The Syrian revolution spreads

April 21, 2011

Yusef Khalil looks at the dynamics of the widening revolt in Syria.

PROTESTS CHALLENGING the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad continued as the opposition movement spread across the country following protests after Friday prayers last week on April 15.

The latest flashpoint was the industrial city of Homs, with a population of 1.5 million. According to Al Jazeera, 21 people were killed in a security crackdown by the regime on April 18 and 19, a prelude to military-style occupation of the city the following day.

The protests and repression in Homs resemble an earlier cycle of demonstrations and crackdowns in the city of Baniyas, where protests against the killings of demonstrators led to the removal of the local police chief. The struggle also continues in the southern city of Daraa, where the mass protests began in early March following the arrest and torture of boys and teens for writing anti-regime graffiti.

Since then, Friday prayers have been a focal point for further pro-democracy protests, confounding government efforts to contain the movement in Daara and dismiss the protests as the work of foreign Islamist agitators.

Mass protests flood the street in Damascus
Mass protests flood the street in Damascus

Thus, under massive popular pressure, Assad acknowledged the Syrian people's legitimate grievances. He dissolved the government and formed a new cabinet tasked with quickly responding to those grievances.

This did not, however, succeed in quelling the rebellion. Tens of thousands of people--and according to some reports hundreds of thousands--came out to protest in mid-April in cities and towns all over Syria.

THE DEMONSTRATORS are demanding freedom, democracy, justice, equality and the creation of a civilian government. They are also demanding the lifting of the Emergency Law, legalization of multiple political parties, an investigation of all those involved in killing peaceful demonstrators and an end to government corruption. There is very little trust in the government or its official news agency anymore, even among its own supporters.

Significantly, Assad promised to lift the nearly 50-year-old Emergency Law, although he left the actual implementation to the new cabinet.

The Emergency Law was activated in 1963 when the Baath Party came to power in a military coup and has been in effect ever since. It gives the state, especially the president, far-reaching powers to detain citizens without charge, ban demonstrations and public gatherings, censor the media, eavesdrop on private communications and interrogate people. The unpopular law effectively suspends most constitutional rights, and lifting it has been a key demand of protesters.

The Syrian regime has long justified the Emergency Law by pointing to its formal state of war with Israel. Assad--like his father before him, President Hafaz Al-Assad him--has used the claim that Syria is the "fortress of resistance" to stifle opposition to his rule. As political analyst Lamis Andoni writes:

Syrian critics of the regime are often arrested and charged--without due process--with serving external--often American and Israeli--agendas to undermine the country's "steadfastness and confrontational policies." But these acts have never been adequately condemned by Arab political parties and civil society, which have supported Syria's position on Israel while turning a blind eye to its repressive policies.

Thus, while Syrian dissidents, including prominent nationalist and leftist intellectuals, are incarcerated in Syrian jails, other Arab activists and intellectuals have flocked to Damascus to praise its role in "defending Arab causes."

Syria has indeed refused to sign a peace treaty with Israel unless Syrian territory--the occupied Golan Heights--is returned. Syria has also given support to Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements against Israel. Assad has also positioned Syria in alliance with Iran as an obstacle to U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.

It is important to point out, however, the contradictory and self-serving (not to mention detrimental) nature of these actions.

Syria only supports resistance against Israel from abroad. It does not allow any arms smuggling or attacks against Israel across its own borders. Even when it does support anti-Israel forces, the Syrian government demands a monopoly on the resistance. In the 1980s in Lebanon, for example, resistance groups that were outside the Syrian regime's control were marginalized, if not directly violently repressed.

It's also important to remember that Syria's initial foray into the Lebanese civil war in 1976 was against left nationalist and Palestinian forces, and culminated in the artillery bombardment and massacre of Palestinians in Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp later that year. As Andoni writes:

[I]t is wrong, and at times immoral, to remain silent about the Syrian regime's crimes and to deny that its agenda has been self-serving.

The regime's "survive at any cost" policy saw it join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 1990 and enthusiastically cooperate with the "war on terror" after 9/11. Its "resistance position" did not prevent it from torturing the Syrian Maher Arar when he was handed over to security services as part of the [U.S.'s] controversial extraordinary rendition policy.

The cynical use of revolutionary political language by the regime to cover its contradictory political positions has no doubt helped it. But the Arab revolutions have stripped all regimes of their masks, and this regime's attempt to crush protests has unveiled its tyrannical face.

UNDER MASS pressure, Assad has now said that he has come to realize that there is a gap between the people and state institutions. He instructed the cabinet "to eliminate this gap and fill it with the trust of the citizens in their state. Trust will not be built except through transparency."

Yet these mild concessions have been coupled with a bloody crackdown by the regime's security forces, which immediately met the initial demonstrations with live ammunition. So far, more than 200 people have been killed.

