- By Radwan ZiadehRadwan Ziadeh is executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Mawa Goumian, a Damascene girl who is neither an activist nor politician, became the symbol of the Syrian Revolution with a YouTube video. She was holding the Syrian flag and shouting "Long live free Syria," when suddenly she was interrupted by six security men who surrounded her before they took her to an unknown place. Her example brought Syria squarely into the focus of the other revolutions which have swept the Arab world.
Mawa’s video gave the lie to the confidence of Syrian President Bashar Asad, who told the Wall Street Journal in late January that Syria is immune and far from what other countries have recently experienced in the region. According to President Asad, Syria is stable "because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance." This suggests how Asad sees the "revolutions" around him — and what happened last week in several Syrian cities proved that President Asad was wrong.
The massive demonstrations in Daraa last week — before they spread to other cities like Damascus, Latakia, Hims and Doma — put an end to the "Syrian exceptionalism." Contrary to the widespread belief that Syria would be immune, it is in fact an ideal case for revolution, a country where a lack of political rights meet economic failure. Indeed, Syria offered its people neither bread nor freedom. With 32 percent of Syrians under the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Programme, there was quiet outrage over widely circulated stories of the corruption of Rami Makhlouf (cousin of president Bashar Asad), and other business nouveaux who relied mainly on the allegiance with the security services in order to build their wealth.
To be clear, the protests in Syria today, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, are about domestic issues — and have nothing to do with foreign policy. The slogans of Syrian protestors focus on freedom and corruption, not Israel, Lebanon or Palestine — where the regime spent all its energy, time and money in the last four decades. Yet, nor were the protests purely a result of deteriorating economic conditions, an increase in unemployment rates and loss of job opportunities. This misplaced diagnosis has led many of these regimes to resort to the introduction of temporary economic measures, such as increasing public subsidies for basic food products or increasing salaries of public sector employees believing that this would eliminate the reasons for any popular protest.
In reality, what took place was simply a revolution to restore human dignity; since dignity and honor have a special value to all mankind and no less to the Arabs among them. Syrians endured long decades of continued degrading and humiliating practices at security and intelligence branches such as fatal torture; blatant discrimination in educational opportunities and promotions in public sector jobs; health services based on party affiliations, as well as a general sense of corruption, embezzlement and lack of transparency in the country. All of these experiences that directly or indirectly fall under the scope of humiliation are usually overlooked by totalitarian regimes and are only recognized after its overthrown by popular revolts.
The delay in the uprising in Syria was mainly due to fear of repression from the security services who used to repeat that they would not hesitate to use violence against demonstrators, stimulating the memory of fear which has its deep roots among the Syrians. After all, the 1980s resulted in more than 30,000 deaths, 125,000 political prisoners and 17,000 who are still missing. In addition, Syrians have become accustomed to stories of torture after generations which have created a psychological trauma inside the Syrian.
However, with the success of the youth in the southern Syrian town of Daraa in breaking the fear barrier through dozens of demonstrations demanding freedom, these protests were able to expand to include more cities. A small but significant demonstration that was suppressed inside the Umayyad mosque indicated the determination of the Syrian youth to follow through with their "revolution." This determination is strong enough today, despite the increase in the number of those killed, and people will continue to participate despite the enormous arrest campaign launched by the security services.
The Syrian security apparatus did as the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan regimes did, using excessive force to disperse demonstrators with live bullets, as evidenced by many human rights organizations. However, as it was apparent in the other revolutions, killing with live ammunition does not deter protesters as much as it inflames and incites others to break the wall of fear and silence.
The reaction of the security authorities often inflame both rebellions and demonstrations; their reactions used to deal with these movements has been in accordance with the state’s security concerns, using words like "spies" and "traitors" to describe the protesters. Accusing the demonstrators in Syria has led to even more anger among the rebellious youth toward a regime that seems determined to ignore decades of hidden tension and anger among the citizens. This has lead to a state of enormous determination that will be difficult to suppress. If we analyze the slogans used by the demonstrators, we realize that they have fully understood the mentality of the ruling party and the state media; since the Syrian regime uses the language of treason to discredit the activists and its opponents by accusing them of being traitors for Israel or the United States, so the young Syrian demonstrators used the same tactics through their slogans: "The traitor who will kill his own people."
We should also refer to the significance of Daraa as a starting point of the revolution. This southern province has experienced — like many other provinces — a lack of infrastructure and low levels of medical care and education. It possesses nearly all causes of a persistent revolution that will not end until it achieves all its goals. We should also refer to the nature of its community, which offers solidarity and support among its citizens — something which is not available in big cities where the regime has been working for decades to destroy the sense of solidarity among people by planting suspicion and mutual fear instead. Because of this well-connected community, when a few children of the tribe (Abazid) were arrested, maximum solidarity was shown by all the other tribes who remained firm on one position: to call for the release of these schoolchildren.
In addition, the Syrian regime can’t isolate the province of Daraa militarily and politically. Daraa is not Qamishli or Hasaka, where the majority of the population there are Kurds. It would have been easy for the Syrian regime to isolate these provinces by accusing the Kurds of planning to secede. Even if demonstrations had begun in Hama or Aleppo, it would have been easier to isolate them by accusing them of having been instruments of the Muslim Brotherhood (a crime which would result in a death sentence, according to Law 49 of 1980). And since it’s really difficult for the uprising to begin in Damascus or Aleppo because of the heavy security presence there, we can see that Daraa was the perfect choice for the "revolution."
The final reason why the Syrian regime may be prevented from using extreme violence or even massacring Daraa as it did in Hama in 1982, is that three out of the 10 leaders of the Syrian Army divisions are from Daraa. The Syrian regime is fully aware of a possible division among the Syrian army and of what the consequences of that would be. In addition, the Syrian regime also realizes that the increased repression and casualties will generate more protestors — and the slogans will only became stronger and stronger. It is clear that the "Syrian Revolution" will triumph in the end, as each day more cities get involved in demonstrations and rebellions demanding their freedom.
Radwan Ziadeh is the Director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and a visiting scholar at George Washington University.