Jordan’s King Abdullah said what most were thinking at an economic conference in Amman in October 2011: “No one has any idea what to do about Syria”. He later became the first Arab head of state to publicly say Assad should step down. He was right – no one does know what to do about Syria. The struggle between a partially organised though divided opposition, backed up by the protestors, on the one hand, and the regime on the other, may continue for years, though one thing is for sure: toppling the Assad regime will not fix Syria’s ills overnight.
As Brian Whitaker notes in his book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, “Freedom in depth requires a society of engaged citizens that is confident enough in its own strengths to examine its own failings openly and honestly.” In Syria, people do not like to examine their failings. They don’t like to look weak. They are all bosses or prophets.
A staffer at a private bank from Lattakia told me in 2010 that when his brother knocked down a pedestrian in a car accident on a Damascus street he fled the capital for a month while his family attempted to sort out the issue. His family paid money to the family of the deceased. The state was not involved in this aspect of governance and the brother faced no legal judgment for his crime. Law and justice are realms so weak, corrupt and disingenuous in the state system that Syrians have rejected them in serious matters; they are forced to govern themselves; they can place no trust in the state.
“Syrians think in tribes,” one man told me. “When we get a new government, under Assad or not, little will change. We will get a new mayor in our town; he will surround himself with his family and friends. His nieces and nephews will come to him looking for favours and jobs and he will give them what they want because he knows they can help guarantee his position. So even if these relatives are not experienced or suitable for the positions they ask for, they’ll still get them. This goes all the way up to the top family.”
There is some undeniable truth to this downbeat perspective. In almost any aspect of Syrian life a man who gets a new job will see his younger brother come to his place of work and ask him for money. With time, he will ask his boss if there is a job for his brother, then his cousin and so forth. Simply put, those in positions of power are expected to aid those nearest them.
However, to call this tribalism is incorrect because the regime’s governance, or lack thereof, bears primary responsibility for such social patterns. It has succeeded in sowing seeds of fear among businessmen and other groups to the extent that the only individuals that business people and entrepreneurs can trust are their blood relatives. For this reason Syrian business remains dominated by family conglomerates, as it was a hundred years ago. Furthermore, the gap between state and society, which transpires through a general sentiment that nothing associated with the state can be productive for the private individual feeds this deficit, this hole, that the state is supposed to fill but does not and cannot.
The state does little for the average Syrian; there is no connection between the two other than the periodic jumping through bureaucratic hoops the latter must endure when dealing with officialdom. If a Syrian crashes his or her car they will not report it to the police as the authorities will do nothing to help. So what must Syrians do to ensure the welfare of themselves and their families? They must build themselves up using their families.
The culture of obscurantism that plagues Syrian society has made and will continue to make change in Syria more difficult. But this, a country with such a prominent oral culture, may find talking the only way to bridge the now deep-seated differences between religious communities and between those who support and oppose the regime. Responsibility and reconciliation among Syrians themselves will be the key factors in deciding whether Syria’s future is bright or not, though the signs are not positive.
The revolt has also left Syrians facing an identity crisis. Before the revolt, they were a people who lived under the perception that they were the ‘other’ in the international political scene. They were pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iran. They were anti-Saudi Arabia and anti-America.
The freedom-advocating and democratic western world stood against Syrians when Israel stole the Golan Heights in 1967 and when it marched on Damascus in 1973. When American troops crossed into Syrian territory in late October 2008 and killed seven people Syrians were rightly livid. The regime co-opted this by organising a huge anti-America rally a day later where Bashar was the focus, not the Americans. Syrians have sided with Palestinians out of moral duty (and because of the regime’s propaganda), but they are treated as outcasts when looking for work in the Gulf as thousands do every year. Most Syrians cannot get even tourist visas for Europe or North America. In the midst of the revolt many Gulf countries also stopped issuing visas for Syrians.
Today they are faced with major conflicts of conscience. They have a degree of freedom of speech not permitted in public for decades and many are unsure how to react to this. The vast majority that make up Syria’s young population are on the cusp of something they have never experienced, and only seen through the prism of a television set or the internet. Moreover, where do Syrians stand regarding Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran? For decades these entities served to unite Syrians, now the very opposite is the case – some protestors burned Hezbollah flags and effigies of Hassan Nasrallah because the Lebanese group sided with the regime over the protestors. There is an identity yet to be formed as to what the Syrian people stand for, and where they want to go as a country which cuts across ethnic and sectarian lines.
