Commentary by @LeShaque – 8 June 2011
The winds of change have been blowing throughout the Middle East in what has become known as the Arab Spring. In a region that has known little change over the past few decades, people are taking to the streets demanding improvement of their living standards. Not surprisingly, as their lives are more or less the same as they were in the 1950s. These hopes for change came into direct conflict with the regimes’ desire to maintain the status quo that has kept them in power all this time.
The citizens of the Arab World effectively launched a War on Oppression. Peaceful protesters were met with violent reactions by regimes and their security forces. What ensued was a battle of wills. Each protest, in every Arab city became a battle. Protesters do their best to occupy and hold public squares shouting their rights to free expression and self-determination while security forces attempt to break up the sit-ins claiming their responsibility to protect public property and state institutions.
We saw the same scenario unfold almost everywhere in the Arab World. These battles were fought in cities, towns, and villages. We even saw protesters march on towns where their compatriots were losing ground in a battlefield parallel of reinforcements. Some battles were won, others were lost, but the war is still ongoing.
Syria has been the scene of a stagnant political establishment for the past five decades. Syria has also been the scene of violent government suppression of peaceful protests over the past few months. Syria is the most oppressive of all Arab regimes and the least reformed. It’s the only non-Kingdom that has witnessed a hereditary succession. Syrians saw little mentionable change in their country under the rule of the Baathists who strived to keep the system that ensures their continued reign.
Now, after nearly three months of continuous protests aiming to topple the regime, Syrians see the prospect for change in their society. Others see no option other than real change that touches every sector of the country. Rarely, but surely more often than ever before, Syrians discuss the Syria they would like to see after the Assad regime is deposed.
A resident of Homs who participated in protests expressed his relief at the closing statement issue by the Change in Syria Conference, which was held in Antalya. “I was glad to hear the word ‘liberal’ spoken at the conference,” he said, “a liberal democracy is the only way to rule Syria, we have many minorities.” Other residents of Homs where hoping that religion would serve as a guiding hand. Abu Omar, another resident of Homs, says, “all heavenly religions believe in the same principles and these principles should form the basis of the law.” Two Syrian students studying in Lebanon had a heated debate about whether Syria should embrace capitalism or just eliminate corruption from the current socialist system.
Even the Syrians who buy into the regime’s fantasy tale of Zionists and Salafists and Monsters and Dragons have seen their country turned upside-down. The once secure and impenetrable Syria was suddenly the scene of armed organizations that roam the country unimpeded shooting innocents in their sleep. Security operations, previously limited to Syria’s northeast, became common practice in every city. They were robbed of their secure and stable Syria. A woman claiming to be a resident of Jisr al-Shoghour pleaded with the president in a statement on Syria TV to send his air force and bomb the armed gangs out of the city.
The fact is that the level of violence employed by the regime generated radical responses from the protesters. Demands for freedom and reform escalated to calls for regime change. Protesters chanted names of regime figures in several towns and vowed to prosecute, and execute them. In Daraa, the scene of the first large scale military crackdown, and the province with the highest number of deaths so far, residents adopted and remixed Gaddafi’s now-famous line to “Zenga, zenga, dar, dar, we want your head, Bashar.” In Homs, the scene of another bloody crackdown, protesters defied tanks on every street corner and chanted, “To heaven we’re going, martyrs, in our millions.”
In four towns there have been credible reports of residents taking arms and fighting back against the army. Sometimes these report come from the residents themselves. Tal Kalakh was the first town reported to fight back. Living right on the border with Lebanon, the residents made their living by smuggling goods back and forth. Smuggling small and portable weapons was not difficult. An AP report cited activists telling them that the residents of the towns of Talbisa and Rastan, near Homs, have taken to arms and are planning to fight back. Eyewitnesses called vehemently denied those reports insisting that any such move would be suicidal. Some residents of Jisr al-Shoghour confirm fighting back after the killing of 35 protesters in the course of hours last Friday. They said they are practicing their right to self-defense after what they saw the army do in other towns.
Syria’s traditional opposition figures argued for the amendment of the constitution while some revolutionaries demanded nothing short of a brand new version. More radical revolutionaries insisted on a complete purge of all state institutions. An activist in Jisr al-Shoghour told NPR that he sees state-controlled media as a regime accomplice. He said, “In my opinion, after we depose the regime we have to put them on trial, not as traitors but as perpetrators of crimes against humanity.” A resident of Homs who fled to Lebanon said that the silver lining to the regime’s rampant destruction is that it will be easier to rebuild once the Assads were gone.
Syrians realize that in a country that has been stagnant for 50 years the only real change is radical change. For three months they sought this change peacefully and remained committed to their path despite the security forces’ brutal response. We saw ordinary Syrians turn to violence in rare moments of desperation but the revolution is still by all means a peaceful one. This may change if the aspirations of the protesters are not fulfilled or if their hopes are dashed. When radical ideas emanate from desperation rather than hope they often lead to unpleasant results.
Three months on and more than 1200 Syrians have been killed, more than 11,000 are still in detention, and there is no end in sight. The Assad regime has proved on many occasions that it will go to any length to maintain its stranglehold on the Syrian people. The international community has been slow to react and its response is little more than muted. Syria’s revolutionaries are realizing that they must cross the minefield alone. The opportunity is ripe for these few isolated cases of desperation to spread, especially as the regime escalates its military campaigns.
If the uprising fails to topple the Assad regime radicalism will grow. The “armed groups” often invented by Syrian media will become a reality. Armed groups of various orientations will form all over Syria, especially where the wounds are deep. They will become a problem for both, the regime and the people. Rock-solid Syrian stability will degenerate into post-Saddam Iraqi chaos; only Bashar al-Assad will still be there. And Syria will become a problem for everybody. With the Syrian army occupied elsewhere, real (and not staged) incidents on the Golan Heights may take place. Similarly, with no one to watch the border, the number of jihadists entering Iraq will increase substantially. Syrian rebels and others may seek to establish bases in Lebanon exporting the conflict. An unstable Syria also presents an obstacle to any Arab-Israeli peace effort.
The so-called influential countries need to stop hedging their bets. Betting on the Assads is a lose-lose scenario. The Syrian people need to feel that they have friends who care for them. Win or lose, they will never forget those who valued economic and political interests over the blood of innocent martyrs. They need to know their pleas are being heard. There is still a chance these calls for radical change can be channeled into positive thoughts, it must not be squandered. If the winds of change are not allowed to blow freely through Syria, as they have in other neighboring countries, they may lead to a situation more akin to a pressure cooker. An explosion of that cooker will result in the most violence the Middle East has seen in its recent history.
This article was also published on @LeShaque’s blog on June 7 2011.