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Damascus Street Notes

by FRANKLIN LAMB

“Who does that obnoxious woman think she is?” demanded a staffer who works in the Russian Embassy media office inside the vast windowless soviet style massive high walled compound which belongs to his country, here in Damascus.

“Viktor” had been invited to our table, for lunch at the “Lady of Damascus” (“sitt a cham”) restaurant in the middle class neighborhood of Shalan, having been spotted by our charming host, a Sheik and MP in Syria’s Parliament. The well-spoken gentleman was furious, after putting down his mobile phone having apparently heard some rather upsetting news.  What ignited Viktor were the recent statements of the US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland and her seemingly anti-Russian statements lecturing and insulting Syria’s ally, which Victor considered a bald effort to misinterpret the recent statement of Russia’s Middle East envoy, Mikhail Bodganov.  Badganov, on 12/13/12 had stated, in response to a question, “One must look the facts in the face… unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.” Bogdanov also noted that the Syrian government was “losing control of more and more territory.”

Viktor explained that what has galled the Russian and his embassy colleagues here about Nuland, known for her pro-Zionist,  anti-Syrian, Russian, Arab and Muslim views, was her arrogant language: “We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered.”

According to Viktor, “Bodganov said nothing really new.  And we will issue a clarification of this very soon.”  He continued, “Everyone knows that theoretically the foreign-backed rebels could win. This is not new and is always a possibility during an uprising.  But Mrs. Nuland surely knows that the Syrian government has purposely pulled back from some rural areas where there is mainly open space in order to concentrate its forces to protect population centers.  This is very basic military strategy and has been employed throughout history. In the English language I think it’s called something like a “strategic retreat or tactical redeployment. It is reprehensible for western and Gulf media to use our Middle East envoys statement as a form of psychological warfare while deceiving the media.”  He added, “Of course we have contingency plans for an evacuation of our citizens if necessary. This is quite normal and we and other countries have such plans for Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf countries and Palestine, among others. Russia has not lessened its support for Syria and to think otherwise is yet another in the series on many miscalculations from Washington.”

Sure enough, within hours, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, a friend of Viktor’s issued a statement: “We would like to remark that he (Bogdanov) has made no statements or special interviews with journalists in the last days. We once again confirm the principled Russian position about the lack of any alternative to a political solution in Syria.”

After venting on Nuland, Victor and others at our table were totally dismissive of the statement of the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told reporters in Brussels after a meeting with the Dutch prime minister at NATO headquarters.  “I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse,” he told reporters after a meeting with the Dutch prime minister at NATO headquarters. “I think now it is only a question of time.”

The Syrian MP explained that Rasmussen has no credibility at all after all the lies he spoke concerning NATO in Libya and how NATO’s more than 9,000 bombing missions “protected the civilian population” whereas in truth, everyone there at the time (including this observer) knew very well that the main threat to Libya’s population, starting in March 2011 and continuing until mid-October was from NATO. From Sorman to Sabna NATO forces rained indiscriminate death on the civilian population of Libya and according to Russian President, due to meet with Obama in February, has condemned the US and NATO for deceiving Russia and the international community regarding its true aims.  Viktor told us that his country fears the same deception is afoot in Syria.

Damascenes are tense, sullen, but not panicked following the recent events and what many consider terrorist acts by so-called “rebels.”

According to students I very much enjoy meeting with from Universities and Colleges here, their President, Bashar Assad, still has the support of a majority of the population.  Many, as does the Assad government, accept, in principal, the April 2012 Geneva Proposals. That initiative, proposes a transitional government resulting from dialogue leading up the 2014 election which would be open to all candidates.  They favor letting the Syrian people choose at the ballot box the next president whoever that may be.

It is evident here in Damascus that the main worry of the population is the manifold effects of the generally viewed illegal and immoral US led sanctions. On a another subject,  “Tamara, a university student explained that the target of students and intimidation by rebel backers of students and faculty plus the kidnappings, taking of houses and cars by these same elements are affecting education here although almost all the schools and universities are still functioning.

This observer had the help of a small group of Damascus University students in conducting a survey of the effects of the US led sanctions regime on the civilian population. Virtually every person who expressed a view on this subject told this observer that the only purpose of the American sanctions is regime change by way of trying to force the population to suffer to such an extent that the long lines for bread etc. turn violent and break the bond between the Bashar Assad government and the civilian population. People here commonly refer to the US led sanctions against Iran as also being about regime change and not because Washington believes it can force Iran to abandon its perfectly legal nuclear development program.

The results of a student led survey of grocery stores in Damascus, completed on 12/12/12, shows the following increases in food prices that citizens here must pay against the backdrop of current unemployment figures currently estimated by economists as being between 40-60 percent of the population.

Damascus Student survey: Price rises for food items between May 2011 and December 2012

(Official exchange rate is currently 80 Syrian pounds for one US dollar)

Lamb—500 Syrian pounds to this week’s price of 750 sp, Chicken—200 sp to 450 sp, Milk—per liter….from 40 to 95 sp, Rice—from 40 sp to 100 sp, Eggs—160-300 sp for a carton of 30 medium sized eggs, Cooking oil—30 per liter to 60, Sugar—40 sp per kilo to 85 sp, Bread—20 sp for 10 loaves of flat bread to 55 currently in Damascus  but 220 s.p. in Aleppo where, as in Homs, Hama and the east, a massive humanitarian crises in rapidly spreading.

Russia has promised wheat for this basic staple in Syria.  But time is of the essence. In many areas of Syria most in need, basic food stuff supplying NGO’s are absent.

Bottled cooking gas– 500 sp now up to 1000 sp, is also becoming more difficult to find in several Damascus neighborhoods.

Heating oil which was 100 sp per liter is now on average 250 sp but becoming quite scarce.  Even some of the five star hotels here in Damascus, due to a severe shortage of “mazot” fuel oil, are cutting off the heat and hot water to rooms except for periods between 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 8-10 p.m. Russia has reportedly promised a tanker of fuel oil but it will be dangerous to transport it by road to the population centers here because, according to students working as volunteers with the Syrian Arab Republic Red Crescent Society and other humanitarian organizations,   rebel forces are increasing stealing or destroying aid convoys and rampaging the countryside.

Students here in Damascus intend to publish a more detailed list of consumer goods every two weeks. Yesterday some picketed the empty American embassy in protest against US led sanctions.  “The Syrian people will never forget or forgive the American campaign to starve us into submission”, one sign read.

It appears to this observer that, rather as is the case with Iran, the illegal and immoral US led sanctions, which urgently need to be challenged at The Hague, imposed on the civilian population of Syria is having the opposite effect of what their cynical architects intended.  The piling on of sanctions is giving credibility to the Assad government which, while employing measures to curtail prices increases here, so far with modest success, is arguing that the price rises are the result of Syria’s American and Zionist enemies.  This view is widely shared among students at Damascus University and the general public.

Franklin Lamb just returned to Beirut from Damascus and is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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