Syrians like to cast blame, be they civilians or regime officials. But responsibility and respect for the rule of law – even as the foundations of such principles flounder – are essential in staving off civil conflict.
The regime’s associates have not led by example. When will the army and police stop discolouring the registration numbers of their cars (so as to avoid speed cameras) as they did for the duration of the unrest? When will those driving cars with blackened windows stop racing past the rest of the general public, showing off in plain view how they enjoy privileges others don’t? When will they stop at traffic lights and park in designated areas? When will they pay their bills and not use their security ‘credentials’ to commandeer petrol and alcohol? They are foremost amongst those calling for the regime to stay, though they flash their car lights to get cars out of their way on the streets, only to pull into shops to buy alcoholic soft drinks (as I have witnessed). They may think they are almighty, but the rest of the country is watching, and watching with growing anger.
Naturally, the opposition and protestors cannot be absolved of sin. The Free Syria Army and other elements acting under its name have killed randomly. True, they were pressured into such actions during the spring and summer of 2011, but the pre-meditated targeting of soldiers and security officers thereafter were acts of terrorism, however desperate, not acts of war. Besides, strategically it was a dreadful move, serving to legitimise the regime’s claims that it was fighting armed gangs since the very beginning of the revolt. From Burhan Ghalioun to Abdulrahman the car mechanic (see Chapter IV), people called for the fall of the regime, but what then? It appears the car mechanic had as much a clue what to do next as Ghalioun.
Hasan, a friend who manages a café in Baramkeh in central Damascus, told me of one incident that made him turn against the protest movement, though he hated the regime.
“Last night I took a taxi home and on the way there was a man and woman who waved the taxi down. The woman was on the verge of giving birth. So we picked them up and we drove on to Melaha, where I lived and where she would get medical assistance. On the way, we came across a demonstration. The protestors would not let our taxi go through. ‘You are a spy for the regime’ they shouted at the taxi driver. ‘I’m just trying to get this woman to the hospital – look at her!’ responded the driver. But no, they would not let us through. They kept saying we were coming as spies for the regime, for the security. What spies were we?! The woman was about to have a baby and I was going home from work! We had to turn around and go back.”
It is Syrians like Hasan that the regime and the opposition need to appeal to – the silent majority simply seeking a better life. Instead he and millions of others are undecided in their views. Ask Syrians who Ayman Abdel Noor – the editor-in-chief of the reformist website AllForSyria and a Baathist who resided in Dubai during the unrest – is and they will look at you blankly. Moreover, those who took to the streets in the spring of 2011 did not do so championing democracy. They did so because their fathers, brothers and sons disappeared, were beaten or were killed. They had no links to America, Israel or other enemies of Syria. They were not members of the political opposition.
As a result, the state of flux between revolt and civil conflict will likely continue for the foreseeable future. If the regime or the opposition could win over such individuals they would surely have enough support to bring down the other. But neither side has, nor do they appear likely to do so.
On the other hand, is there truth to the idea that Syrians, because of their complete lack of freedom, need to be ruled with a firm hand from the top down?
What happened when the police stopped coming around every afternoon to stop people illegally selling trinkets on the side of the streets? Mass illegal stalls were set up. What happened when traffic police were temporarily taken away from their traffic light posts or when speed cameras were switched off? People sped through red lights and failed to obey speed limits, resulting in accidents and injuries. What took place when government officials were not around to control illegal house-building? Civilians fired up outhouses and home extensions without seeking expertise or state permission. And when government employees don’t visit cafés every day to ensure there is no smoking in line with the 2010 law? People smoked even more openly. Can the police or the government or Bashar al-Assad be blamed for these failures to respect the law?
The international narrative on the revolt in Syria has been decidedly one-sided. Why did no police or security stop the protest in Jdaydieh Artouz that cold January night? Did the security stay away because they were overstretched? It was certainly not reported in the international media and for me to pitch a story talking about such restraint to Europe or the US would have found me promptly declined. In the town of Qatana, close by, some locals said the army only entered in July 2011 after shops had been destroyed and civil authority broke down following clashes between local Sunnis and Alawites. Did the army lockdown this town simply to restore order, or because the protestors were violent gangs?
The day will come when the regime falls and Syrians will need to take responsibility for their actions and to admit wrongdoing. Otherwise their country will fall down around them. It will not simply be: “Why are you driving through the red light?” It will be: “Why are you shooting at that Sunni house?” The repercussions of Syrians themselves not soon coming to terms with the issue of responsibility could be disastrous for the long-term future of the country. Only Syrians themselves can answer these questions and stabilise their futures, no matter how much blame they cast around.