Posted by Joshua on Saturday, August 13th, 2011
[The News Round Up for Saturday, Aug. 13, follows this article]
A Syrian Drama
by Omar S. Dahi, Assistant Professor of Economics, Hampshire College
for Syria Comment
August 13, 2011
The Syrian regime is in big trouble. Absent an economic collapse, its downfall may not be imminent, but Most indicators lead to the conclusion that the regime is effectively done, and the only remaining questions are how bloody the transition will be and what type of Syria will emerge. On the domestic front, the social base of the regime is stagnant or shrinking. The regime immediately mobilized its entire social support structure to ‘million-man’ marches. Though many attending are government workers made to go (pro-regime marches are always on workdays), many of those attending do so willingly. However that mobilization has reached its limit: the regime has no new social base to draw on and mobilize. Most of those who willingly attend the “mnhibak” (literally: we love you) pro-regime rallies know very well that there will not be any violence otherwise they would stay home. On the other hand, the anti-regime demonstrations are steadily increasing, both in numbers and in geographic size. Three weeks ago roughly 1.2 million or 5.5% of the population demonstrated all over the country. Economically, the country is in dire straits. The tourist industry has been decimated. The increased deficit spending, from raised salaries, support for fuels, lower import tariffs are large enough, without taking into account the spending on Army mobilization, and military and security personnel. Externally, the regime is getting more, not less isolated. Just yesterday, the Russian President warned his Syrian counterpart of a ‘sad fate’, unless reforms are implemented. It was given a long leash by the West to deal with the protests, but its main asset as a guarantor of ‘stability’ is now turning into a liability.
I traveled to Syria in July to observe first-hand what is taking place inside the country. Most of my time was spent in Damascus and its suburbs, with a brief trips elsewhere, in particular a two day stint in Hama just days before the government’s massacre. What follows is a series of vignettes, hastily put together, of life inside Syria this past month. These stories represent my own understanding and readers should take all stories emerging from the country as a partial truth, but will hopefully help give a clearer picture of Syria in the midst of the revolution. I have left out the names and identifying details of many wonderful people who have helped me shape my views for obvious reasons. I am solely responsible for this article’s content.
Everyday life in Damascus
The first thing that strikes a traveler when entering Syria straight into Damascus in the past month is that life appears to be normal. This false sense of normalcy have allowed certain sectors of Damascenes to live in a fairy tale of ‘everything’s fine, it’ll be over soon’, something I heard repeatedly during my stay. There are signs of course that things are not quite as they seem: there is increased security presence everywhere, especially the now infamous security buses which are used to herd arrested protestors to unknown destinations. From time to time cars or trucks full of pro-regime supporters tour the city carrying flags and shouting pro-Bashar slogans. The tourist industry has declined as mentioned earlier which means that many hotels, restaurants, and cafes which had become an important source of income and employment are almost empty. If Damascus had been relatively subdued in terms of protests, politics is on everyone’s minds and all taboo subjects, including what five months ago seemed unspeakable topics such as the regime’s downfall and direct criticism of the President are now commonplace. When entering an ongoing conversation one is immediately asked if s/he is pro- (muwalat) or anti-regime (mu’arada) (or in the derogatory terms booq (trumpet) or mundass (infiltrator).
When discussing the ongoing events with someone against the demonstrations (incidentally, very few people I spoke with identified as ‘pro-regime’, they preferred to say they are ‘with reform’ I will identify them in this article as against the revolts, the most neutral term I could find to describe their position). Conversations with those against the revolts can quickly descend into farce. Many I spoke with maintained that everyone who supports the revolution from outside the country is either a coward, a traitor, or does not genuinely care about Syria’s fate (this third category is where some people placed me, thankfully). As for those opposing the regime on the inside: Dar’a are a bunch of no-good smugglers, Hama is vindictive and full of hate, Homs are all extremist Salafis, the Northwest are separatist Kurds, and the Northeast are drug dealers, etc. The discussion then turns into a description of the atrocities committed by the protestors.
