What is happening in Syria?
What Syria has been witnessing since last March is unprecedented. It is the most courageous uprising in Syria’s modern history. Whatever the criticisms about this revolution in terms of lack of proper organisation, the absence of clear and direct targets and aims and democratically elected leaders (or speakers), it is, nevertheless, a clear demonstration of the power of the people. The normal response to such criticism is, when have people’s spontaneous protests and revolts against brutal regimes ever been organised and had planned political agendas at their birth?
Almost 10 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to a UN document but the reality is way beyond that figure, perhaps as much as 30%, according to local figures confirmed by local organisations but never allowed by the regime to be published.
The 23 million population comprises various ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians (Caucasians Cherkess or Adyghe people and Chechnyans), Turks (also called Turkman) and other Arab nationalities such as Palestinians and Iraqis. You can even find a few Greeks and Cypriots. As for religions, over 11% of the population are Christians (mainly Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite and Protestants), and the majority are Muslims of many sects, such as Druze, Alawite, Shi’a, Ismaelis and Sunni. About 75 per cent are Sunni Muslims but the minority Alawites, the sect of president Bashar Al-Assad, plays the most powerful role in the country.
Like many other countries in the region, Syria has a young population, youth between 1-14 years make up more than a third of the population and a third (or more) of the population is between 20-50.
- Economy control
Growth in sectors such as financial services, construction, telecommunications, tourism, and non-oil industries and trade, are, relatively speaking, “diversifying” the economy, but most are under the control of the ruling family and the corrupt officials who were appointed by the regime. In Syria, people make jokes about corruption and they believe that had there been a global championship in corruption, Syrian officials would always have claimed gold medals!
- Foreign Policy
Internationally, Syria has good relations with Iran, including defence ties, and the two signed a memorandum of defence understanding in June 2006. Iran also considers Syria as its other end of the Shi’a “crescent” along with Hezbollah in Lebanon because the Assad family belongs to a branch of the Shi’a (Alawite).
In the past year, there has been substantial high level bilateral contact between Turkey and Syria – with several meetings and visits between Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and a range of agreements have been signed.
The ties with Russia are mainly built on strategic interests (on the Russian side) because Syria is almost the only Naval base and gateway for Russia in the Mediterranean. Apart from that, in Syria most weapons are imported from Russia, North Korea and a few other countries such as Iran.
- Internal Policy: the corrupt family and regime
Assad’s father’s internal policy from 1971-2000 was based on sectarianism, i.e., the rule of one sect. This sect was combined with those who are loyal from others religions, ethnicities and sects and members of the ruling Ba’ath party. All his supporters benefited financially from their positions and have helped in making corruption in all areas of life and on all levels the major characteristic of the country’s infrastructure. In addition, they maintained a deliberate bureaucracy that can still be found in most of the government establishments. By creating such policies, Hafez Assad and later his son perpetuated their power and control and turned the country into a big farm where most people are looked on as nothing but cattle in the Assad’s “ranch”. However, the main policy to preserve power was through imposing fear and horror among the people.
You can perhaps imagine what happened to a person who once, mistakenly, wrapped a falafel sandwich in a piece of newspaper that had a picture of Hafez Assad. This story happened in the early 90s, and until now, the family of that falafel seller don’t know anything about him. He vanished after he was kidnapped by the security, like thousands of other Syrians who have also disappeared for good.
Some might say that Syria is supposed to be a secular state and to some extent, a “socialist” country, with an anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist stance. This is true if you listen to the controlled Syrian media, which still uses patronising methods of old fashioned propaganda. However, this is not true if you ask the Syrians who live inside the country. They know the truth of those lies and “mottos” that the regime has continued to exploit and abuse and use over decades to keep emergency law in place and to keep the gates of quick-rich schemes open to his people and regime protectors, especially those who belong to the same sect as the Assad family. No one in Syria can question any person in power or in the security forces and especially the army, the majority of whom belong to the Alawite sect. They are above the law!
These revolutionary “mottos and slogans” have proved a good way to delude some people in believing that the bad economic situation is a result of Syrian “moral and patriotic” standpoints against Israel and the U.S.
