CBSN

No revolution in Syria's 2 biggest cities, yet

Thousands of pro-regime Syrians wave their national flag and portraits of President Bashar Assad during a rally in Damascus, July 17, 2011.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Assad rally in Damascus
Thousands of pro-regime Syrians wave their national flag and portraits of President Bashar Assad during a rally in Damascus, July 17, 2011.
Getty

Five months of anti-government demonstrations across Syria have left some 2,000 people dead and left President Bashar Assad increasingly isolated, but still he appears to have significant backing in his own nation's two largest, richest and most secular cities.

Assad still enjoys huge support in Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo - and that fact is crucial for the regime's survival, but some now say the effects of the ongoing unrest may soon test loyalty to the regime, even in those vital locations.

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Both cities - together home to more than 50 percent of the Syrian population - have seen some protest rallies, but never has the line been crossed into outright revolt, as in smaller cities around Syria.

In the capital and in Aleppo, a northern city which is Syria's economic engine, thousands of Assad's supporters, their faces painted the colors of the Syrian flag, joined processions Wednesday night along major roads, waving flags and portraits of the president from their car windows.

At huge government-organized concerts in the same cities, families in T-shirts emblazoned with Assad's image chanted "Our blood, our souls, we'll die for you, Bashar!"

Last week, only a few days before black smoke left a pall over the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, capital of an oil-producing province on the border with Iraq, there was a cultural festival in Aleppo featuring a 3,600-foot-long Syrian flag wrapped around its ancient citadel.

Residents of both cities still gather every night on the sidewalks and in the medians for picnics. In the Salhieh market in the heart of the capital, crowds peruse the wares of vendors hocking hookah pipes, popcorn, sandwiches and coffee. Such street vendors were once banned and chased off by police.

Traffic moves slowly. People park cars by the sidewalk and open doors and windows to let music stream out to entertain the jovial crowds. Life appears to go on as if the revolt were in another country.

Syrian authorities say more than 500 security personnel have been killed by "armed groups," but the government has not provided figures for civilian casualties.

Various efforts to plot a political course out of the crisis have amounted to nothing, with Assad's surrogates insisting appropriate reforms are underway and that, as a result, there is no need for anyone to protest. Those taking to the streets are labeled rioters or foreign-backed saboteurs intent on destabilizing the country.

Elsewhere, it's a war zone.

Army units backed by tanks pushed further Wednesday into Deir Al-Zour, in the eastern Syrian deserts, and entered the town of Binnish close to the Turkish border.

Assad himself sent mixed messages on Wednesday, admitting to envoys from India, Brazil and South Africa that "some mistakes had been made by the security forces in the initial stages of the unrest." He reassured the delegations that democratic reform was coming. Video at left: Syria regime increasingly isolated

But he then shrugged off the violence by vowing to continue his relentless fight against "terrorists" in Syria following a meeting with Turkey's foreign minister.

"Developments in the coming days will be critical, for both Syria and Turkey," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters Wednesday in Ankara after his visit to Damascus.

"Turkey's main and first aim is for the bloodshed to be stopped, and (for) an end to civilian deaths," Davutoglu said.

Some observers say the reluctance to revolt in Damascus and Aleppo may be due in part to their economic revival - many of the country's factories, textile plants and pharmaceutical companies are in the two cities.

"Simply put, as far as the businessmen were concerned, all that (unrest) meant was financial losses," explains Sami Moubayed, a political analyst in Damascus. "That mentality still prevails in the old bazaars of Damascus, Aleppo and in the new posh and trendy corporate culture that has mushroomed around banks, insurance companies, advertising and media firms all over the Syrian capital."

Activists argue that many loyalists are simply those who have benefited from the corruption of the Assad regime, or whose businesses are suffering the economic impact of the unrest.

But the reasons for a lack of revolution in Damascus and Aleppo extend beyond just economics.

There is an overwhelming presence of security agents and spies in the two cities. Assad's government is keen to prevent any semblance of what happened in Hama, a city where a brutal security crackdown launched on the first day of Ramadan has left unknown numbers dead.

Furthermore, many religious leaders in the two cities are followers of the country's Sunni Muslim grand mufti, Ahmed Hassoun, who has adhered to the government line on the uprising, accusing opposition activists of "mischief."

Earlier this week, a group of senior Muslim clerics in Aleppo issued a statement urging the government to put an end to the riots as soon as possible.

Residents of Damascus and Aleppo may also be hoping for a quick resolution under Assad's rule out of fear that anything else could lead to the civil war-like strife left behind by domestic feuding in Iraq and now Libya.

"Aleppo paid a terrible price for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of 1982, and sees how the state is retaliating in other cities today, like Hama and Deir Al-Zour. It does not want to suffer a similar fate," a professor at one Damascus university told CBS News. He asked not to be identified.

There are also sectarian factors. The vast majority of Syria's population of 23 million is Sunni Muslim. But Assad's family, which has ruled Syria for decades, along with most of his government, is of the minority Alawite tribe.

To the nation's Alawites, as well as other minority groups including Druze and Christians, the current government is seen as a protector, and fears of a Sunni takeover are rife.

Relations in Damascus and Aleppo are based on urban ties, rather than tribal ones as is the case in the southern province of Deraa, Deir Al-Zour in the east, and to a lesser effect in Idleb in the northeast. In these primarily rural areas, tribes and clans play a certain role in encouraging the protests.

But for one key reason, the deafening silence in the two big cities may not last much longer, suggests Moubayed.

"The moment rising unemployment kicks in, young people will take to the streets in both Damascus and Aleppo, regardless of what city elders tell them. Many young people are already jobless since March, and if the stalemate continues, they could start finding themselves penniless as well," he says.

Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, agrees.

"I think the economic situation is deteriorating very sharply," he tells CBS News. "The next few weeks are very, very critical. If the economic situation deteriorates further, then the silent majority will throw its lot with the protesters and that's why now it's all-out war. The next few weeks in particular, during Ramadan, are really critical for both the opposition and the Syrian regime."