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Syria – How did it all Begin?

In the last days of June, we spent some days in Paris, hearing about the Syrian Revolution from newly exiled Syrian activists. One goal was to bring a closer picture of the revolution in Free Haifa. Since then the Egyptian Coup interrupted, causing some unexpected setback (to the Arab Spring, not only to my writing schedule). Now I return to the original plan with the first post… So how did the Syrian Revolution begin?

The Reign of Terror

To understand the revolution you should start with the regime that preceded it. We didn’t have much time to talk about it, neither much will. One simple fact that stunned Iris was that most of the young activists that we spoke with didn’t take part in any political activity before the revolution – it was not even considered an option.

People that were active speak about a nation with 17 different security services, every one of them spying on everyone else and can arrest you at will. They speak about a nation of 22 million people where about one million of them are police informants, of children induced to report about their parents. They speak about parents that, when their children are arrested, will not dare even to go to ask about their whereabouts.

We heard about leaders of the communist party that were held in prison without trial for more than 14 years, only to be sentenced later to 15 years imprisonment. The charge was specially selected to insult: opposition to socialism – as if to show that the Ba’ath regime was socialist while the communists where anti-socialist.

The memory of the Hama Massacre of February 1982 remains an open wound in the consciousness of the people. It seems the regime was cynically building its reputation of ruthlessness, showing the people its readiness to perform unlimited indiscriminate atrocities, in order to keep the traditionally proud and politicized Syrian people at bay.

It is impossible to speak about the Assads’ regime without mentioning their cynical exploitation of Syria’s sectarian divide. The Alawites were traditionally poor and oppressed. But the Assads didn’t really want them to develop and integrate – but cynically used them as a tool for oppression. They would not allow economic development or good education in Alawite villages – so that the only root out of poverty for poor Alawite youth will be to join the army or the different security services and become a tool of terror against the masses in the mostly Sunni cities.

All this can be summarized by the eternal words of Ghawar, the popular hero of the satirist Duraid Lahham. Asked about the state of his homeland, Ghawar says all is well; it is missing nothing except of a bit of “Karameh” (dignity).

Socio-Economic Change

The legitimacy of the regime was farther eroded by “economic reform”. If in the past major parts of the economy were held by the state sector, and were supposed to serve the whole society, reform gave a free hand to the private sector. This privatization under the shadow of an absolute dictatorship, managed as a family business, caused crony Capitalism to be the rule. Now, as the whole system was openly directed toward the enrichment of a small circle of “insiders”, resentment of chronic poverty, anger at eroding social rights and striving for dignity, freedom and democracy all became one.

We were told about the case of some engineering student. As one remnant of the socialist system, the state was obliged to hire all engineering graduates. Then, as part of the “reform”, this obligation also evaporated. Some engineering students wanted to write a petition asking not to abolish this social right. Even before they really wrote the petition their plot was exposed and the leaders of the ring were sentenced to several years in prison.

Under the burden of the cannibalism of the security services, taking their share of any legitimate business, eroding social rights and incompetence of uncontrolled bureaucracy, the economy was stumbling. Bright new products from modernizing Turkey just over the border were everywhere while local manufacturing was closing. People were yearning for change but didn’t believe it could happen in Syria.

The Call for the Revolution

There is no doubt that the Syrian revolution was a direct result of the revolutionary fever that caught the stagnating Arab World in the beginning of 2011. But it wasn’t immediate.

The regime itself, thinking politics, initially regarded the Arab Spring as an insurrection of the masses against the old reactionary stooges of Western Imperialism. They were socially isolated, had no public legitimacy, were exposed and detested for their servitude to foreign interests. How could you compare those with the Syrian “progressive”, “resistance” regime, with a coalition of patriotic parties and mass organizations to mobilize support and patriotic credibility won by its backing to Hezbollah in its resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanon and its refusal to sign capitulation treaties with Israel?

Most Syrian people, as far as we could understand, didn’t give much thought to what seemed to them as hollow propaganda in the service of people that were enriching themselves at their expense and stamping on their dignity. But they still didn’t want to start the revolution – they simply knew what kind of regime they have and expected any mass uprising to be drawn in rivers of blood.

But still, out of the virtual world, came the call for “revolution” on March 15, 2011. Like previous calls since the beginning of 2011, participation was limited and the protesters were outnumbered by security personnel and vigilant pro-regime gangs.

The Daraa Incident

Daraa is a typical poor Syrian province, stretching south of Damascus and down to the Jordanian border. It is characterized by its conservative society, where tribal ties still play an important role. Its economy was also retarded, highly dependent on the government. It was badly affected by the reform, the contraction of the state sector and erosion of social rights.

When some children in Daraa wrote on their school’s walls the slogan of the Arab Spring: “A-Sha’ab Yurid Iskat A-Nezam” (The people want to topple the regime) – the regime didn’t take it as a joke. There were investigations and some 15 kids, aged 9 to 15, were arrested.

The families of the arrested kids were very worried. They organized a delegation to speak with the security chief. What he told them is the only part of the history of the Syrian revolution that everybody agrees upon. “Forget about your children. You will never see them again. If you want children, you can give birth to new children. If you don’t know how to do it, bring in your wives and we will show you how!”

The words were calculated to humiliate, to sustain the myth that you shouldn’t ask about your children when they are arrested. They touched on the very sense of “Karameh” (dignity) that is at the center of being human.

The security chief in Daraa at the time was a man called “’Atef Najib”, a cousin of President Bashar. Belonging to the close circle of Assad loyalists his powers were unlimited. Some of our interviewees are still convinced that if the regime would have disciplined him after the incident the revolution could still be avoided. But they say that Bashar was more concerned not to hurt the Mafia solidarity and sense of impunity of his ruling circle than he was afraid to raise the furor of the people.

The poor people of Daraa came out in their masses to save their children and their dignity. For the first time the solidarity of the old traditional society proved stronger than the atomization of society by fear and corruption. Confronted by mass demonstrations the regime responded with live ammunition. They were martyrs, mass funerals and more mass demonstrations. The masses in other cities came out in solidarity with the people of Daraa. By the end of March the Syrian Revolution was under way in full steam.

What can be learnt from this beginning?

Hearing the real stories how thing unfolded gives you a very different perspective of what the revolution is about, its strengths and its weaknesses.

It is basically revolution of the Syrian society, pulling the thrones of tyranny from its suffering body. It is a revolution that starts with the defense of human dignity and its main aim is to put an end to humiliation.

This explains why the revolution is strongest in the countryside (the “reaf”), where it is easier to unite society against the intrusive state apparatus. It also explains the weakness of the political opposition, which is mainly based in the big cities and whose main support is the educated elite.

After the walls of terror and fear were broken, there is no way that the Syrian people will give up and put their fate again tin the hands of their torturers.

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For another, more funny story about the first days of the Syrian Revolution you can click here to Free Haifa Extra.

The New York Times later published an interview with one of the kids from Der’aa.