Posted by Joshua on Friday, April 22nd, 2011
The Maydan has long been the center of revolutionary activity in Damascus. Salah Bitar, a founder of the Baath Party, was from the Maydan. It is the traditional home of the grain merchants who provisioned the city with crops from Deraa and the bread basket of Southeastern Syria. Attitudes of Sunni Damascus could well be shaped by the way the Maydan responds. One readers sent this note:
My grandparents and their families were all Meedani. My grandmother used to tell me that I have the hands (peasant hands apparently) of the Meedan. Regardless – this is definitely the heart of Damascus… and does not bode well…. My two uncles are visiting here in Boston. They are both well off Sunni business people – one with large business interests in Damas (says everything is tanking right now – and nobody can pay him their debts) and both with property interests…. both are sitting here defending the status quo and repeating some of the gov’t line … can’t afford chaos and vulnerable country without its president.
While at the same time – their sons/nephews are busy posting revolutionary rhetoric on their internet pages… and cussing out the regime to each other (off line).
Syria’s streets seem to be filled with the endlessly numerous youth of the country, who are angry, underemployed and ready for change. As the death toll rises, the likelihood of either side backing down grows smaller and the likelihood of prolonged struggle grows larger.
Demonstrators stormed the mayor’s office near Daraa in what could become a precedent for opposition action in the future. It is not clear what the opposition’s strategy is other than to continue increasing the number of demonstrators. So far, there has been no systematic resort to arms by the opposition in the face of the crackdown or effort to take over government buildings. In Banyas, there seemed to be armed elements that exploited the chaos brought on by demonstrations. But in most cities, this has not been the case. The opposition has been able to retain its discipline behind the call for peaceful protest.
Two Syrian MPs from the protest hub city of Daraa on Saturday told Al-Jazeera television they were quitting parliament in protest at the bloodshed in their country.
Ghassan Ben Jedou, a main TV personality at al-Jazeera has resigned, claiming that the station has become a center of incitement for the revolutions rather than a news agency. [Comment above by JL]
A Question from a reader:
As a foreigner in Syria, I am following the events “on the ground” with great concern. Speaking to members of the diplomatic circuit, it seems to be the perception that until the unrest reaches Aleppo and/or Damascus, the situation is “bearable”, from the embassies’ point of view. In light of that thinking, yesterday’s events, as I see it, were not decisive and we may have to wait yet again for Friday to come to see “what will happen next”. However, in all this there is one thing that puzzles me, which brings me to my question to you: Aleppo seems to be remarkable quiet in all this. There has been some activities on the university campus, but given that we’re talking about Syria’s largest city, it may be considered insignificant. In your opinion, what can be the possible explanation for this?
I am adding two comments by readers because they reflect two different interpretations of the “Great Friday” events:
I am now in Syria. What Joshua Landis writes in no way represents the truth. He has just decided to adopt the opposition’s version of the story for some reason. His last two posts were very skewed and do not reflect the reality on the ground in anyway.
Polarization here is very high. I used to argue that Aleppo and Damascus are mostly Islamist so they must join the uprising at one point, however, this is not the reality on the ground. Most people here are obviously pro-regime, and they are getting very hostile to the demonstrators. I am hearing a lot of people who say the government has been dealing so softly with them. Many people would like the government to act even more harshly against the demonstrators. There is little sympathy with the killed. People are very worried about their future living. It was surprising to me that the poorest people were the most hostile to the demonstrators. One taxi driver told me that he earns his living by day and if he stops working for one day, he will have nothing to feed his family on that day.
When few people tried to demonstrate in Bab al-Hadid in Aleppo on Thursday, they were surrounded by ordinary residents of the neighborhood and they were not allowed to move. The demonstration was so small (definitely less than a hundred). Yesterday, the ‘Great Friday’ demonstration was surrounded by a larger crowed of ordinary citizens who were chanting for Bashar. You could even hear it in the clip that appeared on Youtube.
The same happened in Damascus. The Maydan demo was small, and it lasted for minutes. There were no killings at all, this is just BS like the other BS Joshua Landis has been publishing lately (like for example his claim that the mufti has joined the revolution). Much of Joshua’s information is false, and maybe this is what is making his evaluations unrealistic. I don’t know if he’s doing it on purpose or if he has just screwed up in picking his sources. Be careful with picking your sources Mr. Landis. People like Ammar Abdulhamid are not good sources.
The regime decided yesterday to shoot at people because it knew people were ready to accept that. Actually, the majority of Syrians are expecting more use of force from the government and they don’t mind it. We may be heading to some major clash similar to that of the 1980’s, but the regime has most of the people on its side. The media weapon has not been very effective, and foreign intervention does not seem a realistic threat. I believe the regime is willing to take the challenge. Bashar Assad said that he does not fear anything as long as he has the people on his side. He indeed has a majority of the people on his side.
The Islamist insurgents have no chance of controlling a single village in Syria, not to say a city. In Libya, Qaddafi lost control over the eastern half of his country. In Egypt, Mubarak’s police stations were stormed by demonstrators and the demonstrations went unchecked. This cannot happen in Syria for many reasons, the most important reason being that the demonstrators do not have enough manpower to do it.
I don’t know why people were shot yesterday, but it sounds from what they said that they were trying to storm government and security buildings. They totally failed. The regime has huge militias composed of students, workers, and farmers in addition to the formidable security forces. These militias can easily defeat those Islamist protesters. The protesters cannot control a single village in Syria, they are too few and too weak. Like a caller said on Al-Jazeera yesterday, the demonstrators without the media are nothing.
The uprising in Syria is not meant to overthrow the regime because the people behind it know that it cannot. It is only meant to destabilize Syria and force political concessions on it. Just listen to the American statements.
Zenobia, who reacts to another comment:
Spare everyone who just watched those videos above your complete garbage!…
If African Americans had waited for the state or federal government to come to the rescue and win them their civil rights…. there would still be lynchings in Georgia today! They had to go out and risk their lives to seize their rights….so please don’t make ludicrous comparisons. If you think corruption in Norway or even in the United States is on par with Syria, you are in a complete fantasy. Probably most Syrians were willing to wait and be patient, but when the bullets start flying – there is no patience left – there is nothing to lose.
When you watch these videos and the many, many others….have you seen any of these people lying on the ground with a weapon next to them????? NO, none. Was that child with his head blown off….carrying a gun?? NO. he wasn’t. Where are these supposed terrorists? There are now – a zillion videos up on the internet… and nobody has been able to produce any ANYYYYY footage of these foreigner ‘insurgents’… the whole security services can’t name any one of the supposed persons who attacked them or supposedly attacked civilians? Where are they hiding at night! This is insane. These are Syrians laying on the ground…
This president may be opening his mouth and appearing to be “cooperating”…but there is a massive killing machine unleashed at the same time – that he must answer for. And there is not one excuse – any one can use to justify the bloodshed. No vandalism is an excuse, no made up story about people assaulting a church!… You must not have ever traveled to Switzerland…. because this is not what is going on there – politically and in terms of violence. It is not the slow pace of change that is going to bring this gov’t down, if it comes down. What will bring it down is this bloodshed. If you want to compare yourself to the Congo or Ivory Coast favorably, go ahead, but that is pretty pathetic.
Anthony Shadid in NYTimes
Organizers said the movement was still in its infancy, and the government, building on 40 years of institutional inertia, still commanded the loyalty of the military, economic elite and sizable minorities of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects who fear the state’s collapse.
Coming a day after Mr. Assad endorsed the lifting of draconian emergency rule, the killings represented another chapter in the government’s strategy of alternating promises of concessions with a grim crackdown that has left it staggering but still entrenched.
“There are indications the regime is scared, and this is adding to the momentum, but this is still the beginning,” said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group. “Definitely, we haven’t seen the millions we saw in Egypt or Tunisia. The numbers are still humble, and it’s a reality we have to acknowledge.”
