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Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Why Revolution is Coming to Syria

My first posting on this blog back in March explained why a revolution wasn’t likely in Syria. I’d spoken with many Syrian friends, followed the politics of the country closely and had myself lived in the country to witness both the apparent loyalty to the President and the tremendous fear of his security apparatus among the people. I was, like many Syrians themselves perhaps, convinced Syria would avoid the turmoil other countries have seen.

Five months later, and after having visited the country again this month to meet with opposition members, my conceptions were radically altered. I had given three reasons why revolution was not possible in Syria: the comparative lack of severe poverty, which for example affects Egyptians and fed their grievances against the government, Bashar al Assad’s anti-western rhetoric which endears him to the people and unites a multi-ethnic country, and his own personal popularity and perceived sensitivities in comparison with other members of his family. Aspects of these variables all remain true, but the façade is slowly being peeled away.

Whilst it is true that Syrians do not face the same daily material hardships as Egyptians do, their grievances are fed in other respects. Most importantly, they are fed by the savage and brutal crackdown on the people. Around 800 people are said to have died over the 18 days it took to oust Mubarak, but we are 5 months into the movement in Syria, and over 2000 are said to have died there (a very conservative estimate), with another probable 15,000 in prisons around the country. Football stadiums and schools are also being used to hold people, as capacity has been reached in most facilities. Whilst Egypt’s security forces are also notorious for their brutality, Syria’s security apparatus operates on another level of cruelty. Death is not all that awaits those who oppose the Syrian regime – or even those implicated in opposition by the many regime informants. Severe torture, electrocution, rape, solitary confinement and ritual humiliation are the brutal tools of repression being used. Everyday I was shown evidence of this on the bodies of members of the resistance groups I met. As more people face this severe response – and as we approach the holiest month of the year in Ramadan – public opinion of the government is quickly souring. The emergence of more and more men from prison – gaunt, pale and with burns on their bodies – simply generates more support for the opposition, and legitimizes their cause. Members of their families, once too scared to say anything, seek out opposition organisers to take part in the next protests. In the town of Madaya a handful of people had gone out onto the streets in the first few weeks of the protests. Last week, over 2000 hit the street. This is just one small example but it is being replicated in towns and villages all over the country. Protests also take many forms, and even in downtown Damascus, I saw many shop owners with their TVs on facing the street, blaring out al-Jazeera – the channel the government accuses of inspiring radicalism. This is just one subtle way a citizen who may not be able to protest can show his stance in public

Interestingly also, although much of the security apparatus is led by members of the ruling Alawi elite, their numbers are not high enough to fill every position. Those sent out onto the streets to shoot at protestors on a Friday for 1000 Syrian Pounds (about £13.00) may well have family members in other parts of the country who have themselves been targeted by security forces. The government will also be unable to keep paying these sums given the growing economic crisis. The response is therefore entirely unsustainable and alienating the public more and more each day.

Assad’s rhetoric – once believed to lend him the legitimacy other Arab leaders did not have – has also been exposed as entirely transparent. To the west (and to Syrian non-Muslims) he complains of Islamic fundamentalists and Salafi extremists causing havoc, whilst to his own people he describes the ‘western agents’ and drug dealers who destroy towns and villages. Visiting a Christian friend on my first day in the capital, I was amazed at just how many excuses he had totally bought into. The government feeds upon his own insecurities about fundamentalist Islamic opposition, and makes him sure that everyone who has died so far was an Islamic militant seeking to kill every non-Muslim. A while later, and I was speaking to a pro-government Sunni. No no, he said. It wasn’t Islamists, it was Israel and France – they were the ones causing all the problems. This confused and concocted reasoning continues to swirl around the Damascene population. Fear of reprisal still grips the people of Damascus and as such, it seemed to me they were willing to buy any excuse in order to remain safe. However, protests are getting closer and closer to the capital, and making it easier for its citizens to join in. Christians enjoy their relative autonomy in secular Syria, but once they see this would not necessarily be threatened by a new government, they may change their tune. And given wealthier Sunnis (who form an integral part of the government’s alliance) will start to lose faith in a system which is starting to see them lose money, they too may have reason to abandon the regime.

Given the conflicting reports, the government’s decision to allow foreign journalists inside Syria (only on a heavily restricted official basis), seemed strange as efforts by different ministers and spokesmen to explain these claims appeared empty and non-sensical. The division at the top of the government is therefore clearer to see – as one faction clearly wants to maintain a semblance of normality, whilst another continues its brutal onslaught.

