Dispatch

The Revolution Reaches Damascus

Recent protests in Syria show that the Assad regime is just as vulnerable to popular rage as the region's other autocracies.

Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images
Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images

DAMASCUS, Syria — Until this week, it appeared that Syria might be immune from the turmoil that has gripped the Middle East. But trouble may now be starting to brew.

On March 18, popular demonstrations escalated into the most serious anti-government action during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s decade-long rule. Security forces opened fire on a demonstration in the southern city of Deraa, killing at least two protesters. The unrest also does not appear to be contained to any one geographical region: Protests were also reported in the northwestern city of Banias, the western city of Homs, the eastern city of Deir al-Zur, and the capital of Damascus.

The demonstrations began on March 15, when a small group of people gathered in Souq al-Hamidiyeh, Damascus’s historic covered market, to turn the ruling Baath Party’s slogans against it. "God, Syria, freedom — that’s enough," they chanted. The phrase is a play on words on the Baathist mantra: "God, Syria, Bashar — that’s enough." The next day, around 100 activists and relatives of political prisoners gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus’s Marjeh Square to demand the release of Syria’s jailed dissidents.

The protests may be small fry by regional standards, but in Syria — repressively ruled under a state of emergency since the Baath Party came to power in 1963 — they are unprecedented. An atmosphere of fear and secrecy makes the extent of discontent hard to ascertain. Sources outside the country said demonstrations took place in six of Syria’s 14 provinces on Tuesday. Those claims were hard to verify, but the government is clearly rattled: It has beefed up the presence of its security forces, a ragtag-looking bunch in leather jackets, across the country and especially in the northeast, home to a large and often restless Kurdish population, and Aleppo.

The next day’s protests were met with a brutal response by Syrian security agents, who far outnumbered protesters. Plainclothes officers wielding wooden batons beat the silent demonstrators — old and young, male and female.

"They were goons, thugs who reacted disproportionately," one witness said. Thirty-eight people were detained, including the 10-year-old son of a political prisoner. Also arrested were a number of activists — including Mazen Darwish, the former head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, which was officially shut down by authorities in 2009, and Suhair Atassi, an outspoken figure who has become a thorn in the government’s side.

The protests this week are not the first faint rumblings of discontent in Syria. Two failed "days of rage" on Feb. 4 and 5 fizzled — a fact that some blamed on the weather, but was more likely because they were organized on Facebook mainly by Syrians outside the country — but other indirect displays of anger have taken place. On Feb. 16, a group of businessmen in Damascus’s al-Hariqa district, a market area in the old city, took to the streets to protest a police beating. On Feb. 22 and 23, groups held vigils outside the Libyan Embassy in solidarity with anti-Qaddafi rebels. They were dispersed violently.

The identities of those organizing this wave of demonstrations remain a mystery. Syria’s community of dissidents is a small, disparate, and disconnected bunch. But protest seem to be coming from varied sources — Tuesday’s protest was not organized by the usual suspects of activists and former political prisoners. This is a sign of disorganization, perhaps, but also that discontent is not confined to one group and that there may be a growing unhappiness at the grassroots level.

"People are angry that they are not respected, that there are no jobs, education and health care are poor, that corruption is draining their money, that they do not have real freedom, that the media does not reflect our problems and that there is no system because everything happens by opaque presidential decrees," said Abdel Ayman Nour, a Syrian dissident who runs the website All4Syria from abroad. "Syrians simply want to be respected as citizens and are angry they are treated as sheep."

The Syrian regime, usually a savvy player, seems confused about how to respond to these signs of unrest. It has veered between offers of reform to denial, arrests, intimidation, and beatings. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Jan. 31, Assad claimed that "Syria is stable," crediting his anti-U.S. and anti-Israel foreign policy for being in line with his people’s beliefs. The president also promised political reforms would take place this year — but simultaneously, media run by or with close ties to the state have accused infiltrators and Israel of being behind protests.

March 16’s beatings, which were more severe than those used to break up the vigil on Feb. 23, may signal a new zero-tolerance approach by the government. And that would mark a dangerous course for the regime.

"Such a reaction only makes us more angry," said one civil society activist who asked not to be named. "It is further humiliation of an already humiliated population. How can you talk of reforms and at the same time beat us and treat us as stupid?"

Reforms may be the wiser path to pursue, but the Assad regime faces a daunting task in assuaging its citizens’ economic grievances — let alone their political gripes. The country suffers from double-digit unemployment and GDP growth that appears too sluggish to improve the lot of its rapidly growing population. To make matters worse, a years-long drought in the north has been disastrous for the country’s beleaguered farmers.

Nobody in Syria is sure what will happen next. And there are still sound reasons to believe the protests are one-off events. The core reasons Syrians have stayed quiescent remain: tight control by the security forces, worries of sectarian fallout in the absence of a strongman, and, in many quarters, a fondness for Assad, whom many see as a reformer.

The bloody events in Libya have also scared the population. Remembering what happened to the city of Hama in 1982, when Bashar’s father brutally suppressed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrians fear the response to any unrest here will be similar to that of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi: a violent and sustained bid to cling to power.

"There is no doubt the regime will resort to anything to stay in power," said Nour. "When Hafez al-Assad died there were tanks on the street, and there are rumors this is happening again. Any uprising will not be dealt with gently."

But on the ground, there is a feeling that the fear barrier is being broken. Activists who dared not speak their name have piped up. Others meet more openly with diplomats than they dared before. While many Syrians are nervous, others in Damascus’s smart cafes and streets discuss what the future holds more boldly. On Tuesday evening, one cafe turned on Orient TV, an independent Dubai-based channel, to watch coverage of the protests, before quickly switching back to Rotana TV music videos.

Further demonstrations — and bigger, more diverse ones — will be a key sign of the protests’ staying power. Thus far, Syria’s minorities have been hesitant: Christians have traditionally feared upheaval, while the Kurds have largely focused on their own dreams of independence. But on the Kurdish new year of Nowruz, which arrives on March 21, a number of Syria’s Kurdish parties have pledged to raise the national flag rather than the Kurdish standard.

A "you first" mentality has taken hold in Damascus. If nobody moves, Syria may remain quiet. But if a few brave souls are willing to risk the inevitable government crackdown, it will become clear just how deep the desire for change runs in Syria.

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