The future of Syria, it seems, will be decided within the next few days. The escalating violence being carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces has reached unprecedented levels in the last week. It is sadly becoming an all too familiar sight – a Middle Eastern dictator resorting to force in order to quell an internal challenge to his rule. Pictures and reports from Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen all tell a similar story.
On Good Friday at least 76 civilians were shot dead in fourteen towns and villages across Syria. The bloodiest day of the uprising so far raised the total death toll to over 300 since mid-March when the pro-democracy demonstrations began.
Yet there were reportedly tens of thousands marching through the streets on a day that had been named ‘Great Friday’ by the protestors. In spite of the genuine dangers associated with critical expression of any kind, these people risked everything and gathered en masse to voice their anger and dissatisfaction with the President. Their demand was loud and clear – an end to the regime and an end to authoritarian rule.
All this seemed incredibly unlikely as I crossed the border from Turkey just over a month ago. The first rumblings of unrest had already begun in the southern town of Dera’a, but as I journeyed south to Damascus with three friends they seemed distant and provincial. As we looked out of the coach window into the vast, barren, empty desert, Syria seemed an improbable place for the ‘Arab Spring’ to take root.
Over the three weeks we spent in the country, we did not encounter any anti-regime sentiment. The only two demonstrations we did come across were both in fact pro-government. The first seemed to be a fairly spontaneous outburst of gratitude for the President in the wake of his announcement that the Emergency Laws, which have been in place almost 50 years, were to be loosened.
It was as if every car in Damascus was out on the roads that evening. On our way back into the capital, our taxi’s progress was halted by an enormous procession of vehicles – horns blaring, flags waving from windows, chanting voices rising up into the dusty Damascene air. The capital’s radio-waves hummed with the energy of nationalist songs, which were occasionally paused to give a fervent voice the opportunity to extol the President’s generosity to the nation. There was an electric charge in the atmosphere.
The second demonstration we came across was clearly planned and of a different nature, largely because the participants were all schoolchildren. The chants were all the same, the banners all sported the same slogans, and the flags were all still the national flag – and yet, somehow, this was a much more unsettling sight. The vehemence and zeal with which these young children chanted the President’s name was, for me, a chilling manifestation of the regime’s power.
It later came to light that the President had given all schoolchildren and civil servants in Damascus the day off so that they could take to the streets in support of his regime. Meanwhile parents who did not want their children to take part in the rally were required to hand in a letter explaining exactly why that was.
With the benefit of being able to follow events on Aljazeera and BBC World in our flat, we were aware that the rest of the country was not so passionately pro-Assad. There were further outbreaks in Dera’a and intermittent bursts of activity in Latakia on the coast. But had we not had access to these news stations, our awareness of the situation would have been extremely distorted.
The state-run Syrian news channels were painting a very different picture. According to them, there were no protests; the unrest was being caused by foreign and internal powers seeking to promote sectarian violence and disrupt the unity of the nation. Syrians were being told explicitly not to trust international news channels, which were also attempting to throw petrol on the fire.
In recent weeks the Syrian news agencies have begun to focus on the ‘martyrs’ of the unrest, the state’s policemen. A typical headline from SANA’s website (Syrian Arab News Agency) from Sunday tells it all – “Interior Ministry: 286 Policemen Wounded by the Armed Groups since the Beginning of Syria’s Events”.
The successful uprising in Egypt hinged upon information. The role played by the young, internet-savvy middle classes in Cairo who used Facebook and Youtube to counter the government’s attempts to control the flow and distribution of information is well known. The populace is now not as credulous or as naive as it once was, and dictators across the Middle East are beginning to recognise this. Information has led to empowerment.
This is what I was told by Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, lecturer in Middle East politics at SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) – “people have gradually lost their fear of the state and their trust in the political system… Absolute monarchies and dictatorial quasi-republics are simply not tenable anymore”.
Hosni Mubarak’s speech on the eve of his eventual departure from office illustrated just how out of touch he was with the common sentiment. He was seen as a relic from the past, still preaching superstition while his people demanded the truth.
Nonetheless the battle for information was always going to be tougher in Syria than it was in Egypt. According to Freedom House, journalists in Egypt did have partial freedom to criticise the government before this year. In Syria, however, the research body stated in 2010 that there was “broad state control over all print-media” and that the government carried out “online censorship and monitoring”. In practice, Assad commands the entire national media.
This has helped him cultivate a great deal of genuine popular support across the country, a fact that should not be dismissed. His face can be seen everywhere – always the same narrow-set, piercing blue eyes and patchy moustache – on towering government buildings and on state-sponsored roadside bill-boards, yes; but also on car-bonnets, on the back wall of a barber’s shop, and in private living rooms up and down the country. Thus, although fear is always a factor, there is also a cult of personality surrounding Assad which still resonates with a lot of people.
And yet recently the President’s position is looking increasingly vulnerable. Offering empty concessions with one hand whilst meting out violent suppression with the other, he appears desperate and uncertain. So far his major speeches have fallen on deaf ears, too – there are indeed times when Assad looks and sounds like Mubarak in the last days of his rule, out of touch and rapidly losing ground.
It is still uncertain how the situation in Syria will be resolved – whether it will be the next Tunisia or Egypt, or whether it will become increasingly more violent like Libya, only time will tell. The regime hopes it will be able to silence the demonstrations as the leaders of Iran did two years ago. At the moment, it is all in the balance. What is certain, however, is that change, in whatever form it lurks, is just around the corner. And it does seem likely that Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered.