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Syria: Complexity Behind the Protests

This post is part of our special coverage Syria Protests 2011.

Unrest in Syria enters its second week, as anti-government protests continue in their bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Death toll figures vary between 60 to 300, with hundreds more detained, after two weeks of clashes between protesters and security forces in Deraa, Latakia and other towns.

Syrian protesters have posted a large number of video clips on YouTube of the violent repression by Syrian security forces. Warning: Video contains graphic footage showing protesters shot in the head Here's one, uploaded by Islam1tv, showing protesters shot in the head.

More videos and information (Arabic) can be viewed on the Facebook page “Youth Syria for Freedom“.

The Damascus Bureau has created a list of those detained during the protests to ensure their plight is not forgotten.

Solidarity in Milan for civil unrest in Syria, 26 March, 2011. Image by Flickr user Milano 26 marzo 2011 (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Solidarity in Milan for civil unrest in Syria, 26 March, 2011. Image by Flickr user Milano 26 marzo 2011 (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Internal dynamics

Whilst it may seem that the unrest in Syria is a natural progression of the Arab revolution spreading throughout the region, there are unique dynamics in Syria that distinguish it from other Arab states.

Syria is a multi-confessional and ethnic state on similar lines as its troubled neighbours Iraq and Lebanon, with a history of sectarian violence.

The Assad regime belongs to the minority Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam – who number roughly 15 per cent of the population. Christians and Kurds also form sizeable minorities, each constituting approximately 10%. The remaining majority are Sunni Arab.

Consequently, a sectarian undertone exists to the current crisis in Syria.

Late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, infamously slaughtered thousands in the city of Hama in 1982 to crush a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood.

With the exception of the Kurds, Syria's minorities generally favour Assad due to his secular political stance, and fear a potential Islamist emergence to power.

Syria expert and blogger at Syria Comment, Joshua Landis, has been covering the events and offers the following background:

The Dara’a protests prompted Alawites in the coastal city of Latakia to gather in large numbers in a central square, Dawwar az-Ziraa, to show support for their embattled President. Many have changed their Facebook profile images to a picture of Bashar. Syrian Christians and other religious minorities that together make up a further 13% of the Syrian population have also shown broad support for Assad, who has defended secularism. Many have worked themselves into a panic about the possibility that political upheaval will empower Islamists, as happened in Iraq. Almost 1 million Iraqi refugees live in Syria, their presence a cautionary tale of regime change that has gone wrong.

Key to a successful revolution is splitting Syria’s elites, which comprise the Alawite officer class of the security forces and the great Sunni merchant and industrial families, who preside over the economy as well as Syria’s moral and cultural universe. If those elites stick together, it is difficult to envisage widespread but scattered popular revolts overturning the regime. But an Alawite-Sunni split within the elites would doom the regime. The cohesion of those elites, though, is a question of social class as much as of confession.

The centrality of Dara’a in the uprising may have limited its appeal to the urban elites. The dusty border city marked by tribal loyalties, poverty and Islamic conservatism may inspire Syria’s rural masses who suffer from poverty, a prolonged drought and joblessness, but mass demonstrations there have frightened Syria’s urban elites. Even those who share anger at repressions and hope for liberation with their rural counterparts still fear the poor and the threat of disorder.

Counter demonstrations in support of Assad have been held in a number of Syrian cities, highlighting the anxiety of some minorities. Below is a YouTube clip of a pro-government rally in north east Syria, uploaded by ELIEELIAS187. It shows protesters chanting: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for Bashar”:

Landis received this eye-witness account from a German friend who attended the pro-Assad rally in Aleppo, disputing claims that anti-government protests were held in the city:

There was and still is a big demonstration in progress in Aleppo today (Friday 25th), pro-regime of course. There was apparently a small one of some 200-250 people early this morning, basically in support of the wage hikes announced yesterday, and around 12h30 a bigger one started brewing around Sa’d Allah al-Jabiri place, which just kept growing throughout the afternoon. Now (21h00 local) it’s spread out into the residential areas; Mogambo place is absolutely packed with people dancing and a band standing by. I’d send you pictures except that internet is so terribly slow that I can’t upload anything at home.

Obviously it’s orchestrated to some extent, the usual slogans, the usual underclass youths, the usual black leather clad security guys watching from a distance. But everyone we’ve talked to in the last weeks seems genuinely pro-regime, and now doubly so in light of the reform announcements. Guys I was watching Al Jazeera coverage of violence in Sanamayn today were only muttering “kazzab, kazzab” [lies, lies] under their breath.

