The Myth of Syrian Stability

My foreign friends always tell me when they visit that the comment they hear most often from taxi drivers, shop owners and others is, “In Syria, there is security.”

True, Syria does seem much more stable than its neighbors. And though I often find it difficult to ascertain the opinions of my countrymen, especially in matters concerning politics and the regime, many do believe that it’s a fair bargain: limits on personal and political freedoms in exchange for the stability that is so dear to them. And those limits are quite strict: Syria has been ruled by emergency law since 1963, under a strong-fisted security force; opposing (or even just differing) opinions can lead to arrest, imprisonment or, at the very least, travel restrictions.

For example, I have two separate restrictions, from two different branches of the security forces, that forbid me from leaving Syria. One of these was put in place simply for attending a human rights conference in a neighboring country.

This apparent lack of real discontent over the restrictions on our freedoms meant that when the revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East began in January, the Syrian regime considered itself immune to them. President Bashar al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal that the situation here was different and said that “real reform is about how to open up the society and how to start dialogue.” For years, he said, his government had been having just that dialogue with its people, and he was unconcerned about calls on Facebook and Twitter for Syrians to revolt.

But then, in early February, Syrian policemen roughed up people who had gathered to light candles for the victims of the uprisings sweeping the region. This was followed by a security crackdown and a campaign by the regime or its allies to discredit calls for reform by attributing them to Israeli conspiracies or opposition leaders. Protests began to spring up in the central square in Damascus and then moved south to Dara’a. Troops opened fire, and several protesters died. Videos of the violence spread on YouTube and Facebook.

The Syrian government now seemed to understand that it had to take this surge of unrest seriously. So last week a counselor to Mr. Assad affirmed the right to peaceful protest, assuring Syrians that government troops had been ordered not to open fire on demonstrators.

The next day, a Friday, I went out with one of my friends to join a small protest in the Hamidiyah Market in the Old City section of central Damascus. We were, all in all, just a few dozen people chanting slogans for freedom, and yet we were surrounded by hundreds of members of the security forces, who responded with chants in support of President Assad. The security forces then began to beat and arrest protesters. My friend and I slipped away from the market and headed to Marja Square, just outside the Old City, where — it turned out — even more security forces were waiting for us.

First, they went after those photographing and recording the demonstration with their mobile phones. Then they began to hit the rest of us with batons and sticks. Dozens were arrested. (They are still in police custody, but we don’t know where.)

After that, the security forces were joined by other young men, apparently civilians, who formed themselves into a march for President Assad. This demonstration the guards allowed to be photographed and recorded. And, in the evening, state television reported on the marches all over Damascus in support of Mr. Assad.

That same day, the situation worsened elsewhere in Syria, when security forces violently oppressed protests in the cities of Homs and Latakia. Dozens of peaceful protesters were killed in Dara’a.

When the international community condemned the violence, the Syrian regime began to blame “armed groups,” from inside and outside the country, for killing the civilians in Dara’a as well as members of the security forces. The official Syrian position on the motives and nationality of the armed men changes often: sometimes they are Palestinian or Jordanian; sometimes they are working at the behest of foreign operatives from Israel or the United States. An Egyptian-American was even arrested on charges of espionage and, on state television, made a transparently false confession to inciting the protests and to being paid 100 Egyptian pounds ($17) for each photo he took.

This conspiracy theory, to which the regime continues to cling and of which many Syrians have been convinced, means that there are conflicting reports of the violence in places like Latakia. Eyewitness reports of what happened there last weekend vary: some say security forces opened fire on a peaceful protest; others spoke of snipers on the rooftops shooting civilians and security forces alike; still others of cars using loudspeakers to stir up the residents of different neighborhoods of the city against one another on sectarian grounds. What is certain is that people are now dead.

And it is also clear that these “armed groups” attacked only those protesters asking for freedom and reform, those who rally for those killed in Dara’a and elsewhere, who call out “peaceful, peaceful.” One can’t help but wonder why the police did nothing to protect these small groups of demonstrators. Some commentators close to the Syrian regime have justified this lack of action by saying that the security forces could not defend civilians because of President Assad’s orders not to fire.

Meanwhile, the pro-government marches, which state television claimed involved millions of people, were not interrupted by a single bullet. No one was killed or attacked. These demonstrators held signs with language like “O Bashar, don’t be concerned — you have a people that drinks blood.” But not a single sign was raised in memory of the dead at Dara’a and Latakia.

Syria has degenerated into chaos and bloodshed so quickly in these past few weeks that I keep thinking: was our stability, our distinguishing characteristic, ever even true? The government tells us that if the regime falls the country could devolve into sectarian chaos. Perhaps that is so. But what did the ruling Baath party — the leader of our state and society, according to the Syrian Constitution — accomplish over the last 48 years if that is so?

And then came President Assad’s speech on Wednesday.

I was waiting for a different speech, one that spoke of holding those who fired on protesters accountable, that announced the end of the emergency laws, that called for closing the files of political prisoners and amending the Constitution to create greater freedoms. But what we saw instead was a show of power by Mr. Assad and a show of loyalty by the members of the Parliament. There was a clear declaration that anyone who continued to protest, to request our rights, to petition for the future of our country, was nothing but a troublemaker.

Because of his speech, many of those Syrians who called for reform will now begin calling for regime change.

By Mustafa Nour, a human rights activist who, for reasons of safety, did not want to be identified by his full name. This essay was translated by Spencer Scoville from the Arabic.

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