Some (I hope exaggerated) reports say that well over a hundred people were killed in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a yesterday. And after Friday prayers today, enraged Syrians took to the streets in nearby Sunamayn, in central and suburban Damascus, in towns such as Tell and Ma’adumiyeh in the Damascus countryside, and in the cities of Homs, Hama and Lattakiya. They chanted “God, Syria, Freedom – That’s All,” and “With our Souls and Blood We Sacrifice for You, O Dera’a.” And they did sacrifice; reports suggest that many more were killed and injured by the state’s bullets this afternoon.
The officially-sanctioned chants usually heard in Syria promote sacrifice for President Bashaar al-Asad. Today a group of pro-regime demonstrators rather lamely replaced Freedom with Bashaar, as in “God, Syria, Bashaar – That’s All.” But it doesn’t work any more. Bashaar, previously perceived by many as innocent of his father’s regime’s crimes, now has blood on his hands. His name sounds like the antithesis of freedom.
The president’s spokeswoman (and Minister for Expatriate Syrians) Butheina Sha’aban said she had personally heard the president ordering that live ammunition not be used against unarmed protestors. That was last night, after several days of violence in Dera’a and before today’s further slaughter. Her statement therefore leaves us with two possibilities – either Bashaar is not in charge of Syria, or the image of Bashaar – as a gentle, thinking leader hindered by a lumbering old guard – is a carefully constructed lie. A week ago a Syrian friend said to me, “Now we’ll discover that Bashaar is no different from Qaddafi.” It seems he was right.
As well as a set of economic bribes, Sha’aban announced the immediate end of restrictions on press freedom, a review of the state of emergency, and a new law to allow the formation of opposition political parties. This would be great news if it were sincere. It almost certainly isn’t. Even if it were, it comes far too late. These reforms should have been announced before the slaughter in Dera’a. They should have been implemented while the revolution was raging in Egypt. They should have been put in place when Bashaar inherited the presidency over a decade ago. (At that time there was a brief ‘Damascus Spring’, when criticism was encouraged, the critics became visible, and were then imprisoned. The excuses made for Bashaar at the time were that he still hadn’t established his own power base, and that the ‘war on terror’ environment didn’t allow for reform. Such excuses have passed their sell-by date.)
Sha’aban tried the line that Syria is being targeted because it supports the anti-Zionist resistance. Who exactly does she think she’s fooling? The Dera’a episode was catalysed by the regime’s cack-handed arrest of grafitti-spraying school children. The people of Dera’a targetted the regime because the regime had targetted them. Sha’aban also rehearsed the story of foreign infiltrators “from the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, who take their orders from America.” This is so weak it smacks of desperation. Hasn’t the entire Arab world spent the last three months laughing at Bin Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi’s characterisations of their own people as CIA and Mossad-backed al-Qaida operatives? Jordanian Salafis may well have come into Dera’a in recent months, and they undoubtedly pose a potential threat to Syrian unity – but they weren’t the ones who killed so many. We have youtube videos to show us who did that – and we’ve seen no pictures of dead or wounded police.
What Sha’aban and those behind her are playing out is the good cop bad cop routine, which has lost its credibility entirely.
Syrian reformist Ma’moun Homsi, one of those imprisoned when the spring failed, unwisely called today for the ‘international community’ to intervene to save the lives of Syrians. Because Syria borders (and is partially occupied by) the Zionist state, because the regime (to its great credit) aids Hizbullah and Hamas, foreign intervention would be fraught with much more danger than in the case of Libya. But who will protect the Syrians?
I was planning to write about a stupid sectarian slogan heard in Dera’a and repeated by protesting Syrians in Dubai. That seems irrelevant now when compared to the enormous stupidity of the regime’s response to protests. But sect and sectarianism matters. It means for a start that the army will not stand with the protestors against the regime. And that means that this is not a moment of hope but the start of a period of great division between Syrians, a period of blood and fear in which Syria’s vital regional role will be problematised, to say the least. It is a tragedy for all Syrians of all sectarian backgrounds, and the regime bears the responsibility.