Damascus, Syria — A GIANT PODIUM was constructed in central Damascus. The streets were decorated with pictures of President Bashar Assad and the twin flags of the Syrian Republic and the ruling Baath Party. Schools were given the day off. Thousands of children were bused into the city from surrounding regions. SyriaTel, the government-sponsored mobile-phone provider, messaged users, urging them to the streets.
Monday's rally -- against the United States, the United Nations and German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis' report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- was designed to make the government look strong, popular and credible. Television screens around the world would show the happy, colorful face of the Syrian nation.
But things are not always as they seem. Syrian broadcast news announced that there were up to 1 million people in attendance. More credible accounts put the number of actual protesters at about 10,000. Of these, most were schoolchildren, whose participation was obligatory. The main speeches were slated for 2 p.m., but by 10:30 a.m. most of the crowds had left, preferring to take lunch or idle through the city. By noon, the square was almost empty save for a few enthusiasts waving signs and chanting anti-American slogans and epithets. The streets were littered with flags that had been issued by the government and promptly dropped.
The paltry turnout is a reflection of frustration with the ruling Baath regime, which is viewed as weak, corrupt and isolated. Many Syrians were incensed by the Hariri assassination and the subsequent shameful withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April. The economy here is in dire straits, pinched at the borders by the loss of Lebanon -- a notorious cash cow -- and the loss of revenue from oil smuggled out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Assad, hailed when he took office as a democratic reformer, has largely reneged on promised changes. In private, people across the country whisper hopes about regime change and the dawning of a new era for Syria.
But let's be clear: Dissatisfaction with the current regime does not translate into support for the West. In fact, there is general outrage in Syria regarding the Mehlis report, which is viewed as politically motivated. As expected, high-ranking Syrian officials were implicated in the Hariri assassination, including Asef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of Assad. Mehlis portrayed the Syrian government as small, insular and criminal.
Rightly or wrongly, many Syrians consider the report to be a mere U.S.-sponsored justification for war. At Monday's rally, one placard I saw depicted a caricatured President Bush as a ventriloquist, with Mehlis as his dummy.
Most Syrians feel stuck between two unappealing options. "Everybody is frustrated," said one student at the University of Damascus, "because we hate George Bush, but we also know that the regime is guilty."
Lately, tensions have been rising between the two. U.S. officials say terrorists have been allowed to slip across the Syrian border into Iraq. And Tuesday, Bush said he had not ruled out military action if Syria failed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into Hariri's assassination.
More than anything else, Syrians do not want to become the next Iraq, which they see as a case of outright aggression and murder, not as the liberation of an oppressed people or the march of democracy. Among the most common signs at the rally were: "We are not Iraq" and "Stay away America." Syrians want change, but this does not mean that they want invasion.
Many analysts predict that the Mehlis report could lead, ultimately, to sanctions, isolation and conceivably even U.S.-led military intervention.
Now, after Monday's rally, Syria looks more vulnerable than ever -- unable to even manufacture support from within. The country waits anxiously to see what tomorrow will bring.