Claiming that armed gangs and "foreign conspiracy" are the driving force behind the revolt, Assad has sought to drive a wedge between people's legitimate demands and the demonstrators on the streets. He has sought to isolate and suppress the revolts in the different localities.

These are tactics that the regime has relied on in the 40 years of Assad family dictatorship. Hafez al-Assad sent the military to drown an Islamist protest movement in blood in 1982, and the armed forces slaughtered an estimated 10,000 people in the town of Hama.

Now, Bashar al-Assad is following a similar script in his effort to crush opposition movements to his rule, this time blaming "foreigners" and networks of provocateurs. But how can a "conspiracy" bring out hundreds of thousands into the streets in a peaceful popular revolution? Why is it that the "armed gangs" only attack during demonstrations of the opposition, while the pro-government rallies are spared?

For every Syrian who is martyred, beaten, arrested, tortured, there are dozens of family and friends who know that they are not armed conspirators.

The regime and its media mouthpieces' repetition of "conspiracy" accusations are quickly eroding whatever legitimacy they may still have in the eyes of the people. The official news on TV simply does not match people's own experience or what they are hearing from other sources around the country. They see the regime's speeches and the harsh treatment of themselves, their relatives and their fellow citizens as an affront to their dignity. This is radicalizing even more people as they raise the chant, "The Syrian people will not be humiliated."

The major difference in the current period, however, is that Syrians have been inspired and emboldened by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They feel that their struggle for dignity, freedom and justice is part of the unfolding revolutionary wave in the Arab world. This common cause has given new horizons to the Syrian revolt. The regime's usual method of isolating sections of the population and playing them against each other cannot work in this context.

NEVERTHELESS, THE regime continues to play a very dangerous card when it warns of an impending civil war if the regime falls.

This is not new. The Baath Party has claimed it would protect Syria's ethnic and religious minorities while exacerbating every sectarian tension and division in order to thwart any challenge and keep itself in power.

For example, it has provided preferential treatment and access to jobs and opportunities to some minority sects, such as the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The Assad family and much of the key personnel of the state are Alawites. The regime claims that an iron hand is necessary to keep the majority Sunnis from coming to power and repressing other religious minorities, including the Druze and Christians. The government has consciously created a perception of competing interests in order to portray itself as the only force that can achieve "balance" in Syrian society.

But that rhetoric is far from reality. For example, in the early 1960s, the Syrian government took away citizenship rights from about 150,000 Syrian Kurds and labeled them "foreigners." The arbitrary census left members of the same family divided between citizens and non-citizens. Those stateless Kurds, numbering around 350,000 today, were denied access to education, health care, employment and property ownership. The Kurdish language and cultural celebrations were banned.

Since then, every Kurdish struggle for their rights has been met with terrible repression. An estimated 2 million Kurds live in Syria today, representing around 10 percent of the population. They have many grievances shared with the rest of the Syrian population, and many have bravely participated in the recent demonstrations.

Now, in an attempt to silence the Kurds and peel them away from the Syrian Arabs, Assad has suddenly promised to meet the Kurds' major demands and restore their Syrian citizenship. The effort backfired, however, and only fueled further protests. The next day, thousands of Kurds came out to protest against Baath Party rule. The Coalition of Kurdish Youth Movements was instrumental in these mobilizations.

Wary of a history of broken promises and vague concessions, and aware of the new moment, the Kurds reaffirmed the continuation of their struggle for real freedom and their solidarity with the other Syrian demonstrators. Across Syria, protesters are chanting "One, one, one. The Syrian people are one!"

In a significant development, the struggle has broadened in the capital city of Damascus and Syria's second major city of Aleppo, with hundreds of university students demonstrating in support of protesters around the country. Plainclothes security forces struck back, attacking and beating up the students, arresting many of them and killing at least one. In a further effort to sow sectarian divisions, the regime then released only the Kurdish students in Aleppo.

The students were also chanting in support of the families in Baniyas, the restive coastal city, which was under siege by the regime's security forces. In the nearby besieged town of Bayda, whose residents had supported the protests in Baniyas, security forces rounded up hundreds of men in a mass arrest following house-to-house searches.

In response, hundreds of women and children took to the streets, blocking the highway, demanding the release of their brothers, fathers, and husbands. Their stand was an example to the rest of the country. A leaked video later showed the men face down on the ground with their hands tied, being beaten, kicked in the face and stepped on by security forces. This, in turn, fueled even more protests. It was this struggle forced the regime to remove Baniyas' police chief from office.

As the Syrian revolt enters its second month, it only seems to be gathering steam and spreading. The heavy-handed repression of the regime, coupled with promises of reform, is only sparking further anger on the street.

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