Unrest in Syria: Impressions from Damascus

Diposkan oleh alexandria joseph | 18.20


Protesters in Deraa, Syria

Since the “Arab Spring” began in Deraa back in March, news coming out of Syria has been scanty. Western journalists have been arrested and expelled, so reports about the situation in Syria has come mainly from NGOs on the scene and individuals, both local and foreign, who manage to send out their accounts.

The following report was sent to us yesterday by an employee of a foreign corporation who lives in Damascus. He included this brief explanation:

As you can probably imagine, I have been following recent events here rather closely, not least because I have my family here with me, and have to admit that I have been astonished by the rather biased and one-sided reporting in the wider media, which in turn prompted me to write my own little report in an effort to set the record straight.

You will see that our correspondent is acting as somewhat of an apologist for the Assad regime. However, he has some good points to make. It’s obvious that there is more to the uprising than meets the eye, and that the Muslim Brotherhood is certain to be involved.

Another good point is that the international media are taking the statements issued by the protesters at face value, painting a picture of the valiant freedom fighters of the Arab Spring, à la Libya and Egypt.

The complete report is below.


Unrest in Syria: Impressions from Damascus
Damascus, 26 May 2011

While the overall picture remains somewhat murky, it would appear that the unrest in Syria unfolded in a number of distinct stages, as follows:

  • Initial demonstrations in Deraa in mid-March, when a number of families in the area demanded the release of a group of teenagers, who had reportedly been detained by the local authorities for spraying graffiti, presumably inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
  • A rather heavy-handed crackdown by the local authorities, which also led to a number of casualties. This was probably at least partly due to the fact that the authorities were genuinely surprised by and thus not accustomed to this kind of public dissent, something that was also alluded to in the president’s two speeches (and more so in the second one), following the uprising.
  • Tough talk by the government, nevertheless followed by a partial withdrawal of security forces from the area immediately affected, and hints at possible reforms.
  • A series of Friday demonstrations (always following prayers — the only time Syrians could congregate in larger numbers under the then emergency regulations), spreading to neighboring villages, and at times leading to further confrontations with the security forces, including casualties, followed by funeral processions and more demonstrations, interspersed with reform promises from the government, more often than not conveniently announced on a Thursday.
  • Despite these promises, culminating in the abrogation of the ‘emergency law’ (a key demand of the initial protests), these ‘concessions’ were summarily dismissed by the ‘opposition’ as merely symbolic, and by end of March the demonstrations started to spread further, first to the coastal areas and specifically Latakia and Banyas, a number of Damascus suburbs, the Kurdish areas, Homs and the border areas to Lebanon. And while the initial call in Deraa was simply for the release of their relatives, for the (related) abrogation of the emergency law, against corruption and for reform in general, this slowly gave way to ‘calls to topple the regime’.
  • By mid-April it apparently became clear to the government that whatever they were doing until then was not going to contain the situation, and so the army was called in, first into Deraa (and surrounding areas), followed by Banyas, Homs, and finally again the border areas to Lebanon. There were also similar operations reported in the affected Damascus suburbs. It should however be noted here that the army had already deployed to Deraa and Banyas much earlier, but at that time they were mostly used to cordon off the affected areas (i.e. from the outside), and not to go in ‘in force’.
  • The beginning of the army’s crackdown saw a spike in reported casualties, followed by reports of house-to-house searches and mass arrests, and two weeks of relative calm. There were also reports that the army had again withdrawn from some of the areas, or at least partially. The lull was however short-lived and last weekend saw again reports of significant casualties across the country.

While the above sequence of events is probably not in contention, the government’s and the opposition’s narratives for what has been happening on the ground nevertheless differ widely, including the number of casualties caused, who the victims are, and who is doing the shooting, something that is not helped by the fact that independent media are not allowed into the affected areas.

While recognizing that there are legitimate grievances and admitting shortcomings in the security forces’ response, the government now mostly blames the violence on armed gangs and Islamic extremists, who, using the demonstrations as a cover and pretext, are allegedly supported and directed from abroad, essentially spinning it all into one big conspiracy theory with the aim of toppling the regime. The opposition on the other hand blames the government’s heavy-handed crackdown, claiming that the security forces (including informal militias allied with the regime) are routinely firing at unarmed and peaceful protesters, with tanks allegedly even shelling residential areas. There are also reports of soldiers themselves being shot by their superiors for not obeying orders, of mass arrests and collective punishment, all in all invoking images from (and a narrative reminiscent of) recent conflicts across the region.

What an ‘international’ (i.e. US/western-led) and concerted effort at regime change looks like is of course amply demonstrated by the recent war in Iraq; current events in Libya are probably best characterized as a ‘half-hearted’ attempt; frequent inaction in response to similar situations across Africa illustrates the international community’s indifference in such cases; while Bahrain exemplifies the situation where the international community does not want to change a regime.

Syria probably lies somewhere in between half-heartedness and indifference, but while this would not support the government’s notion of a full-blown conspiracy, there nevertheless appears to be ample anecdotal evidence of foreign meddling, including credible reports of weapons seizures at Syria’s borders and related communications equipment being found, implicating certain political quarters in Lebanon that resent Syria’s (past and current) involvement there, the regional Muslim Brotherhood, and high profile exiles, to name just a few, and that amid allegations of private financial backing from Saudi Arabia. The absence of a larger conspiracy does however not mean that other regional and global stakeholders are not seizing the opportunity as well, with the Syrian regime now visibly weakened (and preoccupied), to push their own demands and agendas, no matter how unrelated they may be.

There is no doubt that people have been and are (still) being killed (including by the security forces), and that others are being arrested. However, and similar to the government’s conspiracy theory, there also appear to be significant discrepancies between the opposition’s narrative and the purported facts. If the security forces were indeed firing randomly into hundreds or thousands of protesters for the last two months, across multiple locations, and that (now) on pretty much a daily basis, the number of casualties would surely have to be higher. Also, this would not explain the number of security force members being killed or injured (with related images presented daily on Syrian prime-time TV), unless of course one subscribes to the opposition’s story of these frequently being shot by their own superiors, something rather difficult to hide in a multi-ethnic conscript army, and on such a large scale.

Similarly, neither mobile phone footage nor reports from independent witnesses that visited the affected areas after the army’s assault would seem to support the notion of damage consistent with the shelling of residential areas, or even the claim that utilities had been disconnected across the board. In this context, recent statements by (certain) opposition activist (as reported in the international media), that there may indeed be extremist elements mingling within the protesters, or that some may now have resorted to armed resistance in the face of the army’s crackdown, are noteworthy. There have also been claims (from various quarters) that armed elements may be provoking the security forces on purpose, and of others simply taking revenge, presumably for earlier killings.

However, the interesting point here is not so much what the opposition, or the government for that matter, are reporting, since both are obviously going to employ propaganda in order to support their respective positions, but rather the fact that the international media and by extension also the larger international community seem to have bought almost exclusively into the opposition narrative. Granted, everybody expects the regime to lie, and probably rightly so, but whenever there’s a statement from the opposition, be it a self-proclaimed eyewitness or human rights activist, then it is almost always taken for granted, or at least so it would appear to the casual observer.

So when the regime claims that an armed mob attacked the security forces, killing two and setting a building on fire, it usually does not get reported, but when a single source witness claims that the security forces fired at unarmed and peaceful demonstrators, killing five, including a child, it invariably makes the headlines. Even if this is followed by the usual caution that “the information cannot be independently verified”, the end result is the same, i.e. the latter gets prominence while the former doesn’t. This is not to say that such a claim may not be true, however one should not forget that both sides are keenly aware that casualties, and in particular reports of peaceful demonstrators being killed by the security forces, are pretty much the only thing that will bring international pressure to bear.

Therefore both sides have an incentive to fiddle with the facts and figures and, judging from the language used, both sides are probably doing just that. And with the opposition’s narrative almost exclusively based on such ‘eyewitness’ accounts, anecdotal evidence of some of these ‘witnesses’ not being where they claim to be, at times reportedly even calling from a different country altogether, of doctored images, and of images and footage allegedly/at times having been obtained elsewhere, are all noteworthy.

Consequently, major international news outlets like Al Jazeera or even Reuters are now seemingly leading the call for regime change. An example of this rather biased reporting would be a recent online article by an Al Jazeera journalist who had been detained for several days in Damascus, in which she describes what allegedly happened to her. While this is in no way meant to belittle her experience, nor to underestimate the Syrian security service’s propensity for heavy-handedness, there is no record of violence against foreign journalists. It is therefore simply not credible that she really thought that she might be shot when she was allegedly being blindfolded, something that her article clearly implies.

Similarly, it is not credible that they would have taken her as a foreign journalist to a place where suspects were pleading for their lives while being beaten, and where others were chained to radiators in the corridor, for her to interview them, while marveling at the pools of blood that she was standing in. After all the Syrian security services may well be brutal but they are not that stupid. And in her account of having been found to be in possession of a “commercially available” satellite phone and internet hub (presumably the reason for her detention), she conveniently fails to mention that these items are (and always have been) prohibited in Syria, a fact that should be well known to a foreign journalist coming into the country, not least because it is exactly via these means that opposition activists currently send out their messages to the world. Whether these items should be banned or not is of course an entirely different matter, but similar to hashish being readily available and legal in certain places (and within limits), in other places possession of it will nevertheless lead to arrest or worse.

In this context it is equally irrelevant whether the author just wanted to embellish her story for the reader’s benefit, or whether it was indeed meant to distort the picture, as frequently alluded to by the Syrian regime; again, the end result is the same.

The exact numbers of demonstrators to date are impossible to verify, however they seldom appear to exceed a few thousand for a particular event, are more often than not in the hundreds, and thus probably represent less than a percent of the population. But whereas in most countries this would simply be taken as evidence that the vast majority does not sympathize or agree with the protesters’ demands, at least not to the extent that they would join them, in Syria’s case the ‘Western’ assumption, aptly supported by the opposition’s narrative, seems to be that nobody can be happy living under such a regime and that thus people that don’t protest, other than the ‘few’ linked directly to (and allegedly corruptly benefiting from) the regime, don’t do so only out of fear.

This is not to say that there may not be people too afraid to protest (although the vast majority of Syrians certainly don’t seem to go about their daily business constantly looking over the shoulder, worried that the security forces might be creeping up on them), but even if they were to come out, it is doubtful that they would raise the number of demonstrators to anywhere near a significant figure. And, in the meantime, the mere assumption that the silent majority would otherwise also protest is at best patronizing, if not outright undemocratic in itself.

Similarly, the fact that the few pro-regime demonstrations to date, which nevertheless drew vastly greater numbers, were (of course) encouraged and facilitated by the regime, does not mean that the people did not join them willingly, driving around and waiving flags, and that in support of the president, and equally important, against what they see as others meddling in and endangering their country. A similar argument, by the way, can also be made about the recent Palestinian protesters crossing into the Israeli occupied Golan, who although probably encouraged (or at the very least not hindered) by the Syrian regime, nevertheless did so willingly and out of their own conviction, motivated by their desire to exercise their (perceived) right to return.

Having a closer look at the areas that have seen the vast majority of the protests so far is also instructive. Deraa and surroundings in the South, the affected suburbs of Damascus and Homs, as well as the city of Hama are all predominately if not exclusively Sunni, (mostly) poor and very conservative, and thus also known to be opposed to a lot of the regime’s more secular policies, including the recently reversed headscarf ban in public schools.

It is probably worth mentioning here that while Syria is clearly a dictatorship and a police state, and in the international discourse usually (and rightly so) portrayed as such, it nevertheless is one of the religiously and culturally most liberal regimes in the region, and certainly much more so than Jordan and Egypt, for example, something that is more often than not conveniently forgotten. Both the Kurdish areas in the Northeast and the coastal areas on the other hand have a history of ethnic friction, in the latter case reportedly also including an alleged turf battle (between local Sunnis and Alawites) over who controls the local port facilities, and with Banyas itself being the birthplace and thus heartland of one of the most prominent exiles, Abdul Halim Khaddam, himself a former Syrian Vice President, a Sunni, and a would-(like to)-be contender for the top seat, should the current regime fall.

Finally, the border areas to Lebanon, again mostly Sunni, are known for their smuggling activities, which frequently lead to confrontations with the local authorities. Other, smaller protests also took place elsewhere, including at universities in Damascus and Aleppo, but these reportedly only numbered in the tens, mostly consisted of students from the afore mentioned areas, and they were usually dissolved quickly, more often than not by bystanders, and not the security forces or pro-regime thugs, as portrayed in the international media.

Of course this is not to say that people in these areas do not have legitimate grievances or demands, but these issues are invariably interspersed with religious and ethnic motives, contrary to what is being claimed on related social networking sites, and they are certainly not as simplistic as portrayed in the international media. Freedom and democracy in this context is mostly reduced to the question of which group has the power to impose it’s will and values over the others, and not as a universal right for all, always invoked by whoever is not in power, and conveniently forgotten again once power has been attained. Therefore, decisions are frequently made based on ethnic and religious affiliation, as proscribed by a group’s preeminent leader, and not by individuals making a choice for themselves, as also evidenced in recent electoral events in neighboring Iraq. And while this may not sit well with the West’s current and rather rosy-eyed preoccupation with democratic change in the Middle East, the question of how democracy is to work in a society (as opposed to the regime itself) that does not permit its members to choose which studies or occupation to pursue, where to live, or even who to marry, and that especially if it is to espouse similar values to ours, is nevertheless worth considering.

This is not to say that the regime in Syria is likely to introduce reforms that will invariably lead to its own downfall either, but then again, which Western politicians is knowingly going to introduce legislation that will surely see him/her voted out of office at the next poll? That being said, there’s of course ample room for reform short of the regime giving up the reigns of power, but that’s not exactly what the protesters are calling for, at least not anymore.

In this context it is also noteworthy that protests are almost exclusively organized around local mosques, with Friday prayers or funerals being the chief catalysts, and it is quite unlikely that social networking (via the internet) has anything to do with events on the ground, other than as a conduit to the outside world, i.e. for uploading mobile phone footage etc., with these sites presumably operated by others, and that mostly if not exclusively outside of Syria. Who or what these others are, and who they represent, is not entirely clear, but the way these protests have unfolded and transformed after the initial unrest in Deraa would seem to indicate that certain individuals and groups were well prepared for just such an eventuality, in the wake of the wider regional unrest, ready to use the occasion as a pretext to push their own agendas.

The recent proliferation of self-proclaimed and hitherto unheard of Syrian ‘human rights’ activists and organizations is in this context equally noteworthy, as is the fact that during the initial month of the unrest thousands of unlicensed buildings went up almost over night, across the country, or reports of significantly increased/increasing petty criminality, with the authorities preoccupied elsewhere. The latter two issues, while clearly unrelated to the protests themselves, nevertheless nicely illustrate that others are more than willing to take advantage of the situation.

It is therefore probably not surprising that the Syrian regime, apart from blaming outside forces for instigating the unrest, has also warned that this would invariably lead to chaos, sectarian strife, and ultimately civil war. But while it is clearly in the regime’s interest to paint the picture as stark as possible in order to scare both the protesters and everybody else off the streets, and to justify its own rather heavy-handed crackdown, this does not in itself mean that the prediction is incorrect, nor that the regime would not feel compelled to counter this perceived threat.

