Today marks the one-year anniversary of the uprising in Syria. Thousands of articles on the recent events, the country's history, culture, religious dynamics, economy, and role in the Middle East, have been published since March 2011. Wading through the press in search of a glimpse of truth, whatever one might expect or believe that to be, is daunting. The outcome is often a series of divergent perspectives that leave one with more questions than answers. In commemoration of the past year of the country's revolution, this post puts forth a series of compelling articles on Syria. Except for one, the January 31, 2011 Wall Street Journal interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, all were published within the last year. Many are poignant, others academic, still others are likely construed as controversial, but all are worth reading for the various perspectives they offer on the current situation and the issues from which it stemmed.
WSJ: "How would you define the changes [in the Middle East, in relation to the Arab revolutions] that are happening?" President Assad: Let us talk about what has not changed till today...You have a lot of people coming to the labor market without jobs and you have new wars that are creating desperation…Of course, if you want to talk about the changes internally, there must be a different kind of changes: political, economic and administrative. These are the changes that we need. But at the same time you have to upgrade the society and this does not mean to upgrade it technically by upgrading qualifications. It means to open up the minds. Actually, societies during the last three decades, especially since the eighties have become more closed due to an increase in close-mindedness that led to extremism. This current will lead to repercussions of less creativity, less development, and less openness. You cannot reform your society or institution without opening your mind. So the core issue is how to open the mind, the whole society, and this means everybody in society including everyone. I am not talking about the state or average or common people. I am talking about everybody; because when you close your mind as an official you cannot upgrade and vice versa…Internally, it is about the administration and the people's feeling and dignity, about the people participating in the decisions of their country. It is about another important issue…I am talking on behalf of the Syrians. It is something we always adopt. We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance."
Introduction by Muhanna. "If you’ve been following events in Syria, you’d know that the English-language press is mostly deeply critical of the Assad regime (while the Arabic press displays a slightly wider range of views). I thought it would be worth trying to present a minority report on the situation from a Syrian friend of mine, although, as you will see, he argues precisely that his position is actually held by a very significant majority (albeit a rather quiet and frustrated majority) of Syrians. Camille Otrakji is a Syrian political blogger based in Montreal. Although he tends to keep a low profile, Otrakji has been, for the past several years, at the forefront of many of the most interesting and influential online initiatives relating to Syrian politics…He agreed to speak with me about the latest events in Syria, and I’m sure that his views will generate plenty of discussion."
"Because Syria is bordered on two sides by countries that have been torn apart by civil wars in recent decades, Lebanon and Iraq, Syria’s rulers have repeatedly invoked the specter of unrestrained sectarian conflict as a likely outcome should they suddenly lose power, even as a brutal crackdown by the Alawite-led security forces has reportedly exacerbated intercommunal tensions. To reporters familiar with the civil war in another former part of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia, the testimony of refugees who fled the violence in northern Syria this week, and arrived in Turkey with accounts of attacks on Sunni villagers by Alawite militias, it seemed quite easy to believe that history could be repeating itself…While many non-Muslims are now aware that there is a sectarian divide in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, it is less commonly known that Syria is ruled largely by members of an esoteric Islamic sect, the Alawites, whose belief in the divinity of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, is just one of the reasons that they were oppressed as infidels for centuries by other Muslims."
"What is happening in Syria feels like one of the last gasps of the age of the military dictators. An old way of running the world is still desperately trying to cling to power, but the underlying feeling in the west is that somehow Assad's archaic and cruel military rule will inevitably collapse and Syrians will move forward into a democratic age.That may, or may not, happen, but what is extraordinary is that we have been here before. Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite - and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that "the Syrian people are naturally democratic" and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites - and a new world of "peace and progress" would inevitably emerge. What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today. I thought I would tell that story…"
"This Saturday morning and after the celebration of the previous day, the residents of old Damascus, Kassa’a and the surrounding areas woke up to find their walls filled with stickers distributed by young activates from the area signed with the fish symbol as an indicator of their identity. They declared with these stickers their refusal of the regime acts to celebrate at the end of each Friday and the provocation of a region on the expense of another in Damascus…throughout the previous weeks several celebrations has been set in the most important squares in Damascus and was focused in Bab Touma square…and the concentration on this square comes from several factors, with its history and cultural relevance combined with some hidden factors related to establishing a sectarian feelings by driving the celebrations in an area with a majority of Christian habitat at the end of a day were a mass human rights violations occurred all over the country. From the beginning of the movement, the Syrian regime depended of the silence of the minorities, confirming their fears, trying to exhibit a sectarian situation to justify its existence…there were other parts that refused these actions that aims to implicate the Syrians in a fight against each others, which this « Fish Stickers » campaign is part of."
