“Syrian rebels: Terrorists or the opposition?”

Most Syrians wonder what is going on in their country and what will happen next, with ever-increasing confrontation between the authorities and advocates of regime change.

At first, Syrians thought that everything would quickly work itself out and that the wave of Arab revolutions would pass them by, leaving their political system in the same     state of stagnation that they have known for decades. The more time passes though, the more Syrians realize that their country will not be able to avoid major change.

“I’m a businessman, and frankly, I don’t care who is in power, provided the government is strong, because for my work, stability and national security are more important than anything else,” said Ahmed, who like other Syrians interviewed did not want his last name to be used. “On the other hand, I understand that you can’t just think about yourself in this situation, you also have to take into account the people who want a better life.”

“What kind of a country is this if any fool can throw you in jail simply for criticizing the authorities?” he went on. “Why do we still have such a thing as political prisoners? What is this?”

While we were talking in his office, he nervously switched the TV from Al Jazeera, which was broadcasting an interview with Syrian opposition politicians living abroad, to state television news programs, which seemed to be copying the news model of television in the Soviet Union.

“Where are we headed?” the businessman repeated over and over. He watches closely for changes in Syrian society; he has already moved the bulk of his capital abroad, started calling in loans he has given out, and often finds reassurance in the passport he holds from another country in addition to his Syrian one – if it comes to it, he has somewhere to go.

Despite internal tensions, however, almost nothing has outwardly changed in Damascus. During the week, there are no empty seats at restaurants in Bab Touma in old Damascus, and at outside the Haritna restaurant there is a long line of people waiting for a table. People are eating, smoking hookah and talking as usual, and it does not seem as though these cheerful, well-dressed young professionals are thinking about their country’s problems or are fearful of anything.

But the empty road leading to the airport and the nearly empty duty-free shops there, the soldiers with automatic rifles stopping all cars for document checks on the road from the Damascus suburb of Daraya and the shops that close at 10 p.m. instead of staying open until at least midnight, all indicate that the situation, even in the capital, is far from normal.

“The government keeps saying that everything is fine, everyone supports Bashar, and that demonstrations are staged by small groups of terrorists recruited and financed from abroad,” Muhammad, a translator, told me. “But this is not the case; there are people in the country who truly want change, fundamental change in the political system, and the government’s claims that they do not exist and that demonstrations are organized by spies are only further inciting people’s anger. The people want to show the authorities that the opposition really does exist.”

Anti-government demonstrations are held in Daraya, the suburb where Muhammad lives, almost every Friday. He said that they often escalate into armed clashes with security forces, and often lead to casualties. Moreover, for taking part in such demonstrations, several of his acquaintances have been taken away to unknown locations.

“Bashar lifted the state of emergency, and almost the very next day tanks rolled into Daraa in the south, where the unrest started,” Muhammad said. “It seems that this progressive move came alongside a decision to forcefully suppress unrest. We can hear shooting even from our suburb; there is real fighting going on.”

Many residents of Daraya were shocked when the authorities detained women who went to a demonstration, shaved their heads completely, and released them. “That was how they punished them,” Muhammad said.

At the same time some Syrians believe that the president does not really want to use force against demonstrators. Rather, they think he cannot control the situation, with decisions coming from his court, above all his brother, Maher Assad.

Others say the situation is much better than the Western media describe. They believe the conflict is mostly rooted in religious strife.

“Everything that’s happening now is connected to religious issues, the Sunnis fighting the Alawis, nothing more” said Fahdi, a naval architect.

His parents’ home is in a village between Tartus and Latakia, where Christians live side by side with Alawis. A little further is the homeland of the previous president, Hafez Assad, whose son now rules the country.

“It is mostly the Sunnis who are criticizing the government. Syrians who are indifferent to religious issues often do not support the government but they don’t like the methods the opposition is using either,” Fahdi said.

He said that left-wing forces are taking a neutral stance, but at the same time are enthusiastic about recent events. Fahdi pointed out that tensions are not fixed, but rather move from city to city. The unrest began in Daraa, not far from the Jordanian border, but things are peaceful there now, and the complications have since moved to villages along the border with Turkey.

Syrians fear most of all that the unrest will reach Dayr az-Zawr Province, from which weapons from Iraq could leak into the rest of Syria, and then isolated pockets of opposition would have the potential to develop into a major armed conflict.

The outcome of the Syrian unrest is unclear, but regardless of their political views, nobody wants a civil war to start in Syria that could lead to foreign intervention.

Strangely enough, many Syrians believe that Syria’s strategic location next to Israel will prevent the West from launching a military operation similar to the one underway in Libya.

But does Israel really need such a “predictable and adequate adversary” as Bashar Assad’s regime, as some Russian political analysts believe? It’s no secret that the main threat to Israeli security emanating from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would be greatly weakened without the support from the Assad regime.

Perhaps Israel has decided to use the revolutionary sentiments in Syria to its advantage, as the West has done in Libya.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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