9:03am UK, Monday July 04, 2011
Sky News has got unprecedented access to Aleppo – and has seen support for the president, but also the lengths the regime goes to silence dissent.
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We thought we had evaded our government escort by boarding the train for Aleppo at 6.30am.
But as we settled into our seats for the five-hour trip, we saw the smiling face of our official shadow walk up the carriage towards us.
We had given little indication of our plans, but nothing much happens in this country without the regime knowing.
The handlers, part of the condition of our visas to enter the country, have been nothing but polite since we arrived in Damascus, but we both have jobs to do.
They are paid to present the Ba’ath party government in the best possible light while our task is to reflect the views of their critics as well. That’s not easy.
Support remains for Mr Assad in the troubled city of Aleppo
After a man approached us filming in a suburb of Damascus to accuse the regime of putting on a “play” for our cameras, he was arrested. It’s understandable that people are wary.
After arriving in Aleppo, we met a student activist who was helping to plan the following day’s “volcano” of protest.
Sami (not his real name) thought we would be safer in plain sight, so we sat in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, our small camera recording his voice.
“We cannot stand here doing nothing, seeing everything happen around us even though we are afraid,” he said.
‘Sami’ told Sky News the protests would continue
“We are really afraid and the government is just doing anything which might stop these things happening.”
I asked him about President Bashar al Assad’s promise to institute reforms and to start dialogue with opposition groups.
“Yes, but nothing is being applied on the land. He said that (there would be) no more killing and yet there is a lot of killing.”
Activists say at least 1,400 people have died in pro-democracy protests around the country.
The government disputes those figures, claiming soldiers were defending themselves from armed gangs and religious extremists, who want to depose the government and establish an Islamic state in Syria.
We need to make some reforms…but not change (Syria). Any country in the world, if you ask all citizens, they have concerns and they’re not quite happy.
Ali Moaaen, an architect in Aleppo
As were talking to Sami, a mosque official spotted us and asked whether we had permission to film. All three of us were escorted to the manager’s office.
Fortunately Sami’s explanation, that he was merely practising his English, was accepted. Without official papers allowing us to report, we left hastily.
The next day, Sami texted us to go to Bab al Hadid, near Aleppo’s famed Citadel, where he hinted something was happening.
It was where we captured the first verifiable footage of violence in the country since the unrest began.
Organisers had hoped three groups of protesters would gather in the north, the west and the east of the town, but the turnout was low.
Robert Nisbet is the only western journalist in Aleppo
Was it just fear of reprisals, or do the anti-government campaigners lack the support in affluent Aleppo they attract elsewhere?
I put that to several professionals in a nearby cafe. They believed they represented the silent majority: holding a deep respect for Mr Assad, but aware he must reform government and tackle the corruption which is endemic in Syria.
Ali Moaaen, an architect, told me: “We need to make some reforms…but not change (Syria). Any country in the world, if you ask all citizens, they have concerns and they’re not quite happy.
“The platonic city only exists in Greek mythology. It does not exist in reality.”
They all thought Syria was constantly under external pressure: from the US, Israel and the Gulf states – which was adding to the tension in a complex mix of competing religions and ethnicities.
Many in Aleppo appear to hold their president in high esteem
Change too fast, they argued, and you could face civil war.
Later we met Sami again in a park. He was clearly crestfallen that the protests had failed to gel – prevented, he said, by a massive and organised security operation.
Sami told us the electricity had been cut to the halls of residence at the city’s main university, preventing them from keeping in contact via electronic devices.
Since arriving in Syria we have witnessed impatience among activists, anxiety pervading the middle classes, and a heavy-handed government machinery trying to maintain control.
It’s a chaotic blend, but protesters such as Sami seem undeterred.
“I will keep pushing till I get my freedom, until I get the thing I want,” he said. “Not just for me but all the people around.”
:: Syrian tanks ‘at the gates’ of trouble town Hama.
:: Mass funerals follow anti-government protests.