This post is designed to offer some reflections and preliminary analysis on the Syrian protest movement. The analytical portion of this piece will focus on three points which I think are needed to remove this regime from power. One is a split in the army. Two is participation in this movement by members of the ruling Alawite minority. Third is involvement by the Aleppo merchant communities in the protests.
I think that the Syrian democratic uprising has retained the moral high ground in 2011 by refusing to resort to violence. The Syrian democrats wisely refrained from violence even in the face of the Syrian army’s barbaric atrocities, which include massive and indiscriminate bombing against whole cities such as Homs and Da’ara and the systematic slaughter of hundreds of peaceful protestors. The Syrian democrats have established a moral difference between their own peaceful protest movement which focuses on preserving life and the barbaric cruelty of their enemy, a regime which has no compunction about committing crimes against humanity in order to remain in power. The contrast between Syrian protestors who risk their lives to recover the bodies of murdered civilians and their opponents who slaughter their victims and dump them into mass graves is stark and striking as indicated here http://syrianrevolutiondigest.blogspot.com/2011/05/mass-murder-in-deraa-city-whos-to-blame.html.
Demonstrators have made a remarkable effort to overcome other ethnic and religious fault lines which the regime has used to divide Syrians. On April 17, 2011, Syrian Independence Day, 300 Druze members in Suweida city participated in a protest and were attacked by security forces. Hani Al-Atrash, grandson of Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, one of the founders of modern-day Syria, was among the injured protestors. This incident marked the start of Druze participation in the freedom uprising, and the attack on such a prominent Druze individual could spark more Druze involvement in the rebellion.
Demonstrators have worked to unify Muslims and Christians in the struggle against this regime. On April 15, 2011, 5,000 protestors in Damascus and Da’ara carried banners condemning sectarianism. Protestors in Homs and Latakia on this day also chanted “freedom to Muslims and Christians.” On April 15, 2011, in Baniyas, Muslims and Christians joined together for a funeral for a murdered Christian protestor named Hakam Hanna.
Demonstrators are also seeking to unify Kurds and Arabs together against the regime. The Kurds responded to the regime’s offer to provide Syrian citizenship to some disenfranchised Kurds by participating in the freedom rebellion on April 8th, 2011, in large numbers. The regime offered Syrian citizenship to only 75,000 to 100,000 of the estimated 300,000 Kurds who are currently denied Syrian citizenship and thus only offered partial solution to the problem of Kurdish disenfranchisement. By joining the protests, the Kurds embraced regime change because they understand that they will not gain their freedom as long as the Assad regime remains in power. On April 15, 2011, Arabs and Kurds marched together in the largely Kurdish cities of Qamishly and Amoudeh against the Assad regime. Banners also proclaimed that “Kurds and Arabs are brothers” and “we want freedom, not only nationality.” This kind of step takes profound courage. Arabs and Kurds are joining together for their common freedom rather than accepting the ethnic differences that the regime has used to divide them.
By adopting the tactics of non-violence and by seeking to unify all ethnic and religious groups inside Syria against the repressive Syrian regime, the Syrian democratic opposition is breaking with profound Arab political traditions in numerous respects. First of all, the Arab tribal tradition of political power challenging is based on a process of carefully balancing the gains and losses in negotiations with all outside tribal, ethnic, and religious groups. The Syrian regime is trying to use a traditional strategy of divide and rule by playing on ethnic and religious differences in an effort to divide Syrians along ethnic and religious lines. In contrast, the Syrian opposition is trying to unify all ethnic religious groups together against the Assad regime. The logic of power challenging as described by David Pryce-Jones in his book The Closed Circle is based upon the presumption that “Pursuit of ambition by one family or tribe is necessarily loss and restriction to another” (page 21). Syrian democrats argue that the only way to remove the Assad regime is by transcending ethnic and religious differences in a united effort to remove tyranny and oppression. In addition, the opposition is trying to break with the notion that Syrian politics is necessarily a zero-sum game in which gain for one tribe or ethnic or religious group is automatically a loss for all other communities.
The Assad regime is the very definition of the tribal society as described by David Pryce-Jones in his book The Closed Circle. In the tribal society, “blood-relationship provides the closest social binding, greatly simplifying the common purpose” (page 21). Ahed al Hendi, a leading Syrian dissident in exile, describes how Assad’s family controls the whole regime in Syria here http://www.cyberdissidents.org/bin/content.cgi?ID=656&q=3&s=24
The late unmissed Hafez Assad passed power to his son Bashar. Bashar Assad’s brother Maher Assad is head of the elite Republican Guard. Other leading officials of the Assad regime include Assad’s first cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, who works for State Security; Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law who is deputy chief of staff for the army; and Zu al Hima Chalich, another Assad cousin who controls Presidential security. Assad rules alongside his brother, first cousin, brother-in-law, and another cousin. Thus, apparently a close familial relationship with Bashar Al Assad is a prerequisite for a leading role in the Assad regime.
