For days Syrian security forces stayed out of Hama; not even traffic police were seen in the city. During these days, no armed gangs emerged from the shadows to terrorise and loot. Christians and Alawis were not rounded up and shot. Nobody was whipped for wearing an unIslamic haircut. All that happened was day and night demonstrations against the regime swelled into crowds of hundreds of thousands – men and women, adults and children.
Perhaps the security forces stayed out of the city on the request of Hama’s governor, and perhaps that’s why he was sacked. Now security forces have entered the city and brought plenty of insecurity in their wake. At least sixteen Hamwis were killed yesterday.
Slaughter in this city – over sixty protestors were murdered there a few weeks ago – reminds Syrians of the greatest wound in their contemporary history: the Hama massacre in 1982, when 10,000 were killed at the lowest estimate, by aerial and artillery bombardment and in house to house murder sprees. There are reports that poison gas was used, and of dismemberments and rapes, but no-one really knows. No journalists slipped inside the city. There was no satellite TV, no internet, no mobile phones. Still, a thousand stories escaped the net, and every Syrian has heard some; stories whispered, not told. Hama, ‘the events’, is the great taboo.
A military response made more sense against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 than it does against protestors now. The Brotherhood then was what the regime is pretending the uprising is today. It was violent and sectarian, it targetted Alawis simply for being Alawis, it engaged in terrorism, it received support from Israel and the Jordanian regime at a time when Israel was preparing to besiege Beirut. None of this justifies the massacre, but it does explain why many Syrians, if forced to choose between two evils, were pleased by the Brotherhood’s defeat.
The Muslim Brotherhood was destroyed in Syria in the 1980s. The Brothers were killed, or died in prison, or left the country. New members were not recruited, as membership of the movement was punishable by death. Many people served prison terms or were driven into exile merely for being related to Brothers.
This is why claims that the current uprising is Brotherhood-led, claims which emanate from a surprising variety of sources, are plainly absurd. The Brotherhood has no militia or organised presence inside Syria. In his last speech Bashaar al-Asad specified the mysterious number of 64,000 to quantify the armed men at large in the country – this is also absurd; either absurd or the half century of police state has been so staggeringly incompetent as to disqualify itself from existence.
I’m not suggesting that all the opposition is committed to non-violence. It now seems clear that a small minority are arming themselves and attempting to fight back, even perhaps setting up checkpoints in some areas. This is inadvisable and puts the future at greater risk, but it’s only to be expected. Violence breeds violence. A man who’s been electrocuted and beaten, or a man who’s seen his brother shot, does not usually have the patience to hear lectures on passive resistance. Some of the men with weapons share the Brotherhood’s world view; some may even describe themselves as Brothers in order to provoke and to pose.
There are also signs that sectarian ideologues or those who wish to attract the West’s attention may be spreading false stories among Syrian victims. A steady stream of refugees fleeing Jisr ash-Shaghour for Turkey claimed to have witnessed Iranian officers amongst Syrian troops, bearded men who couldn’t speak Arabic. Perhaps the story was planted by Brotherhood types; perhaps it’s simply a rumour born of chaos, a mis-merging of glimpses. I wasn’t there so I can’t state definitively that the report isn’t true, but the idea seems almost as absurd as Bashaar’s host of 64,000. The Syrian regime doesn’t need Iranian killers; it has plenty of its own. And why would it want to advertise its reliance on Persian and Shia friends? Why play into the narrative of its fiercest sectarian enemies? If Iran did send officers, wouldn’t it send Arabic-speakers? (Iran has many Arabic-speaking officers). As for the beards, it’s true the Syrian military don’t wear them, but the shabiha thugs sometimes do, and there have been many reports of shabiha donning uniform.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s more important role, however, is external. Its exiled leaders assume a great deal of potential support inside the country. (So did Amad Chalabi.) The Brothers were well represented at the opposition conference in Antalya, Turkey, as were US-based liberals with neo-con links. And they crop up a lot in the Arabic media.
But it’s a mistake to assume that the external opposition is exerting much influence on the Syrian street. Immediately after the fall of Mubarak the external opposition organised a Syrian Day of Rage on Facebook. Inside Syria, nobody turned up. The first demonstration was triggered not by an Islamist in London or a liberal in Washington but by an act of police brutality in Hareeqa, Damascus. The Dera’a demonstrations were caused by the arrest of schoolchildren in the city. The national demonstrations were provoked by the murder of protestors in Dera’a. Expatriate Syrians, Saudis, Lebanese, transnational Salafists, no doubt Israel and America too – all these are struggling to influence events, but their efforts are a sideshow. The battle is being fought inside Syria. The uprising is local.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology is attractive to many Syrians; after the dictatorship, therefore, the movement must be permitted to operate freely. It should recognise, however, the many errors it has made in the past, and must assure minorities and secularists of its committment to their rights. Together the minorities and non-Islamist Sunnis form a majority of Syrians, and they are often deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood should understand that the shadow it casts inhibits many Syrians from openly opposing the regime.
The Ba’ath Party’s ideology is attractive to some Syrians, and its history is attractive to more; after the dictatorship, therefore, the party must be permitted to operate freely. Syria should not repeat Iraq’s mistake. If the Ba’ath wishes to survive in the longer term, however, it would be well advised to cancel its mass membership and then re-enroll those who are genuinely committed. At that stage it could convene a congress to remember what ideology it used to hold before it was transformed into an Asad fan club and a means of social advancement.
The fact that expatriatiate Syrians with questionable agendas are presenting themselves as the official opposition points to the urgency of organising the opposition inside. There has been one ray of light in the last weeks, though protestors understandably scorned it: the opposition conference held in the capital’s Semiramis hotel, attended by Luay Hussain, Michel Kilo and others, was partially broadcast on regime-controlled radio. And the positions taken by participants were not submissive. They clearly blamed the regime for the violence, and said that dialogue would only become possible when the army returns to its bases, prisoners are released, and protests can be held unmolested.
But there’s no happy ending. Although the participants at the Semiramis meeting were sincere, the regime’s relative gentleness with them was merely a stunt. Arrests and beatings have escalated over the last week. People have been shot dead in the Damascus suburbs. And now the slaughter in Hama.
Meanwhile, the government has apparently informed some state employees that their monthly salary will be cut by 500 lira. This may be an early sign that the regime is running out of money.