The “Syrian spring” did not want regime change. However, months of violence by Assad and his government, army and secret services have discredited the regime. It is time for everyone, including the Churches, to act and speak out despite fears of Islamisation.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – After what happened three days ago in Hama, most European countries and the United States reacted with outrage. The massacre of 100 harmless people had to occur for the West wake up. Better late than never! Let us hope that this change in policy will stop the violence of the Syrian regime against its own people. On 20 June, President Bashir al-Assad acknowledged the legitimacy of some of their claims, but his words were just empty promises. Instead, the innocent continue to die. So far, about 2,000 people are said to have died, including under torture.
What is happening in Syria and why is the revolution occurring?
Some people blame Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood from Jordan or elsewhere. They say these groups are taking advantage of the situation in the Arab world to overthrow the Assad regime and islamise the country. Christians have bought into this point of view because they fear a change of regime that could be detrimental to them. The religious neutrality of the current regime is reassuring to them even though the regime itself has nothing that is reassuring. But it is a lesser evil.
Others blame Israel for the disorder. It is the traditional “Israeli-US plot” that so many like because it is easy and simplistic. They forget that Syria is anti-Israel only in words. In fact, it is the latter’s staunchest ally. For about 40 years, Damascus has done nothing to take back the Golan Heights conquered by Israel. A couple of incidents on 15 May (1948 war) and 6 June (1967 war), dates that mark two painful defeats by the Palestinians, saw some Palestinians killed as they tried to cross into the Golan but they did not elicit any reaction from the Syrian state.
In reality, most Syrians are just fed up. Except for the regime’s cronies, everyone is tired to see their demands written off and their most basic rights, like freedom of expression, denied.
Encouraged by events in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians took to the streets to demand the same rights. However, if in these countries rulers were just profiteers, in Syria, they were cruel, evil and smart. In Egypt, the army protected demonstrators; in Syria, it attacked them.
The country is ruled by a single party, Baa‘th, which is a tool in the hands of the Assads and their allies. There is no opposition or free press. Since 1982, it is under the tight control of the security services (following the bloody crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama).
In July 2000, when Bashir el-Assad came to power, a wind of change swept across the country and new political groups were created. However, by September 2001, everything was back to normal. The leaders of the new movements were sent to prison, some for five years, one for ten. Attempts to reorganise the opposition failed.
Hope was born again in 2005 when the opposition proposed a gradual process of reform. In December 2007, pro-reform leaders were arrested and sentenced to two and half years in prison.
All those who proposed a change in relations with Lebanon suffered a similar fate. Human rights defenders like Anwar al-Bunni, Mohannad al-Hasani and Haythan al-Maleh ended up behind bars.
Mukhābarāt and corruption
In 1980s, Syria’s secret services (Mukhābarāt) became the country’s most powerful institution. They forged ties with the rich and powerful to have access to their trough. They threatened people, big and small, for benefits, big and small, terrorising the population whilst living the life of parasites. No one was spared; nothing could be done without their approval or without a cut ending up in their pockets.
Hafez el-Assad kept them in power because they obeyed him rather than threaten him. In 2005, his son Bashir tried to contain them at a time of rising popular resentment. However, the secret services continue to act as they always did, exploiting and threatening everyone. At present, they have become a mafia-styled faction that does not hesitate to use brutal means and violence, not to mention humiliation. Everyone can be jailed without an opportunity to defend himself or herself.
Police and the military are not different from the secret services, nor are the customs services, whose power, however limited, is a source of small benefits. For instance, every time I cross the Syrian-Lebanese border, customs officials ask me for a basket of bread or a bunch of bananas. Top military brass also uses their power to their own advantage, putting young soldiers in their personal service or that of their family.
Doctors take advantage of the situation as well, selling expensive drugs on the market whilst using lower quality medication to their own patients.
In practice, anyone in authority, from the lowest government official up, will abuse his power to supplement his salary or improve his conditions. Thus, corruption and graft are widespread in Syria.
For decades, people have sought dignity
In a situation of growing malaise, unrest began in Tunisia, then Egypt, which was followed by the fall of their respective presidents. In Syria, people dared not ask that much. All they wanted was a little more justice, less brutality, more freedom; they did not challenge the regime or call for the overthrow of the president.
Unfortunately, neither Bashir al-Assad nor his advisors realised what was happening. They reacted as they have always done, with force and violence. But this time, people did not give in; they had had enough.
In Daraa, in the south, where the uprising began, some teenagers wrote anti-Baa‘th slogans on walls. They were jailed for this, beaten and tortured. Some had their nails ripped out; others had lit cigarettes applied to their private parts. One boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, 13, was sent home, dead, his genitals mutilated (see video
, 25 March 2011). Another boy, 14, was found by his mother on 8 June, also dead showing signs of torture. For ordinary Syrians, they have become ‘martyrs’ and shall never be forgotten.
Others have been arrested even if they did not demonstrate. They have been kept in a military hospital, held naked for days, blindfolded without food and beaten on a regular basis. When seeing what was happening in his country, a former Syrian secret service agent, who immigrated to the United States, said, “They enjoy torture.”
An estimated 10,000 people have been arrested and brutalised. Detention and torture have become routine in Syria.
The regime has tried to operate in secret. It has banned foreign journalists from the country. It has banned foreign diplomats from travelling outside Damascus. It has cut phone and other communication media. Yet, it cannot keep the lid on secrets the way it used to. Sooner or later, through the internet or by other means, everything comes out.
Violence cannot stop the uprising. People are willing to die rather than see this regime survive. On 25 July, a new law authorised the creation new parties. But no one cares or believes in it. For demonstrators, new parties will just be tools in the hand of the regime and things will continue as before.
The regime is discredited and cannot meet the needs of the Syrian people with promises and new laws. People want to write their own laws; they want to regain the dignity of citizenship. They want concrete steps, starting with the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners languishing in jail. They want the army off the streets. They want to see the secret services stripped of all their powers. They want snipers and crooks arrested.
As each day goes by, the situation gets worse. Syrians are not revolutionaries, but they have an urge for justice, freedom and dignity that is stronger than their need for bread.
Will the government and the president grant people their legitimate rights and stop all forms of repression and violence?
Will the Churches and Christians be able to promote peace and non-violence, making courageous and difficult choices, by upholding what is right and just? I think that everyone, rulers and ruled, need our support, not our silence.