As common as (mostly regime organised) pro-Assad rallies are in Damascus, they vanish as soon as you leave the city. Heading into the Damascene countryside, support for the opposition is palpable and as I drove with wanted members of the local branch of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union through the town of Zabadani, many nodded their appreciation or touched their hearts in greeting as we passed, signalling their solidarity with the movement. What is also clear, is that people from all walks of life are taking part in the protests, many from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The large majority of protestors are working class Sunni, but this is normal given their higher numbers in population, and their worsening socio-economic situation. Their cause is not a sectarian one – and they were keen to make that point known. It is a dangerous myth to assume the regime is keeping sectarian tensions at bay. It is doing exactly the opposite.

Finally, Bashar himself has been exposed as far weaker than previously thought. His English-educated wife and the time he himself spent in the UK lent him a sensitive, less dictator like air. But his perceived unassuming image and sensitive temperament are now understood as signs of weakness. Those in opposition call him ‘the duck’ – referring to his faint lisp, which leaves him unable to pronounce certain letters in Arabic. His talk of reform and the inaction that follows consolidates his image as a powerless President. One opposition member put it to me like this: “Just because you think someone is nice, does not mean they should be President. People in this country are made to believe that Bashar is a good man and that he cares. This may be the case – although I doubt it. But it doesn’t matter if he is good or not – I quite like my uncle but I don’t think he should be President!”

The long-term image of the father-like President is one many leaders in the region have nurtured; convincing the people that they love their people like a father loves his children. But that image is starting to crack in Syria, as the younger generation is better equipped to make better judgements to find better leaders. Many more people are starting to realise that they don’t ‘need’ Bashar, and their resilience in the face of severe repression is growing stronger every day. A change is coming in Syria – whether it is a full-scale social revolution in the true meaning of the phrase is another matter, but over 3 million people took to the streets around the country last week – a much higher proportion of the population than was evident in Egypt. And they were united in their call for the fall of the regime. It may take far longer than elsewhere, and – as was suggested by an opposition member – it may result in a breakdown in order for a period of time. But there is no coming back for this President now.

Filed under: Middle East

Syria: Interview with Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union leader in Qabon

Interviewed 7/7/2011 in Qabon, Syria

Aired on National Public Radio in the US, using my alias Hussayn al Haqq

Qabon is a town of around 30,000, 5 km from Damascus. 11 people have died here since the beginning of the protests. To date, the people of this town have protested everyday for the last 44 days.

HH: Tell me about yourself and the organization you represent here in Qabon.

OK: I am the leader of SRCU in Qabon. I’m 29ys old and I come from an average family. My parents are government workers and I am an English literature graduate. I’ve lived here all my life. The revolution started here on the 18th March, just as it did all over Syria. We feel we have a major chance to do something and we can’t let that chance go.

HH: How does the SCRU function on a local level?

OK: We form around Facebook groups. There are 5 people in the administration of our Qabon group. One person sorts videos, another for news, another for technical support and so on. We also have many people working in the organisation of the protests as well – around 150 people throughout the town.

HH: Why did you decide personally to get involved in the opposition?

OK: After 30 years of Hafez al Assad, and 11 years of Bashar, we believe it’s enough. After the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and the efforts in Libya and Yemen, we saw what we had to do. We were inspired by the protests throughout the region. The events in Dar’aa were part of it, but mostly we saw what people were doing elsewhere in the region. My family is very scared for me, and I know they wish I was doing something else or ignoring the situation. But I can’t – too many people have died for me to give up. I’ve seen people die in front of me – one man bled to death from a gunshot wound to the leg because we couldn’t get him to a hospital. This is an important cause and we won’t give up.

HH: There have been reports of Islamists operating in Syria, working to overthrow the regime. Can you explain why that might be?

OK: The Assad regime is trying to give Europe and the US the impression that an Islamic empire is being built up in Syria, which would be dangerous for Israel. Bashar likes to market himself in Europe as someone who can protect the west from Islamic fundamentalism. But there are no Islamic groups like this in Qabon at all. In the protests you see Muslims, Christians, and many other people with different ethnic backgrounds – it’s not about religion. This is the same all over the country. This government has two arguments – to the people of Syria they say Israelis and foreigners are starting the troubles. And to the west, they say its Islamists – its obviously all just empty excuses. When you see people coming out from the mosques, you can see them shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ But this is just a rallying cry – it unites people. At the beginning it was also safer to say this than anything too explicit against the government. This is not about religion for us. None of the Imams have spoken out against the regime here – and we don’t need them. People don’t get their legitimacy from the mosques; we get it from each other. Its people power.