"After four months of popular demonstrations and ferocious repression, including a bloody crackdown on the central city of Hama on Sunday, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, still refuses to step down, insisting that he can reform his regime. What is keeping Mr. Assad in power is the extensive security apparatus that was engineered by his father, Hafez al-Assad, and is dominated by their fellow Alawites, a minority Shiite sect. Alawites, who constitute just 12 percent of Syria’s population, have mostly thrown their support behind Mr. Assad, fearful that if he is overthrown they will be massacred. If the democratic opposition in Syria is going to succeed, it must first convince the Alawites that they can safely turn against the Assad regime. This is not as improbable as many observers believe. As the bodies have piled up — security forces have killed around 1,500 civilians since March — Alawite leaders have not been blind to the rapid erosion of the government’s power and its inability to restore control…"
"I have taken up the “armed gangs controversy” in my last two posts. In the comment section, Syrians have debated whether the opposition has produced militant elements that are killing Syrian soldiers. A number of analysts, such as Majd Eid, who joined in the debate on France 24 yesterday, continue to argue that there is not a violent side to the uprising. They insist that Syrian soldiers are killing fellow soldiers, not opposition elements. This killing is carried out when security personnel refuse orders to shoot at crowds, they insist. So far, no evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that Syrian military have shot their fellow soldiers for refusing to carry out orders. Most evidence supports government statements that armed opposition elements have been shooting security personnel."
"Fear of Arrest" - Jadaliyya - Translation by Hani Sayed of an anonymous Facebook post. August 6, 2011.
An elaborate, harrowing, and sometimes uncomfortably comical dissection of the fear of being arrested. Translator preface: "The author of the following text is anonymous. But his deeds have rocked the foundations of our world in Syria. He is one and he is everyone. I don't know his whereabouts. He is probably already dead or in prison. Or maybe he is still roaming the streets of cities and towns in Syria trying in all earnestness to get the frame of his next picture right where it is supposed to be. At this very moment I imagine him cursing his laptop because it froze a few seconds before the video was successfully uploaded…But he could very well be spending the night in the basement of al-Mukhabarat headquarters in Kafar Soussa…I picked up the text from one of the Facebook pages administered by a 'local coordination committee' in one of the neighborhoods of Damascus. The text is written in colloquial Arabic. I could tell that he is probably in his early twenties with a clear Aleppo accent. On how a youth from Aleppo ended up in a Damascus neighborhood we can only speculate."
"One of my favourite chants from the Syrian uprising is the powerful and cleanly apparent illi yuqtil sha‘abu kha’in, or ‘he who kills his people is a traitor.’ It’s cleanly apparent to me at least – but not to everybody. Some kneejerk ‘leftists’ (a rapidly diminishing number) still hold that the Syrian regime is a nationalist, resistance regime, a necessary bulwark against Zionism, and that therefore it must be protected from its unruly subjects; that in fact it’s the unruly subjects, rather than those who murder them, who are the traitors…Even if Syria’s were a genuine resistance regime, it would be immoral to expect Syrians to put up with its savagery which is sometimes as bad or worse than that employed by Zionism against Palestinians."
"The Syrian regime is in big trouble. Absent an economic collapse, its downfall may not be imminent, but most indicators lead to the conclusion that the regime is effectively done, and the only remaining questions are how bloody the transition will be and what type of Syria will emerge. On the domestic front, the social base of the regime is stagnant or shrinking…I traveled to Syria in July to observe first-hand what is taking place inside the country. Most of my time was spent in Damascus and its suburbs, with a brief trips elsewhere, in particular a two day stint in Hama just days before the government’s massacre. What follows is a series of vignettes, hastily put together, of life inside Syria this past month. These stories represent my own understanding and readers should take all stories emerging from the country as a partial truth, but will hopefully help give a clearer picture of Syria in the midst of the revolution."
