article published in March 28 2011
The Syrian regime is shaken by the popular uprising that started in the southern city of Deraa, and has now become a symbol of resistance nationwide. There have now been protests across Syria calling for freedom and the scrapping of repressive laws.
The uprisings were triggered by the arrest of 15 children in Deraa, who were writing freedom slogans on school walls inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
The regime promised, through the voice of presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, political reforms and the end of the state of emergency, but without fixing a date. It was a clear attempt to placate protesters.
But as of today, as a result of the uprisings, the Syrian government has resigned, and a new cabinet is to be formed in 24 hours. Rallies and demonstrations were organised across Syria by the regime in support of President Bashar al Assad, and schools, banks and other offices were closed in order to encourage people to participate in these rallies.
Repression, reforms and resistance
Reforms announced by government officials include legalising political parties and more media freedom. The long-standing emergency law imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movement and authorizes the arrest of “suspects or persons who threaten security”. It also authorizes the interrogation of any individual and the surveillance of personal communication as well as official control of the content of newspapers and other media before publication.
The Director of the Syrian Human Rights, Rami Abdelrahman, welcomed the decision and has estimated that about 2,000 people should be freed, including all those who have been convicted by the High Court State security or detained without warrant in local security services.
The regime has also announced an increase in wages for Civil Service employees. Salaries under $200 will be increased by 30 percent and wages of $200 and over will increase by 20 percent.
The authorities also released 260 prisoners on Friday – mostly Islamists – from Sednaya prison, north-east of Damascus, as well as political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others who were arrested for taking part in a silent protest last week.
The repression of protesters and the arrests of activists by security forces have nevertheless continued, despite these declarations and decisions. According to Reem Haddad, from the Syrian information ministry, security forces used live ammunition against the demonstrators despite “the order gave by the regime not to shoot at protesters no matter what happens.”
According to Amnesty International at least 93 people had been arrested this month, some for their online activities, in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Banias, Daraa, Hama, Homs, and others. More than 100 people have been shot dead by security forces since the beginning of the movement of protests in Syria ten days ago.
Last Friday, protesters called for “Day of Dignity” rallies across Syria. Protests spread throughout the country, with demonstrations held in several cities from Damascus, to Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, Raqqa, Qamichli, Hama and in Tel, near Damascus. These rallies ranged from hundreds of people to thousands.
In the northern city of Latakia, Syria deployed military forces on Sunday, after popular protests erupted against the regime demanding more freedom and reforms. The repression by security forces and the police left at least 12 people dead and more than 150 injured amid calls for reform and freedom.
Ms. Shaban accused some Palestinians from the refugee camp of Ramel, near Latakia, of causing trouble by shooting at the security forces and the protesters to raise tensions between them. The secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) has denied any involvement of Palestinians from the camp of Ramel in these events.
In the last few days, several offices of the ruling Baath party in various cities were torched by protesters, while portraits of Bashar al Assad – and his father Hafez, who preceded him as president – were torn apart. On Saturday, demonstrators torched the Baath party’s local headquarters in the southern town of Tafas.
In the city of Deraa, the statue of ex-president Hafez al Assad was thrown down Friday. Last week the people of Deraa attacked buildings of the regime, including the burning of the local mobile telephone agency belonging to the president’s cousin billionaire, Rami Makhlouf. It is a symbol of the corruption and the nepotism of this regime.
On Monday, as I write, unrest is still ongoing in different cities. Syrian forces have opened fire to disperse hundreds of protesters in Daraa calling for an end to emergency laws, but demonstrators regrouped despite a heavy troop deployment.
The demonstrators chanted slogans such as “We want dignity and freedom” and “No to emergency laws”. In the city of Sanamin, the people were burying their martyrs and chanting “Whoever kills his people is a traitor.” At least 20 protesters were shot dead by security forces in the past few days’ unrests.
This protest movement is not led by any main Syrian opposition political parties – these are completely absent on the ground because of the history of harsh repression. The main demands of the protesters are the end of the state of emergency imposed in 1963, the release of prisoners and an end to corruption.
The demonstrators have been very successful in spreading information and videos of protests on the internet. The cutting of telephone networks in Deraa was unable to prevent the demonstrators to use those of Jordan, not far away.
Sectarian divisions, imperialism and the Syrian regime
The regime has sought to delegitimize the movement, notably by claiming ‘extremist groups’ want to create sectarian divide in the country, and claiming foreign imperialists are targeting Syria because of its anti-Zionist position and ability to be a pillar of resistance against Zionism and US schemes.
On the issue of sectarian divide, the regime has often portrayed itself as the protectors of the minorities against a so called Islamic extremist threat. It is a tool of this authoritarian and bourgeois regime to divide Syrians and divert any criticism of its corruption and repression. But minorities don’t need the assistance or the protection of a dictatorship to live peacefully and participate actively in the destiny of Syria.
