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Mafia State

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The regime in Syria, eight months into the uprising, is making a show of playing nice. It has said it will accept an Arab League plan to end the bloodshed – but no one’s holding their breath. Last week it invited a number of foreign journalists into the country. President Bashar Assad gave his first interview to the international media, with Andrew Gilligan in the Sunday Telegraph. For an outsider arriving in Damascus, having seen the TV footage of the violence in Homs, the city must seem surprisingly calm – one of the reasons, presumably, that the regime asked the press in.

But calm isn’t quite the word. Damascus is a very different place from eight or even six months ago. Taxi drivers no longer solicit or proffer opinions on al-ahdath (‘the events’). There are fewer foreigners, and they are regarded with more suspicion, less likely to be offered tea and conversation; political opinions are shared only among friends. As the death toll rises daily and activists and protesters continue to be locked up, many of the elite have either left or are making plans to. Artists, writers, bookshop owners, dissidents, young men due for military service have all gone. For those who remain, ‘it’s like being an automaton,’ one shopkeeper in Damascus says. ‘I focus on small things like getting there and back safely.’

‘There used to be a sheen of respectability,’ one long-time resident says. The bars, restaurants and art galleries in the Old City used to be sustained by the tourists and students of Arabic who came here in droves. ‘But now it feels like a mafia state without apology.’ In recent weeks, Mashaal Tammo, a soft-spoken Syrian Kurdish political leader, was killed in his house, almost certainly by regime agents; Riad Seif, a veteran dissident, was severely beaten.

The situation on the other side, among the protesters, is getting messier too. Defectors and frustrated civilians are fighting back in some areas of the country. A couple of fake improvised explosive devices have been found. The regime warns of chaos in the region if it goes. This is the same line it has peddled since the protests began, but it’s beginning to have more traction with people tired of the unrest and instability. ‘How long can we do this?’ asks a trader from the restless suburbs of Damascus, who says he wants the regime to fall. ‘I come out of my house and a soldier cocks his gun at me. I come out of the mosque and it is ringed by thugs. My wife goes into labour and we have to drive through checkpoints, me reassuring her while my legs are shaking.’ Another Damascene says: ‘I get depressed and then I look at two values people have discovered: bravery and a desire for freedom. I wouldn’t change that.’

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