"Just about every observer who has analyzed the conflict in the western press—Robert Fisk in The Independent, Anthony Shadid in The New York Times, Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books—has reminded readers that beneath everything else in Syria, there lies the bitterness of the Sunni-Alawi rivalry. There are about three and a half million Alawis in Syria (out of a total population of 22 million). It will not do to impugn an entire religion, but those who’ve written about this topic do not fail to observe that the most influential positions in the army are occupied by Alawis, that the all-powerful mukhabarat, or secret service, is dominated at every level by Alawis, that Alawi officers have superintended every large-scale episode of killing in Syria in recent years (at the Tadmoor Prison in 1980, in Hama in 1982, and now in Deraa, and Hama again), and that the family which has been inflicting this variety of civic calm on Syria for the last 40 years has been an Alawi one…The dark force in Syria is not the Alawi religion. It’s not exactly the cult of Hafez Al Assad, either. Only the aged and the infirm refuse to acknowledge his death. But love for the sacred sanctuary he invented, the one protected by the blue-eyed family of pilots and horsemen, has not died. The dark force in Syria is excessive belief in this realm of unreality. All those people who served in its police force, killed on its behalf, and kept the silence while the killing was going on carry its banner. This species of belief is a non-denominational phenomenon. It is enforced by the Alawis but Sunnis—and Kurds and Christians—are most welcome. For the time being, it is holding fast."
"French mandate legal and constitutional structures were not designed to protect the rights of mandatory citizens. As observers noted at the time, so-called liberal imperialism was designed to earn praise from the international community, affirm French national prestige, and dull-leftist criticism back in France. Under the imperatives of mass opposition to mandate rule, however, the cosmetic façade of liberal and constitutional rule fell away to be replaced by hasty structures of military rule, mass violence, arbitrary detention, and secrecy. Actual mandatory practice undermined the application of the rule of law and constitutional legal structures at every juncture. Colonial advocates and civil servants offered liberal structures and language as a justification for the imperial project, not as goals to be achieved by mandatory government. It is certainly not a coincidence that many such practices have been lasting features of Syria’s post-colonial governments…The French mandate and its debasement of political culture have had lasting influence on Syria. Façades of liberal rule masked illiberal practice as intelligence and security bureaucracies intruded into every area of life. Martial law decrees, emergency laws, extra-judicial detention, and habits of military rule trace their roots to the mandate and continue to subvert rule of law and meaningful constitutional government. And today, as in 1925 Syrian lawyers and human rights advocates are at the forefront of the struggle for a state governed by laws."
"With the popular revolt in Syria entering its sixth month, it is looking more evident that the current regime in Damascus is in its final stages. While the regime continues to cling to power and brutally suppress the protest movement, it is also mobilising two of its main credentials : an ostensibly anti-imperialist, or resistant, ideology and its social welfare state economic model…Syria’s political leadership has placed a premium on autonomy from oppositional forces within and outside the country. However, tracing the trajectory of economic liberalization actually suggests a gradual loss of this autonomy through the evolving constituencies of the regime as well as, in part, explaining the particularities of this crisis. Unlike some developing countries that famously experienced the IMF’s ‘shock therapy’, economic liberalisation in Syria was gradual and went through three distinct phases during Hafiz al-Asad’s rule; a fourth one was inaugurated by Bashar al-Asad as soon as he came to power (Joya 2005). These processes unraveled the model of political consolidation built gradually by the Ba’ath party and refined by Asad. What they highlight is that over time, there was an organic relationship between the emergence of a free market economy and coercive rule, i.e., the two processes were co-constitutive. However the neoliberal authoritarian model itself also created the possibilities for social revolt."
