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.”
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One of the most intriguing mechanisms of control relies on rhetoric and discourse, especially during times of crisis. Even before Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, the Syrian government dictated public discourse to demonstrate and enforce its control, using methods ranging from cult-like propaganda—ubiquitous posters of the president with adoring statements such as “We love you” written below—to overt public statements blaming terrorists and foreign elements for the violence in the country today. Syrians’ tacit acceptance of the discourse was a critical element of the country’s ability to function, and resistance consisted “primarily of mundane transgressions that do not aim to overthrow the existing order,” Wedeen wrote.
At first glance, the regime’s efforts to dictate public discourse can seem absurd and futile, especially today when the main perpetrator of violence seems so obvious (although the opposition has also carried out abuses, just as the government has, according to Human Rights Watch). But the regime clings to certain tactics with good reason: for a long time, they successfully suppressed dissent and kept the government in power. As a result, examining how and if these tactics are actually failing today can help explain Syria’s current stalemate.
“The message now is about the reality,” President Bashar al-Assad told American journalist Barbara Walters in a televised interview in December 2011. “Those terrorists…are getting more and more…aggressive,” he offered, explaining the violence in Syria. When Walters confronted him with images of a 13-year-old boy, tortured and killed, he said, “I met with his father…and he said that he wasn’t tortured,” and later called the allegations of torture “false.”
“I cannot answer about fake pretences,” he said. “I can only talk about reality.”
The Syrian government continues to use the same explanations, noting in early April, “The terrorist acts committed by the armed terrorist groups in Syria have increased during the last few days.”
Dismissing these statements is easy for a non-Syrian. But it’s harder to do in a country where the regime is the authority that tells Syrians what is or is not appropriate to say in public, especially during times of conflict such as what the country is experiencing now. Even though they can be highly exaggerated and even contradictory, —qualities that Assad’s words possess in abundance—its explanations of conflict became the standard, accepted way to discuss the situation. As a result, public statements such as Assad’s, no matter how absurd, do carry a certain weight. Wedeen’s book, a study of Syria under Hafez, not Bashar, al-Assad, was published in 1999, but its uncanny accuracy a decade later underscores how deeply embedded are the regime’s methods of control.
The government used similar rhetoric in 1982, after a three-week government crackdown on the city of Hama, the site of a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood. The death toll ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 and upward. After the government realized the massacre “could not be flatly ignored,” it offered “a public, official explanation…accusing Zionists and Americans of intervening in Syrian internal affairs and marking the Brotherhood as agents of Western imperialism,” Wedeen explained.
In dealing with the present unrest, by refusing to allow all but a few journalists into the country, the regime has also tried to prevent others from presenting explanations that conflict with the official story—“a prohibition that has backfired,” Patrick Seale, an expert on Syria who has written several books on the country, told Syria Today. “It has allowed the protesters to influence opinion outside the country” using the same information-sharing technology that helped to undermine the regime’s rhetoric within the country.
Although the government’s rhetoric has arguably failed on one front—the opposition is still fighting—the justification for maintaining the rhetorical front could stem from support for the Assad regime elsewhere. “Support for this popular insurgency is not very strong” in Syria, Rosen said at Columbia. At most, 30 percent of the population is involved in the resistance, dissident Salim Kheirbek told Jon Anderson of The New Yorker. “The other seventy per cent, if not actually with the regime, are silent, because it’s not convincing to them,” Kheirbek added. That silence—the unspoken acceptance of a certain discourse or course of action—is the same complicity that made iron-fisted rule possible.
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“If things go south in Syria, blood-thirsty sectarian demons risk being unleashed, and the entire region could be consumed in an orgy of violence,” Seale wrote in Foreign Policy. “Syria is at war with itself,” Anderson suggested in The New Yorker, citing several people who claimed that Syria would soon devolve into civil war, if it hadn’t already. The prolonged and intractable stalemate speaks to the regime’s tenacity and to the international community’s hesitation to take on a responsible role in a country whose “internal problems…threaten to reshuffle” the power dynamics among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and beyond, according to Seale.
The United States, like other countries, has verbally condemned the violence, and has supported two failed United Nations Security Council resolutions. A few politicians such as John McCain have called for arming the rebels, but both arming the rebels and a full-scale intervention seem unlikely for the United States, and more importantly, could do more harm than good by further exacerbating regional and sectarian tensions already evident in the opposition’s fractures. The Syrian National Council, a group of opposition exiles, is notorious for its infighting and according to Rosen, is disconnected from internal opposition leadership. The Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, has “no structural order,” Rosen said. It is merely a “name for a phenomenon.” Arming the opposition would exacerbate pre-existing divisions, which in their present form do not bode well for post-Assad Syria.
The most recently adopted international effort to resolve the crisis is former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan, which includes provisions for a UN-supervised cease-fire, a “daily two-hour humanitarian pause,” and a Syrian-led political process that will “address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.” It does not call for Assad to step down, and Syria missed the first deadline on April 10, 2012, to withdraw its troops from towns and stop using heavy weapons. A cease-fire began on April 12 and remains extremely tenuous, with violence and clashes on the rise. UN observers have begun to enter the country with more due to arrive in the coming days, but the situation can change in an instant.
Rosen, however, said he was “skeptical about any of the international attempts” to mediate the conflict and that he saw no end other than more war. The conflict has become an “existential struggle between two sides,” aided by foreign actors. With no clear winner in sight, “a lot of people are hedging their bets and supporting both sides,” said Rosen gravely. “We’re watching a country slowly fall apart.”