After arriving at a dusty roadside coach stop following the six-hour journey from Beirut to Aleppo in northern Syria, I stepped off the bus and out into the hazy late-summer sunshine.
It felt like the middle of nowhere. The coach stop was miles from the center of Aleppo, and I had to find the next bus that would take me on to Damascus, about another six hours south.
I was also anxious. With journalists banned from entering the country, I was only one Google away from some grunting border guard discovering I was not just a student “on my way to visit some old friends."
The bus journey had already given me my first direct glimpse of the brutal methods being used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to crush Syria’s nationwide insurrection. The tanks I saw nestled among the trees in the rolling hills around Hama could well have been the same ones that pummeled the city just before Ramadan in July, killing nearly 100 civilians.
Elsewhere, at Al-Rastan, a large town about 15 miles south of Hama, we had passed squads of shabby, unshaven shabiha militiamen guarding the motorway turnoff. No doubt some of these loyalist regime ultras, whose name means “ghosts” in Arabic, had been involved in the operations that have killed dozens of protesters in the town since March.
So when I was accosted by a taxi driver after getting off the bus in Aleppo, I was keen to get on with the journey and link up with my contacts in Damascus.
But something was up. My driver, a gravelly-voiced Syrian with wrinkles that looked as though they had been scored with a box cutter, began asking me questions as we made our way around the outskirts of Aleppo. “Are you American?” he asked. “Are you here on business?”
When he drove right past the bus station for Damascus and then turned down an isolated residential lane, I began to panic. Ordering him to stop the car, I leapt out and demanded he open the trunk and give me my bag. But instead of getting my rucksack, he stepped out of the car and made a call. I tried listening in, but every time I got close he would walk away. By now it was obvious what was happening—my driver was working for the secret police.
After finally getting my rucksack and briskly walking the 500 yards back down the road toward the bus station, I tried to buy a ticket to Damascus. The man in the booth said nothing. In a look of helpless exasperation, he slowly buried his face into one hand and ran his fingers through his hair. Somebody had gotten to him before me.
A moment later I saw my scowling taxi driver darting toward the ticket booth with a companion, a portly man in a checked shirt. Together they frog-marched me to a nearby office, all the while my rat-faced driver smugly hissing through his mustache about me being a kazaab, or liar.
In the office, beneath a large photo of President Assad—the man whose bloody crackdown I had come to report on—the questioning began. Why had I come to Aleppo? Who did I know in Syria? My rucksack was unpacked, my receipts leafed through, and at one point my pot-bellied inquisitor demanded to know what my iPod was.
For all of Assad’s so-called economic reforms since he took control of his father’s hermetic republic in 2000, the global reach of Apple Inc. had clearly yet to make much of a splash.
Midway though the questioning my driver came in, shook hands with the police chief, and skipped off out the door. After about 40 minutes, I too was on my way. Following a call to another, presumably more senior Baathist official, I was told I could leave. I even got an apology on the way out.
In the end, mine was a comparatively trivial brush with Syria’s secret police. But it provided the tiniest glimpse into a security apparatus that appears, for now at least, to have scared the opposition movement into submission.
In the capital—which activists agree will have to succumb to the protest movement if there is any hope of toppling Assad—demonstrators openly admitted that the government currently has the upper hand. During a meeting in Qaboun, the restive suburb of eastern Damascus where dozens of protesters have been killed since March, one man laughed when asked why large-scale demonstrations had not materialized in the capital. “The people are too scared,” he said. “The secret police are everywhere.”
Another activist was even more direct during a conversation in the plush Old City restaurant Naranj—a favorite of President Assad. “We have given up on Damascus,” he explained. “The people here are too soft.”
But on a tour of the capital it is easy to see why. The telltale signs of Assad’s police state are everywhere, most noticeably the huge numbers of street stalls that have sprung up across the city center in recent months. Activists say the stalls are manned by security personnel, some hiding knives and sticks beneath their rugs and unleashing them at the slightest sign of any protest.
Two of the main roundabouts in Damascus, which demonstrators have identified as potential Tahrir Square–style meeting points, are guarded by scores of plainclothes shabiha—a dire warning to any would-be revolutionaries hoping to foment trouble in the capital.
“We are divided,” said one activist in his 20s. He added that some demonstrators were thinking about whether they should be taking up arms. “People are looking for contacts and finance,” he admitted.
Around 100 miles north of the capital, the central Syrian city of Hama feels even more tense. Nearly 30 years after Assad’s father killed up to 20,000 civilians in his notorious response to an armed Muslim Brotherhood uprising, the city seems to have returned to a war footing. Armed soldiers stand guard behind sandbag turrets dotted around the city center, while tanks point their gun barrels toward residential neighborhoods from fields on the outskirts.
“More than 3,000 people have been arrested here since everything began,” said one activist, a middle-aged father of four. “We cannot demonstrate in big numbers because of the shabiha and secret police.”
Yet despite the ruthless security crackdown, which human-rights groups say has claimed more than 2,600 lives since March, it seems probable that Assad’s attack on his own people has unleashed a genie that he cannot possibly rebottle.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday predicted that the Syrian regime would fall because of Assad’s violent response to the uprising. "The era of autocracy is ending,” said the former Assad ally. “Totalitarian regimes are disappearing."
Regional diplomatic pressure on the Baathists is growing, and analysts have questioned how long the costly security crackdown can continue, following the recent EU decision to ban all Syrian oil imports.
Many activists said they believed the violent wave of state repression could not continue forever. They agreed that when it stopped, Syria’s streets would come alive once more.