"The Syrian uprising has become rooted as a revolutionary movement that is progressing towards an inevitable change of regime (at least politically). It is continuing to expand and is winning growing support among the Syrian people and internationally, in spite of the extent of the violence to which it is being subjected. Thus the regime’s efforts to annihilate it are but a hopeless, unattainable dream. At the same time, by persevering with the security solution, evading and procrastinating over political solutions, the regime has proved that it is standing by its convictions and that nothing can deter it, be it the scale of its own criminality, the appeals of its friends or international threats. It is therefore an intractable case that cannot be brought to a peaceful end unless the regime performs a miracle by grasping the fact that the Syrian people has awakened from its slumber of humiliation and fear, and launched a dignified uprising to reclaim the natural rights that long years of Ba’ath Party rule robbed them of, and that the responsibility for putting out the fires that are threatening the country lies with it alone. It must start by immediately abandoning the security option and finding rapid solutions for the tragedies and hardships it has created. It must then follow up by carrying out genuine and immediate reforms to bring an end to the monopoly on power and lay the cornerstone for a pluralistic civil state."
"In mid-June, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most renowned literary figures, addressed an open letter to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The stage was set for one of those moments, familiar from revolutions past, in which an intellectual hero confronts an oppressive ruler and eloquently voices the grievances of a nation. Instead, Adonis — who lives in exile in France — bitterly disappointed many Syrians. His letter offered some criticisms, but also denigrated the protest movement that had roiled the country since March, and failed even to acknowledge the brutal crackdown that had left hundreds of Syrians dead. In retrospect, the incident has come to illustrate the remarkable gulf between the Arab world’s established intellectuals — many of them, like Adonis, former radicals — and the largely anonymous young people who have led the protests of the Arab Spring…The absence of such figures in the Arab Spring is partly a measure of the pressures Arab intellectuals have lived under in recent decades, trapped between brutal state repression on one side and stifling Islamic orthodoxy on the other…The lack of such leaders may also be the hallmark of a largely post-ideological era in which far less need is felt for unifying doctrines or the grandiose figures who provide them. The role of the intellectual may be shrinking into that of the micro-blogger or street organizer."
"Regardless of how we judge Assad…we must make the distinction between discrediting him and discrediting his supporters. We would be foolish to do the latter, for his supporters are a diverse group that demands our attention, not only because any self-designated pro-democracy movement must embody the democratic principle of inclusivity, but also because their numbers remain significant, and any stable, lasting solution to the violence must take them into account. Just as the opposition includes Alawites, Christians, Druze, Sunni, the dispossessed, the wealthy, the educated, the old, and the young, many Syrians of diverse backgrounds continue to support the president. Any stable future for Syria begins with dialogue – not just speaking, but listening too – and dialogue requires the acknowledgment of alternative views and different goals. Plurality is the core of democracy, and accepting the reality of the revolution, and the reality of its detractors, is crucial."
"The Syrian revolution’s media war has become almost as fierce as the battles on the streets. From satellite channels, social media platforms, and international newspapers, there is a PR war to be won by both sides. The regime’s strict ban on independent journalists entering the country has created two kinds of stories, undercover reports by journalists…or reports by the privileged few who enter with the regime’s consent…Although these journalists vary in background and expertise, their accounts are similarly framed: focusing on the brewing, deadly sectarianism; proving the existence of an armed opposition; equalizing the regime’s force with the people’s dissent; while casting the protesters’ narrative in a cloud of doubt… These media games are designed to portray Syria as a land of confusion, where the truth is elusive, undefined, impossible to verify, and impossible to know. But even a subject as ugly and divisive as sectarianism can be treated in a sensitive and honest way, like in two of Anthony Shadid’s recent articles, released back-to-back. The first examines the current sectarian rifts in Homs, and the second is a historical account of the Arab Christian experience, bleakly offering a warning and a lesson. Shadid serves grim reality alongside hope grounded in history. He, is not afraid to “speak truth to the people” as Rosen says. But this truth (and proof) of rising sectarianism comes after months well-rounded reporting, thus legitimizes the source and the the story. So here is the truth: it should not be disputed that the Alawites have suffered a brutal history of abuse and atrocities in pre-Assad Syria; that there are sectarian rifts in the society (although heavily propagated by the regime); that there is an armed element to the uprisings; that supporters of the regime do exist and not every pro-regime demonstrator was threatened, bussed in, or paid to wave the flag. It is wrong (and not smart) for the opposition to deny any of these facts. It is also true that both sides are afraid, but there is a significant difference: one side is afraid of an uncertain future, and the other is afraid it will not survive another day in the present."
