Will Syrians topple a dictator?

Imam Khaled Hamoui considers the dynamics of the rebellion underway in Syria.

THE SYRIAN Intifada has simmered and effervesced intermittently for decades. On March 12 of this year, the revolutionary mood prevalent in the Middle East stirred the town of Qamishli to sedition anew.

Qamishli is the largest town in the Northern Hassake province of Syria. Many non-Arab inhabitants of that region, like Sunni Kurds and native Christian Assyrians, regard it as their communities' secret capital. The city is renowned for throwing parades around Christmas time, and celebrating Newroz, a Kurdish spring festival, every year in March.

In March 2004, during a soccer match, hooligans started raising Kurdish flags and hailing U.S. President George W. Bush--who is perceived as liberator of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq. This triggered riots that gained momentum outside the stadium and led to what became known as the Qamishli Massacre. Thirty Kurds were killed by the security services.

In June the following year, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in Qamishli to protest the torture and killing of Sheikh Khaznawi, an outspoken Kurdish Syrian imam. In March 2008, during Newroz celebrations, Syrian security forces opened fire at youth, reviving the 2004 riot in Qamishli. The shooting left three people dead and led to yet another period of simmering.

On March 12 of this year, Qamishli manned the ebb of the current revolution that is now flowing all across Syria. Since March 15, the revolutionary tides have been incrementally rising, with more youth from the largely Sunni Arab populations joining in.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is mulling the best approach to consolidate his power over the country so as to inoculate the Sunni sedition to a status quo of political and social apraxia. Approximately 200 demonstrators have been killed and hundreds more exterminated in various prisons across the country.

But the revolution is pushing away the yoke of destiny. The Syrian people refuse to be cloistered within yet another model of a Baathist-envisioned "Pandora's Box." "Unity, Liberty, Socialism" had been held up as a motto for the ruling Baath Party, and through diktat by all Syrians, for nearly half a century. It has left the majority of Syrians disenfranchised by the regime's kleptocracy.

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THE ASSADS have been the de facto rulers of Syria since the 1960s, maintaining a strong hold with ironclads of the Socialist Arab Baath Party against the backdrop of emergency laws. On March 30, Bashar al-Assad delivered a nebulous speech that was intellectually sterile, and blatantly at odds with reality. He blamed foreign conspirators for the latest unrest in his country and blamed a drought for his failure to deliver the promised reforms he committed to a decade ago.

Assad communicated a notion of himself as the omniscient one, uniquely capable of fathoming the fractions of his speech, and circumstances of its revelation. It is worthwhile to note that on the occasion of the toppling of Tunisia's dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Doctor Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist by education, acutely diagnosed the uprisings in the Middle East as signaling a "new era."

He further pontificated on that occasion that although Syria's circumstances are more difficult than those of most Arab countries, his regime stands more stable. Why? According to Assad--as reported in the Wall Street Journal--his government is "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people." He continued, "This is the core issue. When there is divergence...you will have vacuum that creates disturbances."

And yet, after widespread protests on April 8 in and around Daraa and in the Kurdish regions of Qamishli, as well as in the largely Arab Sunni province of Homos, the regime's interior minister declared on April 9 that "there's no more room for leniency and tolerance in enforcing law."

This is the toughest statement yet by the bloody Assad regime. What makes the recent manifestations unique however, is not just their size and determination, but the increasing presence and collaboration of commoners from the consanguineous Alawite minority with Sunni counterparts.

The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, historically the victims of Sunni harassment and discrimination for deifying Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) and other outstanding figures of their history and community. For Sunnis, such deification of humans is regarded as blasphemy.

However, since their rise to power in the 1960's, the Assads, a prominent Alawite family, have entrusted the command of the political security apparatus and other sensitive positions to members of the Alawite minority, or to inter-sectarian Baath party secularists. Thus far, no key figure in the political sphere has broken off. But the very fact that there is a non-static Alawite opposition to the Assad/Baathist autocracy serves as political seismograph: Bashar is being perceived in nepotism-based power circles to have stepped into political quicksand and some have chosen to distance themselves from him.

Political thinkers among the rising Syrian masses seem convinced that Bashar al-Assad has been paving the road domestically and internationally for the inevitable: a bloody, pugnacious attempt to end the latest political and cultural revolt, much like when the former Assad established a tone of tacit obedience by means of collective punishment in the form of a massacre in Hama in 1982.

Syrians find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place. To quit at this juncture is to fall prey to disappearances, torture and excruciating executions. Taking inspiration from the secular psychologist Robert D. Hare, I pose the following open question: Save concern for Assad's diacritical abilities, if another like the Assads comes knocking at your door will you open it?