A few weeks ago fifteen children were arrested in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a for writing revolutionary slogans on walls. This led to a series of demonstrations calling for the children’s release, the sacking of local officials, and an end to the decades-long state of emergency. Last Friday security forces opened fire on protestors, killing five people. Predictably, state violence redoubled the people’s rage. A Ba’ath Party office was burned and a phone company belonging to the president’s corrupt cousin Rami Makhlouf was attacked. Inspired by Tahreer Square and Pearl Roundabout, protestors then set up tents beside Dera’a's Omari mosque and stated their intention to stay until their demands were met. Last night security forces attacked the mosque, killing six people.
I’m not so deluded as to imagine that President Assad is waiting for my advice, but if I could advise him I would tell him to disarm his security services and announce an immediate overhaul of police and secret police procedures. In the new Arab political climate, such stupid measures as arresting schoolchildren will no longer work (the children have now been released, belatedly). And murdering protestors is much worse than clumsy. The lesson from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is that extreme state violence converts even the previously unconvinced to revolt.
The Syrian regime is now facing its greatest challenge since the near civil war of the 1980s. There have also been demonstrations in Damascus, Homs and Banyas. The country remains divided by sect and very fearful of the chaos that has swept Iraq and Lebanon. Organised political opposition is almost non-existent. But the protests now have momentum as well as geographical range – from tribal Dera’a to the liberal intellectuals of Damascus, to what seems to be the more Sunni-religious tone of protests in coastal Banyas. (If I were deluded enough to imagine that the protestors were waiting for my advice, I would advise them to steer very clear of religious demands – such as gender segregation in schools or the reinstatement of niqab-wearing teachers who have been assigned to non-teaching positions – for such demands alienate not only Alawis, Christians and other minorities but also many Sunnis, even those who might agree with the demands but know that the minorities will fight to defend the regime if the alternative seems to be Sunni religious rule.)
There’s lots more to say, but I’m busy in Cairo, and typing very slowly on this ‘palm top’ (more like a finger top) I’ve brought with me. But here’s Wassim al-Adl of Maysaloon to give some background.
There exists in Syria a dualism which is actually very important in order that we understand what is happening. The international and more widely known face of Syria is active in the byzantine diplomacy and intrigue of the Middle East. It is assertive, sovereign and confident. On the other hand, domestically, Syria is a nation of shopkeepers and merchants. Life in this sphere is different and slower. Rulers come and go, and the world with all its affairs is viewed with an almost childlike curiosity as part of a surreal drama that is unfolding. The big things that the people see on the television would never happen here in Syria, for we are far too sensible and boring for that. Conservative, unimaginative, and yet remarkably resilient and adaptable, the Syrian people move at precisely the pace that they desire. For the sake of simplicity, you can describe these two faces of Syria as the masculine and the feminine. Arguably, one could claim that Bashar al Assad, who inherited the rule of Syria from his father, Hafez, is the patriarchal figure who dominates the masculine aspect of Syria. He is respected, admired and feared like the father of any family.
What and Where?
The problem, of course, is that Syria is a modern nation state and a simplistic paternalist analogy was never going to succeed for long in obtaining the consent of the different groupings that make up society. That is precisely why today we are finding protests beginning to spread throughout the country. In Qamishli, to the North-East of the country, there has always been unrest amongst the Kurdish population living there. Recently, however, there have been protests in the Syrian coastal city of Baniyas as well as in Damascus and in Der’a, a town in the South near the border with Jordan. The motives for each of these events have been different and the groups themselves are disorganised and lack unity. In Der’aa the arrest of some school children who had written revolutionary slogans, slogans that they had been hearing on al Jazeera these past few months, on the walls led to widespread protests. This, in turn, provoked a clumsy and violent crackdown in which at least half a dozen people have already been killed.
In Baniyas the situation is more convoluted and has a more Sunni Muslim flavour to it. The grievances were, amongst other things, the closure of mixed-sex schools and, it is rumoured, the abolition of electricity bills. It is claimed that the centre of the unrest is a client family who had benefitted under the patronage of Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former vice president of Syria and a persona non grata now in exile in Paris or London. In Damascus, a small protest centred around the Ummayad Mosque was much more mercantile, and revolved around demands for greater freedoms and less corruption.
Who are the Key Players
Apart from the Syrian regime and those who benefit from it, there is also a key merchant class of about thirty families that dominate Syria’s economy and the names of which can be found involved with every major consortium and development project in the country. It is between these two parties that the ‘towering heights’ of the Syrian economy now rest. These two parties are not always in consent and there exists between them an uneasy compromise and understanding. For example, when Rami Makhlouf, president Assad’s cousin, once tried to seize the prime real estate that used to host the famous, and now long dead, Damascus Trade Fair, the merchant families were in uproar and petitioned the Assad. They too wished to be allowed to draw from the well. It is said that Assad intervened personally in the matter and did not allow Makhlouf to continue with his plans. It was deemed sufficient that he controlled vast swathes of Syrian enterprise elsewhere in the country. The merchants are an important element and were once a major thorn in the side of the late president Hafez al Assad when they called for strikes throughout the country during the seventies. It was only with the intervention of a nebulous and fascinating character, Badr al Din al Shallah, that catastrophe was averted for Assad’s rule. Today, Badr al Din al Shallah’s son, Rateb, is a key figure in the Syrian economic establishment albeit he is old and not playing as active a role.
