Syrians Sense War in Damascus While Assad Tries to Score Points

Syrians report electricity shortages in Homs and Damascus, as Syrian President Bashar Assad tries minimizing pressure by a referendum on changes to the constitution that do not satisfy the opposition.

The protests that took place over the past two days in Damascus' Al Maza neighborhood have turned the Syrian capital - especially its heated neighborhoods - into a besieged and closed-in zone. According to reports by activists of the Syrian opposition, numerous security forces have been streaming into the capital, dozens of barriers have been erected in some of the main streets, and "there's a sense of war in the city."

Nonetheless, there is not yet talk of crowds bursting into the streets of Damascus. There are concerns that the Syrian army intends to "conquer" the city of Homs after explosions in the neighborhood of Baba Amr failed to suppress protesters, and in light of the shots that could be heard this morning, while clashes took place in the cities of Daraa, Hama and Idlib.

Syria army 17/2/2012 - AFP

There were severe shortages of electricity in Homs and Damascus after large generators that were supplying the cities with electricity were damaged either by bombardments of the Syrian army or by sabotage. In Damascus there is talk of insane price rises of 50%-80% on basic goods, hawkers – who were once removed from the streets by police – have opened improvised stalls to replace licensed stores, skyrocketing gas prices have caused increased taxi fares, and even the Iranian tourists who once visited holy sites for Shi'as in Damascus have stopped coming in light of the recommendations of the Iranian immigration authorities, who blamed the ban on Syria's dilapidated security situation.

In the meantime, Arab diplomatic pressure is building up on Syria. The Egyptian ambassador has returned from Syria and the Syrian ambassador has returned from Cairo. Saudi Arabia has stopped citizen flights to and from Syria, while Jordan – who has taken in some 70,000 Syrian refugees – is considering recalling its ambassador from Syria. The Arab states, along with Turkey, are also preparing for a "friends of Syria" meeting, which is set to take place this Friday, to focus on finding a way of exerting pressure on the Syrian regime.

One of the ideas that have been put on the table is the recognition of the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition umbrella organization, as a "shadow cabinet" and relating to it as the body that will serve the Assad regime. However, not all Arab states are ready to recognize the council, mainly since among its members - and between the council and other opposition organizations - exist differences of opinion on how to deal with the Syrian crisis.

Despite all that, the Syrian regime still does not appear to be retreating, nor willing to cease the attacks on its citizens. Official Syrian media are reporting that the government is offering relief for loaners by retracting fines on late repayments, offering extended hours of free electricity, offering new housing projects as well as tax breaks for university students. This Sunday, Assad is expected to hold a referendum over changes to the constitution, which include, among other things, cancelation of the monopoly of the Baath party and limits to the tenure of the president to two terms of seven years. Assad will request to use the referendum and new constitution to prove how serious his intentions are to apply reforms, and in doing so, also try to convince at least some of the Arab states to remove the sanctions imposed on Syria, while giving Russia and China "ammunition" to continue supporting him.

The opposition scornfully rejects Assad's offer, but has not yet proposed any alternatives. The United States has denounced the involvement of the Syrian security forces and the Arab states are not keen on intercepting for fear of turning Syria into another Libya - which has not yet stabilized - or worse than that, like Iraq. Assad has succeeded, meanwhile, in turning the domestic crisis into an international problem in which the balance of power between the East and the West, and between the West and Iran, will determine the outcome, while in the meantime Assad continues to suppress the rebellion against him.

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