Dispatch

Five Years in Damascus

How my Syrian adventure became a nightmare.

A bloated dead donkey greeted me as I entered Syria in January 2007. "Welcome to Assad's Syria" read a huge billboard hanging over the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey.

The first person I spoke to upon arriving in Damascus was a machine gun-toting soldier guarding a government building. "Where is the Harameih hostel?" I asked. He had no idea what I was saying, never mind what I wanted.

Mosquito and bedbug bites, sunstroke and diarrhea. Agonizing Arabic-language classes and cold showers thrice daily. Weight loss. Dust. I had no idea how I had found myself in this country. But I would stay five years, before the horrors of the country's incipient civil war drove me away this month.

There were also delights: Christian celebrations in churches so small the mellow voices in a mini-choir of two filled the entire chapel. Visiting mysterious Druze communities in remote mountain hamlets, where men drive tiny tractors filled with the green of freshly picked apples. The green, brown, and yellow mountains. Delectable meshawe -- roasted chicken soaked in olive oil and crushed garlic -- barbeques. How Damascus smells on summer nights.

Working as an editor at the state-run Syria Times newspaper in 2007 and 2008 would see me immersed in Arab literature, politics, debate, and news -- or so I thought.

I was naive. Most workers -- they cannot be called journalists -- holding senior positions at the Syria Times were Alawite. Few even spoke English. We shared offices with the Arabic title Tishreen, and most news came down from the state news agency, SANA.

Even then, dissent simmered just below the surface. Translators fresh out of university mocked the regime and the "newspaper." The tea room employed four boys where one sufficed -- brothers, sons, cousins of someone up the chain -- but loyal. Syria Times closed in June 2008, but today employees are still being paid $150 per month.

Despite its problems, Syria seemed to be prospering back then. The World Bank recorded that Syria's GDP grew at a healthy 6 percent annual clip from 2004 to 2009. An explosion of Kia and Hyundai cars clogged the streets, and new private banks provided easy credit to anyone with a little cash or a stable job.

In Damascus, at least, laptops flourished in Western-style cafes. The $4 coffee arrived in 2010, and then iPhones and Cinnabon bakeries. Syria's rapid modernization spurred massive migration to urban centers, while in the countryside to the northeast, hundreds of thousands of farmers fled starvation from a devastating drought. They drove taxis at night and lived in Harasta, Qaboun, and Madamia, satellite towns of Damascus where rent was cheap -- and that are now centers of protest.

Then the uprising began, and everything changed. In Damascus, disbelief was followed by fear and then dejection as the protests spread throughout the country. January brought a sense of siege. Hundreds of concrete barriers appeared around security and military facilities, deepening the sense of fear and foreboding. Men queued overnight for heating fuel, already inflated in price, and returned home empty-handed the following morning to cold wives and children.

In Syria's halls of power, officials made gestures toward the carrot -- "There is corruption, and we need to root it out," numerous government officials remarked in public during the early days of the revolt last spring.

At the same time, however, regime heavyweights reached enthusiastically for the stick. The calculus seemed to be that if the regime let a single town square go free anywhere in the country, it would crumble.

Since the beginning of 2012, the state of affairs across Syria has deteriorated further. In Qatana, a largely Sunni town 20 miles southwest of Damascus, tanks have returned to the streets. Locals must now do without electricity for 12 hours each day.

In Jdeidet Artouz, a religiously mixed town of Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites southwest of Damascus where I lived for 18 months, recent weeks have seen dozens of protesters become hundreds. They block street traffic using huge free-Syria flags. Yet the security forces drive by the demonstrations in cars adorned with symbols of the regime -- and do nothing.

I asked my local shopkeeper why the authorities are not breaking up the protests.

"Do you watch Tom and Jerry?" he replied. "Here it is the same; they are playing a game."

The waiting game is also being played in the capital. Damascenes watch footage from Homs, but do not act. A few -- those who have family and friends killed or tortured by the regime -- are taking to the streets in increasing numbers, but the majority remain silent.

"We are not used to this," Damascenes constantly told me. They see Homs and think that nothing is worth the same devastation visiting their own streets and homes.

