sanctions are having some effect. Credit cards no longer work. The price of the dollar has nearly doubled. Fuel for cooking and heating is harder to come by.
Many factories have closed or have fired workers. You do not see tourists or foreigners anymore, and this has, of course, greatly damaged Syria’s tourist industry.
But the regime is not without options. Broad sanctions will not bring down the regime. They have looked to Asia and are successfully compensating for some of their losses in Asian markets.
Moreover, both Iran and Iraq have pledged billions of dollars to Syria just for this year and have opened their borders for Syrian goods. The only limit to Syrian exports to Iraq now is the capacity of Syrian factories in Aleppo. Iran exempted Syrian goods from 60 per cent of import duties. In effect, they are creating a hastily drawn common market. Still, many businessmen in Aleppo complain that they can only survive a few more months before they have to fire their workers. It is costing the regime support because they are losing faith that Assad can get them out of this mess.
AJ: How has the uprising divided or unified people?
NR: One interesting social aspect of the uprising is the new-found solidarity between different parts of the country, with urban dwellers in Homs or Damascus rising up – in part out of support for Syrians in villages in other parts of the country – and with wealthy Syrians organising aid for Syrians in slums they have probably never visited. A visitor from Deraa is received with great respect by people in Hama, or Idlib, just as someone from Idlib is accorded respect by hosts in the suburbs of Damascus, simply because it is assumed they are opposition supporters whose areas have paid a high price.
This is made clear in every demonstration around the country when protestors sing “we are with you to death” in solidarity with various other opposition strongholds in the country. The wealthy help organise delivery of food, medicine – or even weapons and ammunition – to stricken areas.
Of course, the uprising has also divided people from common backgrounds along political lines, splitting them into shabiha [a slang term for “pro-regime thugs”], or minhibakjiyeh [those who chant: “We love you Bashar”] as regime supporters are known, and mundaseen [agents provocateur] as opponents are known. Friendships have been severed because of differences over the uprising. It has also strengthened the solidarity between Alawites and Christians.
Look out for more interviews and features from Nir Rosen to be published here on Al Jazeera over the rest of this week.
Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen
The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.