Over this last weekend, Syria has seen a rapid escalation in violence. Protests that were contained in the towns of Daraa, Baniyas, and Homs have extended themselves into numerous small towns and most notably, the suburbs of the nation’s capital, Damascus. This is a fairly significant turn of events and the government is more than aware of this fact.
Syria is not known for being a country of popular or vocal dissent, and for good reason. The government has always used swift and deadly efficiency in containing public displays of discontent. This past weekend proved to be no different. Friday is the holy day in Islam, and because so many head to the mosque for prayer, it thus becomes a natural staging area for demonstrators. This tactic has been common throughout the Middle East for years. It was well known that Friday’s congregation was cooking up protests afterward. So when they finally exited ready to commence their rally, officially unofficial armed security forces were there to shoot them as they exited. Then when they took cover the mosque, the armed guards broke the doors down and continued their violent rampage.
In the capital, Damascus, protesters marching and chanting, “peaceful, peaceful,” and met with much the same fate as armed guards fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing fifteen and injuring dozens more. In other cities around the country such as Baniyas and Homs, demonstrations continued throughout the weekend as did the government-sanctioned murders.
Since these protests began three weeks ago, human rights organizations are reporting that over 120 peaceful protesters have been killed and hundreds more wounded. Because security forces are patrolling the hospitals and arresting anybody with protest-related injuries, most of the injured are denied access to more modern medical care and are instead forced to be treated in clinics. Then, of course, came round after round of arrests. It is not uncommon in Syria for activists, bloggers, journalists, and liberal academics to be rounded up and detained for indefinite periods of time. Most recently the head of the Syrian Human Rights League, and a number of local journalists have been silenced.
When Monday rolled around, protests continued in Damascus as hundreds of students came out to march in solidarity and mark the deaths of the protesters from the weekend. One student was shot, and there were reports of dozens of plain-clothed security thugs beating up those marching. Meanwhile, chants are slowly turning from simply asking for freedoms and concessions to declaring al Assad an illegitimate leader. This is considered extreme in Syria and has no doubt caused the administration to take pause. As leaders worldwide condemn Syrian action and call for reform, it seems al Assad has been shaken enough to start making some concessions and trying to win favor.
In one move that was met with cutting derision, al Assad signed and order that gave official citizenship to the Kurds in the East. About 10-15% of Syria’s population is ethnic Kurds who have been struggling for rights since the Ba’athist take over. In 1962, almost 200,000 were registered as foreigners and denied citizenship. Then in 2006, after a number of Kurds revolted, further suppression and punishments were carried out by al Assad’s regime. This week, after al Assad signed their citizenship decree, the head of the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party bluntly stated, “Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favor. It is not the right of anyone to grant.”
Protesters have been nothing but peaceful so far, but tensions remain extremely high. For most Syrians, this is an unprecedented event and it may soon reach the point where it is useless to go back. Much like in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, once protests hit a critical mass, the citizenry realize that even if they all went home and obeyed their autocrats, they’d be rounded up, thrown in jail, tortured, and possibly executed regardless of their level of participation. When this nearly imperceptible but undeniable wave passes through the country, al Assad will either have to go the way of Gaddafi, or the way of Mubarak. Given Syria’s history, it is unlikely that he will simply fade into the night. However, there is still a window of opportunity for him to institute real changes and appease the people’s requests. However, given how out of touch he is with the average Syrian citizen, it might be time his assistants start perusing the Saudi Arabian real estate market. Perhaps they can find a gaudy McMansion just down the road from Tunisia’s former dictator, Ben Ali, that would suit his taste.