Syria: Amazingly, The Next Crucible of Revolution in the Middle East?


Last week I wrote an article about the unexpected awakening of popular unrest in Syria, when an unprecedented “Day of Rage” against the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad was called by protestors in Damascus, and was followed the day after by another protest in which respected opposition figures — both Arabs and Kurds — called for the release of 21 political prisoners out of the many thousands of “prisoners of conscience” held in Syria’s notorious prisons. These include Far Falestin in Damascus, whose reputation for torture was such that, when George W. Bush and his close advisors were looking for countries where men and boys seized in the “War on Terror” could be tortured, Syria was chosen, along with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.

Since last Wednesday, the ripples of dissent in Syria have spread, leading to major unrest in the southern city of Dara’a, where, last Friday, protests about the arrest of a group of 15 schoolchildren who had dared to scrawl graffiti on a wall explaining that “the people want the overthrow of the regime” escalated into something far more grave, when the security services opened fire, killing three protestors in cold blood. Dubbed “Dignity Friday” by protestors, who had been using social networking sites to coordinate their activities, the clampdown in Dara’a immediately echoed throughout the region, where other protests had been taking place, and the next day, as the Guardian explained, “a much larger, angrier crowd — estimated to number as many as 20,000 — turned out for the burial of the previous days’ victims.”

For a country generally stunned into public silence since 1963 by emergency laws that prohibit any demonstrations against the regime — and by vicious reprisals on the rare occasions that dissent has previously threatened the regime — two protests in the capital in a week (even before the bloodshed in Dara’a just days later) was extraordinary, and the government’s response indicated how — despite the small number of people involved — senior officials were clearly rattled. A small clip of the “Day of Rage” was made available on YouTube, where it has, to date, been seen by over 125,000 people, but the response to the call for the release of the 21 political prisoners was even more significant, because of the government’s overreaction.

Of the 150 protestors last Wednesday, the majority were themselves human rights activists — or relatives of the 21 political prisoners whose release the protest was designed to secure. The 21 include Kamal al-Labwani, a Kurdish doctor and artist, and one of the most prominent members of the Syrian opposition movement, who was imprisoned in 2007; Muhannad al-Hassani, the Kurdish president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, who was imprisoned in June 2010; Ali al-Abdallah, imprisoned two weeks ago — not for the first time — for criticizing Syria’s close relations with Iran, as a member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, which has long called for Syria’s transition to a democratic nation; and Anwar Bunni, a human rights lawyer and activist, and another member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, who was imprisoned in April 2007.

At noon last Wednesday, as announced in advance, the group of protestors –including Kamal al-Labwani’s son and six other relatives, human rights activists Mazen Darwish, Suhair Atassi and Sereen Khouri, and former prisoners of conscience Nahed Badawiya and Kamal Cheikho — gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus to present a petition calling for the prisoners’ release. However, as a human rights activist who was at the demonstration explained:

When we got to the ministry, we could see that there were a lot of security services around. I saw five buses full of security members parked 300 meters from us. At first, an employee from the Ministry of Interior came out and told us that the families of the detainees would be allowed to present the petition to the minister. We asked for five minutes, as some families were still arriving. When a few families raised photos of detained relatives, the security services suddenly attacked us and beat us with black batons.

Providing corroboration, the daughter of a prominent political prisoner stated:

We had barely taken my father’s picture out when men ran toward us and started beating us. They beat my mother on her head and arm with a baton. They pulled my sister’s hair and beat her as well until my uncle managed to get her away. We started running away, but they followed us.

Afterwards, witnesses stated that 40 of the protestors has been seized by the security services, and only six were known to have been released — including Mazen Darwish, Tayeb Tizini, the celebrated author and professor of philosophy at Damascus University, and Hassiba Abdel-Rahman, a former prisoner of conscience, jailed in 1979, 1986 and 1992 for having belonged to the “Labor Party of Syria” and for meeting members of Amnesty International.

It was reported that violence had been used on some of the protestors, and that “security services interrogated each person separately and asked him for the password to his Facebook account.” One demonstrator told Reuters that the security services “pulled Suhair by her hair and took her away,” and Mazen Darwish explained to the BBC that he was set free “only after being held for five hours in the military security branch’s detention centre alongside 20 others, including women.” He also said, “When I showed them my international press card, they shouted and said, ‘Why were you standing among protesters and not among the journalists?'”

The next day, the Syrian government announced that it was charging 32 of the prisoners, and released a list of 25 names, including rights activist Suhair Atassi and four relatives of Kamal al-Labwani. The prisoners were charged with “attacking the reputation of the state, provoking racism and sectarianism and damaging relations between Syrians” — the type of Orwellian “crimes” that plague the charge sheets of anyone who publicly dares to criticize the Libyan state. (Note: For further information about these political prisoners, and the 21 already held, please see Political Prisoners in Syria: An Urgent Crisis Now!)

Expressing dismay at the charges, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a news release, “Like many of the political prisoners whose release they were calling for, protestors appear to have been arrested simply for the peaceful expression of their views. The Syrian authorities must immediately release all those arrested in the last two days for merely attending peaceful protests, and stop these attacks on freedom of expression and assembly.”

The events of March 16 — and the resonant history of those held in Damascus, with their long and determined commitment to democracy and human rights — provided an important historical weight to the infectious eruption of violence in the south, although clearly, if a tipping point is to be reached, many different elements of dissatisfaction, bubbling under the surface for decades, will have to prove impossible for the President al-Assad’s regime to suppress, as Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Candian citizen rendered by the US for torture in Syria during the “War on Terror,” explained in an article for the Guardian on Wednesday. After explaining that he knew, from personal experience, how Syria’s human rights situation had degenerated under Bashar al-Assad, Arar proceeded to analyze the Syrian people’s reluctance to embrace revolution, noting, for one thing, their “ethnic divisions”:

The ruling Alawite minority, to whom Assad belongs and whose members have full control over sensitive military and intelligence posts, is only one of many. There is also the powerless Sunni majority, Christians, Kurds, Ismailis and Duruz. There are also over 1 million old Palestinian immigrants and, more recently, more than 1 million Iraqi refugees have decided to make Syria their home. All these groups have competing and conflicting interests. These ethnic divisions make it extremely challenging to have a unified popular voice, but what is encouraging is the fact that the Syrian youth who are leading this non-violent reform movement have made it clear that it is purely secular in nature and they will not allow it to be hijacked by any opportunist ethnic group or opposition party.

At present, it is unclear whether the necessary tipping point for revolution has been reached, although it is starting to look like it has, for two reasons. The first is the anger that was expressed even before the clampdown, when, as Rania Abouzeid explained in a perceptive article for Time:

[D]escriptions of the uprising in Dara’a were dramatic. The alleged details included dozens of young men pelting a poster — in broad daylight — of a smiling President Bashar al-Assad; a statue of his late father and predecessor Hafiz al-Assad, demolished; official buildings including the ruling Ba’ath Party’s headquarters and the governor’s office burned down. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chant, captured in shaky mobile phone footage allegedly taken on Monday.

The second reason is the entrenchment and escalation of those sentiments, as the state’s violence has continued to escalate over the last few days. After the shooting in Dara’a last Friday, the security forces have been on the offensive, as the Guardian reported, noting that they have responded to protests “with water cannon, teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition,” and that “The total death toll now stands at 16,” after the authorities “launched an assault on a neighbourhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at least nine in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours,” according to witnesses. As the Guardian explained, “At least six were said to have been killed in an early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque” in Dera’a, and police “shot three other protesters in the city centre after dusk,” according to a local activist.

To his credit, the President responded swiftly to the deaths, “sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead,” as Time reported, and also sacking the governor and releasing the schoolchildren whose graffiti set the chaos in motion, although reports of the scale of the assault on the people of Dera’a have continued to grow alarmingly over the last 24 hours, which can only devalue the President’s efforts.

As Channel 4 News reported, claims of fatalities have been revised steeply upwards, and now range “from 32 to more than 100,” with Amnesty International also reporting that the number of human rights activists who have “disappeared” has also increased sharply from the 32 charged in Damascus last week to a total of 93. As Channel 4 News also noted, chillingly, “Here in the newsroom, we have watched amateur footage on ‘YouTube’ which suggests that armed troops did open fire protestors in Dera’a. In scenes too shocking to broadcast, demonstrators lie motionless, some in pools of blood.”

Moreover, as Arabic language websites have been reporting, the protesters have not given up, and have, instead, given the government “until Friday morning to meet a list of demands relayed back to the President by his delegation,” as Time explained, which include the lifting of the emergency law and the release of all political prisoners. If their demands are not met, they have promised that this Friday will be the “Friday of the Martyrs,” not just in Dara’a but throughout the country.

