IT is much easier to understand Syria, currently stricken with political revolt, in the light of history. Since time immemorial, a host of empires have decamped on its soil. Damascus, watered by the Barada River, is one of the oldest capitals in the world.
Sharing a 900 km border with Turkey, the gateway to Asia, it is no stranger to conflict or colonisation: conquered by the Pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar, Hulugu Khan, Tamerlane, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the French, Syria’s soils have often run with blood.
But Syria has also been a place of peace and prosperity. Ibn Jubair, a tenth century traveller, wrote that Syria was a land of blessing. According to his diaries it was a land of civility and culture abounding in fruits and holy men.
Today the holy men may have gone to ground, but a visit to modern Syria – a country buffeted by post-colonial coups, pan-Arabism and Ba’thism – will reveal that it’s graced with fertile valleys, water, gas, oil, a pristine coastline and ancient historical sites.
But with nearly 2,000 civilians killed and over 3,000 “disappearances” since the events of March, tourists and investors are staying away.
President Bashar al-Assad, the son of strong-man Hafez al-Assad, has welcomed the Arab Spring to his fiefdom by unleashing tank brigades upon his citizenry. After four decades of iron rule, Syrians don’t want to be lorded over by yet another Assad.
With journalists banished from Syria and a media blackout, one is confronted with competing narratives. Assad’s regime has blamed intellectuals, the disadvantaged and militant groups for his troubles.
His spokesmen have argued that the violence has been manufactured abroad and is implemented by armed gangs, and that the Syrian people want government to restore security.
There has been lots of diplomatic spin too. Foreign Minister, Walid Moualem, has promised a Syrian democracy by December, and a new constitution by March next year. This reassurance (given to South Africa, Brazil and India) has been deemed “illusory” by Human Rights Watch.
The other narrative – the one of the Syrian street – has had to rely upon social media to get its message out. This story has revealed, mostly via cell phone footage, ongoing human rights abuses by Assad’s security forces, now deemed crimes against humanity by many in the international community.
And whilst the refusal of the military to shoot civilians in Egypt and Tunisia toppled its dictators quickly – and relatively painlessly – the role of Assad’s security forces in putting down public dissent has cast a pall upon the Arab Spring (as has Western meddling in Libya and the Gulf Co-operation Council’s clampdown in Bahrain).
Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, has observed that Syria has been locked in a stalemate, where “an irresistible force” has clashed with an “unmovable object”.
And whilst Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution gained real impetus after 26 year-old Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in frustration at Ben Ali’s corruption, Syria‘s defining moment was the death in detention of the 13-year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb.
He was arrested for singing anti-Assad songs in the village of Jiza during April. When his parents retrieved his corpse a month later – not only was his body riddled with cigarette burns, contusions and bullet wounds – but his neck had been broken, and his penis cut off.
Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, says that this only serves to highlight why progress will only be made in Syria without the old symbols of power. We are dealing with a popular uprising led by civil society wanting complete change.
He says that Syria can’t be held hostage by familial considerations, one-party rule and colonial sectarian classifications forever. Baroud believes that Arab criticism had been traditionally muted on Syria until now because the country had been under genuine threat from Israel and the US, especially after 9/11.
But Syria’s strategic friendship with Iran, its support of the Kurds on the Turkish border, its long involvement in Lebanon, its aid to Hizballah and its refuge to Hamas leaders were aimed as much at stilling internal conflict, as they were at showing that Syria was a regional player, he says.
However, Syria’s role was always “theoretical”. The truth is that the crafty Hafez al-Assad wanted a popular regional profile, but without problems back home.
Imam Abdul Hadi, a Syrian exile who lectures at the London School of Islamic Studies, feels that no-one should doubt the ruthlessness of the Ba’thist regime. He recalls that as a 16 year-old in 1982 he’d witnessed the massacre of over 20,000 people in his home town of Hama when Hafez al-Assad cracked down on the Islamic Brotherhood.
He feels that the recent condemnation of Syria by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, known for his cautiousness in Foreign policy, is a critical moment in the Arab world. The Saudis’ condemnation has been followed by harsh words from US president Barack Obama and other leaders.
Hadi agrees with Baroud, and other Mid East commentators, that Syria has to avoid the pitfalls of Libya where any margin in the conflict could be used as an excuse for western, or even regional, intervention.
This is something that would taint the Syrian revolt. Western pressure on Syria had always been more about specific policy regarding Israel, than the human rights abuses of the Assad regime.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the meddling may have already begun. Al-Manar television, the mouthpiece of Hizballah, reported this month that two local gun smugglers had been intercepted by Lebanese military intelligence trying to ship assault rifles to Syria.
The Lebanese media was quick to point out that the men had a connection with assassinatedLebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri – reportedly a favourite of Saudi Arabia and the US – and that Salafi fighters with Lebanese papers facilitated by the smugglers had been allegedly captured by Syrian authorities.
However, Al-Manar was silent on another allegation – made to me by Imam Abdul Hadi – who said that people in Hama had told him over the phone that they’d identified Hizballah operatives supporting Assad’s regime.
According to Baroud, the Syrian government is deliberately mixing up regional and national narratives, this while civilians continue to endure the wrath of a single family backed by the Ba’thist party. But there is only one way to read the future of Syria, he says.
“The Syrian people deserve equality and social justice, free from empty slogans, self-serving elites and corrupt criminals. What Syria and its courageous people deserve is a new dawn of freedom.”