Syria may be a comparative latecomer to the scene as far as the Arab popular uprising is concerned. However, the fact that protests have occurred at all is somewhat surprising. Anti-government protests In Daraa on Friday and the subsequent shooting of three demonstrators seems to have set in motion a protest movement far beyond anything most Syrians could ever have anticipated.
Although the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak was renowned for its all-powerful internal security forces, which tolerated little dissent, it paled in comparison with the oppression of the Syrian secret police.Last year I spent nine months in Cairo and witnessed the control exercised by Mubarak’s security forces. Demonstrations and opposition rallies were small, brief and tightly-policed if tolerated at all: but they did exist. Mubarak’s strategy seemed to revolve around allowing a semblance of superficial freedom of speech as long as it posed no serious threat, rather than entirely bottling up people’s frustrations.
On the other hand, a short trip to Syria told a very different story. No matter where I went almost no one would talk to me about domestic Syrian politics; when pressed, people pleaded with me to stop, as anyone could be an informer. The omniscience of the secret police was frankly terrifying and stretched into all walks of life; the only person who would talk to me, an Armenian from Aleppo, told me a story of how, when applying for a temporary ID card to return to Aleppo, security forces in Damascus were able to pinpoint the most intimate details of his life back in Aleppo.Therefore, in a country where even contemplating the thought of protest seems to be impossible, how could Syrians have the courage to so openly show dissent?
Obviously the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and unrest in other Arab countries may serve as a catalyst but a brief glance at Syria’s history shows the extreme brutality of the Baath Party’s oppression of civil unrest. During the Hama Massacre of 1982 Hafez al-Assad’s forces killed as many as 35,000 of his own people after an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in a merciless, three week-long bombardment. In Egypt and Tunisia the government attempted to make some concessions, albeit with a great deal of reluctance, in order to try and avoid a full-scale revolution. Looking at past precedents, the Syrian government seems unlikely to follow suit. The Baath regime has never tolerated open opposition in any form and if the events of the past few days are anything to go by it looks like the government’s reaction will be brisk, brutal and bloody.
Nervous authoritarian governments will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their grip on power, as has been evident in Bahrain, and it’s safe to assume that all Arab leaders are feeling some degree fear in the current climate.However, past precedents in the Arab world seems to have gone out of the window over the past few months; in Egypt and Tunisia brutal crackdowns have turned slowly into conciliatory measures, compromise and, finally, the toppling of the regime and it looks like Yemen is going that way as well. Moreover Bashar al-Assad hasn’t yet faced an uprising on the same scale as his father once did and he is widely believed to be more liberal and tolerant than Hafez having already introduced some reforms since inheriting power in 2000.
Obviously we will have to wait and see how these protests evolve but their very existence is a sign of the rapidly changing mentality across the Middle East; the Arab street has finally found its voice in even the most authoritarian of states. As far as Syria is concerned we could be about to witness the most remarkable Arab revolution yet or, at the other end of the scale, another Hama-like brutal suppression of the people’s will.
By Alex Gozney