Despite the death and destruction in Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad’s steadfast devotion to staying in power, the revolution there has gained a lot more than it has lost in the past year and a half. The rebels have torn down the overwhelming sense of fear — a force far more menacing than any dictator — that ruled the country for at least four decades.
Before the revolution began in March of last year, Syria could be summarized as the ruling elite and its beneficiaries vs. everyone else. There were no independent political parties, no real and effective opposition, no forums for political debate, no freedom of the press and no unions. Now the opposition is trying to create this type of civil society.
I moved from Damascus to Beirut a year ago, but I visit Damascus when I can. I’ve spent many weekends there watching with joy, and in many cases sadness, the changes that have happened so quickly, they would exhaust anyone who does not live there.
I remember the first slogan chanted by a group of traders and young workers in the Harika area of central Damascus in February 2011; they were protesting a policeman who had insulted a shop owner there. “The Syrian people cannot be humiliated,” they chanted.
This was the first phrase uttered by Syrians in protest against their status. They were standing up as citizens with rights, not as obedient, suppressed sheep. That chanting echoed through the walls of the antique shops, the neighborhood’s minarets and the Damascene sidewalks. Its rhythm seemed confused, croaky, worried. It rose one moment and faded the next. There was reluctance and fear among the crowd about whether it was okay to raise their voices, perhaps for the first time.
The interior minister arrived at the protest. He came out of his luxurious car and stood on the door frame to assert his authority from above. The minister blurted out: “Shame on you. This is a demonstration!” He had no idea that demonstration would become a revolution.
That day, before Syrians’ battle was against their leaders, it was against fear. Day by day, the wall of fear, which had been unbreakable for more than four decades, began to fall. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, fighting fiercely for its survival, did not pay enough attention to the crumbling of the fear barrier. The regime believed that its exalted image was untouchable.
Before the revolution, the people did not know anything about their president other than his picture. While the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad always portrayed himself as the sole ruler, the pictures of Bashar al-Assad included his whole family — himself, his wife and their three children.
If the Syrian people ever glimpsed their president in a restaurant, in the street or during a brief visit to a hospital or a government department, awe would fill their eyes, as if they were in a dream and didn’t want to wake up. How did their president separate himself from his regal image — which appeared everywhere: in the streets, on cars and taxis, in restaurants, and even in homes — to reveal that he was just like them, a normal person who laughs, talks, walks and frowns?
When Syrians tore pictures of the president in many of the governorates, they also ripped through their fear of death. The horrific scenes on Arab TV stations of mutilated corpses and severed and swollen limbs have not scared Syrians, nor blunted their determination. Death and life have become intertwined. One person’s death gives others hope of a better life. The increasing number of martyrs is evidence that this is the beginning of the end of repression.
While the rebels let go of the fear of death, the Syrian regime abandoned the sanctity of death, turning bodies wrapped in neat, white, muslin shrouds into shreds of pierced, charred flesh.
A television report on an August massacre in Darya, a Damascus suburb, showed how the regime tries to intimidate citizens. In the newscast, a TV reporter moved between the bodies, asking a girl about the identity of the dead woman she was sitting next to — only to learn that it was her mother.
After the barrage of reactions to the killings on social media, on TV stations and in newspapers, Assad gave an interview a few days later, announcing for the first time explicitly and clearly: The people are our enemy. Anyone who stands in the way of our interests is our enemy. So it’s a war of annihilation.
While the situation in Syria seems grim and tragic, it is inevitable for us to pass this stage. The new Syria — whatever it will be — will not be more wretched than it was before the revolution.
About three months ago, I spoke with a young man living in the besieged city of Harasta. His tired eyes trembling, there was fear, suspicion, hesitancy in the way he spoke.
“We spent the whole night frightened,” the young man said about recent violence in his neighborhood. “An agonizing calm filled the place. We’re not used to the calm. We started praying that the shooting would resume.”
He’s not with the opposition, nor is he a loyalist to the regime. He’s just a Syrian citizen living in a small city outside Damascus. But in moments like these, affiliation loses its importance. The differences between a rebel and a loyalist disappear when it comes to daily life in these affected neighborhoods.
He continued explaining how calm can be terribly painful; how it can give you the chills as you wait, between one moment and the next, for the storm to continue.
Dima Wannous, the author of The Chair, is a novelist based in Beirut.