I was invited by a Syrian friend of mine to a dinner at his home in the capital, Damascus, in July, as the disruption in the lives of residents following an offensive against the city by dissidents and rebels was subsiding.
There were 10 people, including his friends and relatives. We were enjoying the dinner and each other's company, chatting noisily, but before long, an argument erupted.
The issue was, as a matter of course, whether to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“That vicious regime should be brought down any day now,” shouted a woman in her 20s whose father, a pro-democracy activist, had been detained for years. “How many people will they kill before they are satisfied?”
“How can you say that?” an old woman, the head of my friend’s family, countered, raising her arms.
A man sitting next to me then asked me, “What do you think as a Japanese?”
All eyes were on me.
A problem for Syria is that the people are split widely over the regime even at this time, when the civil war has intensified. That differs from the situations in Tunisia and Egypt, where a great majority of the people united to overthrow the regime.
It is difficult in Syria, a country where secret police surveillance is everywhere, to know what people really think. But I feel that many citizens acknowledge there is a serious problem in the government, which permits rampant corruption and allows only some groups with ties to it to thrive.
I also feel that many people believe the turmoil will spiral out of control and spread in the country if the government falls.
I think the people have formed that belief because they have already seen examples of such turmoil in neighboring countries.
Lebanon, to the west, has a similar social structure to that of Syria, with many religious sects. Due mainly to a power imbalance among sects and interference by other nations, Lebanon plunged into a 15-year civil war in 1975, and is far from stable even now.
Iraq, to the east, is like a mirror image of Syria.
The regime of President Saddam Hussein, like the Syrian government, advocated a mix of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism as well as secularism. The Baath Party was the ruling party in Iraq, also like in Syria. The minority Sunnis held power in Iraq and repressed the majority Shiites.
In Syria, Assad and military leaders belong to the minority Alawis, an Islamic sect, and the core of the rebels is occupied by the majority Sunnis.
The collapse of the Hussein regime, brought about by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003, unleashed fierce religious conflict and violence, sending the country into turmoil.
Although the Iraqis have obtained free elections, they were forced to pay an enormous price in blood. And even with their country holding the world’s major oil reserves, many people still struggle to eke out a living nearly a decade after Hussein’s fall.
So even if the Assad government is toppled, there is no guarantee that the country will regain stability anytime soon and move toward democracy and reconstruction.
The latest example is Libya. After four decades of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship, the country has lost its social order, letting arms and violence run rampant. Libyans, who recently went to the polls to choose parliamentary members for the first time, are taking steps to rebuild their country, but a tough road lies ahead for them.
Back in Syria, dissidents still fail to resolve a fundamental issue--unifying their stances toward the Assad government.
The Syrian National Council--a Turkey-based organization that is seen as the core body among rebel groups opposing Assad--has been categorically rejecting negotiations with the government. The council aims at bringing it down with military help and other interventions by the international community. The Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group, takes the same stance.
On the other hand, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, mainly formed by dissident groups and rights activists within Syria, does not necessarily rule out negotiations. And some groups oppose the use of violence.
During a meeting of opposition groups held at a Cairo hotel on July 3 under the auspices of the Arab League, differences of opinion escalated into a scuffle among the groups. They failed to reach any meaningful consensus.
After the meeting broke down, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who had been supporting the opposition groups, remained in the hotel’s lobby. He was trying to persuade the participants to unite so as not to miss the chance to topple the government.
With disarray among opposition groups, they have yet to put forward a vision for what will follow after overthrowing the Assad regime. I think the lack of a future plan is making many citizens who believe in the need for change hesitate to take action. Few anti-government protests have been taking place in the central part of Damascus.
There are reports that oil-producing Gulf nations and others have already provided arms and funds to rebel groups, with the United States acting as a coordinator. I have no doubts about the existence of military assistance, given the recent offensive by rebels.
And there are also reports of the sighting of foreign fighters in Damascus believed to be Islamic extremists, along with dissidents.
“I was shocked to see foreign Islamic militants in Qaboun,” said an opposition activist who is a native of Damascus’ Qaboun district, where fierce fighting occurred around July 20.
“Why do we have to bring down the regime with the help of such forces, causing the destruction of our town?” said the activist, who opposes violence. “If the regime falls, the extremists will demand our country be a strict Islamic nation. Compared with that, I think the Assad regime would be rather better. I want a democracy, not an al-Qaida.”
The situation in Syria is approaching the end game in terms of fighting. Without international action, the civil war will last until either side falls--probably until the Assad government collapses.
Still, I don't see an end to the war yet and have no idea how many lives it will eventually claim.
One thing I can say is that even if the government is struck down by military power, that is not good news. We should anticipate that the end of the war will usher in a severe struggle over who will seize power, causing further turmoil that will last until a certain level of order is achieved.
The Arab Spring started with the Jasmine Revolution initiated by young Tunisians and reached its climax with the overthrow of the administration of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. This chain of events will be recorded in history as a major development.
However, a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain was brutally crushed, as the United States refused to back it, since it supports the country's royal family. In Libya, the uprising ended tragically, with the killing of Gaddafi, who was seen as a "comedy actor" by the international community. And Syria is mired in bloodshed this summer.
Back to the conversation during the dinner, I offered my answer:
“I never support the Assad administration. There is no excuse for killing nearly 20,000 of its citizens to maintain its power. Meanwhile, I don’t believe it’s the right thing to take up arms, bring in foreigners or look to military assistance, to overthrow the regime. The roots for future trouble will remain. I think a cease-fire should be reached while United Nations observers remain in the country, and opposition groups should then launch an unarmed, nonobedience movement.”
“That’s naive,” someone replied.
“That’s right,” another said.
Their reactions were split.
Though I have no perfect solution, I sincerely hope for as little bloodshed in this war as possible.
I left Damascus the following day.
Immediately after my airplane took off, I felt as if a weight I had been carrying on my shoulders in the city had been lifted.
I recalled a friend in Damascus muttering, “Ah, when will we resume normal, stress-free lives?”
I have a place to run away to while they have no such place. Thinking of that, I felt a pain in my chest.
I hadn't felt that kind of pain upon departing since I had to leave the Baghdad Bureau in the fall of 2004 due to worsening security conditions and the abductions of Japanese in the country, leaving the local staff behind.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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