Democracy and Freedom in Syria

Article for Le Jeudi

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I was contacted a while back by David Broman of Le Jeudi, a progressive news weekly in Luxembourg asking if I would write an article about the events in Syria, which he would translate into French and publish.

I would like to extend my Thanks to David, and to all the other journalist and activists who have taken an interest in the struggle for freedom in Syria. You are helping us get our message out and be heard.

I’ve included the article in English plus David’s French translation:

The article in French at LeJeudi(click for the PDF file)

Original English article:

You’ve probably heard a lot about Syria in the news lately. It’s been making headlines across the world on almost all leading media stations. But did you wonder why this interest all of a sudden? What is the story all about? Is there a war there, or a civil conflict? Are there terrorists, extremists and Islamists as the Syrian regime claims, or this another chapter in the blossoming of the Arab Spring?

Well, let’s start at the beginning, the very beginning. I’m not going to go into too much detail or give you a history lesson here, just some general pointers, but you should really read and research for yourself the history of this fascinating nation. Syria is an ancient land, home to countless civilizations and cultures through the years. Their ruins, temples and abandoned cities to this day stand as a monument to their achievements. A true melting pot of humanity, in fact it’s a microcosm of the entire human race. A country which has the two oldest inhabited cities in the world, Aleppo and Damascus, the largest citadel in the world in Aleppo, and the most amazing collection of ancient monasteries, mosques, temples, castles, and historic sites any where on earth. This country is so varied and diverse with a plethora of religions, sects, cultures, ethnicities and languages, that Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken in some parts to this day!

Ok history lesson over, but you can conclude from the above that this country is extremely complex in it’s makeup, hence naturally it’s society and politics must follow suit. While true that it’s society and culture is intertwined and complex, it’s politics, strangely enough are not. This is due to one very important reason, the monopoly of power by an authoritarian regime, based on a Soviet socialist model, intransient and incapable of renewing or reforming itself, hence Syria politically is still stuck in the past. Ever since independence from the French mandate in 1946, the country has been rocked by political instability, starting off with a brief period of democracy in the early fifties, culminating in a series of military coups resulting in the Baath party take over of power in 1963, where it remains till this day. Although to say that Syria is a state run by a political party, even a one party state is far from the truth. While true that top civilian and government jobs are almost all exclusive to Baath party members, the real power in Syria lies with the army and the security forces, and in examining those further we find a sinister underground power structure more akin to mafia style family rule than a real political system.

Hafez Al Assad, the previous president, and father of the current president Bashar, established a dynasty of sorts, one which, as you can clearly see, lead to his son successfully inheriting power. Hence the word “republic” in the country’s title would best be replaced by the word monarchy or fiefdom if we wanted to give a more accurate description. Imagine a system close to North Korea if you will, one based on a cult of personality for the benevolent beloved leader, a Stalinist regime, complete with all the trappings and grand displays of affection and loyalty to state and leader. This was much more evident under Hafez’s rule, whereas Bashar has toned it down a little, choosing to adopt a more modern “celebrity type” image for him and his young glamorous wife, although portraits and pictures of him and his family still adorn the streets, cafes and government buildings in Syria. Having put this in perspective, it now becomes even clearer why protesters at first attacked those very symbols of despotic rule, destroying statues of Hafez, and tearing down pictures of his son, in a gesture of defiance and a refusal of this false idolization and hypocritical love for the leader. It was the very first and most important step in breaking the psychological barrier of fear that the regime uses to keep the population in check. This climate of fear, intimidation and threat, means that the people “auto-regulate” themselves and learn to keep their mouths shut and just accept the rampant corruption, injustice and mismanagement that have been the hallmarks of this regime’s rule for decades as a normal part of life. The fear of speaking out is enormous, as the regime every once in a while likes to make an example of the few who do by imposing on them arbitrary trials with long sentences, or torture and disappearances. Secret police in Syria, all 17 agencies or so, are modeled closely on the East German Stasi, and in fact adopt many of their techniques and tactics and previously had officers trained by them. They operate entirely above the law, and are not answerable or subject to any jurisdiction except those of the high command of the regime. These security forces are tasked with keeping the regime in power by any means necessary, which includes grave human rights abuses, including murder, torture and collective punishment of family members. They have been responsible for the majority of the 1500 protesters killed by shooting directly into crowds, or in some cases summary executions.

But what makes the security forces in Syria even more potent and coherent is that they are exclusively run by either the president’s close family, or by officers from his Alawi sect, an off shoot of Shia Islam which sees itself historically as being under threat from a majority Sunni Muslim population. The army too is structured in this way, although it’s file and rank is made of conscripts, with the notable exception of the republican guard and 4th division, commanded by the president’s brother Maher and responsible for most of the abuses committed by the armed forces. This structuring of the armed and security forces around family and clan was undertaken by Hafez, to cement his rule and protect his regime from any possible military coups. This meant that positions were handed out on the basis of loyalty and family ties, not competence and ability, leading to both civil and military institutions being very corrupt, weak and afflicted with chronic mismanagement and inefficiency. As you could imagine, a system like this inevitably leads to a crumbling infrastructure, dysfunctional public services, stagnant economy and corrupt police and judiciary. The culmination of these factors for many years lead to pressure building up to a bursting point, it only needed a spark to ignite. That spark came in March, when security forces in Daraa detained and tortured 15 school children for writing anti regime graffiti on their classroom wall. When their families demanded their release, they were told by the head of security (incidentally, also a cousin of the president called Atef Najib) to “forget about your kids and go make other ones”. Feeling humiliated and angry, the families protested and many others joined in solidarity. The security forces reacted by beating, killing and detaining many, igniting popular anger and protests throughout the country.

The fact that Syrians are now speaking out and protesting in their hundreds of thousands is a testament to their enormous courage and determination, even after 1500 of them have been killed, and 15 thousand imprisoned. People are still being killed daily on the streets of Syria 4 months on, but the protest movement has not lost momentum. It has continued to grow, making many previously ordinary Syrians heroes along the way, because of their bravery challenging the regime. Needless to say many of those brave souls lost their lives and became symbols of the revolution. Like Hamza, the 13 year old boy who was tortured, mutilated and killed in custody.

What I have just described are common symptoms shared by many Arab countries who have joined, or are about to join the Arab Spring. The toxic mixture of humiliation, corruption, injustice, violence and poverty which has ruled our lives for many years. We’ve had enough, we will not take it anymore. We want to be free, we want to be treated fairly, we want our human rights to be respected, we want to live in democratic, inclusive societies. And we are willing to give up our lives for that goal.

Footnote: I, the author, give permission for my original English article to be published and distributed in any shape, medium or form, royalty free and without prior permission. If you would like to use David’s French translation, please contact him for permission at :

Written by syrialeaks

July 21, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Posted in articles

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