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No Unity on Independence Day

Syria’s independence day was honoured last week with speeches and events that reflected the divide between pro-government forces and the opposition.

The government marked the liberation from French rule on April 17 with media campaigns that condemned imperialism and celebrated Syria’s martyrs, revolutionary leaders and national symbols.

Syria declared independence in 1946 after more than a quarter of a century as a French Mandate territory.

April 17 is honoured by Syrians of many political stripes as a day of pride in the country’s history. Official celebrations are held throughout the country, including one on the site of the battle of Maysalun in 1920, about 20 kilometres west of Damascus, when General Yousef al-Azma opposed French forces with just a few hundred men. He was killed in the battle and is buried at the site.

About 30 members of the Democratic Arab Social Union Party, an opposition group, went to Azma’s grave carrying a sign reading, "A free country needs free citizens."

Dozens of security officers and government supporters carrying photos of President Bashar al-Assad then moved into the crowd, cheering for the head of state. They prevented the opposition party’s leader, Hasan Abdul-Azeem, from making a speech in front of the grave, but he was able to lay wreaths.

"National events like independence day should be a time when all Syrians come together," said a Syrian analyst and writer. "But unfortunately that doesn’t happen easily, because the authorities don’t want the opposition using such occasions for public activities.”

The opposition’s presence on independence day paled in comparison with previous years. "The most recent crackdown against the opposition has affected its activities,” said the writer. “It's not just about fear, but the feeling that there is no middle ground between the two sides, even when it comes to national events."

The Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights is one issue that does unite Syrians, and was highlighted by both pro- and anti-government forces during the independence celebrations.

In an official celebration in Al-Suwayda in southern Syria, the ruling Baath party’s assistant regional secretary, Muhammad Saed Bkhetan, said the concepts of independence and struggle “exist in the soul of our people. They are still as necessary today as they were yesterday, because the Golan is still under the oppressive Zionist occupation. There is no doubt that this precious part of our country will be returned to its motherland, Syria."

For people not involved in political life, Independence Day is of lesser significance. Two years ago, three-quarters of 600 people in an opinion poll could not name the date, according to the Syria News website.

"Those of us born in the Eighties don’t know a lot about our history,” admitted one law student. “Just last year, I started to learn the names of our former presidents and prime ministers. I’m teaching myself because our education system and our media largely ignore that period of history. In any case, the celebrations are always done in a traditional way, and don’t reflect the spirit of the event."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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