What Lies Ahead in Syria?
Editor’s Note: The author’s identity has been concealed for the protection of the writer.
Damascus’s Tahrir Square is empty.
The royal blue street signs directing traffic to the roundabout—modest compared to its world-famous Cairo counterpart—look increasingly ironic. For residents wishing for a quick and cathartic revolution like Egypt’s, the insignificance of their Liberation Square is salt in a long-festering wound. For others who fear the unknown alternative that would replace the flawed but familiar status quo, it is a relief.
From life-as-mostly-normal Damascus, the Egyptian square seems only slightly further away from the city that has rapidly become the figurative Syrian Tahrir: Hama, to the north, a city as famous for its beautiful watermills as it is for unpunished massacres, past and present. News reports estimated 200 dead in Hama this past weekend alone. As forces crack down on other cities, so far more than 2,000 Syrians have died at government hands.
Throughout the actual spring and now summer of the insipidly named “Arab Spring,” many Damascenes have been watching wearily, battered by a series of obfuscating narratives cultivated by a regime that is fighting for domestic not international legitimacy. Every day, through its state-owned TV and newspapers, the Assad regime broadcasts to Syrians its justifications for the brutal military crackdown on their fellow Syrians. They proffer evidence that ongoing protests against the government have been orchestrated—or infiltrated—by foreign-armed terrorists. We are treated daily to alleged confessions by Syrians who are supposedly paid to be terrorists; bedside interviews with allegedly wounded Syrian soldiers, with zoomed-in shots of bloodstained sheets; videos of alleged arms caches; and footage of alleged protesters, their weapons circled in red.
The foreign plot/paid to protest narrative has not been as easy for Syrians to dismiss as it was when similarly invoked by dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. There are many reasons for this: a lack of independent journalists reporting on the situation while a sophisticated Syrian propaganda machine operates at full force; the relative sanity and charisma, compared to other authoritarian leaders, of Assad and his Vogue-worthy wife; the disorganization of the demonstrators and opposition (and the possibility some of them are indeed armed). And then there is the argument that Western democracies lie and commit atrocities too without being stripped of their mandate to govern—"weapons of mass destruction" and the invasion of Iraq being the favored examples.
Thus the discussion among Syrians hesitating to join the protests, aside from a well-justified fear of being shot dead or disappeared, is not whether Assad is in power legitimately—most concede he is not—but rather, whether he is really the biggest evil they face. Wedged between Beirut and Baghdad, Syrians do not take the relative security provided by the regime for granted and many are loathe to give it up—even if it has come at the expense of their basic rights and liberties and potentially worse, a politically neutered population.
Aside from introducing considerable doubt about who the protesters are, the regime has also called into question what it is they really want. The not-so-implicit suggestion is that they won’t stop until they achieve some sort of extreme Salafist Sunni theocracy, where minorities will be slaughtered or else severely repressed. For Christians, they need look no further than recent church burnings in Egypt or the near extinction of Christians in Iraq for what some consider credible precedent for what could happen to them. Among Alawites, who to many Syrians are synonymous with the regime, there is the dread that they can only survive if they continue to rule the country, because payback—forty years in the making—will be merciless.
Yet, at the same time, the regime is attempting to appeal to a pan-ethnic/pan-sectarian Syrian nationalism, through messaging that is visible on backlit billboards and posters throughout the country. For someone who doesn’t read Arabic, these might look like ads for consumer goods rather than an “education” campaign designed to keep the public uneducated and quiet. Glossy pictures, national colors and friendly fonts infantilize the Syrian people by telling them, for example, that no matter our station in life, our politics or our age, we are all “With the law” or “With Syria.” Other messages include “No to Sectarianism” or “Yes to Dialogue, No to Violence,” with no acknowledgment of the violence the government has committed against its people.
The posters are only slightly less menacing than the former era’s ubiquitous portraits of Assad-père, his creepy Mr. Burns–esque visage sometimes stories-tall, draped down the sides of buildings or else wallet-sized but affixed to nearly every taxi dashboard—often pasted onto a cut-out red construction paper heart. Those portraits can at least be credited with certain honesty: the government was unquestionably a dictatorship, it was watching and there were no reforms coming.
The appeals to Syrian nationalism are ironic given that it was the Assad regime itself that spent the past forty years contributing to sectarian divisions, by consolidating power in the hands of one sect: the Alawites. Moreover, Assad-fils gambled that he could assuage the Sunni majority by allowing the Saudis to build more Sunni mosques in Syria, yet control the influence of Saudi thought, which in essence emphasizes Sunni identity.
The combined result has been instead to lay the foundations for a potential civil war between Sunnis and Alawites, who wield power disproportionate to their numbers (12 percent of the population). Alawites, who control the military, have used it to dismiss dissent and even bombard whole towns. Unlike the Egyptian military, the mostly Alawite leadership of the Syrian military has little independence from the regime and is apparently unwilling to sacrifice its man for its greater survival. Many of the participants deny that religion is a motivating factor behind the protests, but with the regime having an Alawite face and most of the protesters a Sunni face, sectarian shadings are undeniable.
Hints of a potential civil war are already visible in some of the killings that have occurred or are alleged to have occurred, in which people were supposedly killed because of their sect, a fact played up by the regime. In a bus depot in Damascus recently, a man waited for a bus bound for Homs, where Syrian tanks occupy the center of the city, and nightly demonstrations and gunfire can be heard. He earnestly told a woman beside him that the newspaper of the Baath party was reporting that in Hama and Homs “ID-card killings” had started to occur—an allusion to the murders during Lebanon’s civil war, which saw people executed for being the “wrong” religion after they presented their ID card at checkpoints. The woman, who was from Homs, categorically denied it. Meanwhile, people sitting around them were left unsure as to what the truth was. (Never mind that the Syrian national ID card does not mention religion.)
Unfortunately, such propaganda campaigns are not ineffective. From Christians to Muslims, many Syrians will outline all of Assad’s shortcomings only to earnestly ask, “What is the alternative?” as if they have no role to play in what comes next. What many see in Cairo today is not a messy and burgeoning democracy but rather just a mess, over which Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood will eventually prevail.
But as the Syrian regime continues to kill its people and besiege whole towns, it erodes whatever credibility its propaganda efforts have bought. Many Syrians are digging in their heels for the long haul, recognizing that the “situation” or “troubles” as Syrians say, will eventually reach the capital, unless something changes. For now, the regime seems intent on its path and it won’t be international pressure that stops it. In fact, to some extent international condemnations have worked to the regime’s advantage because many Syrians only see hypocrisy and inconsistency in Western reactions to the different uprisings, which in turns helps fuel the idea that Syrian protests are in fact foreign plots.
Damascus, of course, is not the only city that counts: demonstrators from the Damascus periphery to Hama have begun in their chants to call on Aleppo to join them next, and many eyes are in fact turned there now. But while Syria’s liberation may not spring from Damascus’s Tahrir Square, it cannot happen without the capital. And for now, Damascenes seem to be in no rush, especially during this holiday month. If the force of history continues to remake the Middle East, it may be the last Ramadan in the country as they have known it.