Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Going Back for Syrian Uprising

Regime attempting to bring protesters to their knees but this only seems to make them more determined.
By Zoe Holman
  • Protesters in Damascus, April 24. (Photo: Syriana2011)
    Protesters in Damascus, April 24. (Photo: Syriana2011)

After a week of intensifying protest that has seen the civilian death-toll exceed 500, commentators agree that the uprising in Syria has reached a point of no return.

In a speech to parliament two weeks ago, President Bashar al-Assad conceded to protester demands by lifting the country’s 48-year-old emergency rule, but provoked scepticism amongst many Syrians that the laws would be replaced by even harsher measures to quell dissent. 

The use of brutal force against the some 1000 protesters who turned out across the country in defiance of the regime for Friday's "Day of Rage" seems to have confirmed Syrians' worst fears, with the human rights organisation Sawasiah claiming that at least 60 people were killed by government fire.

Sawasiah believes that a further 100 people have died in the past week as the security forces tightened their grip on the sourthern town of Daraa and other centres of dissent.

“The whole strategy is to build the wall of fear again,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Spain-based human-rights monitoring organisation Insan.

Tarif returned from Syria a fortnight ago where he witnessed the escalating brutality of government tactics, including the use of bands of armed thugs, not seen since the reign of the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

“First, the government used security forces to arbitrarily detain and torture people all over the country, releasing them afterwards to spread the word and incite fear,” Tarif said. “Next they have employed thugs loyal to the regime to try to incite sectarian feeling, targeting Sunnis and claiming the attacks were by Shia and vice-versa.

“What is most worrying is that we have no way of knowing what’s going in these places. The scary thing about a place like Daraa is that we are only getting information from two streets in a town of 100,000, and from just those streets we’ve had reports of 31 deaths since Sunday.”

This week, more than 230 members of Assad’s ruling Baath party announced their resignation in protest at the government’s increasingly violent crackdown, the majority of them from Daraa where demonstrations began six weeks ago.

Human rights monitors and press agencies have also received reports of dissent within the security forces, with soldiers refusing to fire on civilian protesters. However, there is little expectation that this will lead to a weakening of the regime.

“I interviewed three families of soldiers who were punished or tortured for refusing orders, but here we are just talking about individuals with ethics,” Tarif said. “I doubt that this kind of dissent would turn into anything resembling political action. Most of the army is extremely loyal to regime, which is a logistical and systematised killing machine.”

Instead, many view the employment of army tanks and troops on a grand scale in Daraa, Latakiya and suburbs of Damascus as an attempt at a decisive show of strength by the regime to silence the protesters.

“I don't agree with the analysis that the regime is split between reformers and hard-liners. It is very much a cohesive unit, and the core always unites even more in times of crisis,” Syrian born analyst, Rime Allaf, of the British think-tank Chatham House, said. “And now it is going for an all-out show of force to scare Syrians. So far, it has shown absolutely no signs of letting up.”

According to both Tarif and Allaf, the president's two public addresses over the past month signaled that the government was unwilling to placate protesters with real offers of reform, instead opting for the path of brutal control.

“Assad's first speech was considered disappointing for a lot of Syrians,” Allaf said. “If the regime had made simple concessions a month ago, many people would have believed that it was at least on the track to true reform, but the chance to see that never materialised.

“The message from the top has simply been 'we are reforming as we see fit and we will tell you when we're ready`."

However, the momentum which has risen from popular outrage at the regime may not be so easily contained. Despite the bloodshed, it seems that regime force is being met with equal determination by protesters.

“The crackdown is terrifying to see, but I don’t know if it will work,” Allaf said. “I think many Syrians will be willing to continue fighting the terrible corruption and repression they've witnessed. Everyone is aware that they cannot go back to the Syria of six-weeks ago.”

Tarif says he has been speaking to a lot of young people – not activists, but ordinary Syrians – who say they don't have a choice about giving up now, “They say they'd prefer death to a lifetime of violent detention and government retribution. So people feel they can't afford to lose.”

But if the uprising is to mount a serious challenge to Baath party rule, it will require greater organisation and structure.

“The strength of this movement is that it has no real leadership that the regime has been able to identify or arrest,” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and editor of the prominent blog Syria Comment, said.

“But this is also a weakness, because it leaves the door open for the government to demonise the uprising as the dark forces of terrorists or foreign influences.

“The opposition has youth, passion and exuberance, but now is time for some real organisational strategising. It needs to figure out how to attack these very powerful state institutions and to prove that Syria has a real, unified democratic identity.”

Despite these weaknesses, Landis suggests that opposition to the Baathist regime has reached a scale that the party will be unable to endure.

“The regime cannot ultimately thwart the protests,” he said. “Either it will be brought down or crumble under international and economic pressures, but Syria is not going to go back to another twenty years of dictatorship.”

While analysts agree that the uprising has changed Syria forever, the price of transformation may yet be high.

“You can see from the organic way the movement has evolved that it is a genuine, popular uprising,” Allaf said. “It is very scary when a population is pushed to the point where they are willing to die. It's not as though people are not afraid, but for many Syrians, their freedom and dignity may be bigger than that.”

Zoe Holman is an IWPR contributor.