Almost every week, friends and acquaintances disappear. Close friendships are consigned to the past because, when you're on the run from the security forces, you don't have money for phone credit.

Conversation dies after 11 months of unrest. "What can we talk about?" a state employee asked me. "The news? We'd rather talk about anything else." Many are not afraid to criticize the regime, but most are too frightened to take to the streets.

Syria's minorities are frozen in fear. Christians spend hours watching the television station run by Adnan al-Arour, a Salafi Syrian cleric based in Riyadh who broadcasts videos of rebels shouting Islamic slogans and issues threats to pro-Assad minorities while calling for the establishment of an Islamic government. "Who will protect us?" one Christian woman asked me recently. "Will they make us wear Islamic dress?"

Ultimately it was the scenes at Saqba in eastern Damascus that prompted me to leave. An English journalist in Syria on a temporary visa asked whether I was interested in visiting to search out an underground, activist-run hospital. Frustrated at hearing of other journalists making it to Homs, I could not turn down the opportunity.

I saw six bloated bodies hidden under pine trees inside a schoolyard, some missing eyes, lips, noses. Another dead man blackened by fire. They were hidden by locals so that their families could bury them in dignity at a later time, when the regime's forces left.

I feared that if the Syrian security forces found out what I had seen, they would not hesitate to silence me -- perhaps blaming the "armed gangs" for doing so.

As the sound of shells thudding into the Damascus suburbs kept me awake, I got a taste of many Syrians' fears of the regime's pervasive security forces. Every morning I held my breath when turning the ignition of my car. Footsteps on the stairs outside my door made me sit upright on the sofa.

The regime remains strong, say many.

State employees are still being paid on time each month. Police can still be seen at their traffic-light posts every morning. Families continue to turn out in droves to eat sandwiches at the few city malls where electric generators help maintain a semblance of normalcy.

Damascenes have lived with this regime for decades and know it only really understands the way of the gun. It is a regime that scoffs at political ideals, a family fiefdom forged long ago in an absurd tribal pride that values a misplaced honor and personal ego over all. It can smuggle and steal, and it is not afraid to shoot and kill --but it will not negotiate or compromise.

For many Syrians, the political opposition offers little. Flying the free-Syria flag off a bridge in the capital for five minutes will not hasten the end of the regime. Blocking roads by pouring diesel in front of cars, as happened recently in the capital's center, will not draw Damascus's silent majority -- those who bought Kias and Hyundais in 2009 -- to the side of the opposition.

Nor does the opposition's ever-escalating violence hold any prospect of bringing President Bashar al-Assad's regime to its knees. This month, members of the Free Syrian Army surrounded an army checkpoint outside Homs and tried to convince the troops to "defect and join" them. They failed -- and a strategy of trying to intimidate the Syrian army through superior firepower is bound to fail on a grander scale.

The soldiers and security officers bombarding Homs's restive neighborhoods and shooting up Daraa and Idlib won't lay down their weapons and run en masse to join the defectors anytime soon. They think that the regime is right and that they are locked in a struggle to the death with the gunmen. And they are fighting armed men, now.

The regime will spend hours of broadcasting time telling Syrians how the journalists who have been reporting from Homs -- and are now trapped there -- entered Syria illegally and are probably assisting the "terrorist gangs." And they will convince thousands.

Although perhaps inevitable, the militarization of the opposition has been the greatest disaster of the uprising. The regime has exploited this fact by granting visas for dozens of foreign journalists to make the case that the regime is, in fact, fighting armed gangs.

And support for those armed men is far from universal. "When the army sees men with guns, they will try kill them; they will shoot them down," a youth in Saqba told me this month. "I hate the Free Syrian Army. They are gone, and we are here with our smashed homes."

Bearing witness to a country falling apart is a sobering experience. Cars don't stop at traffic lights or for traffic police. Security officers manning checkpoints slip their hands into cars' glove compartments without asking. But when I speak to Syrians, the most troubling aspect -- though few appear to realize it -- are the growing divisions between them.

