More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
The roots of the Syrian uprising
The roots of the “Arab spring” can be found in the year 2000, a year of historic events that mark the end of an era. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in June 2000 was without doubt a significant milestone. Twenty-five years of Israeli occupation and its attempts to determine Lebanon’s fate had been tried for all they were worth. In the same month, Syria’s omnipotent dictator Hafez al-Assad died. Within four months, the second Palestinian intifada broke out, marking the death of the Oslo Accords and changing Israel’s relationship with its Arab citizens when 13 were killed during demonstrations in support of their Palestinian brethren.
The withdrawal from Lebanon was seen in Israel as a victory for Hezbollah which had extracted a heavy toll from the IDF using guerilla tactics. This toll led to a wave of protests which finally persuaded Ehud Barak’s government to get out of Lebanon unilaterally. The opinion-makers in Israel linked the intifada to Hezbollah’s victory which had boosted Hamas and other radical organizations.
However, this account is one-sided. Israel’s withdrawal pulled the rug from under Assad’s feet in Lebanon. It must be recalled that when Yitzhak Rabin’s government entered southern Lebanon in 1976, it created the “buffer zone” in coordination with Syria, which had entered Lebanon in order to suppress the PLO which threatened to take over the state. Thus Assad put an end to the civil war which had raged since 1975.
With Assad’s death in June 2000, two things began to happen. In Lebanon, the voices calling for an end to the Syrian presence grew louder, while in Syria, hopes grew that the death of the dictator would bring about political and social change. Many deluded themselves into believing that the arrival of the young Bashar al-Assad, who did not rise within the military and was a graduate of a western university, would mark a new era. On the other hand, the fact that the son inherited the regime in a way more in keeping with monarchical dynasties than republics raised doubts about his ability and willingness to make reforms.
Thus the year 2000 was a year of change and expectations. In Egypt, there was talk of “infitah” – openness towards the west, peace with Israel, and the adoption of the neo-liberal capitalist model as key to the wellbeing of the Egyptian nation. In Syria, however, it was thought that Arab nationalism, an aversion to the west and to Israel, the alliance with Iran, and the rejection of a market economy would save the Syrian nation from colonialist exploitation and restore national pride. But despite the ideological differences, the results were similar: the Arab nations got tired of ideologies and collapsed under the burden of poverty, underdevelopment, corruption and the dictatorship of the security services which made life in both countries almost impossible.
In the same year, the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip rose up against the Palestinian Authority. The PA, as it signed the Oslo Accords, promised the world while in reality it brought continued Israeli settlement, curfews, high unemployment and a corrupt and corrupting regime. Popular protest was channeled by Fatah and Hamas towards suicide missions against Israel, which ended in deadly fiasco and the closure of the territories.
The Palestinian intifada, for its part, offered an opening for demonstrations in Cairo identifying with the Palestinians but which were also directed against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In Syria, in the same period, opposition groups began making their voices heard and demanded real reforms. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri changed his tune and began working to extricate his country from the Syrian bear-hug.
The Damascus Declaration
The year 2005 was another significant year in the developments leading up to the Arab spring. That year, Hariri was assassinated following intensive international pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. A mass movement in Lebanon’s streets demanded that Syria leave and in April 2005, the last Syrian soldiers withdrew.
At the same time, Egypt saw the strengthening of the Kifayah movement (the Egyptian Movement for Change), protesting Mubarak’s attempts to copy the Syrian model and appoint his son Gamal as his successor. In retrospect, it can be said that Mubarak’s insistence on this succession led to his downfall. In Syria, for the first time, an opposition movement appeared openly demanding, via the “Damascus Declaration,” a change of regime.
Both Kifiyah and the Damascus Declaration, which focused on the regime and social problems, radically changed the traditional public discourse which had dominated till then – a discourse which had concerned itself with the question of whether to support or oppose Israel and the US.
The Damascus Declaration left no doubt regarding its intentions: “Today Syria stands at a crossroad… The authorities' monopoly of everything for more than 30 years has established an authoritarian, totalitarian, and cliquish regime that has led to a lack of [interest in] politics in society… an economic collapse that poses a threat to the country, and exacerbating crises of every kind, in addition to the stifling isolation which the regime has brought upon the country as a result of its destructive, adventurous, and short-sighted policies on the Arab and regional levels, and especially in Lebanon.”
