In January 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad granted an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he claimed that, because he was so close to the beliefs and aspirations of his people, Syria was “immune” to the revolutionary fever of nearby Arab lands.
Syria has the same preconditions for revolution as Tunisia and Egypt: poverty, unemployment, corruption, and repression. What Syrians were looking for was the spark.
Each revolution has a moment of resistance without which it would never have started. In Syria, that spark came in the southern city of Dar‘a following the arrest of fifteen schoolboys who had written anti-government slogans on a wall. When their parents assembled to demand their release, the security forces rebuffed them, and as protests grew in subsequent days, those forces killed six protestors. Instead of dispersing the crowd, within a few hours more than 30,000 people had come out to the main square chanting against the governor and the head of the security service. The demonstrations then spread to other Syrian cities and, as of the end of July, had claimed the lives of more than 1,800 pro-democracy protestors.
Protests in Syria have escalated since March 15, 2011, and especially as of March 18, when residents in the southern city of Dar‘a rose up en masse to decry police brutality following the arrest and killing of some protestors. The following weeks witnessed demonstrations all over the country — some witnesses reported one million in Hama and Dayr al-Zor.
Despite government claims to the contrary, the slogans chanted in a vast majority of demonstrations indicate that the protest movement is spontaneous, peaceful, and non-sectarian.
The main response from Syrian security and intelligence services has been to use live ammunition to silence growing protests, arbitrarily detain hundreds of protestors, and subject them to torture and ill-treatment. Security forces have also detained a number of journalists, activists, and lawyers who have reported on the protests or called for further protests. Moreover, Syrian security forces in at least two towns prevented medical personnel and others from reaching wounded protestors and prevented injured protestors from accessing hospitals, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
The Syrian regime seems to have learned from the presumed “mistakes” made in Tunisia and Egypt — the media and the army. The Syrian government expelled foreign journalists and prevented international news networks like CNN and al-Jazeera from broadcasting live coverage of the protests. In response, many Syrians posted homemade videos on YouTube and Facebook, giving them a greater sense of ownership over the movement. That said, the situation remains difficult and fluid, and with no media presence full information is hard to come by. The regime seems to have tried to foment sectarian animosity, especially in Homs where Sunnis and ‘Alawites have lived together for decades, but was met by chants of “The Syrian people are one!”
Furthermore, the regime has not shied away from using the army for violent repression, with high numbers killed, missing, or detained. As opposed to Egypt and Tunisia, in which security forces largely held back from overt or widespread violent tactics, there seems to be little restraint from direct action against protests.
The Syrian uprising is more analogous to the situation in Tunisia than it is to the Egyptian revolution. Grassroots movements played a critical role in organizing demonstrations in Egypt, such as the April 6th and the “We Are All Khalid Said” movements. However, in Syria, the iron grip of the security services makes mobilization by organized groups completely impossible. Therefore, demonstrations have spontaneously appeared in different areas of Syrian cities, without prior planning from a national leadership. Although the slogans differed from one city to another, the larger message was the same: freedom, justice, and dignity.
As the demonstrations grow in size week after week, the slogans chanted have become increasingly bold. Protestors have settled on their final message: “The people want to overthrow the regime.” That popular slogan started in Tunisia, was repeated in Egypt, and successfully overthrew two of the most repressive regimes in the Arab region.
It was natural, then, that each city would have emerging leaders who are able to organize the demonstration and decide on the content of slogans and banners. Those leaders have played a pivotal role in organizing and leading peaceful protests. Although the leaders only operate on the local level, their organizing methods evidence good coordination between local leaders, and that coordination may help organize national events in the future.
The mosques, especially in major urban cities, have served a pivotal role as gathering points for peaceful demonstrations. In this way, mosques are similar to the churches that embraced so-called “liberation theology” and played a leading role against military regimes in Latin America. The implementation of the emergency law in Syria more than 47 years ago has not only banned demonstrations and gatherings, but also has destroyed the traditions necessary to train young people to go out, represent, and claim their rights.
The demonstrations’ leaders do not belong to any traditional ideology or political party. It is possible that they avoid affiliation with any political party, or even communication with any of the national political leaders, in order to avoid an ideology that may interfere with the basic motivations of their movement.
The traditional opposition parties — most of them were exiled or spent decades in prison — were mostly nationalist and left-oriented. Here we can include the Muslim Brotherhood, which faced an armed struggle with the Syrian authorities during the 1980s which left tens of thousands dead.
All of these opposition parties played a secondary role in the leadership or mobilization of the current demonstrations; they did not even show initiative in guiding and commanding the demonstrations in order to put greater pressure on the regime so it would be overthrown.
Some of the most prominent figures of this traditional opposition are:
Hassan ‘Abdel-‘Azim and ‘Abdel-Majid Manjuna, leaders of the Arab Socialist Union party.
Riad Turk, George Sabra, Omar Qashash, and other leaders of the People’s Democratic Party.
Riad Sayf in Damascus, who was, until his resignation at the end 2010, the Secretary-General of the Damascus Declaration.
Samir Nashar in Aleppo, Najati Tyara in Homs, Nawaf al-Bashir in Dayr al-Zor, and other members of the Damascus Declaration in different provinces.
As previously mentioned, young emerging leaders have played a pivotal role in organizing and leading the protests. These leaders belong to the middle class and they are highly intellectual. The following are some of these emerging leaders:
Ayman Al-Aswad, Adnan Al-Mahamid, Mohamed Al-Ammar, and others in Dar‘a;
Walid Bunni in Al-Tal;
Moa‘taz Murad and Osama Nassar in Dariya;
Anas Airot and Anas Elshogry in Banias;
Ahmed Maaz Al Khatib and Yasser Elaytie in Damascus;
Montaha Al-Atrash in Suwayda; and
Said Salam, Dana Jwabrah, and Suheir Atassi who played a role in organizing the first peaceful demonstration outside of the Syrian Interior Ministry.
All of these emerging leaders are either in detention or hiding for fear of being arrested, which in turn makes their mission impossible. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, since this revolution lacks an official leadership, it makes it harder for the regime to crack down on the movement, as every day brings the possibility for more leaders to emerge.