This series was written by an author who wishes to remain anonmyous

Part 4 – The Protests of 2011

As Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series have demonstrated, the vast majority of Syrians have been politically and socially marginalized, with their concerns and needs largely ignored by the regime.

This disregard for the popular will was strikingly evident during a January 2011 Wall Street Journal interview with Bashar Al-Asad , in which the Syrian president argued that government reform needed to happen at a slow pace and that the “ideology and causes” of the state were aligned with the sentiments of the populace.

The Early Days of the Syrian Uprising

As the facts on the ground soon demonstrated, however, Al-Asad’s claims were far from true. On January 26, in “protest against the Syrian government,” a man from the town of Al-Hasakah set himself on fire, mimicking the now-iconic acts of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi. Shortly thereafter, in early February, Syrian activists called for a “Day of Rage” on social media sites. There were a few responses to this rallying cry by Syrians outside the country but little reaction within Syrian. However, as events in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere accelerated, small demonstrations inside the country began to emerge in support of these revolutions. Although these protests were brutally broken up by the regime, the government began to feel the pressure and, to stem the simmering discontent, cancelled plans to cut subsidies on basic goods.

By March, the situation in Syria had dramatically changed. The transformation began on March 6 in the southern city of Daraa, near the Jordanian border, where a number of children were arrested for spray painting slogans from the Egyptian revolution. When the governor and chief of police refused to release these children, a cycle of protests began which resulted in a heavy government clampdown. Then, on March 7, 13 political prisoners went on a hunger strike to highlight the nature of political detentions in the country. Three days later, in solidarity with these prisoners, jailed Syrian Kurds joined in the hunger strike. The momentum continued and, on March 15, thousands gathered in various cities throughout Syria, resulting in a number of arrests and deaths. By Friday of that week, demonstrations had substantially increased, with even more people taking to the streets in cities across the country, particularly in Daraa. There, tensions had reached a tipping point after it became known that the children arrested on March 6 had been terribly tortured. In response to these increased tensions, Syrian security forces sealed off the city.

With each passing Friday, demonstrations continued across Syria. Each was regularly met with tear gas and live fire from government forces or shabiha,[1] resulting in numerous casualties and deaths. These deaths, in turn, sparked additional protests during the resulting funerals.

On March 29, in an attempt to halt the protests, Bashar sacked his entire cabinet. The next day, the Syrian President gave a highly anticipated speech, which many hoped would announce significant political changes. Bashar, however, remained defiant, placing blame for the unrest on “foreign conspirators.”[2] Nonetheless, the regime’s apprehensions about the demonstrations continued to grow.  In an attempt to sow disunity among the protestors, the government closed down the country’s only casino, reversed a niqab ban for female teachers, gave citizenship to a number of Kurds, and sacked the governors of regions experiencing most affected by the unrest.  These measures had little impact, as protests continued unabated and the calls for radical political change increased.

At the end of April, the government announced the repeal of the 48-year old Emergency Law. Taken at face value, it was a bold move. However, as many activists and observers correctly predicted, the law was replaced by other equally repressive measures. The government also made clear that, in light of this concession, further protests would not be tolerated.

In keeping with this threat, the day following repeal of the Emergency Law, April 22, was the bloodiest day of protests thus far.  The army was mobilized and laid siege to and shelled cities such as Daraa, and Homs. In an attempt to end the demonstrations, mass arrests began in cities where the movement was strongest.  With security forces opening fire against protestors in more than sixteen different Syrian cities, more than 100 people were killed, with countless others injured.

Conflicting Perspectives

There are two main arguments that have emerged inside and outside Syria regarding the protests. According to the first argument, the demonstrations have been fueled by armed gangs funded and supported by external forces seeking to manipulate events against the regime. Supporters of this line of argument point to the deaths of Syrian military and police figures and to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks demonstrating that the United States has been covertly funding certain groups in Syria since 2005. Adherent to this theory also allude to the possibility of the specter of an Iraqi-style outbreak of sectarianism and chaos if the regime does indeed fall.

Those on the other side of this theory argue that it denies the agency and will of Syrians and the government’s historical marginalization and repression of the people. They argue that the rampant use of live ammunition against demonstrators, the cutting off of electricity, water, food and medical supplies to besieged cities, and mass arrests across the political spectrum as suggesting a government policy in favor of bloodshed and collective punishment.

Regarding fears of sectarianism, those opposed to the regime concede that this concern is real, but argue that the regime has played a significant role in increasing sectarian tensions. Moreover, they point to the cross-sectarian nature of the protests, which have involved Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Alawites and many others.

The Elusive End Game

It remains unclear how the regime’s violent backlash against the protest movement will end. It is clear from interviews with figures linked to the regime, that those in power will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the status quo. Interestingly, during a recent New York Times interview with Rami Makhlouf, the billionaire cousin of Bashar and a major target of public anger,[3] hints were made that the Syrian regime would reorient itself toward American and Israeli interests should it receive support from these governments in its drive to crush the protests.

Perhaps it is in appreciation of this possibility that the American and European responses to the Syrian protests have been limited. While the usual condemnations have been made, sanctions have been placed on 13 Syrians, and more sanctions have been drafted against the government, Bashar Al-Asad has not been directly targeted and continues to be described, by some foreign officials, as a “reformer.” At the very least, these circumstances suggest that Western governments are unwilling to actively engage in the Syrian uprising as they have in Libya.

On the ground, the Syrian government has continued its hard-line tactic. More cities have been occupied by the army, resulting in a flow of refugees into Turkey and Lebanon, arrests have increased, and the security forces have begun tracking and working against activists online. As of this writing, more than 1,400 people have been killed and thousands have been arrested. Yet, despite the increasing violence, the sense of defiance among the general public seems to be on the rise. While it is true that the majority of Syrians may not yet be ready to call for the ouster of the Al-Asad regime, and the popularity of Bashar is still potent, the fact remains that significant portions of the Syrian population have been energized by the protest movement. Digital technology, the internet, and social media have made it impossible for the government to maintain an information blackout and, thus, a redox of the 1981 Hama massacre is no longer possible. Perhaps partly in response to this reality, Bashar’s third speech  on June 20 seemed to acknowledge the need for major changes, although the President still maintained hints of defiance against such comprehensive changes.

Ultimately, one can only wait and see how the course of events inside and outside Syria will mold the country’s future. Whatever the result, a Rubicon has been crossed and a new relationship between Syrians and their government is emerging.

[1] Shabiha are thugs and militias closely associated with the government.

[2] The precise identity of the “foreign conspirator” has changed over time. At first, Palestinians were blamed, then Egyptians, then Lebanon’s March 14 forces, and finally Salafists.

[3] In an apparent concession to the protests, Rami Makhlouf announced during a press conference that he will “quit the business scene” and use the funds “for charity”. However, the move was considered by many as only a ploy to placate discontent.

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