The Syrian revolution that erupted in March 2011 and is still continuing tends to be interpreted in too superficial a manner by the international community. Many characterise the situation as a civil war, implying that the civilian population is caught up in a sectarian bloodbath.
In fact, Syrians are paying a high price for removing the most vicious and authoritarian regime that has ever ruled their country. A people who remained silent until the flames of freedom coming from Tunisia and Egypt made it possible to hope for change launched a peaceful movement which was met by brutal repression.
To understand what has been going on in Syria over the last 17 months, you need a knowledge of the country’s modern history, and of how the Baathist regime ruled for over 40 years.
In contrast to Libya, Syrian independence in 1946 brought free elections – women had the vote by 1949 – a judiciary, parliament, and political parties in which many people became engaged. In the 1950s, numerous secular parties became popular, including the Baath Party, which seized power in 1963.
In 1971, the Baath Party installed Hafez al-Assad as president. In time, what had begun as a state governed by a party with a socialist agenda of supporting farmers and workers, who had the right to question the president, was transformed into the brutal dictatorship of the 1980s. Backed by top army officers, President Assad sidelined civil institutions and turned the country over to the security agencies which operated hand in hand with a small business elite.
The current regime came out of a coalition of Sunnis, Alawites and other groups. The Assad family gained privileges that also extended to some of the Alawite community, thus creating the false impression that it was only Alawites who were in power.
The Syrian army was trained to be loyal only to Assad and his family. On the orders of the regime, it carried out a series of massacres. One of these, in 1979, came in response to a coup attempt against Assad. In 1982, the Hama massacre is believed to have left 20,000 to 40,000 civilians dead.
These massacres consolidated the Assad regime’s grip in power.
As one commentator said of the 1980s, “It is not Assad who rules Syria now, it is fear.”
The year 2000 brought hope of change. The late president’s son Bashar al-Assad came in with talk of reforms, promising political and economic changes that never materialised.
Deceptive economic growth figures concealed the fact that the new business elite was the principal beneficiary. Activists striving for political reform were repressed as the regime employed the rhetoric of Arab nationalism and resistance against Israel and the West to maintain its hold.
People realised they were under the same regime as before, just with different personalities in charge. Even so, many remained hopeful and waited for reform.
In 2011, peaceful demonstrations were met by ferocious, violent repression. Moreover, the regime started to generate an armed conflict by allocating weapons to its supporters – Alawites in particular, but also from other communities – and setting them on its own population. The pretext was that they were fighting Sunni jihadists who were out to kill minorities and establish Islamic rule.
At this point, many Syrian intellectuals from all faith groups have lost any hope of reform. They do not believe change can come from a regime that is prepared to engulf the country in a conflagration either to ensure its survival or to avenge its own demise.
The rebels, and Syrians generally, now find themselves having to accept any support they can get, even though they are aware this is being given in pursuit of certain agendas.
The revolution cannot now retreat. People know that if they back down, they will have to endure an even more repressive police state that deploys bands of thugs empowered to take punitive action against them.
Najah Dimashqieh is the pseudonym of a journalist in Syria.