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Understanding Syria's unrest

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In January, Syria’s president, Bashar Al-Assad, claimed in The Wall Street Journal that “you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” In the following weeks, and as North Africa asserted an unprecedented people's revolution, Syria remained quiet. But a couple of relatively ancillary events in the south of the country have changed Syria, probably forever.

Meeting a fellow journalist at a restaurant in Bab Touma the day dozens of people were killed in Deraa, hundreds of youths streamed past the narrow alleys beneath us. They shouted unconditional support for Bashar. The population was in a state of emotional flux.

Earlier the same day a girl from Deraa called me in extreme panic. She said hundreds of people had been shot dead in front of her eyes. A chilling sound of mayhem funnelled up the phone line as she hung up to scamper away to safety somewhere off the town's main square. A feeling of being part of a Michael Bay film took hold of me. Having lived here for over three years, the impossible was happening; at that point, it appeared the country might well fall apart. The authorities swiftly fought back, initiating a decades-old propaganda apparatus.  

Across the country a mass wave of delusion took hold for four or five days. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets. Syrian radio stations called on people to march on the Al Jazeera broadcasting office in Mezzah. Threats were made to burn the building. Youths stopped cars with signs reading "BBC and Al Arabiya out." People phoned in to the same radio stations saying how foreigners should stay away from Syria.

The disillusioned street

Many of the Syrians I have been talking to over the past few weeks are unsure of what they want to happen. But many believe that change could bring down the entire system, a system has been expertly organized and maintained by a mixture of the governing Baath party and a collection of influential Alawite families and their proxies.

I would ask people, "Why are the pro-Bashar demonstrations taking place?" They would reply with familiar drivel: "We love our president" and so on. Then I would ask, "But why now, what has happened to make people want to do this now, what's this all got to do with the president?" They would pause for a minute, mulling over the question. "Well, there are people trying to divide Syria, to split us up." Then I would say, "Fine, but what has this got to do with Basher Al-Assad?" Not one person had a reply for me. I have also asked people, "Why would people in other countries [as Syrians officials have publically claimed] want to sow strife in Syria?" Not one managed a response.

These last passages illustrate the degree to which Syrians have been indoctrinated into the cult of the presidential post. Throughout their schooling, Syrians are taught to be in awe of and to love the president, to the extent that thinking through and arguing the point finds no real explanation for the pro-Bashar demonstrations. Syrians, who will argue and counterclaim over just about anything, have been, when it comes to the issue of the presidency, zombie-like for decades. When discussing this specific issue, they have been trained not to think and argue.

The president's March 30 speech was a body blow for the country's numerous sects and for Syria's future. Syrians believed he had to say almost nothing other than to proclaim the end of the feared decades-old emergency laws—because of the situation unfolding in parts of the country—in order to calm the population and to end the swelling pockets of protest that had, originally, nothing to do with the regime's rule. When he finished his speech the millions sitting around television sets sat back startled that nothing had really been discussed at all.

Media hysteria

Much of the international reporting on what is taking place in Syria, however, has been infiltrated by hysterics and poor journalism produced overseas by agencies and publications attempting to analyse a country that even from within is difficult, at best, to report on. Newspapers reported that thousands were taking to the streets of many cities across the country. However, the streets of the capital and other major cities remained quiet except for a few isolated incidents essentially caused by overzealous security men.

And in Damascus newspapers published images of men and children lying injured in hospital beds which, ironically, could amount to anti-government rhetoric if the right words (that being condemnation of the responsible "unknown gangs") do not match the pictures. The semi-independent newspapers may conceivably be seen to be implicating the regime in violence against the people—in this example there is a fine line between showing wholehearted support for the regime and pointing out its faults.

The government's response that Bindar Bin Sultan and Saad Hariri, or "unknown outside forces" who to this day remain unknown, are responsible for the killings of dozens of protesters are pitifully inept. The sight of army recruits parading a sign depicting Bin Sultan and Hariri as dogs around Damascus the day of pro-Bashar demonstrations fooled very few of the Damascenes looking on from their shops and businesses.

Many of those I spoke to recognize this claim to be completely fabricated. "We know it's rubbish but what do we do? We cannot allow this to spill over into civil war, there are too many uneducated people in this country who would take up arms and follow someone simply because they look and sound like they will make people's lives better or like they know what they are doing," one man told me several weeks ago.

With the deaths of over a dozen police and security officials taking place, it appears the seeds of sectarianism are beginning to take root, and this is the number one fear Syrians hold right now.

What not to do

The United States' intervention in Iraq and the ongoing political mess that is Lebanon have allowed the Syrian regime to continually pursue the idea that political and economic reform cannot be brought about simultaneously, or over a short time. No one in Syria wants an Iraq or Lebanon on their hands, and speaking to dozens of Syrians over the past few weeks, this is what people genuinely fear.

Foreign military intervention should be beaten back from the highest offices in the land, including by the United Nations, the European Union and Washington. Nobody who has the country's (or region's) best interests at heart wants intervention in Syria and to do so would be to sign off on another Iraq. The demonstrations in Syria cannot be compared to Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, and doing so remains outside the remit of this article.

Anti-foreign and nationalist sentiments are spreading and people are already turning inward, away from the world Syrians need in order to grow their economy and to learn.

But the final level of responsibility lies with the Syrian president. He must guide his people through the country's biggest crisis in over 50 years. Words, that have been sorely lacking, will help calm people's fears. Chuckling during his first speech to the Syrian parliament since 2007, when he should have been grieving with the people of Deraa, illustrates how out of touch this 'in touch' president is.

Let's be clear—there would have been no protests in Syria if the security services in Deraa had not been so heavy-handed with the youths who sprayed anti-regime graffiti on walls in early March. Putting in prison over a dozen children was a step too far and was bound to cause an outcry. The taking into custody of the two women who spoke out at this act was what led Syria down this road. People would have been happy to continue to tolerate their situations. People love the president; they have issues with the system, but they would have carried on.

However, even as the vast majority of Syrians would gladly turn back the clocks to January, they cannot. The country has changed forever. At the huge pro-regime demonstrations in Damascus on March 30 the vast majority of people in attendance were either school children, state employees (who were given the day off work to ensure a large turnout) or army recruits. The lack of an organic and spontaneous popular support that day, to me, said a lot more than the racket created by the recruits.

Perhaps the biggest threat to this country is that of a growth in the actions of gangs like those who terrorized neighborhoods in the coastal city of Latakia late last month and who have appeared in suburbs around the capital. In Damascus more and more youths are carrying guns wedged in their trousers. If gang wars were to take root in Syria, then we would see shootings, then perhaps bombings, and then the entire country, away from the political struggles and issues it is attempting to deal with, would fall apart.

The question of who, exactly, is in control remains. And the people of Syria, the Christians, Kurds, Druze, Shia, Alawites and Sunnis, together remain afraid.

This article was written for MEPEI by a special correspondent in Damascus

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