In some of the latest news regarding the bloodiest episode of the so-called “Arab Spring,” (also known as the Arab Awakening) the Syrian government begins yet another of it’s characteristically brutal operations against dissidents, sending a full fledged military force, including tanks, into the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. This follows another military invasion that commenced just a few days ago, into the city of Hama, a historically restless place that was the site of several vicious massacres from past insurrections (the most recent, which occurred in 1982, came under dictator Hafez al-Assad, the father of the country’s current noxious autocrat, Bashar; it left tens of thousands of people dead, and it is believed that every family in Hama lost someone in the carnage, fueling their present rebellion decades later).
The fact that any sort of protests have happened at all is rather miraculous to begin with. The popular protests that swept through the most of the region came later and unexpectedly, which isn’t surprising: Syria has long been one of the most oppressive and rigidly controlled regimes in the world, with a complex and obscure network made up of various security, intelligence, and military agencies all keeping the populace – and one another – in check. Aside from being horrifically effective at suppressing dissent at every turn, this also diminishes the likelihood that the country will encounter the military defections and acts of insubordination that have been crucial to the success of other revolutions in the region (though it’s not to be ruled out completely, as there have been some unconfirmed reports of troops refusing to fire on protesters).
Furthermore, the country is so tightly controlled that news of what’s happening there is difficult to come by, even between citizens within. The regime hasn’t just kept a lid on dissent with pure brute force either. Aside from making some hollow promises for reform (which didn’t convince anyone), Assad and his inner circle have long co-opted businessmen some religious elites in order to keep every facet of society under control (the Syrian government is a secular one-party state loosely modeled on socialism, giving the state consider sway in economic and social matters). While the government did loosen things a bit – allowing the proliferation of cell phones and internet connections for example – it made sure to keep political repression firmly in place. (If you want to read a brief profile of the country, click here).
The Syrian state has also done a good job of playing on sectarian fears to it’s benefit. The country is quite multicultural by Mideast standards, with a large Kurdish minority in addition to several different religious groups, including the majority Sunni Muslims, and minority Christians, Druze, and Alawite Muslims (the last of which Bashar and much of the ruling class comes from). The regime legitimizes it’s iron rule by trumping up the threat of ethnic and religious violence were it’s heavy hand to be overthrown. Indeed, being Iraq’s neighbor – and receiving many of its refugees – has drilled in the very real fear for most people about the horrors of a revolution given way to chaos and civil war. Needless to say, Bashar has been keen to manipulate this concern even more as of late, and a good number of Syrians, particularly in the middle-class, seem to be conceding to the lesser of two evils as far as they see it.
But it’s clear that even with all these obstacles to revolution, the Syrian people have remained steadfast in their demands against the bloated and vicious police state apparatus. The tenacity, courage, and resourcefulness of Syrians remarkable. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the state has not held back: they’ve dispatched snipers, tanks, and machine guns; they’ve tortured, kidnapped, and imprisoned; goons have cut power to cities, dragged people out of their homes at night, and infiltrated communities with informants. Yet despite all this, the people press on. The government shows little sign of fracturing and relenting, and yet the momentum for these protests continues unabated, even though, for all intents and purposes, hope should’ve been lost.
As with my previous reflections on Libya, I am left sincerely dumbfounded at the stubborn willpower that humans exercise in their yearn for freedom. I can never imagine what it must be link to face such overwhelming odds, to face certain pain and death, in the name of an ideal I’ve long taken at a given. What is it like to fight such an uphill battle for something? What’s it like to want something so bad as to risk everything and anything, including you own life?
As always, I resign myself to the fact that I have the luxury of finding all this to be very alien to me. I’ve never had to fight for anything this badly. I’ve never had to worry about the threat of torture or death against me or my loved ones. I’ve never known what it’s like to be so desperate, so smothered by injustice and oppression, that I’d be willing to break free to die trying. Hopefully, I’ll never have to find out, and that’s thanks to generations of courageous people that came before me and made that sacrifice on my behalf.
Needless to say, I’ll be keeping a close watch on events in the region as they unfold, and keep you all updated. Aside from my fascination with the human capacity to affect change even in the most dire of circumstances, I feel the least I could do, given my fortunate circumstances, is to acknowledge and record the bravery and solidarity that is driving their efforts. So many people fight and die for their rights, very basic ones we take for granted, without ever being known for it or ever reaching their goals. I want to see this through the end and hope that they manage to as well. Though I remain cautiously optimistic, it’s a very tough call.