Fares el Khoury, a Syrian-born Christian, was Prime Minister of Syria twice following the Second World War, while the Baath was co-founded by Michel Aflak, a Syrian Christian, and was one of the most popular political parties in Syria and the Machrek before it became an authoritarian and repressive party in the hands of Hafez Al Assad and Saddam Hussein respectively in Syria and Iraq.
History teaches us that the claim of this regime to protect the minorities is not true. In fact this regime has used the sectarian divide to assert its control of society and divide the Syrian population.
What of on the so called anti imperialist nature of this regime? Yes, the Syrian regime has been supporting the resistance in Lebanon and in Palestine for many years now, and has taken very strong rhetorical positions in opposition to Israel. But this position is not based on anti imperialist principles, but on conjectural national interests. These are guided by the necessity to ensure the security and continuity of the regime, as well as to ensure a balance of power in diplomatic negotiations with the State of Israel to recover the Golan area seized by Israel in 1967.
Syrians officials have repeatedly declared their readiness to sign a peace agreement with Israel as soon as the occupation of the Golan would end, while nothing was said on the Palestinian issue. This does not mean that an anti imperialist stance and national interests cannot coincide at some periods of time, and this is largely the case today.
We should nevertheless not forget that this is the same regime that refused to assist the Palestinians and progressive Jordanian groups to overthrow the conservative Hashemite regime in Jordan during the popular uprising in 1970, known as the Black September. This regime also entered the Lebanese civil war in 1976 against Palestinian and progressive forces on the side of the conservative Phalange political party, to repress them and put an end to their revolution.
In both cases, the Syrian regime intervened against progressive and revolutionary groups which had democratic and pro resistance positions. We should also recall the absence of any kind of armed resistance from Syria to free the occupied Golan.
Syrian so-called anti imperialist credentials are also undermined by its increasingly neo- liberal economic policies based on foreign investments from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia – and the abandonment of social policies, notably by progressively cancelling its subsidy system in numerous areas of society causing increasing social inequalities and poverty.
Syria was finally granted observer status at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in May 2010, nine years after it first attempted to join, confirming the new road taken by the Syrian government. Socio-economic inequalities have risen these past few years, with the country’s economic neo liberal reform programme negatively impacting on the lower and middle classes, while a small minority of people – very often close to the regime – have amassed fortunes.
A country can also not call itself anti imperialist if its lacks basic democratic credentials and is governed by security forces and repression. This is why the statement of support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to “the socialist leader and Brother Bachar al Assad”, claiming he is the target of an imperialist operation to overthrow his regime and blaming the US for unrest in the country, is an insult to the Syrian protesters and the martyrs who lost their lives in the uprising against the Syrian authoritarian regime.
This movement of protest is not led by any foreign agent, but is a popular uprising against an authoritarian and corrupted regime, as well as a call for social justice.
A successful democratic revolution in Syria would radicalise the country’s foreign policy against Israel. It would raise the possibility of ending deals that are at the expense of the Palestinians and the resistance to Israel.
Our support for the success of the revolution in Syria has to be combined with rejection of calls for foreign intervention. These have come from some Syrian opponents such as Mamoun Homsi, a former deputy and Syrian opposition figure (who was previously jailed by the Syrian authorities for his political opinions, but had become since his exile in Lebanon increasingly close to the pro-US 14th of March Movement led by Saad Hariri). Military intervention would be catastrophic for the Syrian population and serve only imperialists’ interests.
Mr Homsi, and others like him such as Abdel Halim Khadam, ex vice President of Syria, linked to western imperialist’s power have nevertheless no chance to find support among the majority of the people in Syria and are on the opposite completely discredited because of these links.
Protesters in Syria believe in and support the Resistance against the Zionist State, and are against any foreign intervention in their struggle. No call from the protesters has beside been made for a foreign intervention to assist them. People in Syria have seen and witnessed the danger of any foreign intervention led by western imperialists’ countries in the region, especially in the Iraqi case where destructions and deaths have ruined the country. In addition to this, more than 2 million Iraqis refugees are now in the country and Syrians do not want to live a similar experience.
In conclusion, we are observing that despite the portrayal of Bachar al Assad as a reformist and modernizer this brutal and authoritarian regime has not changed in its main features, as everyone can see from the harsh repression of its people.
The slogan “the Syrian people won’t step down” is still chanted by the protesters despite the repression. The movement of protest is a way to unite people just as it united Egyptians and Tunisians during their revolutions, and no unity is possible under a dictatorship. The difference in Syria is the lack of contacts and organization among and between the protesters of different areas due mainly to the harsh repression of this regime which has forbidden any kind of opposition for 40 years. Nevertheless this does not undermine the demands and the significance of the protest in Syria. It is ringing in the ears of the regime’s officials. Syria’s people must pursue the revolutionary process to victory.