Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Syria: The Use of Fear and Hope

What is keeping Syrian president Bashar al Assad in power? Why is it that Mubarak could go in 18 days, Ben Ali in 29, yet six months on, Assad junior is able to continue a brutal onslaught against his own people? As the streets of Libyan cities fill with jubilant crowds, celebrating the beginning of the end of Gaddafi, Syrians must be asking themselves: why won’t Damascus fall like Tripoli?

Answers lie in a number of areas. Much has been made of the Alawi power elite, which is keen to preserve its gains at all costs. Worried about the backlash from a brutal rule of over forty years, the very concentrated and powerful Alawi community could become an obvious target for revenge attacks. The wealthy Damascene merchant classes are also understood to prop up the government’s ‘coalition of the wealthy’; as long as they keep quiet, Assad can hold on. Finally, the divided and fragmented opposition – a product of what Joshua Landis has called a civil society ‘wasteland’ – is finding it hard to keep up the pressure. All these factors make a quick exit for Assad rather unlikely.

But fear of the regime still grips the nation. It’s this fear that plays a major role in preventing change.

In 1999, American academic Lisa Wedeen published an ethnographic study of Hafez al Assad’s Syria. ‘Ambiguities of Domination’ provided a superb insight into the mechanisms of Assad power consolidation and the family’s pervasive leadership cult. As Assad was seemingly adored as ‘The Father,’ ‘the Last Combatant’ or even ‘Salah al Din of Our Modern Time,’ (!) and pictures of Assad family members adorned every street wall, shop window and car bonnet, Syrians had to make a choice: refuse to comply with the farce, or face the consequences. Confronted with the absurdity of the leadership’s efforts at garnering support, many of the Syrians Wedeen met responded positively to the stories and propaganda despite their probable scepticism, because it made them feel safe. ‘The system of fear that fascism creates, means that people will act loyally, even if they do not feel loyal.’ She called it a system of acting ‘as if.’

12 years on, and that fear is ever-present; a part of daily life enforced and re-enforced by the all-seeing eye doctor and his family. A fear fed by one of the most extensive and pervasive security forces in the region that creeps into every part of society, making people wary of even mentioning the Assad name in their own homes, let alone making the kind of jokes frequently heard in Egyptian taxis or grocers about Mubarak. Informants lurk in every corner in every town, ready to feed information to the authorities either for the money that can sustain their families, or the reprieve their cooperation earns them. Assad has also been able to legitimize his rule through the threat of sectarian war. Whilst the US has expressed its fear of starting such a conflict, it is nothing compared to the anxiety felt in Damascus – Syrians saw first hand what happened in Lebanon. They don’t want it to happen again. Whilst of course other regimes are known for their brutality and subterfuge, Assad’s true colours are evident in the lengths he is taking to stay in power – the shocking naval strike on Latakia one such example. Gaddafi started his onslaught after NATO arrived, whilst Mubarak and Ben Ali’s armies switched loyalties almost immediately. Indeed, all these leaders faced significant desertions and defections from their own militaries. Not Syria. The sense of fear in the country is also heightened by a feeling of isolation and vulnerability – ‘we can do it on our own’ has slowly turned into ‘we need Turkey and Saudi,’ as the reality of this revolution starts to hit home.

But this fear is combined with a faint hope in Bashar himself – and that is what’s really holding back a major uprising. Average Syrians – not the brave men and women in hiding who are orchestrating this movement – but average citizens, are suspended in a curious balancing act of fear of the regime, and hope in Bashar. Assad is genuinely thought different to the rest of the regime, and capable of great things. A young leader, seeking to enact reforms but hindered by meddling western nations who sponsor ‘terrorists, drug dealers and saboteurs,’ many – particularly in Damascus and Aleppo – still think he has what it takes to steer the country to peace and prosperity. The Assads have built a Syria proud of its anti-western stance, and so the west’s condemnation of Bashar has fallen on many deaf ears. Indeed it simply feeds their conception of a president battling against all odds against powerful imperialist nations.

It is a hope on which the regime has capitalised for its survival. Whilst Hafez was framed in the Cold War image of a warrior president, his son has become the typical ‘refurbished’ autocrat, as Landis puts it, with his soft manner, calm demeanor and pretty, popular wife Asma. As Bashar’s early reforms either didn’t materialise or were immediately repealed, the regime was able to maintain the sense of hope artificially. Now as it faces a major uprising, the propaganda machine has been in over-drive and Bashar has been paraded on public outings with Asma, providing an image of a young couple in touch with the people – not like the decrepit Mubarak or the madman Gaddafi. Whilst his speeches and promises are seen as empty and futile to the west, it is important to remember that they are not written for us – the regime knows what hopes and fears it can play on, and uses them to its advantage. Indeed, it’s probably Assad’s public popularity that has stopped other regime members from taking the reigns so far.

The regime’s days may be numbered, and this hope may recede as the brutality of the government’s response becomes clearer. It is difficult to see how Assad can come back from this. But fear of reprisal without foreign support still obstructs a massive public upsurge, whilst at the same time hope that Bashar can restore peace keeps others in league with the regime. For many Syrians, the response – however brutal – is legitimized by a faint hope in a president they see as having fought for Syria against western powers; the only lion in a region full of sheep. Support for the protests is broad and strong, but as long as the right people support the wrong man, the battle to take down the president will rage for some time yet.


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Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo