The wave of unrest which swept the Middle East starting in December 2010 did not reach Syria immediately. When Al Jazeera asked Professor Fawas Gerges how Syria was unlike Tunisia and Egypt, he said,
“The army in Syria is the power structure. The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same.”
Power in Syria was concentrated in the hands of 45-year-old President Bashar al-Assad, his family, and the security apparatus. There were no real opposition figures or alternatives to the leadership of the time. In January 2011, President Assad acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal that Syria needed reform, but he also said that it was immune to the kind of unrest seen in Tunisia and Egypt. He said,
“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.”
Joshua Landis, author of the blog Syria Comment, told Al Jazeera,
“An important factor is that [Assad]’s popular among young people. Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don’t like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard.’”
A Syrian student said,
“The president knows that reform is needed and he is working on it. As for me, I don’t have anything against our president. The main issues which need to be addressed are freedom of speech and expression as well as human rights. I believe that the president and his wife are working on that. New NGOs have started to emerge. Also, many things have changed since Bashar came to power, whether it has to do with road construction, salary raises, etc. Even when it comes to corruption, he is trying hard to stop that and limit the use of ‘connections’ by the powerful figures in Syria. However, he won’t be able to dramatically change the country with the blink of an eye.”
The riches of President Assad’s first cousin Rami Makhlouf signified the corruption endemic to the ruling elite. As the owner of several monopolies, Makhlouf controlled billions of dollars in Syria’s economy. His connections earned him lucrative deals for oil exploration and power plants, and gave him virtual veto power over foreign firms seeking to do business in Syria. In 2008, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Makhlouf for what Washington regarded as public corruption.
Since Bashar al-Assad succeeded to the presidency in 2000, he used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni merchant classes as the economic system gradually shifted from socialism to capitalism. Markets opened to foreign companies and growth had been expected to reach 5.5% of GDP in 2011. The government had reported the average monthly salary as 13,500SP ($290), an increase of 6%.
But unemployment in Syria was officially 10%, and analysts said it was really more like 20%. One report suggested that 32% of young Syrians neither worked nor studied in 2010. Subsidies on staples like heating oil had been slashed and the poor felt it.
Joshua Landis of Syria Comment:
“The bottom half of Syrians spend half of their income on food. Now, wheat and sugar prices have gone up in the last two years by almost 50 percent. Syria is moving towards capitalism. This has resulted in a greater growth rate but it’s expanding income gaps. It’s attracting foreign investment and the top 10 percent are beginning to earn real salaries on an international scale because they’re working for these new banks and in new industries. But the bottom 50% are falling because they’re on fixed incomes and they get hit by inflation, reduced subsidies on goods, coupled with the fact that Syria’s water scarcity is going through the roof.”
Syria did not have the grinding poverty seen in the Cairo slums, but it was clear that officials worried the worsening economy would cause political unrest. The Syrian Bureau of Statistics claimed that nothing in the recent data had suggested a growing gap between rich and poor. Nonetheless the government established a new unemployment aid fund in February 2011, and officials admitted that they moved up its launch in response to the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia.
Tunisia had been hailed as an economic role model in North Africa. In Beirut, Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry told Al Jazeera the lesson was that economic reform on its own did not work:
“It will be interesting to watch how things are going to unfold over the coming few months. The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom … [but] people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt … The groups who have mobilized in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price—Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama … in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”
In 1982, President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, sent elite army units to put down a rebellion of Muslim Brotherhood fighters in Hama. They demolished much of that city with tanks and aerial bombardment and massacred 10,000-30,000 people. Radwan Ziadeh of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies testified to the U.N. Human Rights Council that some 17,000 Syrians disappeared during the repression campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood between 1980 and 1987.
Syria’s Kurds had long suffered marginalization under the rule of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party—Syria Region (the official name of the Ba’ath Party in Syria, apart from that of the “Iraq Region”), which was founded on an ideology that recognizes only Arabs as citizens. In 1962, a year before the Ba’ath Party seized power, a controversial census in the Kurdish region of Hasakah, in the northeast, denied citizenship to an unknown number of Kurds quoted at 120,000, 150,000, or 300,000, by registering them as foreigners on the grounds that they had not been born in Syria.
Firharad, a Kurdish grandfather of 20 from a remote village near Malkiah, 60 km northeast of the regional capital Hasakah, broke into tears when recalling the hardships of a life spent without official papers and limited access to state-run health and education. He desperately wanted his grandchildren not to have to repeat his experience:
“I did two years national service in the army and then my elder brother told me that I had no Syrian nationality … I spent my life without education, without a proper job. Sometimes I got temporary work in the state sector, but I would always have to move to another job. I tried to go to Europe and the Gulf to work, but I couldn’t get a passport.”
The old man’s wife died two years earlier, when the state-run Assad University Hospital in Damascus refused to provide her heart surgery on the grounds that she was not a Syrian citizen.
In the 1970s, the Ba’ath regime attempted to create an “Arab belt” in northern Syria by expropriating Kurdish land and giving it to Arabs. It then initiated a policy of repressing Kurdish identity. The Ba’ath Party banned the Kurdish language and Kurdish books from schools, prohibited celebrating the traditional Kurdish New Year, Nowrouz, and routinely imprisoned Kurdish political leaders.
This fuelled a desire in the region to break away and emulate or join the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq. The Ba’ath regime saw successful Kurdish self-rule in Iraq and feared greater Kurdish autonomy.
In March 2004, after a brawl between Arab and Kurdish football fans, the Kurds around Qamishli mounted violent demonstrations that led to days of rioting and mass anti-regime protests which spread through Kurdish regions across Syria. Security forces killed 36 people, most of whom were Kurds.
Five years of systematic repression followed. As President Assad pledged to restore Kurdish citizenship at the June 2005 Ba’ath Party conference, a leading Kurdish cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Khaznawi, was being tortured to death and security forces were rounding up almost all Kurdish political leaders.
Over those years, Syria also bolstered its repression of the Kurds by strengthening its relationship with Turkey, where 15-20 million Kurds complain of discrimination and where Kurdish rebels carry on a decades-old separatist war.
The long-term policy of dispossession and discrimination against Kurds in Syria left them among the poorest communities in the country. In addition, a sustained drought in northeast Syria decimated Kurdish communities and drove thousands off their land and into urban centers. A 2008 human rights report by the British Foreign Office stated that the portion of Syrian Kurds in poverty doubled from 40 percent to 80 percent in just three years from 2005-2008.
When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, he was relatively soft. His older brother Basil had been groomed for the ruler’s seat, but Basil’s death in a car accident in 1994 changed Bashar’s destiny from optometry to presidency. Bashar felt it was his duty to take the seat. However nothing in medicine had trained him to partner with the rigid Ba’ath Party and the security apparatus, over which he may have had little control.
But the authoritarian state's penetration and control had not fully blunted Syrian society's ability to meet and organize in pursuit of good government. At the same time, Assad's succession partly encouraged a phase of heightened civic activism. “Political salons” arose in private homes which became amazingly vibrant speaking venues. Even members of the dreaded Mukhabarat, the intelligence services, openly and regularly attended various salons in Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere in Syria.
But in 2005, the members of the Damascus Declaration, the first unified opposition movement in Syria, were convicted of criminal offenses and jailed for up to five years on charges like “weakening national sentiment,” “belonging to a secret society,” and “spreading false news.” The hardliners within the security forces, intelligence apparatus, and the ruling Ba’ath Party had silenced pro-reform voices around President Assad.
There were at least sixteen separate branches of security services in Syria which played overlapping roles as domestic policemen. These were organized under the National Security Bureau as follows:
National Security Bureau of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party—Syria Region
General Security Directorate
· Internal Security Division
· External Security Division
· Palestinian Affairs Division
Political Security Directorate
· Internal Security Department
· External Security Department
Military Intelligence Directorate
· Damascus Countryside Branch
· Hama Branch
· Deir ez-Zor Branch
· Idlib Branch
· Homs Branch
· Deraa Branch
· Suwayda Branch
Air Force Intelligence Directorate
· Damascus Branch
· Homs Branch
· Deraa Branch
· Latakia Branch
The private militia of the Assad family itself was al-Shabeeha, “the Ghosts,” who emerged in the 1970s when Hafez al-Assad took power. The Shabeeha were nothing new to many Syrians but remained largely unknown outside the country. In the diverse coastal port city of Latakia about 350 km northwest of Damascus—home to some 450,000 Christians, Sunnis, and Alawites but dominated by Sunni Muslims and surrounded by mountain villages that are home to Alawites—residents, journalists, and eyewitnesses almost all said the same thing: Shabeeha are almost exclusively Alawites from the region.
According to a number of experts on Syria, the Shabeeha were based in the mountain stronghold of Qardaha overlooking Latakia, and answered to the orders of local Assad family elders. They controlled Latakia’s port and obtained their wealth by importing and distributing goods tax free. During the 1980s Shabeeha were reported to be heavily involved in smuggling drugs from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. They had easy access to arms through their close ties to the military and the security forces.
President Bashar al-Assad reportedly disbanded the Shabeeha after taking office in 2000. But in a YouTube video from October 2010, a group which Syrians described as Shabeeha beat a man who local media described as the head of a private university. Local journalists said the man had been attacked because he refused to admit a female student, who was a member of the Assad family, to take an exam when she arrived after it had already begun. As the man cowered, his attackers shouted, “Are you trying to get one over the Assad family?”
In a one-party police state, Syria’s university campuses had long been a place for gathering intelligence on students as much as educating them. Fadi, a 25-year-old student at Damascus University, said, “All new ideas come from the youth and therefore the university environment is even more controlled than the rest of Syria.”
Activists documented dozens of students who were arrested after speaking their mind on campus or were informed on to the security services by a fellow student. Khaled, a former student, said, “Students report each other to supervisors, and in return they are offered privileges such as being allowed to stay out until late or better dorm rooms.”
At the main gates of Damascus University students and teachers passed under a towering statue of Hafez al-Assad, draped in a university robe and holding a stack of books. Though the Ba’ath Party opened up free university education to hundreds of thousands of students from poor families, it also attempted to smother dissent on campus through a web of informers keeping an eye on the university’s nearly 220,000 students. Students loyal to the party were rewarded.
In elementary school, students could enroll in the Ba’ath Pioneers and in high school, the Revolution Youth Union. When they started university, teachers encouraged them to join the Ba’ath Party itself. Membership guaranteed an instant increase in grade points, a crucial boost for those hoping to enter the best departments.
Membership of the Students’ Union was not compulsory but brought many rewards. The Students’ Union was run by Ammar Saaty, a Ba’ath Party Member of the People’s Council and reportedly a close friend of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. No event took place on campus without the Students’ Union’s permission. Mohammad, a 22-year-old student who did not join the ruling party, said,
“Ba’athist students receive five to ten grade points more than us so they can get into the better faculties … It is easier to get a room in campus if you’re a member of the Union. Otherwise you might have to rent a room in the city which costs a lot of money.”
The Syrian constitution guaranteed freedom of expression. However a state of “Emergency Law” had authorized Ba’ath Party rule since March 8, 1963, when the party took power following a series of military coups after independence from the French Mandate authorities. A set of laws imposed restrictions on public gatherings and movement, prohibited demonstrations and most other political expression, permitted the authorities to conduct surveillance of personal communication and to arrest and interrogate “suspects or persons who threaten security” or who “oppose the goals of the revolution” without warrants and imprison them without trials, and gave the government official control over of the content of newspapers and other media before publication. The Emergency Laws were extended for nearly half a century, ostensibly because of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.
Additionally, a law passed in 1965 to protect the Ba’ath Party revolution provided imprisonment for the charge of “working against the goals of the revolution.” Article 8 of the Constitution, written in 1973, gave the Ba’ath Party the right to be “the leading party of state and society.” Law 49 of the Penal Code made membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a crime punishable by death. The Ba’ath Party Regional Command held the sole power to potentially nominate candidates for the presidency.
Laws enacted since 1969 provided that members of the Mukhabarat could only be prosecuted by their own superior officer. In 2008, a presidential decree extended this impunity to cover all branches of security.
Political activists continued to be detained regularly, and the Haitham Maleh Foundation estimated that Syrian jails held 4,500 of them. Human Rights Watch said that in 2010, Syria’s authorities were among the worst violators of human rights and had jailed lawyers, tortured opponents, and violently repressed the Kurds. Syrian officials said that political prisoners had violated the Constitution and that foreign criticism of Syria’s human rights record was interference in its affairs.
President Assad signed Syria’s ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2004. But the torture cells of Tadmor, Syria’s desert prison, continued extracting confessions from individuals accused of standing against the Assads. Communist Akram Bunni’s spine was stretched in a torture device known as the German Chair, which left him partially paralyzed. Muslim Brotherhood members were whipped with cable and stunned with electric shock devices.
Detainees were often tried in either the military court or the Supreme State Security Court, where they were not allowed a lawyer. Most of those tried in security courts were said to be political opponents, ranging from democracy activists to Kurds or Islamists.
Online activists based mostly outside of Syria used Facebook to urge Syrians to take to the streets across Syria for a “day of anger” over the weekend of February 5-6, 2011, the anniversary of the Hama massacre. Their campaign gathered 15,000 “fans,” but countercampaigns in favor of the government got as much support as the dissenters. More than ten activists told Human Rights Watch that security services contacted them to warn them not to mobilize. Only small demonstrations in the mainly Kurdish northeast occurred.
Al Jazeera asked activist Suhair Atassi why few anti-government protests were held. She said,
“Fear is dominating peoples’ lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation ... When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against Syria’s only mobile phone operators, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why. He told me: ‘Please organize a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us’. I asked him, ‘Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?’ He replied, ‘I’m afraid of being arrested because I’m the only breadwinner for my family!’”
President al-Assad’s exiled cousin Ribal al-Assad said,
“The campaign was a bit outrageous. First, they’ve chosen a date that reminds people of the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood. People don’t want to be reminded of the past. They want change, they want freedom, but they want it peacefully. And the picture they used on Facebook, a clenched fist and red color like blood behind, it was like people calling for civil war and who in his right mind wants that? But of course people want change, because there is poverty, corruption, people get arrested without warrants, the government refuses to disclose their whereabouts for months. They are sentenced following unfair trials, a lot of times with stupid sentences such as ‘weakening the nation’s morale’ for saying ‘we want freedom and democracy.’ But the only one weakening the nation’s morale is the government itself.”
Syrians also believed that the Ba’ath Party’s secularism was the best way to deal with their fear of religious tensions. Of the Syrian population of about 23 million, Sunnis accounted for 74% while the Kurds among them were the largest single minority at 8 or 9%. However Assad’s main supporters, the Shi’ites, including Alawites (to whom he belongs), Ismailis, Druze, and Imami Shi’ites, accounted for 13%. Several kinds of Christians amounted to 10%.
Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera,
“The regime in Syria presents itself as a buffer for various communities, essentially saying, ‘If we go, you will be left to the wolves.’ That gives it ability to mobilize large segments of the population.”
Joshua Landis of Syria Comment said,
“If [Assad’s] regime were to fall, many of the Alawites would lose their jobs. And they look back at the times when the Muslim Brotherhood targeted them as nonbelievers and even non-Arabs. Then of course the Christians, who are about 10% of the population, are the biggest supporters of al-Assad and the Baath party because it’s secular. They hear horror stories of what has happened in Iraq, about Christians being killed and kidnapped. The Iraqi refugees are a cautionary tale for Syrians. They have seen what happens when regime change goes wrong. This has made Syrians very conservative. They don’t trust democracy. I’m always astounded how the average guy in the street—the taxi driver, the person you talk to in a restaurant or wherever—they don’t talk about democracy. They complain about corruption, they want justice and equality, but they’ll look at elections in Lebanon and laugh, saying ‘who needs that kind of democracy?’ The younger generation has been depoliticized. They don’t belong to parties. They see politics as a danger and they have been taught by their parents to see it as a danger. They look at the violence out there, in places like Iraq … In some ways, being pro-American has forced Egypt to allow for greater civil society, while Syria has been quite shut off from the West. The opposition in Syria is very fragmented. The Kurds can usually get together in the biggest numbers but there are fourteen Kurdish parties ... and the human rights leaders—half of them are in jail and others have been in jail for a long time.”
Unlike in Egypt, where Mubarak’s alignment with the U.S. and Israel fueled criticism, the Assad regime had been Israel’s enemy since the Ba’athist revolution, and Syria’s technical state of war with Israel since a 1974 ceasefire contributed to Assad’s popularity.
Syria had played host to variety of anti-Israel Palestinian resistance groups which the U.S. branded as terrorists. Since 1979, it had been a charter member of the U.S. government's small and exclusive list of state sponsors of terrorism. Many of the groups the Syrian government harbored had long since faded, but it continued hosting the external leadership of Hamas.
Syria also served as the critical logistical lynchpin in its tripartite alliance with Iran and Hezbollah by facilitating the movement of missiles and other weaponry from the former to the latter. It leveraged its relationship with Hezbollah in order to exercise influence in Lebanon and marginalize the actors most favorable to the West. In an air raid in September 2007, Israel destroyed a mysterious site in Syria which it alleged to house a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor.
When U.S. losses in Iraq were at their height, the U.S. accused Syria of tolerating or facilitating the movement of the foreign extremists. These extremists were responsible for a disproportionate amount of al-Qaeda-sponsored violence and most of the suicide bombings which killed thousands of Iraqis.
When the Obama Administration entered office, it operated on the notion that further demonizing Syria would not help achieve its goals in the region, and that implacable hostility should give way to some form of constructive engagement. The Administration also reportedly believed that a Syrian-Israeli peace deal would serve to break up the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah and promote the settlement of the Palestinian question by weakening Hamas.
Assad had made overtures toward Israel, but insisted on the return of the Golan Heights as a precondition for talks. His refusal to align with the United States or Europe and his support for Hezbollah also gave him international sanctions as a useful scapegoat for economic problems.
A Syrian “fan” of a Facebook page who opposed protests told Al Jazeera,
“I love my country and I don’t want to see people fighting. I can’t imagine the events occurring in Egypt to happen in Syria because we really like our president, not because they teach us to like him. In the formation of ministries, he’s made use of 100 percent talent with the multiplicity of religions. There are not Alawites only. There are also Sunnis and Kurds and Christians. The president is married to Asma and she is Sunni. He shows the people we are brothers. And he is the only president in the Arab region that did not accept any offers from Israel, like other presidents. I, and most Syrians, if not all, can’t accept a president who will hold hands with Israel.”
Tunisia used to hold the worst record for Internet filtering in the Arab world, but increased freedom came with the revolution there. The interim government began allowing access to political opposition and video-sharing sites. Visitors to blocked sites, mostly ones considered obscene, began encountering a block page instead of a blank page.
Despite surveillance and bans on numerous sites, the internet was a rare outlet for Syrians to express political views. Syria nonetheless used to hold the second worst record for Internet filtering in the Arab world. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, the Syrian government had long censored social media, political opposition, human rights information, anonymizers, and Muslim Brotherhood sites. U.S. sanctions made it illegal to export software tools to circumvent the blocks without a license from the Treasury and Commerce departments, or to market Microsoft or Google products, among others. Savvy Syrians used them anyway, along with VPN services and web-based proxies.
On February 9, 2011, the authorities appeared to follow Tunisia’s example and granted access to Facebook, Blogspot, and YouTube for the first time since 2007. Some ISPs however continued blocking Amazon.com, Arabic Wikipedia, and keywords like “Facebook” and “proxy.”
Access does not mean safety, and the newfound freedom posed risk to activists. Social media have been exploited to conduct surveillance in many countries, even in the U.S. where creditors have used Facebook to track down debtors. The Tunisian government was alleged in December 2010 to have phished Facebook and Gmail passwords.
Blogger Anas Qtiesh, who blogged from Syria from 2005-2009 before moving to the U.S., explained: “It was a hard choice between safety and credibility. I was inspired by other Syrian bloggers who blogged under their real names.” To mitigate risk, he blogged in English, which he felt was “relatively safer.”
While Blogspot was blocked, Syrian authorities arrested four users for content published on it. In December 2010 a security court charged one of them, Tal al-Mallhoui, with “revealing information that should remain hushed to a foreign country” after holding her since her arrest on December 27, 2009, when state security officials her forced from her home at age 17. Two days after Mallhoui’s arrest, state security officers raided her family’s home in Homs, an industrial city about a hundred miles north of Damascus which was Syria’s third largest, with 800,000 people. They confiscated her computer, computer disks, notebooks, personal documents, and a mobile phone.
An anonymous official said, “She was detained on the accusation of spying for a foreign country.” Another anonymous official said, “She was accused of espionage and sending information to the American embassy in Egypt through her blog.”
On her blog, talmallohi.blogspot.com, Tal had posted poems and essays that focused on the suffering of the Palestinians, restrictions on freedom of expression, and her hope for peace in the Middle East. She had written articles saying she yearned to play a role in shaping Syria’s future and asking U.S. President Barack Obama to do more to support the Palestinian cause. There was no clear connection between al-Mallhoui’s blog and her prosecution, but activists said that security services may have detained her for a poem she wrote which criticized certain restrictions on freedom of expression in Syria. This is an illustration of Tal’s poetry:
You Will Remain an Example (referring to Gandhi):
I will walk with all walking people
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
A palm tree
A drop in the cloud
And a grave to protect me
The al-Mallhouis were a well-known Syrian family. Tal’s grandfather, Mohammad Dia al-Mallhoui, served as the Minister of State for the People’s Assembly under President Hafez al-Assad. Her parents begged the media and human rights organizations not to interfere with their attempts to seek their daughter’s release through private channels and negotiations. Most human rights organizations made the decision not to make contact with her family. They feared that state security would use this as an excuse to arrest other family members. Since the government convinced no one that Mallhoui was a spy, these organizations feared that the government was searching for any clue or misstep they could find to support their case.
On September 1, 2010, increasingly anxious that her daughter was being tortured, Tal al-Mallhoui’s mother sent a direct appeal to President Assad, saying, “I plead with you to save my daughter’s life. I am not able to describe the disaster that has befallen our entire family and the amount of suffering we are going through.”
On September 30, 2010, family members were allowed their first visit with Tal al-Mallhoui at Douma Women’s Prison, some twelve miles northwest of Damascus. Her father reported that she was in good health. Her mother did not comment.
Al-Mallhoui’s parents told Human Rights Watch that she did not belong to any political group. In October 2010, an official said in the newspaper al-Watan, which is owned by President Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, that her spying for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had triggered a November 2009 attempt to assassinate a security officer on a Cairo street which left the officer disabled. There was no official comment on that report.
Alec Ross, an advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, tweeted:
“Welcome positive move on Facebook and YouTube in Syria but concerned that freedom puts users at risk absent freedom of expression and association.”
Nonetheless, Mazen Darwish of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression told The Guardian he thought the unblocking was a positive step:
“After what happened on the 4th and the 5th, the authorities now know that the Syrian people are not the enemy.”
On February 12, 2011, the U.S. State Department criticized the Syrian authorities for prosecuting Tal al-Mallhoui in a secret trial and appealed for her release. Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, wrote:
“The United States strongly condemns Syria’s secret trial of blogger Tal Al-Mallhoui, calls for her immediate release, and rejects as baseless allegations of American connections that have resulted in a spurious accusation of espionage. We call on the Syrian government to immediately release all its prisoners of conscience; and allow its citizens freedom to exercise their universal rights of expression and association without fear of retribution from their own government.”
An anonymous official close to the Supreme State Security Court then told AP that on February 14, 2011, that court had sentenced Tal al-Mallhoui, then 19, to five years in prison. He said that she deserved 15 years, but that her sentence had been commuted to five years out of consideration for her age. He did not offer details nor did he identify the country she had been accused of spying for.
Lawyers who had been present said that the judge (there were no prosecutors or defense attorneys) gave no details nor did he identify the country in question. Tal al-Mallhoui had been brought chained and blindfolded before the Supreme State Security Court in a closed session. She was accused of “divulging information to a foreign state,” which meant high treason. The court did not offer any evidence or disclose any details of the reason for her arrest. Her parents had not been allowed to attend.
Tal al-Mallhoui became the youngest known convicted political prisoner. The state security court’s verdict was final and could not be challenged. Tal remained in solitary confinement and was allowed no visitors—not even family members or a lawyer.
Late in February, 2011, Syrian authorities arrested a prominent woman from the city of Deraa, physician Aisha Aba Zeid, for posting a political opinion on the internet. They also forcibly hauled a 15-year-old, a 16-year-old, and 38 ten-year-old children from their classrooms and took them to a notorious military intelligence detention center called the Palestine Branch. There was news of their release, but their families stated that the news was false.
Deraa, a poor, mostly Sunni city of 125,000 which is 100 km south of Damascus and close to the Jordanian border, was Syria’s main southern city and the capital of Deraa governorate. It was a primarily agricultural community of large tribal families where falling water levels had hurt the economy in recent years. The region also housed thousands who had left their homes in eastern Syria because of the water crisis. Tribes there resented the wealth and power the Alawites had amassed.
According to Jillian York of International Freedom of Expression, ten Syrian bloggers sat behind bars at this point.
Also that February, a small demonstration against police brutality took place in Damascus which ended when the Interior Minister arrived and promised to punish the offending officers.
Early in March, 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said thirteen political prisoners had gone on hunger strike to protest against “political detentions and oppression” in their country. One of them, 80-year-old former judge Haitham al-Maleh of the Human Rights Association in Syria, had first been imprisoned from 1980 to 1986 for demanding constitutional reform. The Syrian authorities had arrested al-Maleh again in October 2009. In July 2010 they convicted him of spreading false information and sentenced him to three years in prison.
Also early in March, pro-democracy graffiti which had been seen on TV news reports from Cairo and Tunis, such as “As-Shaab / Yoreed / Eskaat el nizam!” for “The people / want / to topple the regime!” appeared on school walls and grain silos in Deraa.
On March 6, 2011, the authorities arrested fifteen boys between the ages of ten and fifteen for the graffiti. The boys were taken to one of the cells of the local Political Security Directorate, under the control of General Atef Najib, a cousin of President Assad. In the interrogation room there, the boys were beaten, burned, and had their fingernails pulled out.
Then in the Damascus suburb of Madaya, four 17-year-olds were handcuffed and taken from their classrooms for spraying anti-government graffiti. Their whereabouts remained unknown.
On March 7, 2011, President Bashar al-Assad marked the anniversary of the 1963 coup which brought the Ba’ath Party to power by issuing an amnesty order which freed prisoners over 70 and others convicted of minor crimes like theft and forgery. Among them was Haitham al-Maleh, who suffered from diabetes and thyroid problems. On his release, Haitham al-Maleh told Reuters:
“I am in good shape mentally, which annoys the regime. The march for peaceful democratic change in Syria must continue … There are thousands of political prisoners left who have been thrown in jail upon the orders of the security apparatus. One day we will have an independent judiciary.”
For days, the families of the missing boys from Deraa failed to locate them through official channels. The disappearance of Syrian citizens, even children, might not have been unusual, but the arrested boys were from almost every large family of Deraa: the Baiazids, the Jawabras, the Masalmas and the Zoubis.
After Friday prayers on March 11, around 200 people from the families of the missing, along with local religious leaders, gathered and marched on the house of Deraa’s governor, Faisal Kalthoum. The governor’s security guards initially struggled to beat the protesters back. Riot police were called in and used water cannons and tear gas. Armed members of Political Security then turned up and opened fire on the protesters.
Ibrahim, a relative of one of the boys, later said,
“A large number of security arrived and started shooting at people and injured some of them. When the people saw the blood, they went crazy. We all belong to tribes and big families and for us blood is a very, very serious issue … We were asking in a peaceful way to release the children but their reply to us was bullets. Now we can have no compromise with any security branches.”
As news that Political Security had opened fire spread around Deraa, the gathering quickly swelled to several hundred. There were also unconfirmed reports that General Atef Najib had taunted family members, telling them to forget about their children and go home and sleep with their wives to make some more.
Mohammed, a 28-year-old relative of one of the children who moved back to Deraa two years earlier after working in Dubai, said, “Security prevented the ambulances from coming to take injured people to the hospital. We will not forget that.” Prevented from reaching the hospital, the enraged protesters took the injured to the Omari Mosque in the heart of Old Deraa.
