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Friday, March 25, 2011
Mordechai Kedar: Riots in Syria

The Center for the Study of Middle East and Islam (under formation)
Bar Ilan University

Middle Eastern Insights
No. 3 - 25 March 2011

Riots in Syria
Mordechai Kedar

Above the tomb of Hafez al-Assad in the Alawi town of Qardaha is a sign with
a verse from the Koran: “Obey Allah, Obey the Messenger and those charged
with authority among you.” “Those charged with authority” refers to the
acting rulers, even if they do not rule by the grace of Islam. Not for
naught was this verse chosen, as it is meant to lend Islamic justification
even to a government of infidels. Since 1966, the Syrian regime has been in
the hands of the small Alawi minority, considered by Islam to be infidels;
its sons are not entitled to rule and, being idol worshippers, according to
Islamic canon they do not even have the right to live.

Between 1976 and 1982, Islamic elements attempted to end Alawi rule, but the
regime liquidated fifty thousand of them: twenty thousand in the Tadmor
prison and another thirty thousand in Hama, which was subjected to heavy
bombing that totally destroyed sections of the city. When Romanian
President Ceausescu fell in late 1989, graffiti appeared in Syria, “Every
Ceausescu has his day”, with every Syrian knowing to whom this referred.

The rise of Bashar al-Assad to power in mid-2000 stirred the hopes of the
Syrian people that a modern and educated president, a doctor and internet
surfer, would herald a new spring for Syria. Indeed, during the last months
of 2000, Syrians were granted permission to organize public gatherings of a
political nature. However, the ruling elite, headed by the Intelligence,
opposed the loosening of the reins, and Syria sank once again into political
oppression.

Following the removal of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt several weeks
ago, Bashar al-Assad announced governmental reforms, began to appear on the
streets and at public events and, in early March, even participated (he is a
doctor!) in the vaccination of children in a well-children clinic near
Damascus. But Syria's citizens do not believe him. They want to remove his
corrupt relatives, those who rule public life and the state’s economy and
line their pockets with billions while the nation is starving. Syrians are
envious of their brothers in Egypt and Tunisia, but are afraid that the
regime will behave as Qaddafi is.

It is possible that world reaction to Qaddafi will deter Bashar from
perpetrating mass killings against those rising against him, but the delay
in world response is liable to cost the lives of many Syrians. The Alawis
and their collaborators know that it will be an all-out battle and will
react accordingly. The hundreds of casualties of freedom who fell in Syria
this week will not be the last. As of this writing, the regime is holding
hundreds of youths who demonstrated against it these last few days, in an
effort to quell the disturbances.

Illusions of Power

For years, the Syrian propaganda machine claimed that the state is like a
melting pot in which all denominations, tribes, ethnic groups and religions
become one Syrian nation, united behind the wise leadership of President
Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar. The public, however, never bought into
this claim.

The Hauran region in the southwest, near the Golan, was and remains the most
backward in Syria: A tribal society; high unemployment; drought that has
impoverished villages; poverty; strong feelings of marginalization. The
term “Haurani” is commonly used as an insult in Syria.

The Kurds in the north are full of grievances: They comprise a tenth of the
population, but most have no citizenship, legal standing or medical care;
their language is not recognized; their culture is oppressed. Their
capital, Qamishli, was always the focal point of tension with the Arab
majority.

The organizers of the protests in Syria called Friday, March 18, “The Day of
Dignity” in order to symbolize the end of the humiliation they suffer at the
hands of the tyrannical regime of the Assad and Makhlouf families. On that
Friday there were demonstrations in many Syrian cities, but by Saturday and
Sunday, the uprising persisted mainly in the regional capital of Hauran, Dar’a.
During the week, the disturbances spread to other cities in the Hauran, and
even in Damascus several dozen people felt that fear of the regime was
vanishing.

Manifestations of Western determination in Libya place Assad in a trap. If
he allows protests to continue, they will intensify as in Tunisia, Egypt and
Yemen; if he acts firmly against them, as did his father in Hamat, his fate
is liable to mirror Qaddafi's. In an unprecedented move, Assad contacted
Daran dignitaries, apologized for the killing of protesters and asked them
to dampen the flames of revolt. According to the Syrian code of conduct,
the president abased himself with this contact, which leaves the people to
decide: To throw him to the dogs or accept his apology for the killings. In
either case, his situation is bad. The Syrian melting pot is becoming
inflamed, uniting the people against the president.

A History of Slaughter

A reminder of forgotten events: In February 1982, a division of Rifaat
al-Asad’s “Defense Companies” eradicated entire sections of the city of
Hamat, and its artillery mercilessly killed about thirty thousand men,
women, children and elderly – all Syrian citizens. The regime had banished
all journalists and it took a month until initial reports of the slaughter
leaked to the world.

Today, the southern city of Dar’a, on the Jordanian border, has been raging
for a week – a week in which about hundred residents have been killed by
police fire, hundreds have been wounded and many others arrested. But
photographs, video clips and news of what is transpiring are reaching the
internet in almost real time, despite the regime having shut down the
cellular network and internet service in the city.

