Friday protests in the Akramiye neighborhood in Aleppo, once thought to be an Assad stronghold
Editor's Note: This is the first of a multi-part series by James Miller assessing the situation in Syria. Later analyses will consider defections, the economy, bombings and "terrorism", and the prospects for ending the crisis, including foreign intervention.
With Arab League observers in Syria, the Ministry of Information sponsoring a trip for Western journalists (which led to the death of France reporter Gilles Jacquier), and with the reporting of eyewitnesses and activists, the world has its sharpest look into the crisis in Syria. But what does it see, 10 months into the crisis?
Initially, the protests in Syria were fairly large, and reports of violence were far less. It was unclear whether the violencat against the protesters was the work of local leaders of security forces, individual police officers, or a systemic approach by the regime to deter dissent.
As the violence escalated, the third answer was the right one, but what was remarkable was that the protests continued. In Libya, crowds of demonstrators --- at least in the west of the country, and especially in the capital Tripoli --- shrank considerably amidst the gunfire and repression. In Syria, even in Damascus, there is a dual process -- some elements of the opposition are militarising, while the rest defy the violence and continue to protest.
The movement has grown since last March. The massive protests of tens, or even hundreds, of thousands gathered in a single place are now rare, but they have been replaced with a plethora of smaller rallies. These are often spontaneous, spreading through word of mouth (often electronic word of mouth) in the days or hours before they begin.
The protests are not only large in number, but are also geographically diverse. Every region has seen some marches and demonstrations.
Nowhere is the growth more important than in, and around, the cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Aleppo, a middle-class city with a smaller Sunni population, has long been thought to be a stronghold of Assad support. Anti-regime protests, for the first 7-8 months of the conflict, were rare in Syria's second city, and when they arose, they were quickly dispersed by the massive security presence.
From the autumn, we began seeing demonstrations in the streets of Aleppo, some in central locations. However, beyond rallies at the University of Aleppo, none of the gatherings were significatly large.
Until now. Crowds of several hundred have been reported in the last month. Some of the video, as at the top of this entry, is impressive.
We are not certain why we are seeing this. The most likely scenario is that many of these protesters have always had an affinity for the opposition, but are just now raising their voices on the streets. As the crowds increase, and grow more defiant, they may encourage more people who have become disenchanted with the Assad regime to join and break the stigma of protest.
And Damascus is another story. Aleppo is still a stronghold of regime support, even if this may be eroding, but there are signs of vulnerability for the regime in the capital. Many of the areas around the capital are now centres for dissent.
Irbeen in the Damascus suburbs on Sunday night:
With major neighbourhoods inside Damascus seeing regular protests, and the ring around Damascus hosting them on a daily basis, the assessment that the capital is an Assad stronghold is no longer accurate, even if it is a good distance from the state of the uprising in places like Homs, Hama, and Idlib.
The peaceful protests across the country are the backdrop to all other developments, be they insurgency, sectarian strife, defections, or international intervention. The protest movement --- open to all, focused on unity, and defiant --- remains separate from the militarisation of the conflict.
So far, Assad has been able to match the militarized wing of the uprising, but he is losing ground, every day, to the peaceful protest movement that is eroding his support, both in Syria and beyond. At the end of the day, the voice of the Syrian people --- growing louder, larger, and more diverse --- is the greatest threat to the Assad regime.