The Myth of Syrian Stability

March 31, 2011

The Myth of Syrian

Damascus, Syria

MY foreign friends always tell me when they visit that the comment they hear
most often from taxi drivers, shop owners and others is, “In Syria, there is

True, Syria does seem much more stable than its neighbors. And though I often
find it difficult to ascertain the opinions of my countrymen, especially in
matters concerning politics and the regime, many do believe that it’s a fair
bargain: limits on personal and political freedoms in exchange for the stability
that is so dear to them. And those limits are quite strict: Syria has been ruled
by emergency law since 1963, under a strong-fisted security force; opposing (or
even just differing) opinions can lead to arrest, imprisonment or, at the very
least, travel restrictions.

For example, I have two separate restrictions, from two different branches of
the security forces, that forbid me from leaving Syria. One of these was put in
place simply for attending a human rights conference in a neighboring country.

This apparent lack of real discontent over the restrictions on our freedoms
meant that when the revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East began in
January, the Syrian regime considered itself immune to them. President Bashar
al-Assad told The Wall Street Journal that
the situation here was different and said that “real reform is about how to open
up the society and how to start dialogue.” For years, he said, his government
had been having just that dialogue with its people, and he was unconcerned about
calls on Facebook and Twitter for Syrians to revolt.

But then, in early February, Syrian policemen roughed up people who had
gathered to light candles for the victims of the uprisings sweeping the region.
This was followed by a security crackdown and a campaign by the regime or its
allies to discredit calls for reform by attributing them to Israeli conspiracies
or opposition leaders. Protests began to spring up in the central square in
Damascus and then moved south to Dara’a. Troops opened fire, and several
protesters died. Videos of the violence spread on YouTube and Facebook.

The Syrian government now seemed to understand that it had to take this surge
of unrest seriously. So last week a counselor to Mr. Assad affirmed the right to
peaceful protest, assuring Syrians that government troops had been ordered not
to open fire on demonstrators.

The next day, a Friday, I went out with one of my friends to join a small
protest in the Hamidiyah Market in the Old City section of central Damascus. We
were, all in all, just a few dozen people chanting slogans for freedom, and yet
we were surrounded by hundreds of members of the security forces, who responded
with chants in support of President Assad. The security forces then began to
beat and arrest protesters. My friend and I slipped away from the market and
headed to Marja Square, just outside the Old City, where — it turned out — even
more security forces were waiting for us.

First, they went after those photographing and recording the demonstration
with their mobile phones. Then they began to hit the rest of us with batons and
sticks. Dozens were arrested. (They are still in police custody, but we don’t
know where.)

After that, the security forces were joined by other young men, apparently
civilians, who formed themselves into a march for President Assad. This
demonstration the guards allowed to be photographed and recorded. And, in
the evening, state television reported on the marches all over Damascus in
support of Mr. Assad.

That same day, the situation worsened elsewhere in Syria, when security
forces violently oppressed protests in the
cities of Homs and Latakia. Dozens of peaceful protesters were killed in Dara’a.

When the international community condemned the violence, the Syrian regime
began to blame “armed groups,” from inside and outside the country, for killing
the civilians in Dara’a as well as members of the security forces. The official
Syrian position on the motives and nationality of the armed men changes often:
sometimes they are Palestinian or Jordanian; sometimes they are working at the
behest of foreign operatives from Israel or the United States. An
Egyptian-American was even arrested on charges of espionage
and, on state television, made a transparently false confession to inciting the
protests and to being paid 100 Egyptian pounds ($17) for each photo he took.

This conspiracy theory, to which the regime continues to cling and of which
many Syrians have been convinced, means that there are conflicting reports of
the violence in places like Latakia. Eyewitness reports of what happened there
last weekend vary: some say security forces opened fire on a peaceful protest;
others spoke of snipers on the rooftops shooting civilians and security forces
alike; still others of cars using loudspeakers to stir up the residents of
different neighborhoods of the city against one another on sectarian grounds.
What is certain is that people are now dead.

And it is also clear that these “armed groups” attacked only those protesters
asking for freedom and reform, those who rally for those killed in Dara’a and
elsewhere, who call out “peaceful, peaceful.” One can’t help but wonder why the
police did nothing to protect these small groups of demonstrators. Some
commentators close to the Syrian regime have justified this lack of action by
saying that the security forces could not defend civilians because of President
Assad’s orders not to fire.

Meanwhile, the pro-government marches, which state television claimed
involved millions of people, were not interrupted by a single bullet. No one was
killed or attacked. These demonstrators held signs with language like “O Bashar,
don’t be concerned — you have a people that drinks blood.” But not a single sign
was raised in memory of the dead at Dara’a and Latakia.

Syria has degenerated into chaos and bloodshed so quickly in these past few
weeks that I keep thinking: was our stability, our distinguishing
characteristic, ever even true? The government tells us that if the regime falls
the country could devolve into sectarian chaos. Perhaps that is so. But what did
the ruling Baath party — the leader of our state and society, according to the
Syrian Constitution — accomplish over the last 48 years if that is so?

And then came President Assad’s speech on Wednesday.

I was waiting for a different speech, one that spoke of holding those who
fired on protesters accountable, that announced the end of the emergency laws,
that called for closing the files of political prisoners and amending the
Constitution to create greater freedoms. But what we saw instead was a show of
power by Mr. Assad and a show of loyalty by the members of the Parliament. There
was a clear declaration that anyone who continued to protest, to request our
rights, to petition for the future of our country, was nothing but a

Because of his speech, many of those Syrians who called for reform will now
begin calling for regime change.

Mustafa Nour is a human rights activist who, for reasons of safety, did not
want to be identified by his full name. This essay was translated by Spencer
Scoville from the Arabic.


Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved


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