The uprising they said would never happen
Syrians do not want “chaos”. The Syrian people all love their president. Syria was immune to change because of its anti-Israel stance. Syrians do not want “Western democracy”. Syria is immune to protest. Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt. Syria is a “sturdy house”.
Not true as it turns out. The democratic revolution has reached Syria, and a protest movement is beginning to gain traction there. The doubters have been proved wrong.
Not to get carried away, the demonstrations that have taken place in Syria have not been large-scale. We are talking about hundreds, not thousands. They did occur right across the country though, with protests taking place in Damascus, Aleppo, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli and Hassaka. The video above is for a demonstration that took place on Tuesday 15 March in the heart of Damascus. A second demonstration in the capital was organized by family and relatives of political prisoners the following day on Wednesday 16th March [pic below] opposite the Interior Ministry building. To put things into perspective, the last time an anti-regime protest took place in Syria was 31 years ago. These demonstrations, however modest, are an important ice-breaker and a harbinger of things to come.
Those participating in the demonstrations have not been the usual suspects. True, there were the pro-democracy activists that we know and admire like Suheir Al-Attasi, but from the list of those arrested, the vast majority have no political affiliation and are unknown to human rights organizations. They appear to be middle class Damascenes in their twenties and thirties who reacted positively to the Syrian Revolution 2011 page on Facebook.
Fahd Faysal Al-Nijris is a typical protester. He is a university student and son of a former MP who posted this video on 14 march urging fellow students to participate in next day’s demonstrations. He says he wants freedom of expression, a decent quality of life, an end to emergency law, constitutional reform and an end to corruption. Not much different then from what the Egyptians and Tunisians had been calling for when they first hit the streets.
The demonstrations have not been confined to the capital. This YouTube video was posted on 16th March of a tribal chief criticizing the regime and calling on Syrians to participate in the “Day of Dignity” demonstrations planned for on Friday 18th March. The eastern city of Deir az-Zour has long been a hot-bed of opposition, and the army’s elite Fourth Division has been stationed there since 2006 to quell any unrest. Hassaka to the north witnessed demonstrations, so too did Qamishli, and in the southern province of Dar’a demonstrations took place amid heavy security presence. Described as “Syria’s parched farmlands”, reports have been emerging for some weeks from the southern Hawran region of a concerted anti-regime graffiti campaign, and of isolated police stations being abandoned in the build up to 15 March.
The battle at this stage appears to be one of public perception. The Syrian regime is very keen to show its people and the world that the protest movement has no popular support and that it is orchestrated by “enemies of Syria”. With diabolical efficiency, plain-clothed men of the mukhabarat have dispersed protests as soon as they begin, often using brute force and confiscating mobile phones so that footage does not come out. Not only are they overwhelming the protesters with sheer numbers and arresting them, they are also resorting to staging pro-Assad demonstrations to give the impression that the protests were in support of the regime. Semi-official news websites like this one have released dozens of reports suggesting that the protests were tiny and that they were inspired by Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood. The young people on the streets however are hitting back on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and of course, on independent Syrian satellite channels Barada TV and Orient TV.
The protest movement in Syria has still a lot way to go. Following yesterday’s protest, 54 have been arrested, seven of whom have since been released. They included 12 year old Ricardo Dawud, the son of political prisoner Raghida Al-Hassan, and Tayib Tizini, an acclaimed professor of philosophy. Reports of deaths has so far been unconfirmed. Bashar Al-Assad’s men appear to be avoiding unnecessary force, preferring to smother the uprising than to smash it. The challenge now for Syria’s youth is to maintain the momentum of their protest. It will not be easy.