Christians complain how beggars take all their money back to the mosque. Most Damascenes, who as one observer eloquently noted "are waiting for a winner and then they will support them," don't give a damn about their fellow Syrians in Homs and Daraa.

But one thing is certain: The Assad regime will fall. Its policy of maintaining thousands of security minions at dozens of locations across the country is unsustainable. The cash it has hoarded and stolen will run out, and it will no longer be able to pay its gangsters and public-sector employees, leading to millions more hungry Syrians on the streets calling for change. At some point, probably within 18 months, army defections will reach a tipping point, and massive numbers of Sunni soldiers will run home or rush to defend besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro. Meanwhile, Christians and other minorities will refuse to pick up guns and shoot their fellow Syrians for Assad.

Syria's uprising, however, may not end with Assad's demise. Even after the dictatorship crumbles, there will be 22 million people who will have a hell of a lot of issues with one other -- and Assad will no longer be around to be blamed for the poor state of their lives. Responsibility for Syria will not come from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, or the local policeman -- it will have to come from each individual. Syrians will have to decide for themselves where they want their country to go.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Winning Ugly in Venezuela

How Hugo Chávez is painting his opponent as a gay, Zionist Nazi out to destroy the country. 

CARACAS — Hugo Chávez does not filter his words. The Venezuelan strongman made headlines when he called former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations, and when he claimed former Peruvian President Alan Garcia was a thief, an embarrassment, and a scoundrel. That trait has endeared him to many Venezuelans, who like their president's flamboyant, straight-talking ways. It could also prove to be his downfall in this year's presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 7.

In the two weeks since Chávez's opponent, state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, won the presidential primary on Feb. 12, Chávez, 57, has called him a pig, an American lackey, a bourgeois enemy of the revolution, and a mediocrity. Chávez has also been quick to warn the nation's poor that a Capriles victory would rob them of their gains under his tenure and lead to chaos, instability, and the possibility of coups and civil war.

The president's followers haven't been kinder. Venezuela's state television and radio personalities have insinuated that the unmarried Capriles, 39, is not only gay, but also part of both a Zionist conspiracy and a neo-Nazi sect.

Outlandish accusations and unfounded allegations are a fixture in Venezuela's political scene. What is different this time is Capriles's reaction. He has steadfastly laughed off the allegations made by Chávez and his surrogates, telling El Universal newspaper, "I'm not going to waste any energy on this when there are more important things to tackle." Pledging to run a campaign on issues, not personalities, he has never publically insulted Chávez.

And surprisingly -- unlike the first three presidential elections that Chávez easily won (1998, 2000, and 2006) -- Capriles, the popular governor of Miranda, Venezuela's second-most populous state, might actually win. "Chávez's strategists may have thought it would be good to move quickly in demeaning Capriles in order that the primary election was not used as a springboard for the opposition campaign," says Julia Buxton, a fellow at the University of Bradford in Britain. "But it is a reckless approach that may have the counter impact of presenting the opposition as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism."

Signs of a backlash have already emerged.

The Hinterlaces polling agency, one of the country's largest, showed Chávez at 55 percent, compared with the opposition's 44 percent in the week leading up to the primary. Flash polls taken after the primary showed a rapid narrowing of the gap.

"In the last presidential election, Chávez was untouchable, invulnerable," says Hinterlaces president Oscar Schemel. Not anymore. Since then, crime has soared. Power blackouts have increased in frequency, as have shortages of basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil, coffee, and corn meal. "Many Venezuelans are tired of government promises and its inability to address the country's problems," says Schemel.

The presidential primary -- the first of its kind in Venezuela -- galvanized the opposition, which has been buoyed by the turnout and the rapid closing of ranks among Capriles and his competitors. Prior to the Feb. 12 vote, Venezuela's presidential candidates were chosen by the party elites, often behind closed doors. This year, the country's opposition parties decided to hold a winner-take-all primary to determine their candidate.

In the run up to the primary, Chávez and his ministers repeatedly said the opposition would be lucky to draw more than 1 million voters. Instead, more than 3 million people (out of a total electorate of 18 million) voted for the opposition's presidential, gubernatorial, and mayoral candidates, surprising the government and leaving its followers grappling for an explanation.

