Bashaar al-Asad’s speech this week was undoubtedly a sign of weakness. Apart from a phone call to Lebanon, the ‘president’ (how insubstantial the word now sounds) hadn’t been seen or heard for two months. Turkey, the West, even Russia wanted to see a proactive, present president dealing with the crisis; Syrians began to wonder if the man was under house arrest, or sedated, or dead. So finally he turned up, only to repeat vague and unsubstantiated noises about ‘reform’, ‘dialogue’, and the like. All entirely meaningless – the killings and arrests continue regardless. The greater part of the speech focussed on the alternative reality which lives in regime heads – on conspiracies, germs, saboteurs, vandals, infiltrators. At the start of the trouble, the president said, he’d thought the ‘armed groups’ contained only 10,000 men. Imagine his surprise when he learnt there were in fact 64,000!
The only change was one of style. This time al-Asad was careful not to giggle. (A Facebook page was set up the day before the speech, called – in Arabic – ‘Bashaar, if you laugh tomorrow, we’ll shit on you.’) The camera was careful to pull away from the president when the audience applauded, lest he break into one of his gormless smiles. But he wasn’t smiling. There was very definitely fear in his eyes. And he’d lost weight. Not as much as lost by 1400 corpses, but a good few kilos.
The speech was applauded by the regime’s hardcore supporters. Nobody else was impressed. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said it was “not enough.” Protestors immediately scorned it on the streets of Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor, and in the suburbs of Damascus. If the regime thought that speech number three would swing the situation, it must be very disappointed indeed.
So, the day after the speech, the state orchestrated large pro-regime demonstrations in cities throughout the country. This was supposed to be a show of strength, and the crowd in Damascus’s sahat al-Umawiyeen did appear to be huge. Of course many of these people were state employees ‘given the day off’ so long as they went to demonstrate loyalty. Many others were non-ideological Baath Party members likewise told to attend. (It’s easy to find Ba’ath Party members who curse the Ba’ath, people who joined the party for the sake of career advancement or because at some point in their lives they felt unable to say no). That still leaves many people who genuinely wanted to be there – because they fear the future, or are in denial concerning the regime’s crimes, or support the regime’s crimes because of their personal corruption or their sectarian or class prejudices. In any case, a huge crowd of Syrians demonstrated in support of a regime which is murdering and torturing Syrians. The crowd demonstrated various social sicknesses, which is not something to be proud of.
Yet pro-regime propagandists point to the crowds with pride. This is the equivalent of Britain organising a turn-out of neo-Nazis and drug addicts and then boasting about the numbers. It’s like a Saudi spokesman boasting that millions of Saudi men support the ban on women driving while at the same time they boost the prostitution industry from Marakesh to Manila. It’s like Scandinavia boasting about its suicide rate. Like America advertising the numbers that believe Obama’s a secret Muslim. None of these are things to be proud of.
Seven anti-regime Syrians were shot dead on the margins of the pro-regime demonstrations. The sacrifice made by these martys is something to be proud of. The fact that tens of thousands of Syrians of all backgrounds are demonstrating every day and every night despite the high probability that they’ll be murdered or tortured – this is a source of pride. The fact that outrage, love of their compatriots and love for the future overcomes fear in so many hearts; and the fact that the overwhelming majority of protests continue to reject violence and to chant slogans of national unity and freedom for all – this is an enormous source of pride.