Syria unrest: ‘Bloodiest day’ as troops fire on rallies
22 April 2011, BBC
At least 72 protesters have been killed by security forces in Syria, rights groups say – the highest reported death toll in five weeks of unrest there. Demonstrators were shot, witnesses say, as thousands rallied across the country, a day after a decades-long state of emergency was lifted. Many deaths reportedly occurred in a village near Deraa in the south, and in a suburb of the capital, Damascus.
The US White House urged the government to stop attacking demonstrators. Spokesman Jay Carney said it should “cease and desist in the use of violence against protesters” and follow through on promised reforms.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “extremely concerned” by reports of deaths and casualties across Syria and urged restraint on the country’s authorities. “Political reforms should be brought forward and implemented without delay,” he said. “The Emergency Law should be lifted in practice, not just in word.”..
April 22 (Bloomberg) — U.S. President Barack Obama condemned “the outrageous use of violence” in Syria against protesters today.
One reader writes: worst picture yet just showed up on facebook.com/syrian.revolution. I did not want to put it not to upset u guys.
Another reader writes: You have to watch Syrian tv. It’s been showing even more graphic images for the police and others killed by the demonstrators. It’s extremely graphic and unbelievable.
Another reader: the demonstrations have reached the centers of non-Sunni communities such as Suweidaa [Druze] and Salamiyeh [Ismaili].
Dear Joshua, I hope you are doing well. I was reading you page this morning and saw that somebody posted two links pretending that they were from Sweida and Salamieh. I just want to clarify that no protests took place in Sweida yesterday. I am from Sweida and I was in contact with my family there all the day yesterday. Everything is calm there. For those who know Sweida they can discover from watching the videos thatneither the buildings nor the people’s clothing are traditional from Mouhafazat Al-Sweida. It seems that some people want to exaggerate the events, and provocate others. I hope you can add my remark to your page after the links.
Robert Kaplan has always been sensationalist when it comes to Syria’s propensity for dissolution. Syria has come a long way since WWI, but not far enough for what it is about to pass through. (JL)
Syriana: After Bashar al-Assad, the deluge.
BY ROBERT D. KAPLAN | APRIL 21, 2011, Foreign Policy
The late Princeton scholar Philip K. Hitti called Greater Syria — the historical antecedent of the modern republic — “the largest small country on the map, microscopic in size but cosmic in influence,” encompassing in its geography, at the confluence of Europe, Asia, and Africa, “the history of the civilized world in a miniature form.” This is not an exaggeration, and because it is not, the current unrest in Syria is far more important than unrest we have seen anywhere in the Middle East.
“Syria” was the 19th-century Ottoman-era term for a region that stretched from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in the north to the Arabian Desert in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Mesopotamia in the east. Present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, western Iraq, and southern Turkey were all included in this vast area. In other words, the concept of “Syria” was not linked to any specific national sentiment. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I led to Greater Syria being carved into a half-dozen states. Although territory had been cut away on all sides, the rump French mandate of “Syria” that came into existence, nevertheless, contained not only every warring sect and regional and tribal interest, but also the spiritual headquarters in the capital Damascus of the pan-Arab movement, whose aim was to erase all the state borders that the Europeans had just created.
Pan-Arabism — of which the post-World War II independent state of Syria claimed to constitute the “throbbing-heart” — became a substitute for Syria’s very weak national identity. Indeed, Syria’s self-styled “steadfast” hatred of Israel was a way for Syrians to escape their own internal contradictions. Those contradictions were born of the parochial interests of regionally based ethnic and sectarian groups: Sunni Arabs in the Damascus-Homs-Hama central corridor; heretical, Shiite-trending Alawites in the mountains of the northwest; Druze in the south, with their close tribal links to Jordan; and Kurds, Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Circassians in Aleppo.
Between 1947 and 1954, Syria held three national elections that all broke down more or less according to these regional and sectarian lines. After 21 changes of government in 24 years and a failed attempt to unify with Egypt, the Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. By ruling with utter ruthlessness, he kept the peace in Syria for three decades. To wit, when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rose up in Hama in 1982, he killed more than 20,000 Sunni Muslim civilians there in response, according to some estimates. Assad’s son, Bashar, who succeeded his father as Syria’s president a decade ago, has yet to make his bones in such a way. It is unclear whether the son is visionary enough to satisfy today’s protesters, or cruel enough like his father to stay in power. His regime’s survival may require stores of both attributes. A complicating factor is that to a much greater degree than his father, the son is trapped within a web of interest groups that include a corrupt business establishment and military and intelligence leaders averse to reform. So the political crisis in Syria will likely continue to build.