The state television station, which had run misleading footage of empty polling precincts throughout the day, delayed announcing the results of the election. And when they did, moderators immediately charged that the turnout was exaggerated and mathematically impossible to achieve.

The higher-than-expected turnout also occurred despite government efforts to dampen participation. In the days before the primary, the government held special markets throughout the country selling hard-to-find products -- cooking oil, powdered milk, chicken -- at subsidized prices to the country's poor. Holders of government jobs were warned not to vote in the primary unless they wanted to lose their positions. The same message was passed to people enrolling in several new government programs for housing, old-age pensioners, and single mothers.

"I wanted to vote in the primary, but when I interviewed for a job at a state school, the principal told me that if I voted there was no way she could hire me," Alicia Reyes, a 39-year-old secretary, told me. "I need the job and decided not to vote. I will have to wait until October to vote against Chávez."

Many Venezuelans also feared that voting in the primary would form the basis for a new blacklist. Their fears aren't exaggerated. In 2003-2004, signers of a petition to recall Chávez found themselves penalized after their names were leaked to a pro-Chávez legislator, Luis Tascon. Tascon published the list, and hundreds, if not thousands, of signers lost their government jobs.

Even worse, Tascon's original list is still used by government agencies to vet potential employees eight years later. "I was told by my boss to hire an assistant," says an employee in the administrative department at the Supreme Court, who asked to remain anonymous. "I had someone in mind and I told my supervisor. She told me to go to her desk and pull out a diskette and see if my friend's name was on it. It was Tascon's list. His name was there. My supervisor told me to forget him, as there was no way we could hire him."

Besides challenging the veracity of the turnout figure, Chávez and his government have also publicly castigated the country's election agency for its handling of the primary. The agency, which is run by Chávez supporters, agreed to an opposition request to forego the use of fingerprint verification devices during the vote.

The agency also allowed the Coalition for Democratic Unity, which organized the vote, to burn its voter registration books two days after the primary to ensure that participants wouldn't be penalized for voting in the primary. Their destruction occurred in spite of the firmly pro-Chávez Supreme Court's edict ordering the books to be saved. "The government's bumbling response to the primary has hurt them," Schemel says. "Rather than proclaim the primary as a victory for the country's democracy, officials have attacked and ridiculed it, which has moved undecided voters to Capriles."

The question is why Chávez -- a master politician adept at manipulating the opposition -- has been outflanked by his opponents. "Crime, inflation, and shortages are cited as key weaknesses for Chávez going into this election," says Buxton.  "But the most significant impediment that he faces between now and victory in October is his health. And that remains an unknown."

The president had a cancerous tumor removed in July and underwent chemotherapy. Although he claimed to be cancer free after his treatment, he announced Tuesday that a small lesion had been found near his original tumor and that he would undergo additional surgery in Cuba. Chávez denied that his cancer had metastasized but said he would spend several weeks in Cuba, where he would also undergo radiation therapy.

The president has repeatedly refused to give more details about his cancer or his long-term prognosis, amid speculation that the disease could force him to withdraw from the race. Chávez seems to need to appear healthy and macho, and his name-calling struck some as overcompensating. His face remains bloated and swollen, and he sometimes seems less in command than he was before his illness.

That plays into Capriles's hands. An avid sportsman, Capriles radiates health and youth. And in appearance-obsessed Venezuela, that gives him an undeniable advantage, especially if Chávez's health worsens.

But Chávez is far from out. In the days after the primary vote, Chávez gave a number of speeches that by law must be carried by all of the country's radio and television stations. He can draw on the resources of the state to distribute largesse to the country's poor, who remain strongly pro-Chávez and who make up the bulk of voters. He can also pressure the electoral agency to rule against opposition campaign tactics or literature.

Chávez has said he will step down if he loses, but few believe him, and the armed forces have warned they will not accept an opposition victory. Things could get messy. But Chávez's resort to a smear campaign, and Capriles's handling of the attacks, have given the country's opposition hope that the president's Bolivarian Revolution may finally be running its course.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images