June 5 (Reuters) - In the biggest act of civil disobedience by Damascus merchants in Syria's 15-month-old uprising, many stores have been closed for a week in protest against the massacre of more than 100 people in Houla on May 25.
The closures have affected districts all across the capital, from the Old City market to opposition areas where 70 percent of stores appeared shut despite what shopkeepers said were attacks and threats by security forces to force them to reopen.
"We want to participate in the strike but at the same time we are afraid of the reaction of the security police," said Mohammed, who owns a clothes shop in the traditional al-Hamidiya souk - a long, covered walkway that cuts through the Old City.
Widespread closures in the capital, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, represent a major challenge to the Syrian leader and Mohammed said security forces had broken open his locked shop door a few days ago to intimidate him.
Mohammed, who asked to only use his first name to avoid identification by police, said that the action was a piecemeal attempt that he and other merchants have tacitly agreed to in protest against the killing of 108 civilians in Houla in violence blamed by the United Nations on army shelling and pro-Assad militiamen.
"The strike does send a political message," he said, although admitting that the opposition movement was still weak.
Since the attack, Mohammed has opened the shutters to give the impression that his shop is open, but the door is in fact closed while he sits outside in case the police return. During a tour of the Hamidiya souk it appeared that around half of the shops remained shut.
Most Syrians to buy their goods from small local merchants, rather than modern supermarkets, and the dampening effect of the strike is tangible in Damascus' lonely streets.
The Hamidiya souk, a centuries-old cobblestoned street linked to a maze of smaller alleyways winding through the capital, used to be a hive of activity where rich businessmen would make deals and sell merchandise over sugared tea. Now it stands quiet, a backwater in the centre of the capital.
Sunni Muslim merchants have traditionally formed the core of the business community in the Syrian capital and in the commercial hub Aleppo, Syria's most populous city.
Assad, and his late father - from Syria's minority Alawite sect - forged close ties with the Sunni merchant class, who helped prevent a collapse of the Syrian pound last year by keeping their cash in the bank while everyone rushed to exchange weak pounds for dollars.
However, Assad is losing support among merchants who are suffering from a stagnant business climate and Western sanctions imposed to put pressure on the defiant president.
And Assad's crackdown on the uprising by Syria's majority Sunnis has lost him many supporters who are enraged by the deaths of more than 10,000 fellow citizens at the hands of Assad loyalists.
70 PERCENT OF SHOPS CLOSED
More than 70 percent of shops are on strike in Sunni opposition districts outside the Old city such as Midan, where activists say government forces have shot and killed demonstrators at weekly protests.
"We open our shops for an hour a day so people can buy essentials," said Midan-based supermarket owner Amin, who also asked Reuters only to use his first name. Like Mohammed in Hamidiya, many shop owners in Midan sit in front of their businesses so they can open up quickly if security personnel arrive.
Markets in Damascus have been subject to a heavy security presence over the past week, with new checkpoints erected at their entrances, residents say.
Even districts of Damascus that are predominantly Christian, a minority group that Assad's supporters say will stick by the leader against the largely Sunni revolt, have reported a large number of shop closures.
And in towns on the Damascus outskirts, many of which have witnessed army raids and widespread arrests, residents say the markets have been empty for weeks.
Damascus residents, whether they support the strike or not, say the shop closures have compounded the already dire economic situation. Prices have soared over the past 15 months and sanctions have cut vital trade links.
Many Syrians are unable to buy anything but the bare essentials. Syrian government figures put annual consumer price inflation at 31 percent in April, but residents say basic goods such as sugar, vegetable oil and eggs have doubled in price.
Not all are 100 percent behind the campaign of civil disobedience.
"I feel bad about what happened to the people of Houla," said a restaurant owner in the Kafr Souseh district, where most shops are on strike. "But I have three employees to pay and what use is a strike?" he said, echoing the sentiments of many frustrated businessmen.
For others, the loss in earnings is justified by the disruption they are causing to the heart of the capital where state security forces have been scrambling to give an impression of calm and control while the rest of the country crumbles.
"Strikes are less dangerous than open demonstrations," said a high school teacher from the capital. "We need strikes in shops, schools and universities. It's a safer way to express ourselves."
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS