Eyewitness to the Syrian Revolution

August 24th, 2011 at 4:43 pm | 6 Comments |

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If you had to put a face to the Syrian uprising, malady it would probably belong to Hamza ‘Ali al-Khateeb. If you do not know what Syrians are fighting for, illness Hamza symbolizes what they are fighting against.

The 13 year-old child was not simply killed by Bashar al-Asad’s security forces; his body was broken in every way. The details are too terrible, help too well-known to repeat.

Less well-known is the price his father paid for speaking up. Vanished into police custody, he was last seen escorted before a Syrian television crew in order to praise the man whose servants tortured his son to death.

President Asad, he said, “has overwhelmed us with his kindness, what more can I say? He is the best president there is and the best president we have.”

For over five months the Syrian army, the mukhabarat, and armed thugs of the shabbiha have attempted to break an entire country as they broke Hamza and his father. At least 2,000 civilians have been killed, 8,000 have fled to Turkish refugee camps, and as many as 30,000 have been imprisoned.

Yet the protests continue to grow. In Damascus, once safely pro-regime, massive protests have become commonplace. By late July, Asad had lost effective control of several major Syrian cities. These included Hama (the country’s fourth largest city) and Deir Ez-Zor (the key to the eastern half of Syria). Together they have hosted over 1.2 million protestors. Proportionate to Syria’s population, that is more than twice the size of Tahrir square protests at their zenith.

For a while, the regime looked to be fighting a rearguard action. According to one activist, “Bashar is dividing the country between those places the government can fight for now – and those he will come back for.”

Until two weeks ago. Hours before Ramadan began, Asad’s tanks and artillery smashed into Hama and Deir Ez-Zor. Over 500 were killed. Navy gunships bombarded the mixed Sunni-Alawite city of Lattakia, where reports speak of regime forces ethnically cleansing Sunni and Palestinian residents.

The price has been a final break with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West. Saudi Arabia, whose financial support was once mooted as a possible lifeline to the regime, now denounces Asad’s “killing machine.” Turkish commentators openly contemplate the possibility of military intervention if the refugee flow resumes.

These rifts will only worsen with time.

For Erdo?an and Abdullah, self-consciously Muslim rulers with vehemently Sunni constituencies, the sights of Syria’s crackdown could intensify domestic radicalism: mostly Alawite gangs murdering unarmed Sunni civilians, demolishing mosques and beating protesters into swearing ‘There is no god but Bashar al-Asad.” And all during Ramadan. Not good.

Yet it is doubtful that the regime has the manpower to pacify all three cities and suppress mushrooming demonstrations and enforce the quiet in cities that have not yet joined the uprising. By contrast, the protestors radiate optimism. Organizers named the latest Friday protests “Harbingers of Victory”. Asad, they say, has no control beyond the shadows of his tanks. And his tanks cannot be everywhere.

The death blow, when it comes, will land from a disintegrating Army or a cratering economy. The protests have brought the Syrian economy to a halt: the economy is projected to contract by 5% this year and the Damascus stock market has crashed over 40%. Tourism, once 12% of the economy, has evaporated.

In order to keep fence-sitters docile, Asad increased subsidies. In order to suppress the committed, he began hiring thugs at $100-a-day (an astronomical sum for Syria). As a result, the deficit has exploded and foreign currency reserves depleted. And now the EU and US are coordinating punishing sanctions on Syria’s oil sector, responsible for 30% of government revenues. Enormous infusions of Iranian cash are the only reason the Syrian lira has not yet collapsed.

That collapse, when it comes, will cripple Asad’s ability to pay his security forces. Already the Army cannot be wholly relied upon. The regime has come to depend ever more heavily on select units dominated by Alawites and the shabbiha. These must be shuffled constantly around the country to suppress demonstrations.

In effect, the process by which Hafiz al-Asad co-opted Syria’s Sunni majority is being reversed. The Syrian army is becoming an extended tribal militia; its base is loyal, but small and shrinking. Defections, once few and confined to the lower ranks, are claiming larger units and reaching into the officer corps. Scenes of Syrian soldiers shot by the shabbiha or other army units are spreading.

The regime’s response, characteristically depraved and pathetic, has been to fill Syrian television with funerals of soldiers killed by the ubiquitous but never-seen ‘infiltrators’. Officers march solemnly in full dress uniform, women throw flower petals, hymns are mournfully sung. Poetry is read to “the heroic martyrs massacred by the terrorist gangs … with your blood you have protected our children’s smiles.”

Incredible as it may seem, this merchandise has ready buyers. Yes, the security forces have made “mistakes”, as they call them. But if the regime fell, Syrians would eat each another raw. Look at Lebanon, they say. Look at Iraq. Even some of Syria’s most progressive voices, the ones who should know better, issue panicked denunciations of the non-existent ‘terrorist gangs’ who necessitate the crackdown.

Many of Syria’s minorities live today in the grip of terrors bordering on the hysterical. Historical syllogisms cannot fuel dread of such intensity. Memories can. Many Alawites dread returning to the days when their families survived by selling their daughters to wealthy Sunnis as indentured servants. “We were nothing until [the Asads] came”, as one regime supporter put it. “So I am with them, right or wrong. They are my guys and I am theirs. Right or wrong. Because they are our only hope.”

For almost a year, I lived and studied in Damascus surrounded by Asad partisans of all sects. Most had their loyalties chosen for them by birth and family. Nothing about their fear is feigned. Its fervor commands respect; its desperation summons pity. Even so, Bashar al-Asad has permanently alienated the large majority of his subjects. His regime cannot endure long, and Americans have no reason to mourn its passing.  May its end come swiftly and in our days.

Recent Posts by Mike Nahum

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Not sure why Israel is not covertly arming rebels, a Sunni regime might (just might) be as bad as Assad but I really can’t see how anything could be worse.
    Barring that, a Mossad hit on the Assad family would be quite satisfactory right now, take out his corrupt cousins first, let Assad know his time is short.

    • ProfNickD


      Well, it is true that Israel tacitly had supported the Assad/Alawite regime (at least by not pressuring it or assisting anti-government groups), thinking it was better than the Sunni/Brotherhood taking over.

      But Assad has drifted strongly towards Iran, helping Iran arm Hezbollah and to create a de facto Iranian mini-state in southern Lebanon.

      So… there aren’t a lot of options here.

      • baw1064

        Well, if Netanyahu feels inclined to start a war, now would be an ideal time to invade the Hezbollah areas of Lebanon. The Syrian military has bigger fish to fry right now.

  • Oldskool

    Guys like Asad, Gaddafi, Mubarak, Hussein, etc are so predictable, someone must have come up with an algorithm by now.

  • Nanotek

    thanks for this article — substance and context

  • DConnNC

    Does anyone, anywhere know why this situation in Syria is not a concern of O’Bombers? This is not a rhetorical question, I would really love some insight. He kills Calypso-Louie’s friend in Libya, but the completely one sided fight in Syria is fine to sit on the side lines. I truly understand that America can not enter every conflict, but a show of some force may shake up the chin-less one enough to make a difference. The slack-jaw basset hound Leon, can’t explain why it was okay to intervene in Bosnia when he served slick-Willy, but not now???? Please correct me if I am wrong, but in that conflict, the population of about 45% Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered at the hands of other ethnic/religious groups and America stepped in to help; and we were attacked 6 years later for….? Going off on a tangent, sorry. The US Forces in the middle east may as well pack up, save lives and wait for JJ to get out of office, then after they are tanned, rested and ready for the new Commander In Chief to take office and WIN, yes I said it Mr. Knobby-Knees, Win a war in Afghanistan or Syria. BTW: get rid of the UN and the building first.