The next week, in Damascus, about 150 people demanded the release of thousands of political prisoners in a silent protest. At least one activist from Deraa, Diana al-Jawabra, was campaigning for the release of the fifteen boys from her home city and took part in the protest. A lawyer said that along with 32 other protesters she was arrested on charges of weakening national morale.
On March 15, 2011, forty to fifty people gathered after midday prayers in the al-Hamidiya area near the Umayyad Mosque, in Old Damascus. A YouTube video showed protestors clapping and chanting, “God, Syria, freedom—that’s enough,” and, “Peaceful, peaceful,” a chant heard at protests elsewhere in the Arab world. A voice in the background said: “The date is 15 ... This is the first obvious uprising against the Syrian regime ... Alawite or Sunni, all kinds of Syrians, we want to bring down the regime.” AP reported that government supporters quickly broke up the protest.
The next day, on March 16, 100-200 people, mostly political prisoners’ relatives, gathered in Marjeh Square in Damascus to call for their loved ones’ release and an end to Emergency Law. Plainclothes police wielding batons urged the demonstrators to go home, then arrested four people. An online video showed a man being dragged out of the Umayyad Mosque. Soon after the protest dispersed, a crowd of government supporters appeared in the square carrying pictures of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.
The Facebook group “The Syrian Revolution 2011,” which had by then amassed some 42,000 fans, then called for protests “in all Syrian cities” to mark Friday, March 18, as a “day of dignity.” As the main day of congregated prayer for Muslims, Fridays would offer the only chance for Syrians to assemble in large numbers, making it easier to hold demonstrations.
That day, protests erupted in at least three cities across Syria: Deraa, Homs, and Baniyas.
Online videos showed several thousand people gathering in Homs and a water cannon being used on crowds of protesters in Baniyas, a coastal town of 50,000 in the northwest, where several were arrested. In Damascus, the authorities detained eleven after a demonstration outside the Umayyad Mosque.
After midday prayers in Deraa, from several hundred to three or four thousand demonstrators gathered near the Omari Mosque in the city’s old quarter. The arrests of Aisha Aba Zeid, Diana al-Jawabra, and the fifteen boys had deepened feelings of repression in Deraa and helped fuel the protests.
They chanted “God, Syria, freedom” and “the people demand the downfall of corruption,” a variation of the familiar “the people demand the downfall of the regime” which had become the standard of that year’s Arab revolts.
Witnesses told Reuters that helicopters carrying soldiers landed in Deraa’s football stadium to reinforce security personnel there. The security forces opened fire on the protestors, killing at least three, later reported as five, and injuring hundreds. One witness said, “The confrontations are ongoing. They are heavy.”
At nightfall, after two or three hours of clashes, the city was quieter with a heavy security presence. Stones lay on the road where protesters and security forces clashed, and people said they were not allowed to visit the wounded in the hospital.
The state news agency, SANA, said that security forces intervened because “acts of sabotage” had broken out at the protest:
“Infiltrators took advantage of a gathering of citizens near the Omari Mosque in the city of Deraa on Friday afternoon to provoke chaos through acts of violence which resulted in damage to private and public property … The infiltrators also set cars and shops on fire, which obliged security forces to intervene in order to protect citizens and property. They were also attacked by the infiltrators before the latter dispersed.”
Through a spokesman, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said,
“The use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators and their arbitrary arrests are unacceptable … [Ban] urges the Syrian authorities to refrain from violence and to abide by their international commitments regarding human rights which guarantee the freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom of the press and the right to peaceful assembly … [and] believes that, as elsewhere, it is the responsibility of the government in Syria to listen to the legitimate aspirations of the people and address them through inclusive political dialogue and genuine reforms, not repression.”
The U.S. National Security Council said that it “strongly condemns the violence that has taken place in Syria,” and called on the Syrian government “to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully.”
At this point, a pattern had been established for the next five weeks: demonstrations followed by violent crackdown, regime propaganda, and ineffective international condemnation.
Continue to Part 2
Continue to Part 2
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