One typical story: “a women went to her neighbor’s house and asked them to stop protesting. When she turned around to leave, they shot her in the back. Somehow she didn’t die and was taken to the hospital. The neighbors then followed her to the hospital, kidnapped her, and cut her to pieces.” Depending on the source this story took place in ‘Arbin, Qatana, Dar’a, or Hama. The punch line was “and this is her own neighbors who did this. You see, these people are monsters, they don’t know what freedom means.” Regime violence is either denied or taken as a given (‘what do you expect, to insult them and be rewarded with flowers?’ or ‘this regime hasn’t done anything yet, if they really wanted to kill, they can do a lot more’). One reason that’s given for not opposing the regime is that this regime is lunatic and capable of mass murder and therefore it should not be pressured.
The more I talked with people who hold these views the more I realized that they genuinely believe them, with one slight caveat: many of these did not decide on their stand against the revolt based on the stories of criminal gangs, and Muslim extremists, and so forth. Just the opposite: most of those I spoke with who held this view clearly had made up their minds from day one of the revolts and then decided to believe the government’s stories. On the other hand, there were many who changed their beliefs when they clearly saw the government had chosen the violent approach, and many who were literally traumatized by the President’s first speech.
Contrary to what many have claimed, demonstrations have been taking place well within the center of a month before Ramadan. Demonstrations have taken place in Qaboon, Rukn al-Deen, Barzeh, Duma, Harasta, Daraya, ‘Arbeen, Zamalka, Hajar al Aswad, (Zabadani), Qatana, Kiswe, , Qadam, Jdeida, as well as the Midan district: all well inside Damascus. If these were lights on a map they would form a circle around city. Since the government’s main concern now is Damascus and Aleppo, it is concentrating a huge security presence in those two cities. Hot spots such as Rukn al-Din, al-Qaboon, Harasta, and Duma are cordoned off entirely starting Thursday night. I walked through those areas on several occasions on a Friday and traffic was completely blocked with checkpoints on each major street entrance.
In the last few days before Ramadan there was a particularly heavy security presence in Damascus. In Khalid bin Walid street two days before Ramadan three flatbed military vehicles passed by pedestrian traffic, each with about 30 soldiers carrying machine guns and chanting pro-Maher (President’s brother) slogans. This seemed to be a warning to Damascenes not to dare protest during Ramadan. Like most regime actions you could see in the faces of passers by that this only increased people’s hostility. As I left the scene an old lady whispered to me ‘dear, do you think they are going to the Golan?’. A few days later in the exact same spot, a silent funeral march for a protestor who had been shot the day before was attacked by police, only for the police themselves to be beaten up by the people in the neighborhood.
Who Are the Protestors? What are their tactics?
Syria’s internal opposition movement is not unified and one should not speak about it in the singular. One can identify five distinct opposition groups. Burhan Ghaliun has stated they are unified by the three “No’s”: no to violence, no to sectarianism, and no to outside intervention (although I would exclude from this what I identify as the fifth group).
- The first group consists of traditional oppositional parties: the socialist, Nasserist, and communist parties.
- Second are the dissident intellectuals (such as Michel Kilo, Tayeb Tizini, Fayez Sara, Aref Dalila, and Burhan Ghalioun (on the outside). In my view the writings and words of these dissident intellectuals carry much greater weight among the revolutionary youth than the traditional oppositional parties, although, neither of the first two categories has a large ‘social base.
- Third is the youth movement itself (youth here is used liberally, including teenagers to people in their 40s) which is the moving force of the revolution. The leaders of the Local Coordination Committees are in this group. While the uprising started off with demonstrations of marginalized and lower class youth, it has expanded to include youth from all sectors of society.
- The fourth category is the social base of the youth movement that is an unorganized civil society composed of socially conservative Muslims but which is mistakenly referred to as Islamist. These are the people who bore the brunt of regime repression for decades. These are the primary carriers of the social revolt — that is the Syrian society itself and the reason in my view why the regime cannot survive.
- The fifth category, which the regime claims is the main obstacle, but which is in fact a very small fraction, is the armed Salafi groups. Some may have traveled to Iraq to fight the US invasion. (They do not fit into Ghalioun’s three “no’s”, because they espouse violent revolution, are overtly sectarian, and welcome intervention by fellow Salafists, whether Syrian or not.)
These groups do not neatly fit into either class or regional categories. Most of those who have taken to the streets are from lower economic classes and rural or middle sized-cities. However, there is still a much larger group which has not taken to the streets and does not fall into the categories I have outlined above, but which is just as resentful of the regime: this is the upper-class and middle-class youth of Syria’s two major cities.
