Following the outbreak of popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, I was often asked whether I thought one would take place in Syria. I told people I sincerely doubted it: almost everyone I knew in Syria to some extent supported the president. (I lived there on and off during the last several years, working on cultural projects.) The prevailing feeling was that whatever the problems with Bashar Al-Assad’s rule, he and his regime were the only means of maintaining stability, and that human rights in the country were progressing, albeit slowly. On January 31, 2011, Assad told the Wall Street Journal, “We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” Four days later, his assertion seemed confirmed when a Facebook coordinated “Day of Rage” failed to attract many Syrian participants.
On February 17 however, a spontaneous demonstration over the police beating a local shop owner in the Damascus Souq led to an estimated 1,500 people chanting, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated.” The Minister of the Interior quickly arrived on the scene and calmed the crowd by promising an investigation. Two weeks later, a small demonstration at the Libyan Embassy showed solidarity with the Libyan uprising and called for the resignation of the Libyan ambassador. Colleagues who attended the demonstration said it was violently repressed, with batons and arrests. But this also did not provide the spark needed to start an uprising. That spark came from where it was least expected.
Daraa’ is a small, dusty town in southeast Syria, close to the Jordanian border. I visited in June 2010 for the first cultural festival there. Electronic Dabke music was the order of the night, with keyboard players and dancers flanked by images of Assad and his father, Hafez. Like the rest of rural Syria, it was generally seen as supportive of the Baath regime as a result of the support and subsidies it received. However, over the past decade, these subsidies have been gradually stripped away. Daraa’s resources have also been massively stretched by a recent influx of internal refugees, who were forced to leave their land as a result of a drought in the northeast of the country. This strain has been exacerbated by the government’s lack of provision for the refugees, which it justifies by grossly understating the magnitude of the drought.
These were some of the factors that led a group of schoolchildren, the eldest aged 15, to write, “The People want the fall of the regime”—the catchphrase of the revolutionary Middle East—on the wall of their school on March 6t. The children were subsequently arrested and tortured. Their families were denied access to them, as is usual in the case of political prisoners in Syria.
On March 15 the first demonstrations calling for “freedom” took place in several towns and cities across Syria, including Damascus. The next day about 200 demonstrators at the Syrian Interior Ministry in Damascus called for the release of political prisoners, chanting “God, Syria and Freedom, that’s enough” and “Dignity and Rights.” Security forces beat and arrested a number of the protestors. Then on March 18, there were protests in Daraa’ and other Syrian towns, demanding the release of the children, of a magnitude that took everyone by surprise.
Security forces opened fire, killing three and injuring many others. In accordance with Islamic tradition, funerals took place the next day, attracting large crowds. Over the following weeks, more demonstrations took place, which were met with more killings and more funerals, many of which were attacked with live fire. The state tried to offer small concessions to the people, such as tax cuts and state salary boosts, but these were met with the chant of “We do not want your bread, we want dignity.”
The country became locked into a cycle of protests, state violence, and repression that continues to this day. Protests grew and demands evolved, from the release of the children to demands for local reforms, and finally leading to the burning of prominent Baath Party buildings in Daraa’ and calling for the fall of the regime. It was this call that spread throughout the country.
Demonstrations quickly spread to other parts of the country, to Deir ez-Zour in the northeast, Homs and Hama in central Syria, Banyas and Latakia on the coast, and more recently to central Damascus and Aleppo. The cycle of violence against the largely peaceful protestors has turned the populace against the regime. The death of Hamza Al Khatib, a 13-year-old boy, is a case in point. Hamza came from Saida, a small village near the town of Daraa’. After almost a month in state custody, his body was returned to his family, bearing many signs of torture. This image, of a young boy being tortured and killed by the regime, led to many more protestors taking to the streets.
As the protests continue to grow, the government has offered more and more reform packages. The nearly fifty-year state of emergency was formally ended on April 19. Assad has stated that at least in theory he is open to the formation of new political parties. But none of these reforms have led to a cessation of oppression. The reforms are discussed intra-governmentally and widely boycotted by members of the traditional and revolutionary opposition. Within the opposition, reform packages have become examples of the irrelevance of the regime. The government meets to discuss ideas in a five-star hotel, while its security forces arbitrarily detain, beat, and kill citizens in plain sight.
One of the first governmental decrees issued during the unrest in Syria was to ban most international media from the country. What the government didn’t count on was the huge and unprecedented use of citizen journalism; it could be said that Syria’s has become the most developed in the region. Every day, hundreds of clips pour out of the country, providing more direct evidence of the government’s assaults. Organizations such as the Sham News Network have sprung up to collate these videos and reports and distribute them to the mainstream media networks, and the clips are then shown on satellite channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya A video of singer Ibrahim Qashqoush, who led acerbically humorous chants in Hama and paid for it by having his throat slit a day later, spread from the internet to the international press. Protestors across the country took up his chants, and they echoed from Daraa’ in the south to Latakia on the northwest coast, and further afield. I have even heard the signature call “Syria wants Freedom!” being chanted at events in the UK.
Where this is heading seems to be anyone’s guess. According to the UN, over 2000 protestors have been killed. International condemnation of the state repression is gradually growing, but it’s Syria’s neighbors that have the greatest influence on the regime. Some countries in the region (such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait) have now recalled their ambassadors. Turkey sent its Foreign Minister to tell Bashar Al-Assad it had “run out of patience”. By and large, though, Syria’s close allies have continued to stand by it. Iraq continues to work on developing more trade with Syria and recently signed an agreement to construct a gas pipeline from Iran to Syria via Iraq. And Iran, which provides a steady stream of tourists to Syria (an estimated one million Iranians make pilgrimages to shrines in Syria each year), continues to stand by its old friend, reportedly discussing a $5.8 billion aid package. The European Union has now accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of providing equipment and support to Syria to help crush the uprising.
What is clear is that military intervention is not a desirable or even viable option, as protest leaders have often repeated. Their requests are simple—international diplomatic support along with condemnation of the regime’s crackdown The US and the EU have now publicly called for Assad to step aside. A National Council has been formed that aims to “brings together the youth revolutionaries and all the political parties of the revolution.” The regime carries on regardless, stuck in a nihilistic spiral of repression. The protesters, no doubt, will continue to fill the streets. They will continue to chant, “Bashar, it’s time for you to leave!” As a Syrian colleague put it, “After all that’s happened, there is no other choice.”