Residents of two Damascus neighborhoods which were previously torn apart by a blood feud, Douma and Harasta, participated in a joint protest where they met and merged on April 16, 2011. The ability of two communities to overcome one of the most poisonous customs of the Arab tribal tradition, the blood feud, in order to unite against the Assad regime is a testament to the protests’ capacity for helping Arab society heal from its deepest internal wounds.
The Iranian regime is naturally helping the Syrian regime to stay in power. The Iranian and Syrian regimes are like two sides of the same coin – two highly repressive regimes that are highly dependent upon one another to remain in power. Iran and Syria are the totalitarian regimes of the Middle East – the symbols of autocracy, despotism, and of anti-Semitism as national ideologies. According to emerging reports from http://www.reformsyria.org/youth-revolution-2011/syrians-are-on-the-move-280, armed men who don’t speak Arabic, possibly Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are beating doctors and nurses in a hospital in Idlib. In addition, RPS last Friday May 20th, 2011, also reported the presence of non-Arabic, possibly Iranian fighters in at least four areas: Idlib, Dara’a, Talkalah, and Jisr al Shoughour.
In this post, http://iraqthemodel.blogspot.com/2011/05/through-decades-we-saw-protesters.html, my friend Mohammed Fadhil the Iraqi democratic blogger notes the profound moral difference between Arab demonstrators who historically burned Israeli and American flags and the Syrian protestors who recently burned the Russian and Iranian flags. The Syrian protestors also wrote a message to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Russian and Arabic saying that the Syrian people want freedom. Syrians also burned a Hezbollah flag as well. The Syrian people are rejecting the tyrants’ efforts to blame outsiders such as the West and the Jews for their misery and oppression. Instead, the Syrian people are saying that their enemy is tyranny as represented by the Iranian and Russian regimes and Hezbollah.
In addition, RPS also reports some new signs of official Israeli communication with the Syrian opposition. Five unnamed Syrian opposition members met in Austria in May with Ayub Karaa, Israeli deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee. The meeting was hosted by the right-wing Austrian freedom party. http://www.reformsyria.org/latest/austria-far-right-party-hosts-meeting-between-syrian-dissidents-israeli-official Ayoub Kara is a right-wing Druze member of the Likud government who has a family history of strong alliance with Israel and the Jews starting in 1939. His uncle was murdered by Haj Amin Al Husseini’s thugs during the Arab riots of 1936-1939, his father served in the IDF during the Israeli independence war of 1948, and his two brothers were killed fighting for Israel against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayoob_Kara He is strongly hawkish on internal Israeli political issues. His background as a Druze and his staunch support for Israel make him the perfect Israeli representative to meet with the Syrian opposition and begin forging a link between Israel and the Syrian opposition. I hope that this meeting marks the start of an open and fruitful collaboration between Syrian democratic forces and the Israeli government.
The first subject to be addressed is the issue of a split within the army. Unfortunately there are no verifiably confirmed reports of a full-fledged split within the army. But many brave soldiers and even some officers are giving their lives because they refuse to fire on their own people. According to Syrian dissident Ahed al Hendi, these incidents have so far occurred in Banias, Dera’a, and in Harastas, a city near Damascus.
These cases are documented by the neutral but outstanding reporting of Khaled Yacoub Oweis on May 4th at http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/04/us-syria-assad-alawites-idUSTRE7433X620110504.
Many funerals of such soldiers and officers have already occurred and are very well documented on the wonderful web site of Syrian democratic activist Ammar Abdulhamid at http://syrianrevolutiondigest.blogspot.com
Persistent reports discuss a possible split between the soldiers of the 5th Battalion which are largely Sunni conscripts and the soldiers of the 4th Battalion who are commanded by Maher Assad and personally loyal to Bashar Assad. These reports indicate the possibility of the soldiers of the 5th Battalion joining the people against the regime. Such reporting includes the information provided on Mr. Farid Ghadry’s Reform Syria site on April 15th at http://www.reformsyria.org/youth-revolution-2011/syrians-are-on-the-move-189. The persistence of these reports indicate that although a full-fledged split within the army has not yet happened, nonetheless it is a real possibility which would severely undermine the regime if and when it actually occurs.
The second issue is the question of Alawite participation in the Syrian freedom uprising. I believe that in order to be successful, this uprising must include not only the long-repressed Sunni Muslim majority but also the ruling Alawite minority. Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq by convincing the ruling Sunni Arab minority to rally around him in 1991 in the face of massive armed freedom uprisings against his totalitarian regime by Kurds and Shi’ites. The danger is that Assad could similarly remain in power in Syria by rallying the members of the ruling Alawite minority around him.
So far the evidence of Alawite participation in the Syrian freedom uprising has been relatively limited. One factor which has inhibited Alawite dissidents such as Aref Dalilah and Aksam Nouaisseh from speaking out against the Assad regime and openly joining the freedom rebellion has been regime threats to these dissidents and their families. http://www.reformsyria.org/youth-revolution-2011/syrians-are-on-the-move-200.
However, Ammar Abdulhamid and Farid Ghadry have both documented important examples of Alawite participation throughout the uprising. On April 8th, 2011, during a mixed Alawite-Syrian protest against the regime in Baniyas, an Alawite demonstrator affirmed his commitment to the cause of freedom for Syria. On April 8, 2011, mixed demonstrations involving Alawites and Sunnis also occurred in Jableh-Adhamiyeh and in Tartous. Demonstrators in Tartous chanted “The Syrian people are one.”
In April, the Syrian regime apparently killed the son of an Alawite general, Wafeeq Dalilah, in a village near Jableh. The Alawite general is apparently not a loyalist of the Assad regime, and this murder could be another sign of the split within the Alawites and the army. http://syrianrevolutiondigest.blogspot.com/2011/04/aleppo-stirs.html
In addition, last week additional information emerged concerning a possibly more significant participation by Alawite participation in the rebellion. http://www.reformsyria.org/youth-revolution-2011/syrians-are-on-the-move-279 An army officer escaped to Europe and indicated that 200 Alawite officers have so far refused to fire on protestors. He also claimed that only 20% of the Alawites support Assad, while 80% of Alawites oppose him. If true, this information is highly significant and could represent a potential turning point in this rebellion. This information could provide the basis for a successful rebellion in two areas: by creating a split in the army and by signifying that Alawites have joined the rebellion in significant numbers.
The one major weakness facing the opposition has been its inability to so far sever the links between the Sunni merchants in Aleppo and the Assad regime. So far the demonstrations in Aleppo have been limited largely to students at the University of Aleppo and have not meaningfully embraced the broader Aleppo merchant community. Merchants in Homs have gone on general strike in solidarity with the residents of this area’s uprising against the regime, but the silence of the Aleppo merchant community is defeaning. According to Reform Syria, as of May 13, 2011, at least 40 people had been arrested in Aleppo. The Syrian regime has been more frightened of the prospect of even small-scale protests by students in Aleppo than of large-scale protests in other areas because the Aleppo merchants are one of their lifelines. The regime responded to protests at the University of Aleppo by sending in tanks, and security forces rushed to al-Bab, a city near Aleppo in an attempt to crush a protest involving several thousand people in that region.
Syrians protesting in Ain-Al-Arab/Kobani expressed their frustration with the Aleppo community’s failure to join the protests, chanting, “Where is your courage, Aleppo?” Businessman and political activist Farid al Ghadry wrote on April 29, 2011, http://reformsyria.org/youth-revolution-2011/syrians-are-on-the-move-242 ”The merchant families of Aleppo have been forced to invest with (Assad cousin) Rami Makhluf who is threatening their investments if they do not stop these demonstrations. The merchants have been distributing free food as a bait.” Unfortunately, the Assad regime’s blackmail against the Aleppo merchants seems to be working.
The first indications of Aleppo’s participation in the demonstrations occurred on Wed. April 13, 2011, when students and citizens demonstrated in the Sakhour and the Sha'ar areas and apparently headed for the Sa'adallah Al-Jabiri Square
http://reformsyria.org/youth-revolution-2011/syrians-are-on-the-move-167 . On April 22, 2011, Syrians in some parts of Aleppo joined in the protests. A much more substantial participation by the Aleppo merchant community would need to take place for the protests to succeed in achieving the objective of peaceful regime change.
The Syrian peaceful protest movement for democracy has already wracked up substantial accomplishments in challenging the hegemony of the Assad regime in the face of horrendously brutal obstacles. Even the murder of at least 1,000 to 1,200 civilians and the arrest of 10,000 more has not stopped a protest movement in which people continue to march day after day, week after week, risking their lives in pursuit of the universal dream of freedom which belongs to all humanity. The Syrian people are showing a new way forward to challenge entrenched totalitarian rulers in Muslim and Arab countries. Their dream of freedom fully deserves the moral and economic support of the West and the Jews – because a free Syria would be a source of inspiration to the whole Arab and Muslim world. A free Syria would stop supporting terrorism and radical Islam that kills American soldiers in Iraq and slaughters Iraqi civilians. A free Syria would end its illegal occupation of Lebanon in all forms. And perhaps a free Syria might even make peace with Israel and the Jews.