About a week ago in the southern town of Daraa, twenty youths were arrested for writing graffiti on the walls. But this wasn’t just any old tag. This was a list of grievances. A call for more freedoms and less governmental interference. Almost as quickly as these kids were silenced, protesters rose up to defend them. Outlawed in 1963, protests are extremely rare in the heavily-controlled country. And just as soon as Syrians took to the streets, the police were there to disperse them. But not with tear gas or rubber bullets like we’ve seen elsewhere. No, the security forces started immediately with live rounds. Welcome to Syrian Arab Republic.
Syria is a country that has really been at the forefront of modern, Arab-style repression. In 1963, after a coup d’Ã©tat (that just happened to be the last of many) a man named Hafez al Assad came to power. He did what he could to bring together a fractured Syrian society. He tried to award good students, create decent infrastructure and work within a system. However, as was par for the course for that period of time, there were insurrections brewing. After a series of failed assassination attempts and a number of country-wide bombings carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, al Assad decided to put an end to it.
The group had taken up in a small town named Hama. Under the instruction of Hafez al Assad the Syrian military bombarded the village. For twenty-seven days they shelled and shot their way in. They successfully quelled the insurrection, but in doing so left about 35,000 people dead. Not long after, Hafez switched from being more conciliatory to being much more militaristic. The merciless reputation of Syrian security forces soon followed.
In 2000, Hafez al Assad died of pulmonary fibrosis and his son, Bashar al Assad took power. Initially, some Syrians breathed a sigh of relief. Bashar seemed to be a quieter figure with a few liberal views. In the first few months of his presidency he seemed to have real change in mind. He opened up something called the Damascus Spring were forums and salons were created. In them, countrymen would meet and debate ideas and think of ways to improve the government. This led to a number of political prisoners being released as the regime complied with the people’s demands and closed the infamous Mezzeh Prison and turned it into a museum for historical sciences.
But none of this was to last. In 2001, a number of political jailings caused the closure of most of these salons. More and more, society started to see Bashar al Assad falling back on his father’s totalitarianistic policies. Assad, who has a fairly good knowledge of computer sciences, imposed strict controls in Internet use. Facebook, Youtube, Amazon, and Wikipedia have been banned. In addition the government is actually able to record any forum comments that come from inside the country. Dissidents are not allowed to travel, minorities are strictly controlled and sweeping mass arrests are hardly something unheard of. So it is in this historical kaleidoscope that we must view what has recently taken place in Daraa, Homs, and other cities around the country.
Most recently, Syria has deployed troops to Daraa and in the past week of protests a number of protesters have been shot sporadically. However, in a recent display of force, troops stormed a mosque and shot into the crowd. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured as the carnage of the Syrian security forces went into full swing. It is said that troops fired and killed a doctor who was trying to administer aid to the wounded outside the mosque. It has also been reported that troops shot at mourners who were honoring the recently fallen victims in the city.
In Damascus and Homs there were reports of a small groups protesting near a mosque. They seem to have been beaten (not uncommon or very extraordinary in Syria) but there were no reports of any casualties. Naturally, heavy security and anti-riot police have been seen in numerous cities throughout the country. Checkpoints have also been installed in Daraa and nearby.
Naturally, the government controlled media, SANA, is reporting that all of this tension has been the work of outside forces. It is the usual refrain that we heard from Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. Also just as predictably, the State has sacked the Governor (read: fall guy) of Daraa and considered the problem “fixed.”
In the streets Syrians are calling for more protests on Friday. Friday is the holy day in Islam and so a number of men and women will be headed to the mosque for prayer. This makes for a very efficient meeting spot to kick start protests. However, it also can make them sitting ducks. As the weekend approaches it is a wait-and-see situation. If protests reach a certain fever within Daraa, they are likely to spill into other parts of the country. In Damascus, such mass protests could be the death knell for the many years of al Assad rule. Something he no doubt knows, and no doubt, will do his best to suppress.