In 2009, National Geographic published an article on Syria by a special correspondent, Don Belt, who had interviewed President Bashar al-Assad. In 2000, shortly after the funeral of his father, President Hafez al-Assad, the son entered his father’s office for only the second time in his life. His first visit had been at age 7, “running excitedly to tell his father about his first French lesson.” The president “remembers seeing a big bottle of cologne on a cabinet next to his father’s desk,” Mr. Belt wrote. “He was amazed to find it still there 27 years later, practically untouched.”
The bottle can be seen as an allegory for Syria itself — the Syria that has been out of sight for the 40 years of the Assads’ rule, a country and its aspirations placed on a shelf and forgotten for decades in the name of stability.
Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.
I remember my father, Nureddin al-Atassi, who himself had been president of Syria before he was imprisoned in 1970 as a result of Gen. Hafez al-Assad’s coup against his comrades in the Baath Party. I was 3 years old then, and it took me a while to understand that prison was not only for criminals, but also for prisoners of conscience. My father would spend 22 years in a small cell in Al Mazza prison, without any charge or trial. We counted the days by the rhythm of our visits to him: one hour every two weeks. At the end of a struggle with cancer, for which he had been denied medical treatment, he was finally released. He died in Paris in December 1992, a week after arriving there on a stretcher.
For the great majority of Syrians, the forgotten Syria meant a police state, a country governed with an iron fist. It meant a concerted international effort to keep a dictatorial regime in power in the name of regional stability — preserving the security of Israel and maintaining a cold peace on the Golan Heights, like the snow that covers Mount Hermon.
The forgotten Syria meant thousands of political prisoners packed for decades inside the darkness of prisons and detention centers. It meant disappearances that left families without even a death certificate. It meant the tears of mothers and wives waiting since the 1980s for their sons and husbands to return, even if wrapped in a shroud. It meant daily humiliation, absolute silence and the ubiquity of fear. It meant networks of corruption and nepotism, a decaying bureaucracy and a security apparatus operating without control or accountability. It meant the marginalization of politics, the taming of the judiciary, the suffocation of civil society and the crushing of any opposition.
A terrifying slogan, “Our Leader Forever Is President Hafez al-Assad,” emblazoned at the entrance to every city, and on public buildings, told Syrians that history ended at their country’s frontiers.
History did not end, of course, and occasionally it peeked in on Syrian life. But the regime buried its head in the sand, living the delusion that it could keep history out — if only it abused its people enough. This happened in the 1980s, with the bloody massacres in Hama. It happened in the early 1990s, after the Soviet bloc collapsed while the Syrian regime kept its one-party state. It happened in 2000, with the death of Hafez al-Assad and the transfer of power through inheritance — as if the regime could defeat even the certainty of death. And it happened in the year that followed, when the Damascus Spring was buried alive, its most prominent activists arrested after they called for Syria and its new president to turn the page and proceed toward democracy.
All through the past four decades, the regime refused to introduce any serious political reform. But meanwhile Syria witnessed great demographic, economic and social transformation. The population became larger and younger; today, more than half of all Syrians are not yet 20 years old. Enormous rural migration to the cities fueled a population explosion at the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo. With unemployment widespread, wealth became concentrated more tightly in the hands of a small class of regime members and their cronies.
Many Western diplomats and commentators expressed doubts that the Syrian people might one day rise up to demand their rights and freedoms. But those skeptics consistently understated the depth of resistance and dissent. It was no surprise that at the moment of truth, Syrians opened their hearts and minds to the winds of the Arab Spring — winds that blew down the wall that had stood between the Arabs and democracy, and had imposed false choices between stability and chaos or dictatorship and Islamic extremism.
History did not leave behind that other, real Syria. Syria returns today to demand its stolen rights, to collect on its overdue bills. Compared to the other Arab uprisings, Syria’s has been perhaps the most arduous, considering the regime’s cruelty and the threat of civil war. At the same time, the people’s unity and their determination to remain peaceful will ultimately enable them to win their freedom and build their own democratic experience. Our exceptionally courageous people, their bare chests exposed to snipers’ bullets, understand the meaning of this freedom; it has already cost them dearly, in the lives of their sons and daughters.
In his interview with National Geographic, Bashar al-Assad did not say what he had done with the big bottle of cologne. It’s a moot point. The regime’s response, and President Assad’s last three speeches, indicate that no one in the presidential palace, not even the president, can move the glass bottle of despotism that has held Syria’s future captive.
My own father governed Syria for four years, but I inherited from him neither power nor fortune. What I inherited was a small suitcase, sent to us from the prison after he died. It held literally all of his belongings after 22 years in confinement. All I remember from this suitcase today is the smell of the prison’s humidity that his clothes exuded when I opened it.
The next time I visit my father’s grave, I will tell him that freedom is reviving again in Syria. I will reassure him that the Syrian people have finally succeeded in breaking this big bottle of cologne, that the scent of freedom has finally been dispersed, that it cannot be drowned by the smell of blood.
Mohammad Ali Atassi, a journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist.