Report from Damascus: Susan Ormiston in Syria

Susan Ormiston is reporting from Damascus, where few international journalists are allowed to operate. In this dispatch, she reflects on how the civil war has forced some Syrians to seek refuge in neighbouring Lebanon.
CBC correspondent Susan Ormiston is one of the few international journalists allowed to operate in Syria, where an uprising has been underway since March 2011. (CBC)

Susan Ormiston is reporting for CBC News from Damascus, Syria, where very few international journalists are allowed to operate. In this dispatch, she reflects on how the civil war has forced some Syrians to seek refuge in neighbouring Lebanon.

It’s three years since I’ve been in the Syrian capital. Damascus is busy and crowded, but underneath the surface, there is tension and deep cracks. In the central souq, or market area, there are almost no tourists and few foreigners. I ask a shop owner selling brass jugs: "How fast is the economy deteriorating?"

"What do you think?" he says incredulously. "It is bad, we can only hope it will return."

Shortages of diesel fuel and electricity, as well as the devaluation of the Syrian pound, are happening as quickly as the growing insecurity.

We started our journey to Damascus in Beirut, which is three hours over the mountains in Lebanon. There, we met a Syrian woman living in Beirut, as so many are now. She fears deeply for her family back in Syria, and wouldn’t join us in her homeland because she deemed it too risky. She warned us to mind where we film, because the Syrian army will shoot first, ask who we are second.

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(We may not have much leeway, as the Information Ministry tracked us as soon as we drove across the Syrian border.)

She told us that once we’re within two kilometres of Damascus, we’ll see that "it is a war zone." Protests happen nightly. In some suburbs, the military control the neighbourhoods by day, while vigilantes rule after dark.

Later, we met a Syrian man who had also fled to Lebanon. The secret police have already questioned his brother back in Syria as to his whereabouts.

"What’s going to happen?" I ask.

He pauses for a long time — minutes — silently deciding whether he can trust me with the truth, his truth. He begins slowly.

"The problem is the regime cannot budge a little bit," he says. "They are convinced if they give even a little, they are finished. What they don’t understand is they are finished."

"Did you ever think, back in the spring, that it would get this bad?" I ask.

"No," he says, shaking his head soberly. "We thought it would take weeks, maybe a couple of months, and then it would be over."

"How will it end?"

"It’s complicated. Day by day, it is more obvious the international community will not intervene. There are strong messages from the Arabs, from the U.S., from India, that there will be no outside military intervention. But many in the Syrian National Council, a collective of opposition figures, still believe the West will intervene. With the support of Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad believes he cannot fail. A while back, the revolutionaries said they had no more fear, to which Assad responded, ‘I have no more fear, either.’"

In his speech on Tuesday, the Syrian president confirmed he will not step down, that the will of the people is with him and that the opposition will be crushed with an "iron fist." Anyone on the fence, he suggests, is a traitor.

Currently, the external political strategy is to isolate Syria. But for many Syrians, isolation will lead to more deaths, and nothing in Assad’s speech indicates the crackdown strategy is changing.

The Syrian government firmly believes that the growing armed insurrection is the work of outside interests meddling to destabilize the country. He calls them terrorists.

What seems clear is that more weapons now in Syria are in the hands of those who oppose the government, but still, they are comparatively small in number to the Syrian army and police apparatus, which appears to be loyal to the president. It is a dangerous stalemate.