Syrians have broken the fear barrier

Some observers of the Libyan uprising, particularly those who now most vehemently oppose intervention, insist that Libya is a special case, really a civil war rather than a revolution — the implication being that if Gaddafi were to crush his opponents, then the wider Arab revolution would not suffer a major setback.

Activists involved in the uprising that has now started in Syria indicate that, on the contrary, the fate of Libya has very much been in their minds. Fearing that a Gaddafi victory in Libya would make it more difficult to plead their case for revolution to the Syrian people, activists launched demonstrations this month, instead of allowing several more weeks for organization, as they had earlier intended.

David Hirst writes:

In whichever countries it has already broken out – from Yemen, whose President Saleh is suffering new, perhaps even terminal reverses, to Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi defies the military “crusaders” from the west – the Arab democratic revolution pursues its seemingly inexorable, if chequered, course. But is it yet another country’s turn now? Of all Arab regimes, none more resembles those of former presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali than President Assad and the ruling Ba’athists of Syria; and, after their fall, his 51-year-old “republican monarchy” looked the next most logically in line of candidates to succumb to the Arab uprising.

Yet Assad himself begged to differ. “We are not Egyptians or Tunisians,” he said; Syria might have “more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries” but it was “stable”. And outwardly it did remain an island of calm, even as pro-democracy turbulence rocked other Arab countries from the Atlantic to the Gulf. But last week things suddenly changed. A series of small-scale and isolated but audacious protests developed into much larger ones after Friday prayers in a string of Syrian cities.

One, in the southern city of Dera’a, was particularly serious. It had been triggered by the arrest of 15 schoolchildren accused of scrawling anti-government graffiti on city walls, among them that trademark slogan – “the people want the overthrow of the regime” – of the uprisings elsewhere. It was a peaceful gathering but the security services opened fire, killing three. The next day a much larger, angrier crowd – estimated to number as many as 20,000 – turned out for the burial of the previous days’ victims.

Bloomberg reports:

Syrian troops are forcing people to stay at home in the southern city of Daraa after six people were killed in renewed anti-government protests that have swept across the country, Amnesty International said.

“People are being asked through loudspeakers to remain at home or they will be shot,” Neil Sammonds, a researcher on Syria for the rights group, said today by telephone from London. Snipers are enforcing the orders and all the city’s entrances are being watched, he said. “The town is besieged.”

Seven people were also wounded when security forces opened fire earlier today during the funeral of two of those killed during the night in Daraa, according to an Agence France-Presse photographer who visited one of the local hospitals. President Bashar al-Assad sacked Faisal Kalthum, the governor of Daraa, state television reported today.

The rallies in Syria mark the latest extension of the political turmoil that has engulfed the region this year.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and democracy activist now living in exile in Washington, DC, writes:

What a difference six weeks make. Back in early February I was asked whether Syria would be next on the growing list of countries to witness a popular revolution. My answer, which came in the form of an article published on Comment is free, was, in essence, “not yet”.

The “day of anger” that exiled opposition figures called for on 5 February fizzled out largely because the networks that were being built on the grounds at the time were not ready to take up such a call. Activists needed time to ensure that they had networks of supporters all over the country and that clear communication strategies and methods were agreed, both within these networks and between them and their supporters in the country and across the world.

Formulating the right messages meant to address the concerns of certain segments within Syrian society, as well as those of the international community, especially with regards to the potential role Islamists would play in a future democratic Syria, was also something that required more time.

These points were being debated online through emails and on various Facebook groups; the main thrust of the debate was not whether a revolution could take place but when. Myself and others were on the side of waiting until mid-summer at least, to give in-country activists more time to organise their networks, while others worked on messaging.

Others were less patient, with some fearing a Gaddafi victory in Libya could make it more difficult to plead our case for revolution to the Syrian people; they pushed for a quicker move. Obviously, seeing that Syria has been caught in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval since the Ides of March, it was this latter side that won the debate.

Maher Arar, an engineer with dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship who was a victim of the Bush administration’s rendition program in 2002, writes:

At the time of his ascent to power in 2000, still only, the young president [Bashar al-Assad] promised major reforms were coming.

Popularly elected by 97% of all votes, Syrians of all stripes thought they finally had a glimpse of hope after the 30-year, iron-fist rule of his father.

Assad pledged he would fight corruption, would guarantee his people more freedom of expression, and would adopt a more liberal market policy. He may have partially succeeded on the latter point but it became clear a few years into his rule that he miserably failed on the first two, leading some Syrians to speculate that the new president was simply a puppet in the hands of his father’s old camp.

Furthermore, Syria’s human rights situation steadily deteriorated under the new ruler, especially after the unofficial alliance with the Unites States to fight al-Qaida, a historically common enemy. For instance, it became clear around 2001 that Syria was a preferred rendition destination for terror suspects. The cases of Hydar Zammar, Ahmed El-Maati, Abdullah El-Malki and my own are only a few examples . Bob Baer, a former CIA official, stated at the time: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria,” something to which I can personally attest.

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