The Kurds are of course a different matter; the Ashrafiyya and Shaykh Maqsud suburbs were completely sealed off last Monday (21st, Nawruz)–but that’s true every year and nothing special happened this year to my knowledge. Otherwise every one here that I’ve been able more or less to gauge is delighted over Egypt, Libya, you name it, but sees no parallel to Syria, invokes arguments you already know (Dera’a is being led by families with older antipathies to the Asads and allies of Khaddam), and wouldn’t remotely think of calling for Bashar’s removal.

On your blog today you mention reports of demonstrations in Aleppo, by which I understand are meant anti-regime demonstrations. Do you have more information on this, like where exactly they were? Certainly didn’t see anything and have trouble imagining it.

Another Syrian friend in Aleppo wrote to Landis stressing that President Assad enjoys significant support:

As an addendum to yesterday, I can certainly understand why a lot of Syrians are upset with foreign coverage of the crisis (going so far as to besiege the Al Jazeera studios in Damascus). The events in Deraa, Latakia and elsewhere are indeed critical and deserve wide attention.

But for maybe 90% of the Syrian population, the reality they are living is the sort of pro-regime support that was witnessed yesterday in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. The festivities in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, lasted a good 12 hours and involved I would guess in the low tens of thousands of people–but this was not covered or even mentioned by a single news outlet that I have seen. This isn’t to say that all those people are diehard Bashar fans; it was a beautiful day Friday and there were many families out just to see what was going on. That these demonstrations are “organised by the regime” is kind of a cliché, however, seeing that any thinkable civil group involved (unions, youth clubs, etc.) is tied to the regime on some level; but “fabricated,” as a recent comment posted to your blog suggests, they most certainly are not.

Landis himself writes a detailed piece revealing a Syria dividing between pro and anti-government camps, with a silent majority yet to make its decision:

Syria is dividing into sides – those that will fight the state and those that support the president or fear revolution. The silent majority is still sitting on the side lines, but they will not be able to do so for long if order collapses. The army is sticking by the President, a main difference with Egypt or Tunisia. So long as the army remains united and obeys the President, it will be hard for the opposition to take over parts of the country or bring down the regime.

There were pro-Bashar demonstrations in many cities yesterday, such as Hassake, Homs, Latakia, Damascus in several places, and Aleppo, but there were equally anti-government demonstrations in a number of places, which are now increasingly calling for an end to the Baath Party and the fall of the regime – isqat al-nizaam. I have spoken or corresponded with people in Latakia, Aleppo and Damascus today. Aleppo and Damascus are calm. Latakia is not. The Republican Guard and the army have entered the city to end violence. The people were cheering them on from the balconies in the Sunni neighborhood, I am told.

My wife’s family in Latakia is divided over what is going on. Her mother claimed that although they had not been able to go down town, she insisted that she was very confident in the wisdom of the Syrians. She said they would never be dragged into civil war. She said that in most parts of the city yesterday, people had been out and about.

My brother-in-law, Firas, who lives in American, a Christian quarter near Shaykh Dahr, the downtown area where the demonstrations and shooting took place yesterday, has left the city with his Christian wife and children. He was very anxious when we spoke to him in Latakia this morning at his work place. He said that all the Sunnis who work in his company were saying that there were foreign Sunni elements in town that no one recognized. He believed that they were involved in the fighting yesterday in center city. A number of Syrian military and police were taken to the hospital, having been shot. Firas said that they did not have arms because they were not supposed to shoot at the demonstrators due to the President’s orders. The opposition had arms.

Pro-government people believe that there is an organized and armed opposition that came into town to start a fight and spread false rumors about Alawites from the Mountains coming into town to attack Sunnis, etc.

See the Facebook site:   بلدي حبيبي … ممنوع الفتنة …ويلو اللي يعادينا ؟ In order to see how people are talking about the “Mukharabiin,” the foreign intruders who no one recognizes in Latakia. They say that the unknown intruders entered both Sunni and Alawi neighborhoods and yelled about how the opposite sect was coming to destroy them and “burn them down.” They claim that there was an organized effort to stir up sectarian distrust and violence.

In Jableh, a mixed city just south of Latakia on the coast, there was a big demonstration made up of the entire city (`an bikrati abiiha) on Saturday night. They chanted: “wahid, wahid, wahid, Sunni wa Alawi wahid.” “One, one, one – Sunnis and Alawis are one. ”

Another Christian friend from Latakia – no relation – said that there was a much more organized opposition in town and a lot of sniper shots going on still. There is a fire at the prison, he said. He pooh-pooed the notion that a foreign element was in town, but said that the organized opposition was home grown.

The comments section of Landis’ blog is indicative of the split and cynicism among Syrians. Whilst it may appear to the West that the protests in Syria are largely driven by pro-democratic ambitions, for Syria's minorities it is an anxious fear of an Islamist undercurrent.

SOURI said:

I read repeatedly on revolutionist websites calls from Wahhabis to the revolutionists to attack ammunition depots and steal them. Those Wahhabis are not peaceful demonstrators, they are attacking security, military, and government buildings. They have been burning Assad’s portrays. This is not peaceful demonstration, it is an organized Wahhabi-led rebellion.

The war time has not come yet since that the demonstrators remain too few. However, should the Islamists pour in large numbers into the streets, the war plan must be implemented without hesitation. No surrender. Surrender means the end of Syria, and the end of Alawis before anybody else.

This is not a “democracy revolution,” it is a sectarian insurgency launched by Wahhabis. This is what we have been saying all along and I am glad that some American diplomats have the courage to say things as they are.I just don’t agree with some of the details they mentioned, especially those related to the Kurds and their potential state.

Shami said:

Let them here leo ,Souri’s comments sound the same than to those of the regime.(and similar in one way or other to Dr Landis’s last comments)
The “’salafi,ekhwani,israeli,cia ,kurdish ,wahhabi’” plots of the regime do not work anymore .
They even used this trick when they killed their enemies like Sheykh al Khaznawi.

One commenter questioned the motives of detained Egyptian-American tweep @Battuta:

Solitarius said:

I’m surprised by those who go out of their way to claim that this Egyptian man is innocent (twitter acount: Battutta)

Being neutral and objective means just that.. it doesn’t mean that you should automatically side against the government just because it has a bad history. Really as Jad asked, what is an Egyptian American who passed by Israel doing in Syria taking pictures in times like these? I personally wouldn’t dare take pictures and go anywhere.. Hell even in normal circumstances i wouldn’t take any pictures if i’m close to any government, police or Baath building

clearly there are people who are over doing it in terms of their humanism to the point of being ridiculously naive. People wake up.. It’s that governments lie.. but governments also recruit people and send spies all the time.

Another lashed out at anti-government protesters for undermining the social fabric:

Jad said:

The anonymous rebels are now all defencive and talking about how good, intelligence, patriots and not sectarian they are and that everybody should trust them!
How about telling us and those young Syrians who paid their lives for their call of ‘who the hell are you’, what are you planning to do after destroying the social fabric of Syria and how and what are the ’saving’ plans you propose for poverty, corruption, unemployment, economy, policies (domestic and international) and how are you going to free Jolan?!
They also sound a bit desperate and begging everybody to send Aljazeera millions and billions and zillions of messages.
I guess if they stop spreading sectarian language, be honest and have welcoming national and rational language and have names, ‘maybe’ they will convince more people otherwise what they are doing is using the blood of Syrians for keeping the violence circle running full speed.

An Israeli commenter argued that Israel also fears the emergence of an Islamist state should anti-government protests succeed, oddly placing Tel Aviv in support of its old foe Assad:

Shai said:

It really does amaze me how dependent some people are on Israel. How even now, when the Arab World is experiencing an awakening never before seen in the history of the region, Israel has some “role” to play in all this. Every development in the region, according to some, is a function of Israel.

While Israel does indeed more closely resemble KSA and Iran than Syria, I can assure you that neither are deemed “friends”. Those same Wahhabis in KSA preach far worse against Jews (not Israelis) than any Syrian ever could. They are far more dangerous to us Jews in the region and worldwide, than any Mufti in the secular-Arab world.

Syria is at a crossroads, with high stakes for regional stability. Anti-government protests appear to be polarising the country, with many – including regional powers – fearing the lingering presence of the Muslim Brotherhood. All the more reason why US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has opted to stay out of this potential revolution, labeling Assad a “reformer”.

This post is part of our special coverage Syria Protests 2011.

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