Syria: "You Can't Believe the Violence"
By Reese Erlich,
The Progressive, in the December 2011 / January 2012 issue
For security reasons, we met at one of the most crowded squares in Damascus
and then drove through traffic-clogged streets to the old city. We walked
through the narrow, cobblestone streets where no cars could fit and anyone
tailing us would get lost.
I was on my way to meet some leaders of the Local Coordinating Committees,
the loose-knit group spearheading the uprising against the government of
President Bashar al-Assad. The activists I met represent one sector of the
protesters: mostly young, secular, and middle class.
They had been fighting for seven months, facing tear gas, arrest, and death.
The United Nations estimated that the government had killed more than 3,000
civilians by mid-October.
"You can't believe the violence. I am scared. We are all scared," Taim, one
of the protesters I met in Old Damascus, tells me. "But I can see the new
Syria is emerging from the struggle."
Opposition leaders outside Syria were calling for foreign military
intervention to topple Assad. Ahmad, age twenty-nine, says activists inside
the country take a different view. Like the others, he asked that only his
first name be used.
"He who has not suffered cannot speak," he tells me. "The exiled leaders can
say whatever they want, but not many people agree with them."
Leen, a forty-four-year-old woman college professor, says activists have
closely watched the results of foreign intervention. "Libya will have a new
dictator with American backing," she says. "We don't want another dictator
The activists also oppose foreign economic sanctions because they hurt the
poor more than government officials. "Sanctions are not a good idea because
they put pressure on all society," says Leen.
And they are not making a Facebook Revolution, Ahmad adds with a big smile.
Their high-tech tools mostly consist of speaking in code over mobile phones.
"Come to the wedding today at 3 p.m.," for example, alerts people of the
time for an upcoming demonstration.
Leen says the government closely monitors Facebook. So they use social
networking sites to alert the outside world, not each other. "We do use
Facebook," says Leen, "but only when a VIP plans to attend a demonstration-a
journalist or actor everyone knows."
Activists have gotten highly creative. One group of young women painted ping
pong balls with the word "freedom," the main slogan of the opposition. They
then dumped them down a hill towards a popular walking area for passersby to
read. Others put red dye in a Damascus fountain to symbolize the blood
spilled by the government. It took government minions an embarrassing
afternoon to drain and refill the fountain.
Last March, when the street demonstrations began in the southern city of
Dara, protesters demanded reform. But failure to meet popular demands and a
harsh government crackdown quickly led to calls for the overthrow of Assad's
government and the establishment of a parliamentary system with fair
elections and multiple parties.
Protesters never strictly followed a Gandhi-style campaign of nonviolent
civil disobedience. When government forces fired tear gas or shot into
crowds, the protesters sometimes hurled rocks back.
On March 20, less than one week into the protests, demonstrators in Dara
burned an office of the ruling Baath party as well as the local courthouse.
Demonstrators tried to remain nonviolent but became frustrated with
Mahmood, a twenty-six-year-old activist from Dara, tells me, "People in Dara
used Molotovs and rifles. But it was a reaction to the government arresting
and killing protesters."
More recently, activists in the city of Homs in central Syria have set up
armed roadblocks to keep out army troops and to kill informers. Both sides
now appear to be using targeted assassinations.
A government hit squad likely murdered Syrian Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo
in October. That same month, the government accused extremist members of the
opposition of murdering Sariya Hassoun, son of Syria's grand mufti.
The Assad government astutely plays up such violent incidents to portray
protesters as Taliban-inspired fanatics intent on imposing an Islamic state.
It accuses demonstrators of killing more than 1,100 security personnel so
Wafaa Dieb is a medical doctor who lives in the northern city of Tartus. "I
don't want Syria to become like Afghanistan," she says. "I don't want to
stay home; I want to be able to work."
The opposition includes some Muslim extremists. But the vast majority of
political Islamists oppose such violent actions, according to Mohammad
al-Habash, a member of the Syrian parliament and head of the Islamic Studies
Center in Damascus.
He explains that Syria's religious and ethnic minorities make up about
one-third of the population. Most Sunnis are moderate. He argues that given
those demographics, extremists could not impose an Islamic state, even if
they so desired.
Habash says the Islamic protesters favor a moderate form of government such
as exists in Turkey. "Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the new generation,
believes we have to find some way to separate church and state," he says.
"Most of them call for a civil state."
Constant demonstrations, combined with U.S. and European economic sanctions,
have sent the Syrian economy into a tailspin. The Syrian GDP grew by 3.2
percent last year but the IMF predicts a 2 percent drop this year.
The big question remains: Will the Syrian people blame the Assad government
or the protesters for the country's problems?
I got a partial answer from a very unusual trip. Syrian authorities
organized a media visit to Dara. We visited an elementary school in order
for the government to show that life had returned to normal. All was going
according to plan when the children came out for morning recess.
Spotting the TV cameras, however, some of the sixth graders suddenly began
chanting, "Freedom, Freedom." Government officials went pale.
Other students then began chanting support for President Assad. Here, in
front of the whole world, stood the divided Syria.
Veteran foreign correspondent Reese Erlich writes regularly for The
Progressive. He received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis
Reporting for his coverage of Syria.
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