| SYRIA |
RIOTS IN SYRIA
The Montréal Review, April 2011
Above the tomb of Hafez al-Assad in the Alawi town of Qardaha is a sign with a verse from the Koran: "Obey Allah, Obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you." "Those charged with authority" refers to the acting rulers, even if they do not rule by the grace of Islam. Not for naught was this verse chosen, as it is meant to lend Islamic justification even to a government of infidels. Since 1966, the Syrian regime has been in the hands of the small Alawi minority, considered by Islam to be infidels; its sons are not entitled to rule and, being idol worshippers, according to Islamic canon they do not even have the right to live.
Between 1976 and 1982, Islamic elements attempted to end Alawi rule, but the regime liquidated fifty thousand of them: twenty thousand in the Tadmor prison and another thirty thousand in Hama, which was subjected to heavy bombing that totally destroyed sections of the city. When Romanian President Ceausescu fell in late 1989, graffiti appeared in Syria, "Every Ceausescu has his day", with every Syrian knowing to whom this referred.
The rise of Bashar al-Assad to power in mid-2000 stirred the hopes of the Syrian people that a modern and educated president, a doctor and internet surfer, would herald a new spring for Syria. Indeed, during the last months of 2000, Syrians were granted permission to organize public gatherings of a political nature. However, the ruling elite, headed by the Intelligence, opposed the loosening of the reins, and Syria sank once again into political oppression.
Following the removal of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt several weeks ago, Bashar al-Assad announced governmental reforms, began to appear on the streets and at public events and, in early March, even participated (he is a doctor!) in the vaccination of children in a well-children clinic near Damascus. But Syria's citizens do not believe him. They want to remove his corrupt relatives, those who rule public life and the state's economy and line their pockets with billions while the nation is starving. Syrians are envious of their brothers in Egypt and Tunisia, but are afraid that the regime will behave as Qaddafi is.
It is possible that world reaction to Qaddafi will deter Bashar from perpetrating mass killings against those rising against him, but the delay in world response is liable to cost the lives of many Syrians. The Alawis and their collaborators know that it will be an all-out battle and will react accordingly. The hundreds of casualties of freedom who fell in Syria this week will not be the last. As of this writing, the regime is holding hundreds of youths who demonstrated against it these last few days, in an effort to quell the disturbances.
Illusions of Power
For years, the Syrian propaganda machine claimed that the state is like a melting pot in which all denominations, tribes, ethnic groups and religions become one Syrian nation, united behind the wise leadership of President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar. The public, however, never bought into this claim.
The Hauran region in the southwest, near the Golan, was and remains the most backward in Syria: A tribal society; high unemployment; drought that has impoverished villages; poverty; strong feelings of marginalization. The term "Haurani" is commonly used as an insult in Syria.
The Kurds in the north are full of grievances: They comprise a tenth of the population, but most have no citizenship, legal standing or medical care; their language is not recognized; their culture is oppressed. Their capital, Qamishli, was always the focal point of tension with the Arab majority.
The organizers of the protests in Syria called Friday, March 18, "The Day of Dignity" in order to symbolize the end of the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the tyrannical regime of the Assad and Makhlouf families. On that Friday there were demonstrations in many Syrian cities, but by Saturday and Sunday, the uprising persisted mainly in the regional capital of Hauran, Dar'a. During the week, the disturbances spread to other cities in the Hauran, and even in Damascus several dozen people felt that fear of the regime was vanishing.
Manifestations of Western determination in Libya place Assad in a trap. If he allows protests to continue, they will intensify as in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen; if he acts firmly against them, as did his father in Hamat, his fate is liable to mirror Qaddafi's. In an unprecedented move, Assad contacted Daran dignitaries, apologized for the killing of protesters and asked them to dampen the flames of revolt. According to the Syrian code of conduct, the president abased himself with this contact, which leaves the people to decide: To throw him to the dogs or accept his apology for the killings. In either case, his situation is bad. The Syrian melting pot is becoming inflamed, uniting the people against the president.
A History of Slaughter
A reminder of forgotten events: In February 1982, a division of Rifaat al-Asad's "Defense Companies" eradicated entire sections of the city of Hamat, and its artillery mercilessly killed about thirty thousand men, women, children and elderly - all Syrian citizens. The regime had banished all journalists and it took a month until initial reports of the slaughter leaked to the world.
Today, the southern city of Dar'a, on the Jordanian border, has been raging for a week - a week in which about hundred residents have been killed by police fire, hundreds have been wounded and many others arrested. But photographs, video clips and news of what is transpiring are reaching the internet in almost real time, despite the regime having shut down the cellular network and internet service in the city.