It has been conventional wisdom to assume that well-to-do Syrians are pro-regime. This is not accurate. Many who have brushed up against the regime and have experienced its humiliations and observed its brutality first hand. They may not take to the streets, but may contribute in other ways that are not obvious to the casual observer. Given the forbidding security environment, the protestors are organizing at the neighborhood level. Paranoia and fear of secret police make establishing ties between local organizations difficult, although organization is improving at all levels slowly but surely.
Since the start of the revolt, the government’s actions have been arbitrary and improvised. The government was caught flat footed by the protests and has had to change tactics over time. Its response has been to employ two main tracks: the first a campaign of psychological and physical terror against the demonstrators, the second, a series of political liberalization measures meant to both absorb or appease a section of the protestors as well as present to the outside world a semblance of change. Both of these tracks have one main common denominator: they are meant to preserve as much of the political status quo as possible. They are also designed to insist on complete governmental control over events and government reforms. Five months into the uprising, the government still acts as if it holds all the cards; all ‘reform’ measures are issued as decrees by the government. In other words, it has recognized –in its own words- legitimate grievances, but has yet to recognize a legitimate opposition to be negotiated with.
Thus, the “democratic transition,” such as the crafting of new political reform legislation, such as new ‘parties’ and ‘media’ laws, has been handed down by government fiat. Even the call for ‘dialogue’ which manifested itself in a two day summit in early July ended with a pre-fabricated statement which ignored the discussion that had taken place. Since then, the government’s response to opposition demands has been largely one of violence.
The protests themselves have not been uniform. Given the terror and live ammunition used by the regime, the protest movement’s tactics have been varied and creative. Resistance by the opposition ranges from political satire, rumors and gossip, guerrilla demonstrations, mass demonstrations, in-house demonstrations later broadcast on the internet, sit-ins, as well as acts of sabotage and violence. Since some quarters of Damascus and other areas are under Army siege or lock-down, demonstrators come out in rapid demonstrations and withdraw before the security forces can gather. When I visited Hama, days before the massacre (more on this below) each day over 100,000 people gathered in the main square (Sahet al-‘Asi) to discuss the day’s events and exchange information about events taking place elsewhere in Syria. One of the more creative tactics has been the ‘white demonstrations’ on Hamra street. A group ranging from 500 to 2000 all wearing white shirts or hats in groups of no more than three, but usually one or two walk back and forth on Hamra street without saying a word or even acknowledging each other. The security forces see them and know something is up but simply don’t know on what pretext to arrest them. As to the question of violence, it undoubtedly exists among the protest movement, though to a very small degree, as opposed to the regime’s actions which have been overwhelmingly violent, and increasingly so. It is quite amazing that the protest movement has not been as violent as one would expect given the brutality and sectarianism of the regime.
I attended several pro-regime rallies (masira) because I was curious to see who attends and what exactly takes place there. During my stay there were two large demonstrations, one in Omayyad (capped by the wildly popular singer George Wassouf) and the other in Hijaz Square. I attended the latter, but went twice to a rally in Bab Touma, the traditionally Christian part of town. As I approached the main square, which had several hundred people in white shirts all carrying or wearing Syrian flags, with loud pro-Bashar music blaring from loudspeakers, I finally realized what fascism really looks like.
The belief or claim by some opposition members outside the country that pro-regime demonstrations are entirely forced is not accurate. Many state (and private sector) employees are made to go, but many show up on their own and do not fit neatly into categories such as ‘regime beneficiary’ which some members of the opposition like to throw around. These were people, on their own will, coming to support a regime’s brutal crackdown by security forces that they themselves have long dreaded and despised. I saw and spoke with several people in attendance, all of whom insisted the events were necessary to ‘confront the conspiracy,’ to ‘preserve national unity’, and to ‘oppose extremists.’ The event was emceed skillfully by a man who alternated between leading chants and reading gut-wrenching accounts of the last moments and words of brave soldiers and military officers. In one such case, the commanding officer of a security post that had been ambushed called his superior and said: “the ammunition is done, I ask you to continue the fight. The homeland is a trust under your hands. Defend it and defend the leader.” The last words of all dying soldiers always involved: a) happiness in their sacrifice, b) devotion to the homeland and the president, c) request that those left behind take up the cause/fight.