That sounds ambitious, but on the other hand, one thing we should all have learned from events in the Middle East this year is that movements can grow so swiftly that the unthinkable can become possible, and those of us in the West can only watch in wonder.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Winston Weeks wrote:

    Thanks Andy for your always excellent work.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Amir Khan wrote:

    There you are! LOL
    How are you doing Andyworth?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Smith wrote:

    WE hope your toes are OK..Thank Goodness you don’t type with your toes. How would we get the good stuff you put out here?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Amir Khan wrote:

    one step ahead … speech to text…. the show must go on

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Ghias Aljundi wrote:

    Fantastic Andy, thanks for your interest in writing against this Fascist regime in Syria. Yesterday they killed more than 100 people

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m sharing this, Andy. Do take care.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends. It’s good to be back. Not sure what’s different right now, apart from the fact that I’m not smoking, and that I’ve taken up correspondence from a hospital across the river from the Houses of Parliament, as though this is some sort of war zone and I don’t live at home anymore. That’s metaphorically interesting, of course, and it will be intriguing being here at St. Thomas’ getting a literal overview during the great national anti-cuts demo on Saturday, but actually I very much want to be back at home, restructuring my working life as something less hectic.

    Today’s treatment is still pointing in the right direction, and indicating, perhaps, that I’ll be home next week, but I’m still on a whole shedload of painkillers just to keep various forms of debilitating pain at bay …

    Right, off to bed now!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Carla Josephson wrote:

    hope that you mend safely and quickly, andy

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    HEidi PEterson wrote:

    [This, by the way, is “Freedom’s Call,” a brand-new 15-minute documentary about Syria. Here’s the blurb:

    As bombs fall in Libya and violent clashes continue to spread across the Middle East, one country seems to have escaped the turmoil. Yet in Syria a largely unreported struggle is beginning to escalate.

    Produced By SBS
    Distributed By Journeyman Pictures
    February 2011]

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Merrill P. Jensen wrote:

    I saw on al-jazeera today that dozens were killed yesterday. These turds have been in emergency rule for over 40 years, allowing only their party, arbitrary detainment, the works. Piss on al-assad.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf ‎wrote:

    “the unthinkable can become possible, and those of us in the West can only watch in wonder… ” Very impressive and amazing and brave! These people have put it all on the line, they have risked everything to stand up for their rights. This is what makes us look on in wonder, because we all have struggles to overcome and not all of us could be so bold and brave. Besides, people who live in countries like the States can only look back a short time in history to see that they were fortunate to have brave freedom fighters that fought for the liberties they now enjoy. Hopefully the future generations of countries like Syria will be able to look back and thank the brave people who are now fighting for freedom at any cost.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I very much hope so, Tashi. It’s what I find so inspiring about what’s happening throughout the Middle East, where people have, we could say, made “hope and change” into a matter of life or death, rather than, as in the West, a hefty campaign donation, a ticked box, and the abdication of all responsibility to self-interested sharks who long ago gave up representing the relatively small percentage of the voting public who actually voted them in — if they ever did in the first place.
    We in the West need to recognize once more that taking back power from the unaccountable politicians and corporate entities who run our lives may also be a matter of life and death. Some people have never forgotten this, but it’s amazing how some widespread kind of Stepford Wives transformation of Western society has taken place since the 1980s so that the majority of people in the West simply don’t care that in return for a paltry return on their “investment” in the financial machinery of exploitation, they are allowing their own unaccountable dictator-type figures to loot the common treasury as well.
    What makes us different from our cousins in the Middle East are, primarily, questions of consumption and repression. We get most of the consumerism to shut us up, while they get very little, and although we have a free press, the reason we don’t need police states like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria is because of the general apathy — or the successful brianwashing — of our populations.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    We Westerners may be more robot like, indeed. It’s like the French say, ‘metro – bureau – dodo’. As long as we are fed and our consumer needs are being met, then we don’t balk at any injustices because doing so may hinge on our own comfort level. It’s really quite selfish if you think about it.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi, yes, it is selfish but then I think I actually regard individual decisions as examples of selfishness, whereas the West’s problem is one collectively of spiritual and political blindness — which we can, I think, legitimately call brainwashing.

    For me, it increasingly all comes down to political awareness, so rich people or those who think they are well-off or doing OK don’t look beyond their immediate gratifications, and poor people — whose culture has generally been shorn of politics since the 1980s, and replaced with an outsider’s twist on the aspirational greed and materialism that fuels the mainstream — have become almost cannibalistic.

    I find it deeply troubling.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Solidarity Iraq wrote:

    Is it ok for the ‘democratically’ elected idiots such as the ones we have in the green Zone in Baghdad to loot the treasury and kill people? democracy is meant to help nations determine their won destinty, now it is only a tool for opening the path for the ‘free market’

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Solidarity, and I very much hope this isn’t what we’re going to see played out again.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Sedinam Kinamo Christin Moyowasifza-Curry wrote:

    thanks for this post!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote (in response to 14):

    I think people choose not to be politically aware, for the most part, because it takes effort and energy. It’s tragic when you see how few people actually choose to even vote, for example. And brainwashing is designed to keep people dull and unaware, and unfortunately it works – they are!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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