PAPHOS, Cyprus – In Jdaydieh Artouz, a town 11 miles southwest of Damascus that is home to a mix of Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites, protests have been taking place almost daily for well over a year. Yet the security forces, centered at a police station a few hundred yards up the street from where the protesters regularly gather, have largely ignored them. One wet, cold January night while out to pick up some sharwama sandwiches, I watched cars with Bashar al-Assad's face emblazoned across the rear window pass within inches of the indomitable demonstrators. Neither side appeared perturbed. With the exception of isolated incidents in which several protesters were killed, the town remained peaceful throughout the uprising -- that is until Thursday, July 19, when rebel fighters fired RPGs at the police station, killing five officers.
Living in this town for the first 11 months of the uprising, I tried, and failed, to get articles published questioning why the regime tolerated protests or allowed free assembly in some areas, but not others. These incidents didn't fit the narrative that all protests were being violently quashed. The majority, of course, were -- and often brutally -- but the full picture was unnervingly complex.
Yet because anti-regime activists succeeded where I did not, the story of Jdaydieh Artouz has been distorted, almost beyond recognition. Hundreds of videos uploaded to YouTube present the outside world with the idea that the town was in open rebellion, that it was united in its opposition to the Syrian government.
But ask the Christian, Shiite, and Druze families whom I lived among in Jdaydieh if they support the revolution, and the vast majority will answer, in private, that they do not. Today, Christians fear that their churches will be tightly controlled by what would likely be a conservative Sunni government, should the rebellion succeed. They wonder if women will be told how to dress.
In Jdaydieh, as in many other towns and villages around Syria, beer, vodka, and spirits can be bought on street-corner kiosks day or night; Christians can openly mark their religious feasts by marching up and down central city streets. They value the liberties associated with -- and, in their words, "allowed by" -- Assad's rule. Broadly, they are not part of this revolt.
But it is not only minorities who fear change. The new middle class of Syrians who hold banking jobs, drive $15,000 cars, and are raising young families feels threatened by the revolt. Many in this group of nouveau riche clearly fear losing the privileges they have gained and enjoyed during Assad's reign. Peace and prosperity, for them, is a Syria before March 2011.
The difficulties of reporting in Syria -- particularly in the areas outside Damascus -- are obvious. Many noted reporters paid the ultimate price. (Following an assignment last February to an area in eastern Damascus that had seen clashes between rebels and the Syrian army, I chose to leave the country. I had reported the shocking scenes I witnessed there and was growing paranoid that I might suffer the consequences of my trip.)
While living in Syria, I never risked traveling to Homs or Daraa, two of the cities hit hardest by Assad's forces, for fear of being deported -- the fate of many other journalists covering the conflict. As a result, much of Syria remained a black hole for me. I could hear the sound of shells landing in the farmlands around my apartment, but their dull thud carried with them little information about what was happening outside the city.