Of course, no one has been hurt in a pro-regime rally and the ‘roving criminal gangs’ and ‘terrorist groups’ are absent. The rallies are guarded and streets are blocked. My own impression is that a large number of those attending would not take to the streets if there were any chance of violence.
Homage to Hama
I will describe my trip to Hama in a bit more detail because what I experienced there and what took place in the days after I left sums up what is beautiful about the revolution, just as it underscores the dark side of the regime. We left Damascus around 7.30am heading on a Pullman towards Hama. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get into the city. I had heard horrendous stories about violence in and around the city. There were only 12 passengers on the bus and some were to continue to Aleppo. From the capital until Homs there were very few signs of any disturbances or security presence, however after passing Homs in the environs of Talbeesa and Rastan there were about 20 tanks or so. Upon reaching Hama we were stopped by a new security unit I had not seen or heard of before. They wore black and dark green uniforms and had “counter terrorism unit” (C.T.U.) written on their back. They boarded the bus and to my surprise asked if there were any soldiers on board. They did not ask for our IDs. We had heard of soldier defections taking place and I can only speculate that they were looking for them. I should note that there have not been any high ranking defections in the Syrian Army that I know of, though there are numerous conscripts that have been fleeing military service. (The Army has not released any soldier from service, including those whose normal service term has expired). That checkpoint was the last symbol of government control and from then on we were in a liberated city, with no army or security presence whatsoever and no traffic police either.
After the mass demonstrations the security had withdrawn and left the town to its own affairs although everyone was anticipating an attack at any moment (which would later come the day before Ramadan). To try and slow down an attack the Hamwis had set up makeshift barriers throughout the city made of trash cans, cinder blocks, metal bars, even overturned buses and a huge caterpillar truck meant to deter or slow down an attack by security services. These were manned by boys and men ranging from teenagers to men in their forties, two or three at a time directing traffic. They were not armed, very friendly and allowed me to freely take pictures (on a slightly depressing note, some thought I was a foreigner and greeted me with “hello mr. welcome to hama.”). The teenagers and young men in particular were taking their traffic policing job quite seriously (‘better than the actual traffic cops’ I heard time and again), despite spending the day under a blistering sun. At night during the daily demonstrations, and when there was a strike, all the checkpoints would be closed. The barriers could not really deter any attack, and the Hamwis knew this of course. At best they were hoping to slow it down so that the city would not be caught unprepared. I was told that some villagers bringing down milk and yogurt were turned back due to the strike and did not return since their products had spoiled and were afraid this would occur again.
I was also informed that some Alawi civil servants and employees had not come to work from the villages out of fear, although I was assured their fear was unfounded and that no sectarian attack had taken place (Incidentally, I did not hear any sectarian chants during my stay and there was only one anti-Shiite sectarian slogan painted way outside on the periphery of the city. All other slogans around it had been painted over except this one perhaps left to show evidence of sectarianism).
The city itself was full of life and the markets were busy, after several days of a general strike; the markets and shops stayed open until well past 1am. We walked through the city passing by the world famous Norias, the Old souq and the many markets. Life did not stop in Hama, there were no armed gangs or armed presence within the city. We passed by several liquor stores that were open for business. I made sure to take a picture and show my Christian friends back in Damascus who thought that Hama was under some sort of Salafi rule.! Passing through a park near the center of the city, we heard a few men murmur ‘the people want to topple the regime’ as we passed people in a park. Anti-regime graffiti could be seen on some walls, although some of it was painted over. There was no sign of vandalism and damage of public property, and many pro-regime banners set up at the start of the uprisings in Syria had been left intact. I heard many stories throughout the day of the corruption and theft of the regime, particularly illegal land acquisition by people in the upper circles of power, including partners of the presidents infamous cousin. There is a ‘takbeer’ (chant of God is Great) when a checkpoint is attacked or neighborhood is attacked and the entire block or passersby rush to help. Things of course were a bit more complex than they appeared on the surface.
A source told us of an ambush of demonstrators which took place in front of his house. A masked informant led the demonstrators into the security officers waiting around a street corner who opened fire and immediately killed at least 10 people. Our host told us that the informant was later killed and his body dumped into the Orontes. This has been done a few times with people identified as informants, their names have been posted on the Mosque’s door, although inevitably were some mistakes and one person had to plead with his friends to come out in his defense and clear his name.
