Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria, has won 99.2 percent of the re-election vote, begins an old Syrian joke. But Assad is hardly satisfied. “What more could you want?” an adviser asks.
“The names of the .8 percent,” the president responds darkly.
Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and left the presidency to his son Bashar, but the joke still resonates. With its unrelenting surveillance supported by “a pervasive network of informants,” vicious intolerance of political dissent has defined the Syrian government for decades, with arbitrary arrest, detainment and torture commonplace. In March 2011, after security forces arrested fifteen children who had written anti-government graffiti in the city of Dara’a, Syrians began to push back against these abuses. In peaceful protests and demonstrations, they called for rights such as freedom of expression and for the lifting of the emergency law that provided cover for the curtailing of rights and proliferation of abuses. Protesters later expanded their demands to include regime change.
Tension has long existed between the government—under both Assads—and Syrians who oppose it, especially those who have also been its victims. For more than three decades, the government crafted a precarious and often bizarre relationship between ruler and ruled, thoroughly explained in Lisa Wedeen’s fascinating book Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. On one end of the scale was the fiercely controlling regime and on the other, Syrians’ willingness to comply with the government’s mechanisms of control in exchange for stability.
But when protests began in Tunisia and by early 2011 had spread to other Arab countries, including Libya and Egypt, tension in Syria flared into full-blown resistance. Syrians were inspired by the initial successes of the Arab Spring; after all, they shared many of the same grievances, such as unemployment and lack of political freedom. Technology too facilitated and simplified information sharing and organizing.
Unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, however, where leaders were ousted in a variety of ways, Syria’s government has not budged. The uprising has grown into an armed revolution, but few observers are surprised that the opposition has been unable to compel the government to implement demanded reforms. More surprising, rather, is that even as it lives up to its reputation, having killed more than 9,000 people, according to UN estimates, the regime still cannot seem to quell the uprising.
“It’s been remarkable that they haven’t succeeded,” journalist Nir Rosen, who spent about four months in Syria between June 2011 and January 2012, told an audience at Columbia University in late March.
Many factors, such as the opposition’s complete lack of unity, besides the government’s adherence to old, seemingly irrelevant tactics have entrapped Syria in a stalemate. “The truth is there are not many options, both for the regime” and its opponents, wrote author and Syria historian Nikolaos van Dam in August 2011. Eight months later, the situation is still considered to be at an “impasse.”