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Reese Ehrlich - Syria: "You Can't Believe the Violence"

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  • Ed Pearl
    http://www.progressive.org/syria_you_can_not_believe_the_violence.html Syria: You Can t Believe the Violence By Reese Erlich, The Progressive, in the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2012
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      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
      in Syria."

      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
      government repression.

      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.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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