BEIRUT — At his government office in the Syrian capital, Damascus, the civil servant avoids discussing what Syrians call “the situation." But he quietly ponders his own private endgame, toying with defecting to the rebels, yet clinging to his post, increasingly sure there are no fighters worth joining.
A multilingual former military officer, he says he is among many friends and colleagues who feel trapped: disenchanted with President Bashar Assad, disgusted by the violence engulfing Syria and equally afraid of the government and the rebels, with both sides, as he puts it, ready to sacrifice “the innocents."
Assad remains in power in part because two years into the uprising, a critical bloc of Syrians remains on the fence. Among them are business owners who drive the economy, bankers who finance it, and the security officials and government employees who hold the keys to the mundane but crucial business of maintaining an authoritarian state. If they abandoned the government or embraced the rebels en masse, they might change the tide. Instead, their uncertainty contributes to the stalemate.
The Egyptian and Tunisian rebellions that inspired Syria’s initially peaceful uprising reached tipping points within weeks, with far less bloodshed. In those cases, widespread desire for change overwhelmed the fear of the unknown, and governments — or rather, the dictatorial cliques that headed them — fell. But in Syria, each side has bloodied the other while many stay on the sidelines, and a core contingent of supporters feels obligated to stick with the government.
That is in part because the government’s ruthless crackdown has made protest far more risky than in other uprisings. But it is also because of doubts, among the urban elite and others, about the direction of the revolution and how a rebel-ruled Syria would look.
“Me and my neighbors, we were the first to go down to the street and scream that we want a country, a real country, not a plantation," said Samar Haddad, who runs a Syrian publishing house. “But this armed revolution, I refuse it as much as I refuse the regime."
The fence sitters include government employees, security forces, intellectuals and wealthy Syrians. Some, including members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, say they fear the rule of Islamists, or the calls for vengeance from some factions of the Sunni-dominated uprising. Some are former soldiers who say they defected only to be disappointed by rebels who lack discipline or obsess about religion. One young man, Nour, said he gave up on revolution when he tried to join an Islamist brigade but was rejected for wearing skinny jeans.
Fewer and fewer Syrians appear to believe the government can restore order; the fraying of the country has become hard to miss. For those who support neither Assad nor his opponents, life has become a fearful wait.
“Both sides have the same mind," said Abu Tony, a shopkeeper in central Damascus who favors a compromise. “This is not life, to spend half of the day without electricity, without heating oil and without even bread just because the two sides refuse to give up some of their demands."