DAMASCUS (Reuters) - During a recent meeting of Damascene merchants, talk turned to the case of a colleague detained by Syria’s powerful and dreaded state security apparatus.
The man in question, it seemed, had overheard someone cursing President Bashar al-Assad, but failed to turn them in.
“Imagine that! They took him and beat him to a pulp and called him a mute devil for not reporting his colleague,” one merchant said. “Imagine the life we’re living now!”
While it is hard to verify the specific case, the discussion demonstrates the climate of fear and intimidation prevalent in the capital three years after the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule broke out.
For some time after the uprising erupted in the southern city of Deraa on March 18, 2011, it looked like the revolt would shatter the barriers of fear that long defined the relationship between Syria’s police state and its citizens.
Nowadays in government-controlled areas of Damascus that is far from the case. Armed men outnumber civilians on some corners, barricades prevent people from entering some streets and military hardware sits conspicuously between trees.
The situation is particularly uneasy for those who oppose the government, a sizable but silent portion of the city, who say their constant fear of the police state is a flashback to some of the worst years Syrians endured before the war.
People continue to disappear into state detention centers. If they are released, they speak of torture and humiliation, sending ripples of fear through their community.
Among the merchants, almost everyone believes openly opposing the government carries great risks, including torture, death, or “inviting attention to the business”.
One affluent merchant said he held out as long as he could against painting the shutters of his shop the colors of the Syrian flag - a show of support for the government increasingly common in recent months - but he eventually had to give in.
“Was I going to be the odd one out? They (state security) probably would have ignored me, but they would have sent the tax department or some other authority to find some violation to shut me down. No thanks,” he said.
Violent crime in the capital is rare, but the city teems with armed men both in and out of uniform who often work long shifts for low pay.
With few provisions from the government, the men instead supply themselves from nearby grocers who would not dare demand full payment. The men stop taxis and name their own prices; the drivers do not protest.
In some cases, gunmen have posed as state security agents, demanded entry into private homes and burgled them. Police are too afraid to pry into a crime that might involve the intelligence apparatus, and the incidents go uninvestigated.
At petrol stations, a “security ID” issued for military, state security or other official business will get you to the front of the line, as well as into a specially reserved “military lane” at the checkpoints that have proliferated throughout the city.
The IDs - and their counterfeits - have become so popular that the cars in the military lanes now sometimes outnumber those in the regular queue. “Everyone in this country is somebody,” one driver remarked.
But for many Damascenes the most difficult aspect is the sense that very little of this will change anytime soon. One middle-aged woman who supported the uprising echoed many when she voiced her resignation.
“Assad is staying and he’s stronger than us and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.
Editing by Alexander Dziadosz and Angus MacSwan