The Muslim Brotherhood are scattered and with their base in London. After an ill-fated and quixotic revolt against the elder Assad’s rule during the eighties, they were ruthlessly eradicated from Syria and are by and large a spent force. Domestically they hold little credibility and are not trusted. Politically, I do not think they have ever wasted the opportunity to make a stupid political move. When Abdul Halim Khaddam escaped from Syria to Paris, they immediately joined forces with their former oppressor to form some democratic salvation front of some sorts to enact change in Syria. This farcical alliance quickly collapsed, discrediting them even more in the eyes of the Syrian people. Khaddam himself, along with fringe parties such as Farid Ghadry, operate on the furthest fringes of the Syrian political eco-system and I have never seen them as anything more than an eager ally of the Saudi-American alliance that wishes to co-opt within pax-Americana.
Also based in London is the elder Assad’s brother, Rifaat. This man was largely believed to be responsible for the Hama massacre in 1982 in which it is said that over 20,000 Syrians lost their lives. After being packed onto a plane out of Damascus he now lives in luxury in London, with properties throughout the world and a very good tax lawyer and accountant in Gibraltar who happens to be Jewish. His son, Ribal, recently wrote an article on al Jazeera English where he portrayed himself as some kind of voice for an opposition, which does not exist and that, in his mind perhaps, might want him and his father to return to Syria. They use the Arabic News Network (ANN) satellite channel as a platform to attack the Syrian regime constantly.
These are the key players who dominate the Syrian political arena, and by dominate I use the term extremely loosely when it comes to Khaddam, Rif’at al Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood and other players who are not the Syrian regime and the Syrian merchant class. What is striking about the protests that are emerging in Syria today is that none of these key players has any influence over the protestors. It seems, to the best of my knowledge, that the Syrian people are fed up with their lack of basic freedoms, lack of opportunities, and that their country is a cash machine for people like Rami Makhlouf; two mobile phone buildings owned by him were burned down during the protests in Dar’aa.
Syria: Where to from here?
Well the Syrian regime is caught between a rock and a hard place at the moment. Contrary to popular belief, the “Hama-option” was not something that the regime had simply applied. There was a steady increase in pressure and violence over a number of years that eventually lead to the explosive and murderous conclusion of the “events” or ahdath. So we are unlikely today to see a massive demolition of the town of Der’aa using the Republican Guard. Such a reality is even less of a possibility today, in an age of twitter, mobile phones and the internet. Hama in 1982 was possible through a complete and utter media blackout. Such a blackout today would not be possible and such an act would be political suicide. So there is no point in being sensationalist or alarmist about it. Finally, the regime is today too enmeshed with the people. There is an almost, dare I say, legitimacy, that the regime enjoys as far too many average people are interlinked with it through marriage, business, employment et al. There is a certain “we are all in it together” attitude that has survived from the 2005 crisis that Syria experienced with the West. The vestiges of this alliance exist still.
The absence of a Hama-option does not rule out the possibility that the regime will continue to be clumsy and stupid in its handling of the protestors. Already five people have been shot dead with live ammunition and an 11 year old girl died from teargas inhalation on Mother’s Day. Hundreds of people have been arrested or injured. All of this can snowball enormously, as we saw in other Arab countries. Somehow, Arab rulers still think they can terrify the people if they shoot and arrest enough of them. What they do not understand is that such stupidity, far from guaranteeing their future, in the end only seals their fate.
If Syria is to survive then the Syrian government will have to consider what were once unthinkable and forbidden options. These include the abolition of the state of emergency which has been in place for decades, but also the creation of a fair and transparent judiciary and the fostering of an atmosphere that will allow a new generation of Syrian thinkers and politicans to emerge and to hopefully fulfill the role of a credible and legitimate opposition. There are other, even more terrifying options that those who rule must consider, but these do not need to be terrifying, nor do they need to be uncivilised. For Syria is not Iraq, where most of its rulers in the twentieth century have been murdered. There is a space in Syria’s political arena, and a historical precedent, for experienced political leaders that have shared the burden of rule to advise and criticise in Syrian politics. This can all be done without infringing on the country’s vital security commitments and alliances. Finally, the deep unease that many Syrians today feel about the protests is understandable. For the first time in their lives, history is asking the Syrian shopkeeper and merchant to play a part in it and to make a decision on how they wish to live their lives. This is at once a terrifying and hopeful time but there is also no going back…