This is not to say that the opposition currently is widespread enough to endanger the regime — it clearly isn’t — but should the regime indeed fall, then it would certainly be everybody fending for him/herself, which in this region invariably means Sunnis pitted against Christians, Shias and Alawites, and Kurds against Arabs, similar to what we have recently seen in Iraq, albeit without the foreign occupation. But while some outside forces are probably willing to take this risk (with some like the Egyptian Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi even accepting the possibility of civil war publicly as a necessary evil in order to topple what he presumably sees as a heretical regime), since it won’t be them paying the price while nevertheless reaping the gains, or at least so they hope, and while the international community at large and the local demonstrators themselves appear largely oblivious to the dangers, one cannot really fault the regime for taking a different view.

The international community’s response to the situation has at first been muted, but the rhetoric has since changed, with increasing condemnation of the regime, accompanied by widening sanctions, although what exactly this is meant to achieve remains far from clear. But whatever their intentions (be it out of conviction [or lack thereof], out of a desire to change Syria’s stance vis-à-vis Iran and/or Israel, out of ignorance or mere animosity towards the regime, or simply because they had previously painted themselves into a corner, from which they now can’t extricate themselves), given the increasing heat, combined with what appears to be a concerted media campaign, and that in the wake of Iraq and Libya, it is not surprising that the Syrian regime and the population at large believe that they are at the receiving end of one big conspiracy.

As outlined above this claim is probably widely exaggerated but this in and of itself does not mean that the regime does not believe it, with all the potential consequences that this may entail. What is more, and given the various constraints the regime currently finds itself in, the assumption here clearly seems to be that the aim of this conspiracy is to topple the regime itself, and not only to force it to change its stance. Against this background, current international action is unlikely to benefit either side. While certainly encouraging the opposition in their struggle it is not going to tilt the scales in their favor to the extent that they will be able to unseat the present regime, nor will it entice the regime to speed up reforms, which, pushed into a corner and under additional financial constrains, it will be even less inclined and able to do so, even if it wanted to. On the contrary, these measures will probably only serve to polarize the situation further, and the end result will in all likelihood be a hardening of fronts on all sides, which given the current state of affairs, can’t really be in international community’s interest.

In the meantime, the two-week lull in reported (and probably factual) violence following the army’s crackdown was taken by many here as a sign that the government’s tactic was working, however, this optimism was somewhat short-lived, shattered by the violence that reportedly marred last weekend. Nevertheless, the fact that casualty numbers had dropped significantly in the wake of the crackdown, that (with the exception of last weekend) these casualties were now mostly confined to areas where even opposition activists were claiming that the army was being confronted by armed resistance, that demonstrations nevertheless did continue, even in areas that had just seen the army’s crackdown, and that reportedly mostly incident free, could also be taken as a sign that the government’s crackdown was not targeting the demonstrators per se, and that they had thus learned from their earlier mistakes.

Recent reports of opposition activists being released, even if others continue to be rounded up, and that probably in much larger numbers, are in this context also noteworthy. However, and even if one were to follow this line of argument, it wouldn’t be inconceivable that such a development wouldn’t be in the interest of the opposition, and that they would therefore only be motivated to further raise the stakes.

The main question then would not seem to be whether people are (still) being killed (however sad or shocking this in itself may be), or whether the government’s crackdown is ruthless — they are and it probably is — but rather how representative these protests are, whether they are really as innocent and peaceful as portrayed in the international media, what short of stepping down the regime would (now) have to do in order to appease them, and how far the regime is willing to go in order to suppress what it clearly sees as an existential threat.

In the meantime, ordinary Syrians appear to be living from Friday to Friday, with reported weekend casualties (no matter whether one believes the actual numbers or not) taken as an indication of the overall trend, with lower numbers obviously seen as a success for the regime’s current tactics. Naturally, the regime has been claiming all along that it is gaining the upper hand, but while there were also recent comments from (certain) opposition activists (again as reported in the international media) that they may be failing to garner the critical mass required, the final outcome is nevertheless far from clear.

Probably the best indicator that the tide may indeed be turning is the mood in Damascus itself, where people and traffic have been back out in force for the last three weeks (and especially weekends), whereas previously, although largely unaffected by the protests themselves, the streets, restaurants and shopping malls were half-empty, with people visibly worried. The timing of the international community’s hardening stance against this background would therefore seem to be even more curious.






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