How? One possibility is to travel towards Jordan with the telephone that
photographed the events and, using the Jordanian network, send the clip to
YouTube. Another method is to bypass the Syrian service provider, which
censors the internet, and connect to a satellite network or use proxy
websites. As modern technology now enables Syrians to report government
atrocities in real time, significantly fewer people are being killed now
than in 1982, for the Syrian regime is afraid that if films of mass killings
are made public, European countries will do to Syria what they are doing to
Qaddafi – if only to settle their score regarding the Hariri murder, support
of Iran and arms-smuggling to Hezbollah.

The official Syrian media report that “hooligans” are wreaking havoc in Dar’a,
torching government offices and damaging public property. But everyone in
Syria understands clearly the meaning of “havoc”; with protestors in Tunisia
and Egypt successfully ousting the presidents in those countries, the
challenge facing the Syria regime is its greatest since the Ba’th takeover
in March 1963.

An Illegitimate State

Ever since France created Syria as an artificial state lacking public
legitimacy, the country has been divided along various lines – religious
(Moslems, Christians, Druze, Alawis), ethnic (Arabs, Kurds, Armenians),
denominational (Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christian sects) and tribal. The
government has invested substantial efforts in developing a national
awareness which would unite all groups under one umbrella and create a new
focal point for the loyalty of its citizens.

The media and the educational system, both under governmental control, were
the main vehicles used to promote the new nationalism. Since Hafez al-Asad
seized power in November 1970, the Syrian media have toiled day and night to
crown him with glory in order to create a public atmosphere of adulation,
acceptance and legitimacy. Even today, Hafez al-Asad's statues adorn
hundreds of public squares throughout Syria. Nevertheless, the more effort
exerted by the government propaganda machine, the greater the disbelief of
the populace.

The Alawis, to whom President Asad belongs, are perceived as infidels and
idol worshippers. Thus, they not only have no right to rule, but their
right to live is strongly questioned by Islamic law, which offers idol
worshippers a choice between conversion and slaughter. This attitude was
reflected in its full severity between 1976 and 1982, when the Muslim
Brotherhood tried to remove the president, who, in a typical Middle Eastern
response, ruthlessly massacred them. Syria has been relatively quiet since
then, but it is a quiet born of fear, not of agreement.

The state is perceived by most of its citizens as a mechanism of oppression
designed to allow a cruel and corrupt group, one that mobilizes the support
of family heads by distributing economic monopolies that create “fat cats”
who gobble up public money, to impose its rule over twenty million people.
This corruption at the top reduces the state’s ability to invest in job
creation; lacking infrastructure, Syria has not been part of the wave of
economic modernization that is engulfing many developing countries. Syria
suffers from double-digit rates of unemployment, and in recent years,
hundreds of thousands of villagers throughout the country have been forced
to abandon their homes and farms and move to the cities to find other
sources of income. The public, quite justifiably, blames all its troubles
on the regime.

To remain in power, the controlling group employs no fewer than eleven
internal security organizations, which also monitor each other so that none
of them usurps power. Many citizens have personally experienced the iron
hand of these organizations, which instill fear among the people. However,
as Arab liberation movements have begun to topple presidents and regimes in
recent weeks, cracks in the wall of fear have started to appear in Syria as
well.

Social networks are not used extensively due to poverty, government control
and censorship of the internet and the intelligence agencies’ supervision of
cellular phone traffic. Information about the timing of demonstrations,
therefore, spread by word of mouth, but people are not so willing to go into
the streets and be exposed as part of the opposition. The fear threshold is
still high and not many believe that they are capable of bringing about an
end to the corrupt regime through non-violent protests.

Bashar al-Assad was correct in saying a month ago that Syria was not Tunisia
or Egypt: He will fight with determination and without sentiment to
maintain power, because if he loses, he and his fellow Alawis are liable to
be subject to mass slaughter by the Muslim majority. There are rumors that
Syria dispatched fighters to help Qaddafi against his enemies, because if he
falls, it might have a negative influence on the stability of the Syrian
regime.

The young people are composing slogans designed to encourage themselves and
humiliate the government. One of them is Asad Lubnan Arnab al-Houran - the
lion (maning of “Asad”) who acted bravely against the weak in Lebanon has
become a rabbit when facing the heroes of Hauran. Even if the process will
take time and cost lives, it seems that there is great determination among
the youth of Syria to overthrow the government, and there are groups
prepared to pay for freedom with blood.

And one small question: Has anyone noticed the recent silence in Israel
from the choir of “Syrian experts” who, in the last few years, have called
day and night for Israel to leave the Golan heights because “everyone knows
what the price of peace with Syria is” and “this is the only way to separate
Syria from Iran”? What happened to them? They have apparently swallowed
their tongues or are still busy eating their hats.

One thing is certain, however: The ayatollahs of Iran and Hassan Nasrallah
in Lebanon are very worried about developments in Syria, because if the West
gets involved in events there, the treaty between the Iranian and Syrian
regimes as well as Syrian aid to Hezbollah may be endangered.

The article is dedicated to the memory of Avraham ben Yitzhak Rosenzweig.

The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of
Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel.

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