Report from a ‘spontaneous’ pro-Assad rally in Damascus

About two weeks ago,when the situation in Syria seemed stagnant and the Arab League slapping sanctions on the country a far off possibility I went across the border on a visa run. While there, I ran into a pro-Assad demonstration in front of the Mariamite Cathedral in the old city of Damascus. Below is a report on how ‘spontaneous’ such demonstration really are:

Damascus – 12 November 2011

Drumrolls and trumpet tunes mix with pro-Assad at the Mariamite Cathedral in the old city of Damascus. A boy wearing a red baseball cap recites slogans: we don’t want anything but our Bashar!’ Next to him a man waves his arms, trying to encourage and direct the repetition of the chants. A fanfare band adds to the volume, creating the effect of a much larger crowd than the 50-100 people gathered. Many are carrying brand new flags adorned with Bashar’s portrait, others are carrying images of the Syrian leader. Is this a genuine surge of love and affection for the regime?

The arrival of a huge convoy, accompanied by a police motorcade indicates otherwise. The Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill I, is in town to pledge solidarity with the Syrian regime.

Spontaneous protests are organised in Syria like nowhere else. The protestors are awaiting the delegation of religious leaders and diplomats when they arrive and the slogans they chant do not sound very convincing. This is unsurprising; many of these demonstrators are paid or forced to be here. ‘Nobody is here voluntarily’ Tareq, 28, said. ‘My sister works at a high school. When there are large pro-Assad demonstrations everybody is put on a bus and driven there. The children like it; they get the day off school.’

The pro-Assad demonstrations are supposed to counter the protests against the regime which have spread across Syria the past few months, some taking place mere kilometres away in Damascus’ suburbs.

This explains the abundance of film crews. All cameras are focused within the crowd, in order to hide the fact that the number of demonstrators is rather limited.

A bird’s-eye view would not only make the number of demonstrators appear less than impressive, but reveal the huge security presence which surrounds it. A huge number of men in black leather jackets line the walls; the unofficial uniform of Syria’s secret police. They observe the demonstration without expression, constantly on the lookout for possible trouble. A day later activists announce that 4 protestors have been killed at a pro-Assad rally in Hama, after they shouted slogans against the regime.

Nobody who passes by joins the demonstration. From the rooftops and street corners inhabitants stare at the ritual, some with a grim face. ‘Screw this, they are blocking the street’ a man mutters under his breath.

The whole thing lasts about 15 minutes. Then the dignitaries and the band have filed into the church. The group of demonstrators starts to fall apart, a few slogans are chanted. The absence of the band reduces their impact significantly. Even the boy with the red baseball cap gives up. Genuine enthusiasm, after all, is difficult to orchestrate.

You can also find the story, with more pictures at http://www.demotix.com/news/925907/spontaneous-pro-assad-rally-damascus

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