The nightly demonstrations were the fullest expression of the city’s freedom. They also acted as a social space for different sectors of Hamwis to gather. It became the location in which the day’s events were planned, grievances are aired, and news of events taking place in Syria discussed. I headed to the demonstration from the neighborhood of the Hama Castle, passing by the café of Apamea hotel. The café is located on a beautiful view, right on the Orontes river overlooking the Sohoniya, Qadriyya, and Sultaniyya Norias (water-wheels). However it has a tragic history. It was built on the ruins of the former Kaylaniyya district, which was beautiful. This entire historic district was razed to the ground during the 1982 massacres after being one of the most architecturally beautiful sites in Syria. The insurgents had taken refuge there believing — mistakenly as it turned out — that the government would not shell the district because of its historic value.
I approached the main square right around the end of the evening prayers. Along the way I passed on the left the only two buildings left in town which prominently displayed the pictures of the President, the first was the police HQ and the second was the Ba’ath party HQ. The Ba’ath Party HQ had been burned down after the massacre which took place on 6/6. A group of people took flowers and headed in that direction. When they approached, gunmen on top of the building had opened fire. The protestors tried to escape through another street only to find that it had been blocked the night before by the security. My informant said that several dozen people were killed that day. The next day Hama started demonstrating en masse and had not stopped since.
As we approached Sahet al-‘Asi (Orontes square) we saw several dozen people finishing the evening prayers in the square itself. The young men at the checkpoints had increased and were rerouting traffic. I first decided to hang out at the edge of the square, in front of the park through which Orontes river ran. The number of people arriving began to pick up. Whether by foot, taxi, or micro-bus, loads of men and women, young and old started arriving. It seemed like the whole town was arriving to take part. Even as the square was getting full I saw a huge crowd marching down from the South of the city. Groups of kids were clapping and chanting anti-regime slogans. Cafes and markets which opened the day before were still open and there was a hustle and bustle in the streets all night long. By the time about 100,000 gathered in the square all checkpoints leading to the square were closed to all but pedestrians, and the demonstration started in full force.
With chants blaring from loudspeakers, the event was more than just an anti-regime demonstration, it was an event were people gathered to talk about the day’s news, exchange information and make requests. One such request was that the checkpoints were becoming a burden on the population, especially the kids wanting to take the dreaded baccalaureate exam. Others asked that the villagers be allowed to bring down their food. A lawyer was recently released from custody and said he was one of the last remaining detainees. Solidarity with other cities as well as individuals who had spoken out against the regime’s violence (such as actress May Skaff) was a particular theme that night. Most chants mentioned unity among Christians, Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, (more on the tricky sectarian issue below)and many Christians were in attendance and were saluted by the crowd. Outside the square, markets were still open and people were going about their business as if this was the most normal thing in the world.
Hama has always been a conservative city. All but a few women on the streets were wearing headscarves (there were almost no niqabs -which is mostly a phenomenon in other cities such as Damascus). But I saw absolutely no signs of fundamentalism inside the city. It is a mistake to think Hama’s intifada can simply be reduced to the 1982 massacre. They have shared grievances with every other city in Syria. In my opinion it’s more accurate to say that this is a city with a history of collective mobilization against injustice and defiance since before the Ba’ath regime came to power, and because of their defiance they have repeatedly paid a heavy price. And they were willing to do so again. This was not a vindictive or hateful city as I kept hearing from people in Damascus. The genuine happiness of achieving freedom far outweighed the supposed desire for revenge against the regime. The chant I heard most frequently throughout the day and night was ya mahlaha al hurriya (freedom is beautiful).
A few days after I left, the government attacked the city. It killed over 100 people in the first two days of its assault. Syrian television reports on the days of the attack repeated stories of armed criminals terrorizing the population and destroying daily life in the city. They claimed that the Hamwis had called for government intervention. I saw first-hand that all those stories were a blatant lie. Hamwis knew what the regime was capable of and what it was planning. They nevertheless showed unbending courage and defiance in the face of terrible odds. The regime will not emerge triumphant from this bloodbath as it did in the past. Rather than turning their backs on Hama, as they did in the past, Syria’s other cities are championing it. Hama’s cause with neither sectarian nor violent. This time around, Hama expressed the sentiments of the Syrian people in a peaceful way.
