WRITTEN BY SAAD KIWAN in Beirut, translated by Mary Rizzo
The Syrians have been living for over forty years under a dictatorship of a single part and of the absolute power of a military figure, Hafez Assad, who in 1971 organised a coup d’état, against his comrades of the “Baath” political party (national-social-chauvinist) already in power since 1963 following the first coup d’ètat by the same Baath officers, overthrowing the last civil government of coalition in Syria. Assad the father had governed for the first half of his reign arm in arm with his brother Refa’at (himself a soldier, exiled then in ’84 for having tried to overthrow Hafez), arresting the “Baathist” (civil) troika in power: the leader of the party, the president of the republic and the Prime Minister, all of them having died in prison. Assad has governed practically alone, putting in act the “perfect regime” of a police state, basing it on services, eliminating political life, outlawing parties (from the Communists to the Nasserians, from the Socialists to the Liberals and even the Baathists) and eliminating the Parliament, substituting the elections with plebiscites for the sole candidate-leader. For 30 years (1971-2000) he filled the Syrian prisons with persons who opposed him, militants and activists for thought crimes, practicing every kind of torture and brutality, with the disappearance of hundreds of prisoners, Syrians and Arabs. The Syrian dictator put a gag order on the stamp and the means of information, he forbid any type of labour association or activity of a cultural or social nature. With the famous Article 8 of the Constitution that sentences: “Baath is the party that leads the state and the society”!
The first horrible crime that the Baathist dictator carried out was the aerial bombing of the city of Hama in 1982, with the massacre of over 20 thousand people, in order to silence the Muslim Brotherhood. A massacre that had passed in complete silence in the West, but also in the East, for the absolute lack of “witnesses”, that is, of the traditional means of information of the time. Also because Assad was considered as a “secular” (but an Alawite) who opposed the fanatical and reactionary Muslims, it was of little matter that he massacred entire families. And it didn’t change things that the Syrian president, after that “secular” massacre introduces in the constitution that “Islam is the religion of the Syrian president”, which has been repeated in these days by his son Bashar (a secular as well!) with his “new constitution”, going so far as to add to that article that Islam is “the principle source of legislation”.
In 1976 Hafez Assad also sent his troops (30 thousand soldiers) in Lebanon “to bring peace” between the Lebanese, with the benediction of the United States and Israel. Result? Assad’s soldiers remained 30 years in Lebanon, bringing with them the occupation militia, destroying the state and its institutions, inventing a servile political class that did not respect any rule or civil or ethical code of conduct. Moreover, the men of the Assad apparatus and its officials sacked the economic-commercial wealth of the country. The sacking was part of the “divide and conquer” strategy, pitting forces and parties against one another, and doing the same thing for communities.
Regarding Palestine, the former Syrian dictator called himself “defender of the cause of the Palestinian Arab People” using every means possible and imaginable to tame the PLO and its policies, and to put the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under the tutelage of the Syrian regime. For Assad, Lebanon and Palestine were “cards” to play and use in any way he wished. He did such things in the regional sphere to heat up the situation and raise the “price” of his dealings with Americans or Israelis, since the start of the 1970s. Successively, Iraq became another “card” that his heir Bashar used to deal with the USA, or to blackmail them, sending “volunteers” of fundamentalist and “Jihadist” groups there to carry out acts or terrorism or to give refuge to elements of Al-Qaeda.
In the third decade of his reign (1990-2000), Hafez Assad started to prepare his oldest son Bassel for his inheritance, passing from a despotic regime to a despotic-nepotistic regime. In 1994, the heir however died in a “road accident” that was later attributed to internal feuds within the Assad family itself. So, placed on the throne of leadership was the young ophthalmologist, “elected” with a plebiscite in 2000 upon the death of his father. There were many in Syria and in the Arab world who had hoped that the young president would be at the head of a new season of reform of the regime. The so-called “Damascus Spring” – which lasted a little over a year – turned out to be just a front. The son revealed himself to be even more merciless than the father. The campaign of arrests and ironclad repression by the regime, already since 2002, surprised everyone at some level. The prisons were filled with human rights activists and activists for freedom of speech, and they were left to rot in prison for years, without any trials.
Their doyen, the lawyer Haytham al-Maleh, today a leading figure in the opposition, was released at the start of the revolt, in March 2011, having celebrated his 80th birthday in prison, arrested several times, and never once put on trial. Among the regime prisons, the one of Mazze, in the capital city Damascus, stands out. Here Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners are detained and tortured, and they are then made to “disappear” (Lebanon still awaits to know the destiny of hundreds of Lebanese abducted by the Syrian troops in Lebanon), and that of Saidnaya, reserved for anyone opposing the regime and Syrian activists, where one of the massacres committed against the prisoners was carried out even by Maher, Bashar’s brother.
Intellectuals, writers and artists have been almost all exiled in Europe and in some Arab countries. We can’t even speak of journalists, because there are no independent or private newspapers and agencies in Syria, only the papers of the regime where the photo of the president-dictator dominates the layout. It is no different with the State TV, which opens the news with the sayings of the president-dictator. A high school student of 19 years, Tol al-Mallouhi was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to 5 years in prison for having expressed his thoughts in his blog regarding the Palestinian cause. The accusation? “Conspiracy against the regime” and “contacts with the American enemy”!
Today, Syria is governed by no less than 17 secret services agencies, under the command of the close circle of the Assad family: Bashar, his brother Maher, his mother and his brother-in-law. Then there are the Makhloufche cousins who hold the purse strings. In this “reign of terror”, the revolt erupted, which rapidly had transformed itself into a mass general uprising.
Thus was born the opposition with “three heads” inside and outside Syria: the Local Coordination Committees, the Coordination for Democratic Change and the Syrian National Council.
1 – The Local Committees are the true leaders of the revolts, rapidly organised throughout the entire territory by young volunteers who do not belong to any party; they are those of the new generation, born under the reign of the Assads and they have only known the workings and the practices of the Baath regime, but they also know the entire repertoire of the new technologies, despite the attempts of the regime to delay their access to them also by controlling their dissemination in the country, or lack thereof. These Committees are born and organised by means of Internet (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube), and they organise the protests throughout the country. In this way the revolt extended in the early months very rapidly, being able to escape from every attempt to control them or from direct intervention by the Special Forces of Bashar. But the most important and meaningful aspect is that all the young activists of the committees that lead the revolt operate clandestinely. Those who go public are the spokespersons of the committees, who keep contact with the mass media, in that at the start of the revolt they found refuge in Beirut, Istanbul and then Cairo for logistic reasons and for coordination between the committees and the world outside Syria. And for greater safety, the committees have also created “shadow-committees”, which will substitute the “legitimate” ones in case these are discovered or arrested.
2 – The Coordination for Democratic Change. The outbreak of the revolt had practically taken also the old generation of militant politicians, writers and artists by surprise, included with them writers and artists, communists and nationalists, who already from the early 1970s fought against the Baath regime. Most of these had thus created the “Coordination for Democratic Change”, with its spokesman being Hassan Abdel-Azim, and it gathers together also parts of old political formations from ex-communists and ex-national socialists and Nasserians, as well as independent personalities such as Michel Kilo and Fayez Sara. The Coordination is a group that was born substantially within Syria, but it obviously has some of its figures abroad. It calls for the overthrow of the regime, but it also opposes any foreign intervention, the regime has winked at it, trying to get it involved in a fake dialogue that it from time to time invents, an in which some of the personalities of the Coordination have participated. The other day they refused to participate in the “meeting of the Friends of Syria” held in Tunisia to protest against the attempt to declare the National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
3 – The National Council, led today by the professor of the Sorbonne Burhan Ghouliun, was instead formed abroad, in Istanbul, and it includes the majority of the foreign and internal opposition, having some renowned members such as the eighty-year-old lawyer Haytham Al-Maleh, politicians and intellectuals. The many young people who are part of the National Council in the role of representatives of the local committees guarantee the connection within Syria and make the Council the most popular among the populations of the cities in revolt. The Council also is comprised of a large number from the “Muslim Brotherhood”, backed by Erdogan’s Turkey. And it also enjoys the support of the vast majority of the Arab nations, from France and from quite a few Europeans. They insist upon “a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians” who are not victims of Bashar’s war machine which is killing them on an average of 100 persons per day.
4 – Then, there is the Free Syrian Army, formed by soldiers who had deserted the regime’s army and that despite the scarcity of arms it has available, it has been able to stand up to Bashar’s brigades, freeing some cities and guaranteeing protection to the population. And it seems that all the parts of the opposition are in agreement to support it and to consider it as the armed faction of the opposition.
The Local Committees are the true militants who move on the terrain among the people, and they are thus the structure that supports the uprising. They are for this reason not inclined to compromises, and thus they seem to guarantee solidity and continuity of the uprising despite the attempts of the regime to suffocate it and despite the failure of the Arab League to impose that the “little dictator” leaves or at least forcing him to step down. It is however obvious that with the passing of time and with the escalation of ferocity of the Assad gangs against a population that continues to peacefully protest, the danger of a militarisation of the revolt becomes greater. But it is the regime itself that pushes in the direction of a civil war that would justify a civil war and its war of extermination. It is also true that the most radical wing and those most willing to have a military response could predominate. Yet, it is likewise true that the population has reached almost a year of pacific revolts, and it is legitimate to then ask why they should be expected to resist and die? And for what reason or ideal should they have to expose themselves to the bombardments of cannons of the armoured tanks and aviation of Bashar’s regime, allowing men, when, the elderly and even children (as many as 500) to be killed?? (translator’s note: these statistics have now been overcome; children comprise around 850 of the victims to this date).
Lastly, two strong considerations: I believe that the primary and fundamental objective is that of dismantling a regime that is so totalitarian and repressive, merciless, cynical and inhuman, and to put Bashar and his close circle on trial. And regarding this point, there is no excuse in the world or justification. The “clean” and “pure” revolutionary ideals that know how to predict everything do not exist and they never have existed. But whoever it is that leads Syria after Assad could never be worse than him, his father and the Baath regime, which in addition to the Assad’s contributed to the museum of horrors also the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
One cannot therefore expect that an almost clandestine opposition that has been repressed for over 40 years, which has never been able to operate in a climate of freedom, to be democratic and guarantee rights, or to not be subject to foreign pressure or influence. Yet, an opposition so diverse and politically varied is in itself a guarantee of pluralism and at the very least, is the harbinger of a future with a political life that is open to new experiences.