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In Syria, many caught 'in the middle'

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 1:10 PM EST, Tue January 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Nic Robertson, recently inside Syria, says the country is becoming more polarized
  • Some say the opposition is not reassuring the minorities that they'll be safe
  • If war escalates, expect a long and bloody campaign

Editor's note: CNN's Nic Robertson and crew recently returned from a rare look inside Syria, where the government has been placing restrictions on international journalists and refusing many of them entry at all. While there, Robertson followed Arab League monitors already in the country and talked to the residents.

(CNN) -- It wasn't until I left Syria that I found the voice I'd been looking for.

I was only hours out of the capital, and it came by surprise, a chance meeting at an airport on my way back to London.

He was a Syrian Christian, a member of one of the country's larger minorities. They make up about 10% of the population. Many are businessmen; many have benefited from President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

His message was clear: We want change, but we don't want uncertainty. "The opposition need to reach out to us, tell us their vision of Syria." Then, he said, they'd have 60% to 70% support: "everyone in the middle ground, enough to overthrow the president."

He was speaking out because he could, with no need to fear that al-Assad's secret police would come knocking on his door. In Damascus and the rest of Syria, it had been different. None of the intellectuals, the businessmen, the others "in the middle" wanting al-Assad's corrupt regime replaced dared raise the conversation beyond the mildest hint at change of some sort; "but not, of course, the president" is required.

Just one day of covering pro- and anti-government rallies convinced me of how polarized the country has become. People are metaphorically retreating to their confessional bunkers.

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Al-Assad's rallying cry is that only he can protect the country's minorities: Christians like the man I met at the airport, Alawite like himself, about 15% of the population. He keeps the ethnic Kurds, a little less than 10%, on his side by courting their biggest tribes.

It's a tactic that's working. The Kurds don't back him, but they haven't turned against him as they did against his father. The Alawites who make up most of the officer corps in the army are still loyal, as are the Christians. But not without reservation.

A source close to the Saudi ruling circle told me Alawite generals threaten to abandon al-Assad if he makes them turn their guns on civilians in the streets of Damascus.

Several Westerners with detailed knowledge of the country expressed their frustration with the opposition, too. Why don't they reassure the minorities they won't face retribution once al-Assad is gone? they ask.

One opposition figure had threatened to wipe the Alawites off the map; another group said they would try al-Assad's top 100 generals for war crimes. So far, according to these Westerners, leading opposition groups have not distanced themselves from the calls that serve only to reinforce al-Assad's claims.

Al-Assad's track record charts a far different course. He and his father before him have assiduously sold their secular brand of socialism as the panacea for internal conflict. The truth is different, according to the Westerners: Al-Assad has been fermenting sectarian tensions. It is a lie that he is the defender of the minorities, they say.

It's hard to escape the feeling in Damascus that the moment to reach out is being lost. But it's easy to see why.

Al-Assad is utterly committed to a security crackdown, and the opposition is getting armed and fighting back. Blood is being spilled on both sides; more families are being affected and attitudes hardened.

It's rapidly getting to the point where even if opposition leaders did want to reach out to the man or woman in the middle or an army general or two, the base supporters will have no stomach for compromise.

At anti-government rallies, time and again, we saw anger and frustration boiling over, people literally screaming in our faces for fear we didn't get the desperation of their plight. Al-Assad's strong-arm tactics denying free speech have ensured that the street voice for reform has metastasized into something far more malevolent.

In places like Homs, the cradle of the uprising, the writing is on the wall for the rest of the country. Some neighborhoods have thrown out the government completely, such as in the Baba Amr district, where the Free Syrian Army has control. Communities have divided on sectarian lines. Many Christians have fled to Damascus. Garbage is piled high in the streets, electricity is cut, civilian causalities mount, and on the other side of the impromptu front-line barricades, the death toll of government soldiers creeps up as well.

A drive around Homs reveals a medieval-style siege, multiple checkpoints to move between neighborhoods, even a deep new ditch in places rings the city. But the uprising continues.

The opposition in Homs is better organized. A new council has been formed, it has a budget -- money, some say, is coming from the Gulf -- and runs medical and humanitarian supplies.

But the council is not the only show in town. Salafists are moving in too, Islamic radicals, many with terror tactics honed in neighboring Iraq. Reports abound of infighting both inside and outside Syria, the hard-liners already jockeying for post-al-Assad power.

If war escalates, as it surely seems it will, expect a long and bloody campaign. As the man in the middle I met on my way back to London told me: "We are afraid of the men with guns, afraid the radicals will impose their backwards views on us."

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