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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.

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Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo

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