Syria at this moment in history constitutes a riddle. Is it, indeed, prone to civil conflict as the election results of the 1940s and 1950s indicate; or has the population quietly forged a national identity in the intervening decades, if only because of the common experience of living under an austere dictatorship? No Middle East expert can say for sure.
Were central authority in Syria to substantially weaken or even break down, the regional impact would be greater than in the case of Iraq. Iraq is bordered by the strong states of Turkey and Iran in the north and east, and is separated from Saudi Arabia in the south and Syria and Jordan to the west by immense tracts of desert. Yes, the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries, but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater. That is because of the proximity of Syria’s major population zones to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are unstable already.
Remember that Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel are all geographically and historically part of Greater Syria, a reason that successive regimes in Damascus since 1946 never really accepted their legitimacy. The French drew Lebanon’s borders so as to bring a large population of mainly Sunni Muslims under the domination of Maronite Christians, who were allied with France, spoke French, and had a concordat with the Vatican. Were an Alawite regime in Damascus to crumble, the Syria-Lebanon border could be effectively erased as Sunnis from both sides of the border united and Lebanon’s Shiites and Syria’s Alawites formed pockets of resistance. The post-colonial era in the Middle East would truly be closed, and we would be back to the vague borders of the Ottoman Empire.
What seems fanciful today may seem inevitable in the months and years ahead. Rather than face a “steadfast” and rejectionist, albeit predictable, state as the focal point of Arab resistance, Israel would henceforth face a Sunni Arab statelet from Damascus to Hama — one likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood — amid congeries of other fiefdoms. The unrest in Syria brings the Middle East perhaps to a precipice. Peaceful or not, the future of the region will be one of weakened central authority. Mesopotamia at least has a historic structure, with its three north-south oriented ethnic and sectarian entities. But Greater Syria is more of a hodgepodge.
For most of history, prior to the colonial era, Middle Eastern borders mattered far less than they do now, as cities like Aleppo in northern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq had more contact with each other than with the respective capitals of Damascus and Baghdad. The ruins of Hatra, southwest of Mosul in Iraq, a Silk Road nexus of trade and ideas that reached its peak in the second and third centuries A.D., attest to a past and possible future of more decentralized states that could succeed the tyrannical perversions of the modern nation-state system. Hatra’s remains reflect the eclectic mix of Assyrian, Hellenistic, Parthian, and Roman styles that set the stage for early Islamic architecture. Then there are the ruins of Dura-Europos, a Parthian caravan center founded in 300 B.C., halfway between Syria and Mesopotamia and known as the “Pompeii of the East.” Frescoes from the synagogue at Dura-Europos grace the halls of the National Museum in Damascus. Both these sets of ruins have a vital political significance for the present, for they indicate a region without hardened borders that benefited from the free flow of trade and information.
But the transition away from absolutist rule in the Middle East to a world of commercially oriented, 21st-century caravan states will be longer, costlier, and messier than the post-1989 transitions in the Balkans — a more developed part of the Ottoman Empire than Greater Syria and Mesopotamia. The natural state of Mesopotamia was mirrored in the three Ottoman vilayets of Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad, and Shiite Basra. The natural state of Greater Syria beyond the constellation of city-states like Phoenicia, Aleppo, Damascus, and Jerusalem is more indistinct still.
European leaders in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th were engrossed by the so-called Eastern Question: that is, the eruptions of instability and nationalist yearnings in the Balkans and the Middle East caused by the seemingly interminable, rotting-away death of the Ottoman Empire. The Eastern Question was eventually settled by the cataclysm of World War I, from which the modern Arab state system emerged. But a hundred years on, the durability of that post-Ottoman state system should not be taken for granted.
Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, correspondent for the Atlantic, and author of Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.