How? One possibility is to travel towards Jordan with the telephone that photographed the events and, using the Jordanian network, send the clip to YouTube. Another method is to bypass the Syrian service provider, which censors the internet, and connect to a satellite network or use proxy websites. As modern technology now enables Syrians to report government atrocities in real time, significantly fewer people are being killed now than in 1982, for the Syrian regime is afraid that if films of mass killings are made public, European countries will do to Syria what they are doing to Qaddafi - if only to settle their score regarding the Hariri murder, support of Iran and arms-smuggling to Hezbollah.
The official Syrian media report that "hooligans" are wreaking havoc in Dar'a, torching government offices and damaging public property. But everyone in Syria understands clearly the meaning of "havoc"; with protestors in Tunisia and Egypt successfully ousting the presidents in those countries, the challenge facing the Syria regime is its greatest since the Ba'th takeover in March 1963.
An Illegitimate State
Ever since France created Syria as an artificial state lacking public legitimacy, the country has been divided along various lines - religious (Moslems, Christians, Druze, Alawis), ethnic (Arabs, Kurds, Armenians), denominational (Sunnis, Shi'ites, Christian sects) and tribal. The government has invested substantial efforts in developing a national awareness which would unite all groups under one umbrella and create a new focal point for the loyalty of its citizens.
The media and the educational system, both under governmental control, were the main vehicles used to promote the new nationalism. Since Hafez al-Asad seized power in November 1970, the Syrian media have toiled day and night to crown him with glory in order to create a public atmosphere of adulation, acceptance and legitimacy. Even today, Hafez al-Asad's statues adorn hundreds of public squares throughout Syria. Nevertheless, the more effort exerted by the government propaganda machine, the greater the disbelief of the populace.
The Alawis, to whom President Asad belongs, are perceived as infidels and idol worshippers. Thus, they not only have no right to rule, but their right to live is strongly questioned by Islamic law, which offers idol worshippers a choice between conversion and slaughter. This attitude was reflected in its full severity between 1976 and 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood tried to remove the president, who, in a typical Middle Eastern response, ruthlessly massacred them. Syria has been relatively quiet since then, but it is a quiet born of fear, not of agreement.
The state is perceived by most of its citizens as a mechanism of oppression designed to allow a cruel and corrupt group, one that mobilizes the support of family heads by distributing economic monopolies that create "fat cats" who gobble up public money, to impose its rule over twenty million people. This corruption at the top reduces the state's ability to invest in job creation; lacking infrastructure, Syria has not been part of the wave of economic modernization that is engulfing many developing countries. Syria suffers from double-digit rates of unemployment, and in recent years, hundreds of thousands of villagers throughout the country have been forced to abandon their homes and farms and move to the cities to find other sources of income. The public, quite justifiably, blames all its troubles on the regime.
To remain in power, the controlling group employs no fewer than eleven internal security organizations, which also monitor each other so that none of them usurps power. Many citizens have personally experienced the iron hand of these organizations, which instill fear among the people. However, as Arab liberation movements have begun to topple presidents and regimes in recent weeks, cracks in the wall of fear have started to appear in Syria as well.
Social networks are not used extensively due to poverty, government control and censorship of the internet and the intelligence agencies' supervision of cellular phone traffic. Information about the timing of demonstrations, therefore, spread by word of mouth, but people are not so willing to go into the streets and be exposed as part of the opposition. The fear threshold is still high and not many believe that they are capable of bringing about an end to the corrupt regime through non-violent protests.
Bashar al-Assad was correct in saying a month ago that Syria was not Tunisia or Egypt: He will fight with determination and without sentiment to maintain power, because if he loses, he and his fellow Alawis are liable to be subject to mass slaughter by the Muslim majority. There are rumors that Syria dispatched fighters to help Qaddafi against his enemies, because if he falls, it might have a negative influence on the stability of the Syrian regime.
The young people are composing slogans designed to encourage themselves and humiliate the government. One of them is Asad Lubnan Arnab al-Houran - the lion (maning of "Asad") who acted bravely against the weak in Lebanon has become a rabbit when facing the heroes of Hauran. Even if the process will take time and cost lives, it seems that there is great determination among the youth of Syria to overthrow the government, and there are groups prepared to pay for freedom with blood.
And one small question: Has anyone noticed the recent silence in Israel from the choir of "Syrian experts" who, in the last few years, have called day and night for Israel to leave the Golan heights because "everyone knows what the price of peace with Syria is" and "this is the only way to separate Syria from Iran"? What happened to them? They have apparently swallowed their tongues or are still busy eating their hats.
One thing is certain, however: The ayatollahs of Iran and Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon are very worried about developments in Syria, because if the West gets involved in events there, the treaty between the Iranian and Syrian regimes as well as Syrian aid to Hezbollah may be endangered.
The article first appeared in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel.
Translated by Nachama Kanner
The article is dedicated to the memory of Avraham ben Yitzhak Rosenzweig.
Mordechai Kedar is a
a distinguished professor of Arabic literature and culture at Bar Ilan University. He served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence specializing in Syria, Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and Israeli Arabs.