Hafez Assad, during 30 years of being in total brutal command and power, managed to brainwash some regime supporters but all other Syrians knew that he was merely a guard dog of the northern Israeli borders (including the Syrian occupied Golan Heights), preventing any direct military action against Israel. Syrians know that if anybody is caught even trying to motivate people to claim the Golan Heights back, s/he will be arrested and may be executed under emergency law, using the excuse that this person was attempting to incite people against the regime and the “national security” of the country. Syrians know that since 1982, there has not been a single bullet shot against Israel despite all the violations committed by the Zionists against Syria. Instead, the regime deployed tanks, warships, helicopters and artilleries to crackdown and kill peaceful demonstrators. The Israelis even flew their F16 jets at low altitude above Bashar Assad’s castle near Lataqia city and on another occasion they destroyed a scientific chemical lab in the east. They challenged Assad to retaliate but he didn’t dare to even deliver a speech to his people about those incidents. Syrian people know that, as with all Arab leaders, their armies are built only to defend the leaders’ seats and power, not the country or the dignity of the nation.
Bashar Assad took over the country after his father’s death (in 2000), when his supporters passed the presidency to him in less than 5 minutes at the People’s Assembly in Damascus. He inherited what his father, Hafez Assad, had constructed, that is, a well-designed policy of intimidation, which involved bullying and planting constant fear inside people’s hearts. People still live in such panic until today although the wall of silence has cracked and the barrier of fear has started breaking down regardless of the lies about mythical slow “reforms” that are uttered by Bashar Assad in national media.
One of the important things worth mentioning is that Hafez Assad, and later his son appointed most relatives and other Alawite people to positions of power including the Army, Security, Media, Transportation, Economic organisations, Telecommunications, Public Health organisations and hospitals, Education establishments and almost every vital and sensitive position in the country. The Assad family only trusted their sect in the top positions (mainly security and army positions). The lesser positions went to his supporters and other sycophants. The final decision in every fundamental matter (internal/external policies and decisions) is always up to the president. The regime also managed to associate the concept of love and loyalty to the country with the love and loyalty to the president. So, if you are against him, you will be classified as a traitor, foreign agent, Zionist etc and consequently, against the country.
It is enough to take a short trip around any city in Syria to see the number of statues and pictures of the Assad family in every street, place, shop, official building and more, and if any place doesn’t have a picture, the owner or the person who runs that place will be in serious trouble. People in Syria say that the cost of the statues, pictures, concerts, and events glorifying and praising this “God-Like” figure and his family since the 70s, would have saved at least 15% of the population from poverty. As for the national TV, it is almost dedicated to praise and “sanctify” him. Hundreds of songs were composed to eulogize him and his father.
Syrian demonstrators have lashed out at rampant corruption in the Syrian government. Among the many officials accused of being the worst “thieves” – Rami Makhlouf, the first cousin of Bashar al-Assad and the family business manager and the most powerful economic figure and “businessman” in Syria, reportedly controls as much as 60 per cent of the country’s economy through an intricate web of holding companies. He is considered to be the “Don” of the Syrian “Cosa Nostra” and all other criminal security syndicates in the country have to have his permission for every extortion that takes place. In fact, the man can change any law within five minutes and re-tailor a new one to suit his own interests.
- The tyrant versus people
All that you see or hear now from Syria is people demonstrating and calling for their freedom and for the regime to step down after all these years of agonising oppression. The regime’s response has been shoot to kill the protestors in public with no consideration for any kind of moral attitude or respect for human rights and people’s freedom of speech or freedom of choice. The street demands democracy, a word that has never existed in the dictionary of Assad’s kingdom library. The immediate response of the regime was inhuman arrests, ruthless kidnappings, vicious intimidation, and above all, bloodthirsty killings. Any person or group who dares to say no to the dictatorship or participates in any of the peaceful demonstrations will face a savage response. This means that people who get arrested will suffer all kinds of unimaginable torture. For example, skinning men alive is a common and known method. In addition, the security forces are known for being experts in sexual abuse, insults and beating the “detainees” not to mention the use of psychological distress methods. The security forces spare no one, children, women, old men and even animals. They can do whatever they want to any living being in the country without being questioned or even criticised and have been given full authority to exercise any action of terror. In addition, they all are armed with hatred for other sects and people with free political principles and thoughts.
That’s exactly what Bashar Assad’s father did in the past. So, for Syrians, it is 40 years of cruelty and ill treatment for those supposed to be “his own people”.
- The Uprising
The spark for the intifada started in Dar’a (a city in the south), last March, when security forces arrested 24 children (aged between 7-13) because they chanted “Down with the regime” after they finished a school day. It was in fact an ongoing TV chant or a “catch phrase” that almost everybody in all Arab countries had heard for days and months while watching TV. The children were mainly imitating the people of Egypt who used to chant it in Altahrir Square in Cairo.
