Syrian President Bashar Assad is one of the few Middle Eastern leaders who have been spared the wrath of his people following the overthrow of Tunisian President Ben Ali. This isn’t because he is well-liked. It is because his Baathist regime has worked hard to stamp out any potential beginning of an uprising and the opposition cannot organize, but that is something the West can and must change.
The secular democratic opposition picked Saturday, February 5 as their “Day of Rage,” though some protests were planned for the previous day. It was obvious that Assad knew he had trouble headed his way. He talked about an agenda of “reform” and increased heating oil subsidies by 72 percent and a $250 million aid package for poor families. There was an unconfirmed report of a self-immolation by a female student at Aleppo University and several tribes endorsed a democratic uprising. Facebook groups calling for regime change sprung up, including one called “The Syrian Revolution” that had 13,000 supporters. Demonstrations at the Yarmouk refugee camp and in Old Damascus were dispersed and a statue of Hafez al-Assad at Latakia was reportedly beheaded.
The Baathists worked diligently to prevent any demonstration from forming, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where they were initially permitted. Facebook and YouTube had been blocked until this week, making it further difficult to organize. Antennas were seen being confiscated from roofs in Aleppo and the security services immediately dispersed any gathering. The army was deployed to the Kurdish areas of Aleppo and 2,000 members of Hezbollah were imported from Lebanon, substantiating an earlier report from the Reform Party of Syria, which added that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had joined the army’s Battalion 108 in Damascus, Aleppo and Qamoshli.
One protest organizer said that security personnel showed up at every gathering, filmed those present and asked for identification from each person. Internet cafes were ordered to document who was using their computers in the week up to the “Day of Rage.” An activist named Suhair Atassi took part in a candlelight vigil supporting the protestors in Egypt and was attacked. When she went to file a report at the local police station, she was accused of being an Israeli agent.
As the “Day of Rage” neared, the Internet was slowed down or altogether inaccessible in some areas. Thousands of mobile phones were reportedly unable to get service. A group of protestors that met at a café before marching toward the parliament were locked inside the building for hours. The Reform Party of Syria reported that protestors in Hasakeh were attacked, some with pipes, and arrested. About 20 were reportedly arrested in Qamoshli and others were detained in Homs. Ultimately, the opposition was unable to assemble and the “Day of Rage” fell flat.
“The security forces have effectively suppressed civil society and scared people into submission,” said Mazen Darwish, whose Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression was shut down by the regime in 2009.
There are multiple reasons for the failure of the “Day of Rage” beyond the inability to access social networking websites and the immense security measures. The opposition suffers from a lack of organization and others feared sectarian conflict or violence by regime thugs like seen in Egypt. There has also been little international support for the opposition or media coverage of their struggles over the years.
“You can’t sit in Europe or the U.S. behind your screen and create a revolution as easy as clicking a mouse to create a Facebook group,” Ahed al-Hendi, the Arabic program coordinator at CyberDissidents.org told FrontPage. He was imprisoned and tortured as a student in Syria and now lives in the United States.
The Syrian regime has successfully frightened the West out of supporting its dissidents by taking advantage of the perception that the only alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. In the days leading up to the “Day of Rage,” the Reform Party of Syria’s website was hacked and verses from the Koran were posted.
The regime has allowed extremists like the late Abu Qaqa to assemble anti-American, radical Islamic protests attended by government officials while preventing any such demonstration by secular forces. Qaqa’s former second-in-command believes he was an agent of the regime. The Syrian government also organized riots following the publication of the cartoons mocking Mohammed in February 2006 to persuade the West that “This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule,” in the words of a confidential source in a document released by Wikileaks.
The Reform Party of Syria estimates that the Islamists are only about 20 percent of the population. Ahed al-Hendi told FrontPage that he also thinks the strength of the Islamists in Syria is overestimated, saying the country is very diverse.
“I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood would take over in a country like Syria. I lived most of my life in Syria and I have met lots of Sunnis who consider applying Sharia law in Syria to be a joke despite the fact that most of them are observant Muslims,” al-Hendi told FrontPage.
However, the fact remains that the secular opposition has been unable to organize as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian regime was worried enough about the Islamist threat to abandon its tactic of allowing their voices to be periodically heard and arrested an Islamist activist named Ghassan al-Najjar in Aleppo.
The failure of the “Day of Rage” does not mean that Assad is safe. His regime consists of Allawites, which are only about 10 to 13 percent of the entire population. Its status as a secular dictatorship alienates both secular democrats and Islamists. A poll last year found that the top issue for Syrians is political freedom followed by corruption. About 60 percent feel the economy is “bad,” nearly 60 percent describe the human rights situation as “bad” or “very bad” and 47 percent feel that Syria is headed in the wrong direction. Despite all of the regime’s propaganda, only six percent rated the possibility of war as their top issue. About 80 percent of the population wants the state of emergency to be lifted.
The survey also found that 62 percent had heard of the Damascus Declaration, a document signed by the leading opposition figures calling for a transition into a democracy. Only 9 percent expressed disapproval of it, while 47 percent approve and 31 percent are neutral, indicating that they have not had access to enough information about it. These statistics indicate a longing for an alternative that will implement democratic reform, but the numbers do not let us determine the level of Islamist sentiment among the population.
In the days following the failed “Day of Rage,” the regime lifted the ban on Facebook and YouTube. This shows that Assad is still concerned and is trying to appease the youth. This is a decision that Assad will come to regret and inevitably reverse as it will allow the opposition to better organize. The time is ripe for a change in U.S. policy towards Syria that recognizes the regime’s many weaknesses.
Unlike the governments of Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen, the one in Syria is a fierce enemy of the United States. The West needs to help the secularists organize so they can assist the Syrian people in demonstrating their anger over the lack of political freedom, the state of emergency and the corruption. Bashar Assad isn’t dismissing the power of his population and neither should we.