The Issue of Minorities
Most of my time in Syria was spent in the Christian quarters of Damascus. Despite personal familiarity with the inhabitants of these quarters, nothing in my upbringing prepared me for the level of vitriol and hatred I heard there toward the protestors. The most depressing aspect of my trip to Syria was to see many (and I fear most) of its Christians rallying in support of the regime.
I heard the same language used to describe my fellow Syrians and the brave protestors as I have so often heard used by Israelis to describe the struggles of Palestinian people: They are monsters, if they get their rights they will kill us’, ‘why are they sending their children to die?’, ‘they don’t want democracy, they are Islamic extremists who will kill us or oppress all us’, ‘no country can tolerate armed groups seeking to overthrow it’ etc. I was infuriated to consistently hear my heroes slandered and despised in their own country. And this by people who know only too well how brutal the regime is.
However if one is patient and overlooks the provocative slurs, one can detect a common theme among those who criticize the uprising: a genuine fear of the unknown. I believe that many who claim that the regime ‘protects minorities’ in fact fear retribution. Minorities which believe that they have benefited from the regime’s brutality and corruption over the past forty years believe that they are implicated in the eyes of the Sunni majority in its crimes. This is true not only of the Christians but even more so of the Isma’ilis and Alawis. I fear that the longer the regime clings to power and the more brutal it gets, the more sectarian feelings will intensify. Many feel the cross-sectarian chants (such as “Christians and Muslims are brothers” etc.) are disingenuous. This may be true, but I believe the criticism is a too harsh. At the start of the protests the demonstrators were viciously attacked by some as hiding a radical Islamist agenda. they responded in the best way they could: we have no such intentions, in fact we are all one, we love our Christian, Kurdish, and Alawi brothers etc. They were then attacked for saying this as well. In other words, it’s a no-win situation for these demonstrators who, apparently, like their Palestinian brethren, must prove the purity of their intentions. All they are doing, after all, is insist that they they be granted their elemental civil rights.
The regime has in fact been the biggest enemy of minorities, including most Alawis. Alawis must navigate a treacherous and difficult political path. The opposition needs to pay special attention to the sectarian issue and the social wounds after the fall of the regime. National reconciliation will be so important if Syria is to find unity and social peace. It is not enough to make the claim that most Alawis (or other minorities) are not with the regime, and that being a Alawi or Christian or Isma’ili has nothing to do with this regime. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, what seems to be on the table in Syria is a genuine revolutionary change and radical societal transformation that inevitably leaves many people fearful of the unknown. The gradualism, peacefulness, and decentralization of the Syrian revolution have been a major asset, although many I spoke with see the lack of an organized opposition they trust (and the Muslim Brotherhood definitely does not fall into this category for the people I am referring to) as potentially disastrous for the country.
I left Damascus three days into Ramadan with the general feeling that it was on the verge of a major escalation. The pro- and anti- regime demonstrations are headed in opposite directions numbers wise. After starting off as a militant movement to demand basic civil rights, the protests seem to have reached a zero-sum game, but this has still emboldened even more people to take to the streets.
The high death toll of the attack on Hama carried out on the day before Ramadan demonstrates that the regime has more or less given up the call for dialogue. Syria’s rulers believe that they can still crush the protest movement. At the same time, they have issued several political reform measures meant to placate foreign countries, who hope that Syria might emerge as a ‘liberal autocracy’ on the model of Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s. The opposition will not accept such thin gruel now that it has sacrificed so much and mobilized so many. Neither side is likely to back down.
Syria might very well descend into fighting and repression that becomes quite bloody. But even if it does, the revolution must be driven completely from the inside for moral as well as practical reasons. So far, despite government claims, it has been overwhelmingly non-violent, internally driven, and de-centralized, which explains its success. However this can only continue for so long. I fear that increased regime terror will lead to an increasingly armed response. After priding itself on maintaining stability, the regime will have to accept the responsibility for the destruction of Syria for the sake of maintaining power.
* Omar S. Dahi is Assistant Professor of Economics at Hampshire College. His email address is odahi at hampshire dot edu. His cell phone number is 413-313-2492.