The families of the children along with other recognised heads of local families in the city went to the governor to complain and ask for the release of the children, especially after they heard that the children had been beaten up and some tortured by the security forces. The governor’s reply was offensive and he called the head of the security of Dar’a. Atef Najib (the president’s cousin). Atef came and told the people in a very insulting way that they would not see their children and it would be better to think of “getting new children” and if they couldn’t, he could help by sending his men to “impregnate” the women of Dar’a city (he used the abusive ‘F’ word). He said it in a very challenging and revolting way.
That was enough to spread major protests in the city, which witnessed appalling suppression by Assad’s security and army for over 23 days. Many people were killed, injured, kidnapped and arrested and the army besieged the city and cut the electricity, communications and water for over 20 days, and banned food (including dry milk for children) from entering the city. Since that time, the protests spread across the country until today.
The irony is that Basher Assad “punished” his cousin A’tef Najib by appointing him as the head of security in the northern city of Edleb two weeks after the incident in Dar’a.
- The Revolution
In the early stages, protesters in all cities and villages were calling for reforms, freedom, release of thousands of political prisoners and dissidents and an end to corruption. All they were calling for was a simple decent life. As demonstrations were met immediately with live bullets, the rallies changed tone, calling for the fall of the regime.
The opposition movement has gained momentum in spite of a persistent and brutal military crackdown. Syrian security forces, henchmen, thugs and pro-government armed men have continued their repressive measures despite the so called “abolishment” of the 48-year-old emergency law, which was issued by Assad a few weeks after the Dar’a massacres and his pledge to implement reforms. None of these reforms have been implemented.
The revolution has spread to the whole country. People chant “no to sectarianism”, “we all are one hand”, “freedom for Syria” and many other slogans. All Syrian social classes and ethnicities are involved. In the east, Assyrian Christians demonstrated despite Syrian security forces raided their headquarters (the Assyrian Democratic Association) in Qamishli and arrested 12 of its main members. In Qamishli over 35000 Kurdish protesters took to the streets calling for an end to the regime, a call that was echoed across the north. This spread to almost every village and town in the east and south east to include Amouda, Dair Al-Zour, Mayadin, Albo Kamal, Ain al-Arab, Raqah and many other cities and towns. In the North, Edleb and all its surrounding towns and villages up to Jeser Alshoughoor, which suffered another savage crackdown by the Assad army and security. More than 14000 people fled Jeser Alshoughoor city to Turkey as refugees. Many parts of Aleppo city also joined in big rallies which also spread to Efrin and other northern areas. In the west, Lataqia, Jableh, Tartoos and Banias observed massive demonstrations but it was Banias that suffered the most from the dreadful response by the Assad security. However, the main cities that witnessed the biggest demonstrations were Homs, Hamah, Alqusair, and Tal Kalakh. People still remember the Hama massacre occurred in February 1982, when the Syrian army, under the orders of Hafez al-Assad, conducted a scorched earth policy against the town of Hama in order to quell a revolt by the people. The result was more than 25000 killed in less than two weeks.
In Damascus, demonstrations were almost in (almost) all suburbs and surrounding villages and towns as well as inside the city. Hundreds of people were killed by the Assad security and thousands were arrested and tortured. Most demonstrations took place on Fridays and some other days but for the last 3 weeks, during Ramadhan month, there have been demonstrations on a nightly basis in most of the above mentioned cities and towns.
The only people who never participated in any rally or demonstration were the Alawite who, instead, got armed by the security and Maher Assad, the president’s infamous brother.
- Assad’s killing machine continues
No one can confirm the correct figures of casualties because the Syrian regime has banned all foreign media and restricted access to all troubled areas since the uprising began, making it impossible to get independent assessments. Defying restrictions and risking detainment, many ordinary Syrian citizens and political activists have taken it upon themselves to report to human rights organisations (Arabs and International) and recorded and posted videos of the protests online. The Syrian regime has banned all human rights and medical organisations from entering or working in the country. However, the revolution has established what is known as “Local Co-ordination Committees” who communicate with International media and other organisation via some technological means such as satellite mobile phones (e.g. Thuraya network) and Internet. Young Syrian revolutionaries keep developing basic but genius ways to bypass the controlled Internet proxy connection.
