In the five months I have reported from Syria I have seen the country change dramatically. I witnessed how the grievances of generations were catalyzed by the unchecked carnage of the militarized state under the Assad firm. And how a diverse and determined resistance movement eroded the paralyzing fear that permeated society for years, while the calculated brutality of the regime accelerated.
Syrians have a deep and poetic historical memory. I remember a friend, after hearing that his cousin had been arrested, reciting the poetry of the 11th-century bard Abu Ala al-Maari of Maarat al-Numaan, one of many towns besieged by the army and Shabbiha militia in the hunt for the ‘armed gangs’ the regime blames for the unrest. Shabbiha means ‘those who make ghosts’. They are a brutal group of mercenaries from the ruling Alawite élite.
‘You’ve had your way a long, long time, you kings and tyrants; and still you work injustice hour by hour,’ he sang. ‘Could the king his governors around him save – Or Caesar his patricians from the grave?’
The crisis in Syria was prefaced by four decades of nepotism and graft. For years the regime eroded its base among the rural poor and working class by land grabs, Orwellian propaganda and Machiavellian politics. The so-called silent majority includes millions of these people.
Human rights groups say at least 2,000 civilians have been killed in the uprising and more than 20,000 have disappeared into prisons. But journalists from the state news agency, who have close contacts in the security forces, told me the real death toll is probably much higher, as many of those arrested have been killed and buried secretly.
One protester from Homs summed up the battle for Syria shortly after being released from prison, tears streaming down his face. ‘They kill people without thought – this is normal, and we resist in peace because our cause is just. But when they torture you they don’t just want to hurt your body, they take your mind. They break you.’
There are a few possible outcomes to the current conflict. Civil war is one. There are signs the army may split, though it remains unlikely that enough soldiers will defect to cause the regime real problems. One colonel called for the creation of a Syrian Free Army in July. There is already armed resistance in some areas and I am told by a reliable source that Katyusha rockets on their way to Hizbullah in Lebanon have been intercepted in Hama. Defecting soldiers have set up brigades with names like Brigade of Free Officers. There have been attacks on oil pipelines near Deir ez-Zor and Homs, though the opposition blames the regime.
But what has impressed me about the protest movement is how peaceful it has been under such strain. I have seen 50 protesters armed only with slingshots stand up to 300 heavily armed troops as they opened fire – a scene that Palestinians would surely recognize. Groups organizing protests are amorphous and loosely affiliated with each other, if at all. This is in part for security and, although it makes a well-organized revolution unlikely, it also makes the uprising harder to suppress.
There is much talk of sectarian conflict, but I have seen little evidence to back it up. The current deadlock could continue for some time despite the histrionics of international diplomacy. Hypocrisy frames the international debate. The problem for the West is that the regime killed too many people and it became politically uncomfortable. After all, Syria became an ally in our outsourcing of torture and was to help us pacify the Sunni resistance in Iraq. But it will be Syrians braving gunfire and arrest to demand basic rights who will hold the Assad clan to account in the end. The poets have said as much, and they have the ear of the people. Before he was killed in Hama, the protest singer Ibrahim Qashoosh uttered these words: ‘We will remove Bashar with our strength. Syria wants freedom.’ One way or another, they will get it.
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