DAMASCUS, Syria — The eyes of the world are on Syria's outlying towns and villages, where the rebels are organizing and where the bodies are piling up. As the U.N. Security Council prepares to meet to discuss the crisis, U.N. monitors are rushing to the town of Mazraat al-Qubeir to investigate claims that at least 78 civilians were killed in cold blood by President Bashar al-Assad's militiamen. If true, the attack would be a grim echo to the gruesome massacre in the town of Houla last month.
But as Syria's periphery descends into chaos, observers may be missing a more subtle deterioration of Assad's authority at the center of his regime. The Syrian capital of Damascus, whose commercial center has been seen as immune from the nationwide unrest, is increasingly turning on the Assad regime -- and widening unrest in the heart of the city now appears to be only a matter of time.
An important moment came last week, when security forces opened fire in the center of Damascus to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators at the end of Hamra Street, located just a few hundred meters away from parliament. Within minutes of the demonstrators gathering, security forces rushed onto the scene, firing into the air to scatter the protesters. The crackdown was notable because it marked an escalation of force by Syrian security services, which had hitherto largely restricted themselves to using batons against demonstrators within the heart of the city.
For 15 months, central Damascus has appeared a bastion of regime support in a sea of unrest. The lack of meaningful protests and violence, the busy cafes and bustling restaurants, and the sight of people apparently continuing their daily lives unaffected by the turmoil have played into the regime's narrative of enduring stability. In contrast to the capital's impoverished suburbs -- home to those most affected by state corruption, brutality, and mismanaged economic liberalization -- those living in the center profited from the last decade of Assad's rule, and did not turn on the regime in great numbers. This section of the population has been emblematic of the so-called "silent majority" -- the middle class that has seemingly sided with the regime out of a desire to maintain its privileged economic position and also out of fear of the violence and chaos that could follow the fall of Assad.
However, according to conversations with old acquaintances, businessmen, shopkeepers, middle-class professionals, and taxi drivers in the capital, the mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. "Don't be fooled by the cafes and restaurants," an old friend, a businessman who once enthusiastically poured forth about the new possibilities opened up in the country under Assad, told me. He spoke of a city deeply on edge and increasingly hostile to the regime.
Another well-off, middle-class man launched into a tirade over the regime's incompetence and its willingness to push the country to civil war for the sake of preserving power. Syrians with the means to do so -- even including many who had previously made commitments to seeing the conflict through from within the country -- are now making plans to leave, and an exodus of middle-class professionals is expected come the end of the school year.
This hollowing-out of regime support in the capital, which is increasingly visible to visitors and residents alike, suggests the potential dawn of a new phase in Syria's long struggle. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike over recent days -- locking their stores shut or sitting outside and refusing to do business in response to the Houla killings -- marked an important escalation of local defiance. Previous calls for strikes, by contrast, had withered out unsuccessfully.
To be sure, many continue to back the regime within the capital, particularly some minorities who fear, as one Alawite told me, being driven out of Damascus. To many in this group, there is a clear solution to Syria's crisis: The Assad regime should be striking back with even more force to overcome foreign-backed "terrorists."