Commentary by Tamer Mallat & Antoine Alhéritière – 9 May 2011
This week, reports portraying the consequences of Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on the March 15 movement have begun to reveal the extent of the bloodbath being produced in Syria. The iconic border-town of Deraa, which has become the symbol of Syria’s fledgling opposition movement, has been under siege by the Syrian army for more than ten days now. The death count for the past few days, just released by The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS), numbers in the hundreds. From children to army officers and conscripts shot in the back – most likely because they refused to fire on unarmed protestors – no segment of the Syrian population appears to be spared from the sordid picture that is being drawn. Dubbed a “massacre”, the repression in Deraa evokes memories of an all-too similar event that occurred in 1982 when Hama suffered one of the most brutal crackdowns in Arab history, with the number of deaths estimated at being well over 20,000.
In the face of failure to subdue regime contestation through economic infitah (opening) and through a seemingly “progressive” shift in Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian strategy, the recourse to violence becomes the final solution to ensure the regime’s survival. The two individuals orchestrating the current repressive machine are Bashar’s own brother Maher, who heads the Republican Guard and Syrian military wing, and Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh who commands military intelligence. This mirrors the early 1980s crackdown engineered by former President Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, former head of the notorious mukhabarat (intelligence) institution. The legitimizing discourse used by Rifaat al-Assad explaining the necessity of sacrifice appeared in the July 1, 1980 article of the state-run Teshrin newspaper where Rifaat claimed that the “revolution” must be saved and defended from dissidence at all costs.
Similarly, Bashar al-Assad blames the current insurrection on “foreign conspirators” and “terrorists.” While the discourses in their shapes may vary, the content remains very much the same. The repression in the 1980s was successful as the uprisings were limited to only certain fragments of the Syrian population, and where media coverage was by-and-large absent. Today, as news quickly spreads of massacre, ordinary Syrians become anesthetized to terror, inciting them to engage in contestation. Funerals of neighbors, friends and family have been among the most important sources of mobilization.
If state methods to silence the protestors have not varied much since the early 1980s, contestation today has broken with the logic of violence as a mean, with protests taking on a completely new dimension. The January 16, 1979 bombing of the Aleppo Artillery Academy that resulted in the murder of over 60 Alawite officers, symbolizes the nature of the uprisings that shook Syria over thirty years ago. With daily bombings and attacks on Alawite figures across the country, the major fault lines of the civil strife witnessed in this period were those of a confessional struggle. Resentment against the Alawite minority’s rule and domination of all segments of the Syrian state was manifested through violent acts that hoped to terrorize and forcefully dislodge the incumbents from power.
Unrest today has taken the form of peaceful demonstrations, devoid of any ideological or confessional identification. The slogans used by demonstrators are revealing of this shift with the words “peaceful”, “unity”, and “freedom” being most widespread. Thus, any attempt to undermine the protests by explaining that they target minorities and damage national unity, represents little more than the regime’s efforts to revive memories of the 1980s.
The failure for the Syrian March 15 movement to become widespread like its sister movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, results from the fragmentation and isolation of different parts of the country (and neighborhoods in large cities) from one another. Such a fragmentation resembles the workings of a panoptical prison system, where inmates are secluded and under permanent surveillance; they are watched and controlled by an authority that sees everything, but where the inmates are unaware of the condition of their neighbors. Isolating, and preventing the internal visibility of protests to areas unscathed by the uprising, facilitates the regime’s containment of the revolutionary fire.
Coupled with relatively low international media prioritization, mobilization fails to take on the necessary proportions in order for a massive turnout to be possible. Further, with the failure of foreign media to create a single and unified cause that dissolves all internal fears of civil war and instability, caution and uncertainty remain in the minds of many Syrians. Lastly, there is a continued perception amongst ordinary Syrians that a distinction exists between Bashar al-Assad and an obscure and intangible “old guard” that dates back to Hafez’s rule. By blaming this mysterious “old guard” for Bashar’s incapacity to live up to his image as a “reformer”, the visible actors of the regime are freed from accountability.
With thousands arrested in Deraa since the beginning of the military siege and crackdown, the regime has now begun to deploy the army and tanks in other restive cities. Confident that repression at any cost will pay off and quell the revolutionary movement, casualties and arrests will continue to increase in numbers. If Deraa’s repression is perceived as a success, this violent episode will likely repeat itself in other dissident cities and towns. Despite this, brave Syrians have continued to mobilize, undeterred by the risks that can ensue. It now becomes paramount for the momentum to grow in size. Only this can overcome the regime’s repressive machine.