The Declaration goes on to outline the reforms it demanded. It acknowledged that reforms must be gradual and must express dialogue between the regime and the opposition, but its demands were clear. Foremost among them was the demand that no party would have the right to rule as an autocracy. Other demands included a democratic regime, free elections, a new constitution that would ensure equality before the law, freedom of speech, the cancellation of emergency laws and political detention, and the freedom to unionize.
The organizations and persons who signed the Declaration are well-known in Syria and throughout the Arab world. They include the author Michel Kilo, former MP Riyad Sayf, and former Judge Haytham al-Malih. The importance of the Declaration lies in the fact that it is authentically Syrian. The signatories did not have US support or encouragement; they were public figures who dared to defy the dictator and pay the price. And indeed, the response was not long in coming. Kilo was accused of undermining morale and other absurd charges, and was thrown behind bars for a number of years together with his colleagues.
The demands of the Damascus Declaration in 2005 have become the political program of the Syrian uprising. Like Egypt, within just a few years, the small number of people who overcame their fear have become millions who now rock the regime and demand its demise. The regime’s obtuseness, and its inability to carry out even minimal reforms have made the situation in Syria even worse, just as happened in Egypt and Tunisia. The fire of revolution ignited in the small Syrian town of Dara’a spread rapidly throughout the country.
What kind of regime governs Syria?
It would be wrong to say there have been no changes in Syria, but these changes only served to bring the situation to a head. Assad junior’s rise to power was accompanied by the removal of the old guard that had surrounded his father. Vice President Abd al-Halim Khadam, who controlled Lebanon and made a fortune through partnerships with Rafiq al-Hariri, stepped down to join the opposition. Bashar al-Assad promoted his own family to central positions in both the political and the security establishments. Assad junior also opened the Syrian economy to “modernization”, to the benefit of his cousin on his mother’s side, Rami Makhlouf, who set up the cell-phone company Syriatel.
Thus the Arab Republic of Syria became the private firm of the Assad family. Rami Makhlouf dominates the holding company. A different cousin from his father’s side, Zou al-Hima Shalish, controls a huge contracting firm which is building infrastructure on the basis of tenders “won” by corrupt means. Many other businessmen surround them, “winning” various franchises while the regime ensures there is no real competition. Syrian “socialism” protects Syria from capitalism, but works for the Assad family and its friends alone. It also prevents the development of alternative centers of power which could challenge the regime.
But economic power is not enough. From his father, Assad inherited a security apparatus which is also controlled by the family. His brother, Maher al-Assad, commands the Fourth Division which is responsible for protecting the regime, and sows death and destruction throughout Syria in the most brutal fashion, in Dara’a, Rastan, Homs, Jisr al-Shughour, Maghya al-Naaman and Tel al-Kalakh. Other branches of the security apparatus were placed in the hands of other family members and cronies, also from the Makhlouf and Shalish families.
The family doesn’t rule alone. Though it may trumpet Arabism and warn against sectarianism, it is based on the Alawite sect which makes up some 10% of the population and is concentrated in the Latakia region in the northwest. Most command positions of the army and the security services are in Alawite hands, thus tribal loyalties replace national, the family controls the tribe, and the tribe controls the state. Loyalty is directed towards the regime’s Baath Party, headed by the Assad family. The constitution grants this party the role of “leader”, thus ensuring its survival. Syria doesn’t need democracy, because its rulers know what’s best for the nation.
The saga hasn’t ended. The Syrian government is the largest employer and pays some two million officials a salary of $200-300 each month. Obviously, anyone who needs a “favor” from the regime must be a Baath Party member, and since the bureaucrats can’t live off such a small salary, “baksheesh” has become a complementary source of income. Syria is high on the list of corrupt countries, above even Egypt. The state functionaries are compelled to be partners to the Assad family in exploiting the people who are forced into bribery for any license or official document, or in any dealings with the authorities.
In addition, there is a coalition of regime-sanctioned parties, including the Syrian Communist Party, the Arab writers’ union, broadcasting stations, artists and journalists, whose purpose is to spread the official ideology, to praise Bashar at every opportunity, and persuade the Syrian nation that it lives in an earthly paradise while all its sorrows stem from imperialism and Israel, and any change to the regime will cause colonialism and the disintegration of Syria into tribalism.
Reality is rather different. In fact, millions of farmers have been forced into migration due to a drought that has affected rural areas. They have collected in the cities, in houses built without permit, and their numbers approach 50% of the population. Services such as water, electricity, health and education are hard to obtain, which has made Syria a social powder keg. Like in all Arab states, unemployment, especially among young educated people, is a ticking time bomb.
An authentic, home-grown revolution
It wasn’t America behind the fall of Tunisia’s Zien al-Abedine Ben Ali, and it wasn’t Israel behind the fall of Mubarak. Similarly in Syria, the only one responsible for the uprising is Bashar al-Assad. He caused the poverty, enriched his family at the nation’s expense, and refused any reforms that might have lightened the burden of the Syrian people. Like his father before him, Assad junior pities nobody. Thus the Syrian uprising is part of the Arab revolution. It was nurtured in the same greenhouse, fulfills the same needs, and uses the same methods – non-violent civil struggle, which will bring down the regime sooner or later.
Bashar al-Assad refuses to acknowledge reality. He draws a surreal picture which holds that there is no uprising in Syria, but merely anarchy sown by thousands of provocateurs funded by Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Israel. The regime, he says, admits there is corruption but is working to correct it. He announced the cancellation of the emergency laws, the release of political prisoners, and the need for dialogue, political reform. He also replaced the prime minister. Thus, he claims, he is meeting the demands of the protesters and there is no more need to demonstrate. The people can go home and put their faith in Assad Ltd., which will take care of its subjects, and pass on the leadership to his son.
In reality, the regime, which has abandoned all restraint, is massacring the innocent. Some have even compared the slaughter to the Hama massacre of 1982, but the situation is entirely different. Opposition this time is not just in one town, but has spread throughout the country. Maher al-Assad goes from place to place, bombing, burning fields, destroying houses, shooting at people, and turning schools and stadiums into mass detention centers, and doesn’t even baulk at mass graves where he buries entire families. Another difference is that this time the destruction is being filmed and documented. Though independent reporters are forbidden entry, pictures and reports are being distributed, and the naked truth is horrendous.
There is another important difference between 1982 and today. In 1982, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that ignited the spark. Today, it is the social network of youth. The Muslim Brotherhood declared Islam was the solution, while today’s demonstrators demand democracy and social justice – the same slogan that united Egypt and Tunisia and brought down the regimes there. Syrian citizens have nothing to lose. The terror directed against them, the humiliation, the lack of a way out and the lack of a better future have stirred their blood. The regime has nothing to offer them. Its anti-imperialism has become a hollow slogan serving the elite minority. Syria is broken. The economy is barely functioning, and the regime has become the enemy of the people.
A regime such as this has no chance of survival. The more it steps up the oppression, the more it loses legitimacy in the eyes of the Damascus and Aleppo middle classes who are afraid to lose what little the regime was willing to grant. The Syrian nation is now running for its life, while the regime stands naked and exposed, refusing to heed the nation’s demands. The Damascus Declaration has become the demands of all. The five years that have passed since then and the months of violence have convinced the Syrian people that democracy will not be achieved by means of dialogue with Assad, but only with his downfall. “The nation demands the fall of the regime” – this is the revolution’s slogan, and the struggle today is: Bashar or the nation. There is no other way.
The Egyptian example has assured the victory of the Syrian uprising. The Egyptians did it, and they are progressing towards democracy. There are many tough political struggles – workers’ demonstrations and attempts to silence them, democrats demonstrating against the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, fundamentalists who are attacking Copts – but the wheels of history continue to turn, and Egypt will not go back to what it was before January 25. Syria has something to aspire to. Nobody would have dreamed that the fatalistic Egyptian nation would rise up against the pharaoh, but this is what it did, and now it’s drawing the Arab nations with it. The Syrian people have taken things into their own hands. They want to enter history and no tanks on earth can stop them.