HH: You mentioned Facebook before. How important have the Internet, and applications like Skype and Facebook been to your efforts in connecting your different networks?

OK: The Internet is vital. We can’t move around at all in the streets, as the security forces are everywhere. It is very difficult to trust anyone. The “internet allows us contact with all the other coordinators around Syria, like in Hamah and Homs for example.

HH: How do you explain the pro-Bashar demonstrations? Why are people still supporting the President?

OK: I will give you an example. In Damascus University, after students complete their exams, the security forces load them into buses. They then take them to the pro-Bashar demonstrations. Those who don’t go, fail their exams. The regime forces or bribes many people to assist in the pro-regime rallies. It is true that some of their marches are genuine. 5 or 10 % believe in Bashar I’d say. But this is only because their businesses are linked to the regime and need the money to keep going. Its not necessarily because they feel he is the right man for the job, or that he is even a good man.

HH: Would the SRCU ever talk to the government?

OK: We don’t trust this government. There are tanks all over the country killing people. We cannot talk to a government that continues to kill people. Our strategy is to make as many protests as possible, all around Syria, from the country to the cities. And it is working so far. In Qabon for example, we have continued demonstrations everyday for 44 days. (We go that evening to the candle-lit vigil in front of the town’s main mosque. From 10.30pm, the electricity is cut. Nevertheless, 2,000 congregate in the darkness.). In the first month of the revolution, people only demonstrated on the Friday. Now we go out every night. And we reached 20,000 demonstrators here last Friday. That’s half the population of the city – virtually every man in Qabon.

HH: What do you think will happen during Ramadan?

OK: No one can predict what will happen here. This regime is crazy – we don’t expect anything. But Ramadan is the most important month of the year. If people see the government killing people during such a holy time, we will gain much more support. Ramadan is an important time economically also. So the SRCU have also been organizing economic boycotts all around Syria. We boycott certain products from businesses that support the government.

HH: Is there a structured leadership waiting to take over after Bashar?

OK: This is something we are talking about now. Bashar will definitely go. In either 5 or 6 days, or 4 or 5 months. He has to realize he is not wanted. So we have started making plans for a future without him. We want to bring all the right people into Syria to discuss the future and will bring people from all the different sects. We are already talking with people all over the country in order to form an opposition. But no one from the SCRU is going to be a political leader after this. We are organizing protests, and are trying to make them understand what might happen next, but no one from the union wants to work in politics. The average person here, to be honest, has no idea what will happen after a regime change. They hope things will be easier for them but they don’t really know how. So that is our job in the SCRU, to educate people about what might happen, and warn them against violence. Maybe there could be violence; there could be sectarian war. But we are working everyday to make sure these things don’t happen.

HH: Who inspires you?

OK: Omar al Mukhtar in Libya (the anti-colonial revolutionary who was hanged in 1931 by the Italians) – he was a poor person who believed in something and he tried to make it real. No surrender. In Syria, we had Faris al Khoury – who was Christian. (Khoury the famous Syrian Christian Prime Minister of the 40s and 50s.).  And Saleh al Ali who was Alawi. The people who inspire me come from many different sects but they all had clear goals.

HH: What does democracy mean for you?

OK: Democracy means that when I see something wrong, I can say something. For me, for my group and for my people also. We want to be able to speak out and say what we feel. I hope that one day we will be able to live in freedom.

Filed under: Middle East

Syria: In Hiding with the Real Opposition

The following is a personal account of the three days I spent in the mountains around Damascus with opposition members. A different version of this account appeared in The Times on Monday 4th June 2011

‘We want what you have – freedom.’ Four months ago, Ali Jaber Abu Hamze was a farmer in the small town of Madaya, in the Damascene countryside. Now he is Madaya’s head of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union. He is in his mid thirties, with a thick black beard and a probing glare. As we take our seats in a large lemon grove, which adjoins the disused farmhouse where he hides, he explains his journey. Over the next hour two things become very clear: This man and his followers are – despite the best efforts of the Syrian government to publicise otherwise – neither Islamists nor violent extremists. And this – not the LCC – is the real opposition to the Syrian government. He says he is so dedicated to the cause, that he allows the use of his real name.