Human rights organisations believe that the number of people killed so far, since the start of the revolution, might have reached 2600 civilians, more than 6700 injured, at least 4200 missing and over 50000 people arrested, among them around 17000 who were released after few months or weeks. All were abused and tortured and so far, 71 have died under harrowing methods of torture. The figures don’t include the army officers and soldiers who refused to shoot the unarmed peaceful demonstrators and were executed or shot either on the spot by the security snipers and henchmen or in prisons.
- The “Shabbiha” (Henchmen) phenomenon
The Assad regime uses groups of thugs called “shabihah”, which mainly means henchmen. Most of them are Alawites and were members of a secret religious society called “Al-Mortadha” which was founded by Hafez Assad’s brother Jamil. Their main jobs were to smuggle drugs, weapons, cigarettes, extract protection money from local small businesses, and control the ports in Tartoos and Lataqia so every local businessman has to pay before off-loading shipments. They also smuggled almost any material that was banned from sale in the country. The ban of those materials was deliberate in order to open the gates of wealth for the regime people and those thugs and especially for the Alawites in the security systems since the law doesn’t apply to them. This is to gain their loyalty and link their living standards with the existence of the regime.
These thugs are very loyal to Assad and not controlled by any official organisation but all take their orders from the heads of security branches and of course, from the main butcher of Syria Maher Al-Assad, the brother of Bashar, who controls the most powerful military regiments in the country. Two of these notorious regiments are the Republican Guard and the Fourth Regiment whose soldiers and officers are mainly Alawites.
- The recent situation
International organisations have described the human rights status in Syria as being one of the worst in the world, with security forces having a long history of harassing and imprisoning rights activists and critics of the government.
The Syrian government continues to patronise its people and the international community by blaming an “armed resurrection” by Salafi militant groups who come from ‘outside’ the country and ‘unknown’ local terrorist groups, ‘Zionist’ agents etc for the deaths of civilians and some security and army people. The way they outline these false claims is very comic and could be a subject of TV satire or comedy. The regime’s media has fabricated some evidence of an insurrection by placing ammunition on dead civilians in troubled locations, but unfortunately for them, a soldier filmed the set up and the video was leaked and posted on youtube and Aljazeera TV. Any 12 year old child could tell how primitive and unintelligent the Syrian media and security is from the way they set up their moronic sketches.
However, real raw video footage shot by demonstrators reveals a completely different story and hundreds of harrowing videos have been posted on youtube so far. All are accessible by any person who has an internet connection.
It would take hundreds of pages to go through what the Syrian people and demonstrators have been through so far and what kind of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon them. Hence, I will refrain from listing other barbaric operations as the news agencies around the world have broadcast some of the horrors and killing that hasn’t stopped until now.
The question that imposes itself is “where is Syria heading to”? There are many scenarios, any of which could be the right answer, but if we are looking for a feasible solution to this situation, it is in the hands of Bashar Al-Assad. Unfortunately, it is obvious that he will favour power and control, wealth and theft to giving his people a peaceful life. This is evident because the only solution that he has come up with is violence and oppression and deploying as many army and security forces in every city and town in the country as he can. It seems clear that his main aim is to drag the country to civil war.
Another scenario would be a coup d’état staged by some Alawite generals to end the violence but keep the sect in power-an option that not all Syrians would be happy with.
With regard to the possibility for international military intervention, it was made clear by all Syrian demonstrators and opposition that they are against it. However, nobody is sure how long they can hold to this because their thresh-hold has started declining and their plan to keep the revolution peaceful will sooner or later end because of the dramatic increase in killing and arrests carried out by the regime. So, an armed resistance and international military intervention are still an option for the revolution development in future.
The regime knows that international military intervention will drag the whole region into an all out war. This will happen if Iran gets involved along with Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Israel will take advantage of this pandemonium to achieve it’s “Biblical Armageddon” by destroying Iranian nuclear capabilities but they are likely to ask the Americans to do this dirty job. Israel will attack Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon in order to create a new situation on ground for a potential peace process according to Israeli rules and conditions. If an attack against Iran takes place by the NATO or US, Russia will not stand by watching and will get involved somehow, so we might witness a new apocalyptic mayhem in the Middle East. Of course, we should consider a Palestinian uprising or an Israeli invasion on Gaza as well.
As for China, her foreign policy depends on what US and Europe could bargain with, that is, what are the rewards that China can gain if it abstains at the Security Council? We have already seen Chinese delegations visiting the newly born country of South Sudan, so is this a devil’s deal?
Lets all pray that reason and wisdom will prevail in the Middle East and people of Syria will win their heroic Intifada peacefully, facing the tanks of Assad’s regime with their bare chests.