"…the free and unfettered voices of the Arab masses is the fountain of resistance (without quotations marks) to both domestic oppression as well as external designs and domination. Judging by the courage of protesters’ bare bodies against rifle and metal, who needs anything else to make oppressors and occupiers tremble? One must be able to imagine anew. One must be able to recognize that the changes befalling the Arab world are not simply the end of an era of dictatorship, but also the albeit protracted beginning of the full and unfettered desire for free expression of an always already existing political will to resist and build. That political will has always included as much anti-colonial and anti-imperialist vehemence as any current axis of resistance, except that that will has been crushed for decades and appropriated by decrepit regimes, the most vociferous of which (i.e., Syria) is primarily vociferous—notwithstanding its resistance-enabling existence. But, for instance, it is one thing to resist Israeli expansionism by enabling non-state actors, and quite another to spearhead resistance armed with the will of a people, domestically and regionally, in an inexorable and principled march towards the inevitable end of structural oppression and racism. This opportunity is upon us, even if we are in the throes of its chaotic beginnings. We ought not expect too much too soon by way of nuanced awareness of international hegemony on part of a pummeled people. Before the dissipation of the yoke of oppression that shattered a people’s—not to mention nearly every individual’s—dignity, we should not expect the prioritization of our “politico-intellectual” desires. Resistance to oppression will be cradled by nobler souls. All in time. Much to be done in the mean time."
"The country's revolutionaries have reached a point of no return. The Syrian uprising has four characteristics, each of which are partly owed to its impasse and prolonged nature. It was initially popularised and then professionalised. Recently it has been militarised, and it has now entered into a phase of inevitably heightened internationalisation. Of these four, its professionalisation is almost unique in the Arab Spring geography…This professionalisation in the case of Syria's revolutionaries is the function of the tenacious, audacious and steadfast pursuit of the chief goal of ousting the Assads. But this does not come out of thin air. In the case of the Syrians, they have historical depth and pedigree and know very well the giants that once transported them to the peak of global power. All of these from the Umayyad Dynasty's founders to Saladin, whose eternal resting home is Damascus, dwarf the mediocre rulers they have had for more than 50 years - long before the Assads came to power."
"The dark humor found in Top Goon and the songs of al Qashush might seem misplaced in light of the thousands of deaths across Syria (more than 7000, according to the opposition group Local Coordination Committee) and bombings taking place in major Syrian cities (such as the February 10, 2012 bombing in Aleppo, which left 28 dead according to Syrian authorities). In fact, however, these creative forms of political activism are one of the few mechanisms left for nurturing civil disobedience in a conflict that has been increasingly depicted as a civil war. During the Syrian revolution, perhaps the most striking examples of irony and dark humor have emerged from Homs, a city that has seen the worst violence so far…The virtual alleys of the Internet reflect Homsi creativity, documenting the protesters` chants and the dances performed during demonstrations across the city’s streets…"
"All told, on a domestic level Syria has entered a struggle to bring its post-colonial era to a close. It is not simply about toppling a “regime” but about uprooting a “system” -- the Arabic word nizam conveniently evoking both notions. The current system is based on keeping Syrians hostage to communal divisions and regional power plays. Indeed, the regime’s residual legitimacy derives entirely from playing indigenous communities and foreign powers off each other, at the expense of genuine state building and accountable leadership. Prior attempts at breaking with the legacy of colonialism, in the revolutionary bustle of the mid-twentieth century, failed, grounded as they were in narrow politicized elites and military circles. What is different today is the awakening of a broad popular movement, motivated less by parochial interests and grand ideologies than by a sense of wholesale dispossession of their wealth, dignity and destiny. This awakening, in a sense, is precisely what the regime has been fighting. Although foreign interference is a fact, there is less a conspiracy in Syria than a society on the move, headed along a path that the regime simply will not follow. The road ahead is a dangerous one, and the chances are real that it will lead Syria, and the region, into the maze of civil war. But for all too many Syrians there is no going back. The regime was given a year to stake out a safer way forward, but has clung ever more fiercely to its old narrative, ultimately recasting itself as a historical cul-de-sac."
"Syria's uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria's demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising."
References made to articles, individuals, organizations or government bodies in this blog do not necessarily reflect or imply an endorsement by The Syria Report. The Syria News Blog is a news service offered by The Syria Report only for the purpose of recapping foreign reportage on matters pertaining to Syria.