Ali Jaber has spent a year in a Syrian prison, and explains the brutality that made him even more convinced of his government’s illegitimacy. ‘Because it is difficult to find work, people earn money as informants. This country runs on informants. Someone told the government I spoke against the President.’ Crushed into a 5 by 5 metre space, groups of 40-50 men are stripped, covered in water and electrocuted with cattle prods. Forced rape, torture and beatings are common. He continues for a few minutes in far more gruesome detail until he pauses, and says ‘you must understand. We are not terrorists, nor Salafiya militants, nor Islamists. We are just regular Syrian people calling for the end to this regime. We are not using violence, we are responding to their violence.’ He goes onto explain his pre-revolutionary life as a farmer in the Damascene countryside. I am introduced to others who also led similarly unremarkable lives before protests began – mechanics, teachers, engineers and students, all of them from ordinary backgrounds wishing to do extraordinary things. Ali Jaber goes onto explain how immediately after the first protests in Dar’aa, virtually every young man in Syria was pulled into a local jail for questioning. ‘This is what made people join the protests. And when you see women and children dying at the hands of your government, you must act.’ He explains how the government pays 1000 Syrian Pounds on a Friday to any thug willing to beat or shoot protestors. ‘They are the violent ones.’

It is these men’s comparative normality that makes their cause all the more special, particularly given the extremely well-developed network they have managed to build. This becomes clearer as we head to another town, Zabadani. As we emerge from the compound in Madaya more men appear, and jump onto their motorbikes – they act as scouts for the 30 minute journey between the two towns, racing ahead to check for security forces. As we speed through the olive groves along dirt tracks in the middle of the night, the driver is alerted to another car following us. He takes a handgun from the glove compartment. ‘We have to protect ourselves,’ insists Ali Jaber, seeing my startled look. ‘You will see at the protests, we are not violent.’ We stop in a lay-by and wait for the car to pass, before continuing our journey. Syrian security is incredibly well-developed, with 17 separate branches. These men know to look for the black Peugeots of the internal security, or the larger people carriers of military intelligence.

A very basic three-room farm building, set on a small hill overlooking the apricot and cherry groves that carpet this Syrian-Lebanese border region, forms the base of Zabadani operations. Many more young men are there – all wanted by the authorities. Some of the men continue their regular jobs – as farmers or labourers – and use their wages to pay the way of the others who are unable to return to work. 7 men are on guard at all times, each with a walkie-talkie to avoid cellular tracing. Around 20 men spend their time between the street and this small farmhouse, where they eat, sleep and watch the news. At various intervals over the next three days the atmosphere darkens, as reports come in about security forces nearby. As each threat subsides, the mood lightens slightly, and jokes about the President’s appearance abound over a meal made in the house’s small kitchen. This has now become the reality of life for these men, and people like them all over Syria, separated from their families and living as fugitives. The regional leader in Zabadani, himself yet another former prisoner, shows me his mangled foot, on which guards repeatedly stamped when he was in jail, the fingers from which his nails were pulled, and the scars from repeated beatings on his back. Another man with diabetes explains how guards ignored his pleas for insulin when he was arrested, and allowed him to faint in his cramped jail cell before sending him to a military hospital, where a doctor broke a needle off in his arm. ‘They treat us like we are nothing. But now we are going to make something of this country.’

I ask about the organisation, and how it is structured. ‘From the street up!’ is the reply, ‘the LCC is hijacking our cause – men like us arranged the protests around the country.’ The others all signal their agreement. These men believe their real leaders are the ones still in prison, such as political activist Kamal Lubwani. Mohammad Ali (not his real name), is a young student who was made to fail his exams because he went to protest. He should have graduated this year. ‘I have not been arrested but I am afraid for my family. We have heard stories about how they rape women. He starts to cry as he explains, ‘if my sister is raped in front of me, I don’t know what I would do. People are losing their fear and getting angry.’

The following day his comments ring true as the biggest protests Syria has seen so far erupt all around the country. ‘We could not do this without the Internet or Facebook, Muhammad Ali explains as we look on at Zabadani’s protest from a nearby roof. ‘Are you not scared?’ I ask, ‘No. I am more scared of a future with Bashar al Assad as President. We are doing this for our children.’

Filed under: Middle East

Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo