The Assad Regime in the Context of Reform and Revolution
While it is the Sunni Arabs who is the primary social group bringing into question the reform demands through the massive protests on March 17, it is the Alawis (Nusayris) Arab who is the primary group protecting the regime. Although the Syrian opposition alone does not have enough force to overthrow the regime, it is seen as well that the regime is capable to suppress the riot through the military measures. On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad frequently talks about the reform initiatives, but on the other hand, the civil casualties have been increasing as a result of the use of excessive force against the protesters, which may bring about a long-lasting tension between the different sects and religions in Syria. In this context, this study will focus on the social opposition movement and analyze the future of the Assad regime in Syria.
A new hope had been raised for the implementation of the political and economic reforms in Syria when Bashar al-Assad came into power. Assad who received medical education in ophthalmology in London appeared as a modern leader in the eyes of the Syrian people and underlined the importance of democracy and reforms in his first speech as Syria’s president. In his first speech to the Syrian Parliament, Bashar al-Assad emphasized the necessity of reforms in the economic sector, struggle against the corruption, and improvement of the democratic values and the importance of respecting the rights of the individual. Moreover, he stated that a number of rights and freedoms such as elections, the freedom of press and the freedom of expression are the results of the democracy and that the Syrian people also have to improve their own democracy which is in accordance with their traditions and experiences.
However, the regime supporters thought that the opposition was taking steps that could lead to the demolishment of the system as a whole after February 2001, and that the opposition was out of control in this sense, therefore decided to take an action in order to interfere in the calls for reform and an arrest campaign against the opposition was launched. Upon the beginning of attacks against the opposition leaders on February 2001, the expectations related to reform also started to change. Although the reformists were suppressed, the ideas they put forward were adopted by the other parties as well, and in 2011, the issue was brought into question once again. The ongoing uprisings in the Syria first started in Damascus in order to grab attention to the problem of the political detainees. Afterwards the uprising emerging in Daraa appeared as a bigger problem, as a criticism against the existence of the Ba’ath regime
THE SOCIO-ECONOMC STRUCTURE OF SYRIA
The Syrian society is heterogeneous in terms of its ethnical, religious and sectionalcomposition. This heterogeneity is based on the fact that the country has hosted throughout its history different religious groups, peoples and ethnic clusters. Thus for example the area of contemporary Syria, during the age of Roman and Byzantine Empires, was a maincentre of Eastern Christianity, and subsequently the epicenter of the first MuslimOmayyadEmpire. Following the age of the Omayyad, the Christians in Syria maintained their existence during the Abbasid, Seljuk, Mameluk and Ottoman periods. On this frame, it is seen that the primary minorities are consisted of Alawi, Druze, Ismaili and various Christian groups. Therefore, both the Muslims and Christians are divided into quite different groups (Antoun, 1991: 2-12).
Although it is not possible to have correct and explicit information concerning the percentages of the ethnic and religious groups in Syria which has a population of 23 million as of 2011, we can reach some results by means of the censuses and data of the past. According to the Syrian writer HusniMahalli, “15% of the Syrian population is Alawi, 6-7% Druze, 12-13% Christian and the rest is Sunni. And the 10-12 % of the Sunnis is Kurdish, 1-2% is Turkmen and the rest is Arab. A great majority of the Arabs are originally Syrian and some are of Palestine origins (Mahalli, 2011).” In accordance with the calculations of Mahalli, the Sunni Arabs are below the 50% in the country and the Alawis are the most important minority group of the country. In addition, in 1947, the population of the country was counted as 3.043.310. While at that time the population of the Sunnis was 2.040.908, the Alawis 447,993, the Druzes 96, 641, Maronites 14,133, Orthodox Rums 144,517, Orthodox Armenians 104,923, Catholic Rums 49, 543 (in 1950 52.000), Jews 30,873, Nestorians (the Eastern Church) 9,630, Catholic Armenians 17, 493(in 1950 18.500), Catholic Arabs 17,613 and the other minorities were approximately 100,000 (Protestant- Yazidis, Assyrian-European Catholics) (Monroe, 1954:466; Baer, 1962:108-117). As seen from the data of 1947, it is possible to see various societies from every group. In a study published by the US in 1965 regarding Syria, the population of the Sunni was 72 %, the Alawis 11% and the Ismailis 1%. The percentage of the Christians in the whole population was stated as 12% (Perlmutter, 1969:829).
As stated above, the current population of Syria is about 23 million. The ethnic dispersion within this population, although not clear in proportional terms, may be as the following: the Alawis 11-12%, the Ismailis 1, 5%, the Druzes 3-5%, the Christians 14-15%. Accordingly, the population of the Sunni groups during the 1950s was about 67-70% and it is thought that this proportion has not undergone big changes today. Among the Sunnis, there are the Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Caucasians and some other small groups. It is claimed that the proportion of the Kurds in the whole population is 10-12%. Although there is not clear information about the general population of the Turkmen, they have a considerable population in Golan, around Lazkiye, in Aleppo and Damascus. For example, on the 20 kilometers far from West of Damascus, there is a Turkmen village called Kaldı. The local people stated that village has existed in these territories since the pre-Ottoman era (Interview: 2008). Hereby, it is thought that the Sunni Arabs constitutes about 52-57% of the population of the society (United Nations Population Fund, 2011).
Another important feature of the demographic structure of Syria is the fact that of the increasing population and unemployment. The population growth rate of the Sunni Arabs and Kurds is at the highest levels; but, it is proportionally low for the Christians, Druzes and Alawis. Besides the education, the fact that monogamy is an adopted perception among these groups is thought to cause such a low population growth rate. It is observed that the population growth rate in Syria is 2, 7% which is higher than the world average. In Syria that has a dynamic and young population, young population at the age of 15-24 constitutes the 36, 3% of the whole population. This proportion for the ones at the age of 15-24 is 22, 2%. The young population structure of Syria brings about some problems such as employment and creating new business sectors. Although some initiatives have been done recently in order to decrease in a controlled way by the state control in the economy, the per capita income is about 2.400 dollars. The monthly income of a doctor or engineer working in a public institution is about 200-300 dollars. According to the data of the IMF, the official unemployment rates were 8, 4% in 2010. However, the real unemployment rate is claimed to be as about 50%. Every year 320 thousand people must be offered new employment possibilities to keep the unemployment rates at the same level. This figure imposes the need that new employment possibilities must be created for 604 thousand people in 2035.
FROM THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC TO THE ARAB KINGDOM: THE BASHAR ASSAD PERIOD IN SYRIA
Before Hafez Assad died in June 2000, no important discussion took place about the government change in Syria. In spite of existent distinguished notions in the Baath ideology and preamble of the Syrian Constitution such as socialism, union, freedom, public power and public democracy, it had been known by everybody that Ophthalmologist Bashar Assad, who was brought back from London just after the death of Basil Assad, the elder son of Hafez Assad, in a suspicious traffic accident in 1994, would be elected as the new Syrian president. However, in the second article of the Syrian Constitution, it was clearly stated that the regime of the state was republic and Syria had put into practice a revolutionary policy. On June 10, a couple of hours later than the death of Hafez Assad, the Syrian Assembly gathered for the aim of amending the 83rd article of the Constitution and with this amendment the minimum age required to be elected as the Head of State was decreased from 40 to 34. During the Assembly meeting which was broadcast on live in the public TV channel, Deputy Mundhir Al Mawsili, by standing up, protested the amendment and stated that there was no need for such a constitutional amendment. However, the offer of Mawsili was refused by the majority and on the following day Tishreen, the newspaper published by the Syrian State, wrote that the amendment had been adopted with the majority vote (Kedar, 2005:245). 3 days after the constitutional amendment, in accordance to the 84th article of the Constitution, the Regional Command of the Arab Socialist Baath Party nominated Bashar Assad as a candidate for the head of state and the assembly held a referendum on this candidacy (Yale Law School Press, 2011). In the elections with the participation of just one candidate, Bashar Assad was elected as the second Syrian president with the surname of Assad with the vote rate of 97.29%.
The election of Bashar Assad did not only cause the rise of the constitutional problems in Syria, but also it accompanied an ideological debate. Syria, during the period of Baath regime, was blaming many Arab countries for having traditional kingdoms and regimes; it was suggesting that the Baath government was revolutionary and socialist. However, some newspapers which were bound to the regime defined Bashar Assad as the new “Caliph” before he was elected and the Republic witnessed power change from father to son, which caused reactions among some Syrians (Kedar, 2005:245). A short time after the election of Bashar Assad, these critics contributed also to the foundation of an opposition wave which aims the establishment of a democratic system in Syria. It has to be seen that certain families and foundations preserved their authority in this establishment of power in Syria with the election of Bashar Assad. The first one of these families is the Assad family. And within this family, these are Mahir Assad who is the brother of Bashar Assad, Asif Sevket who is the husband of Bashar Assad’s sister Busra and the Head of the Military Intelligence, Rami and IhabMakhlouf who are the sons of Bashar’s uncle. While AsifSevket is an important name on the domain of intelligence, Makhlouf family distinguishes as an important force in the Syrian regime with their wealth over 3 milliard dollars. The Makhlouf family has the management of Syriatel, banking, free trade region on the border of Lebanon and the duty free shops in the customs zone.
It has been claimed that an important part of the illegal smuggling has been carried out by the Makhlouf family. The Shaleesh family who are the cousins of Bashar Assad on the paternal side has a significant influence on the security units and the commercial domain. Asif Isa Shaleesh and General DhuHimmaShaleesh who carries out the president security, the private security unit of the president are among the important names of this family. It draws attention that the Makhlouf and Shaleesh families have been the focus point of the critics during the 2011 protests. Besides them, the other Alawi families who are effective on the regime are Mr. NasefKheir, Khouli, Haydar, Kana’an, Umran and Duha families. A number of people from these families have a considerable influence on the Baath party, security, intelligence and economic domains (Bar, 2006:381). An important part of these families are members of the Kalabiya tribe which Assad is bound as well, which attires attention. In addition to that, as stated by CengizÇandar in his article, it draws attention that in the Syrian regime during the Bashar’s period, General AbdulfettahKudsiyya (he was personal secretary of Bashar Assad), Head of the Air Force Intelligence CemilHasan (before him, this post belonged to AbdulfettahKudsiyya), Ali Memluk who is the head of the Muhaberat, his assistant ZuheyrHamad, MuhammedNasifKheirbek who is the assistant of the Deputy of President and responsible for the security affairs (he is also a member of the Kalabiya tribe), Minister of Defense Ali Habib and General RüstemGazali who is the final commander of the Syrian forces in Lebanon, directly bound to Bashar Assad and who carried the last time Bashar’s message to Dera’a are of the origin of Alawi-Nusayri (Candar, 2011).
THE LOSS OF LEGITIMACY OF BASHAR ASSAD: FROM THE 2000 DAMASCUS DECLARATION TO THE 2011 UPRİSİNG
The First Opposition Wave: Damascus Spring
Following the death of Hafez Assad, a serious debate process had started in Syrian society about the political reforms. The primary social groups leading these debates on reforms were the people and the foundations such as the intellectuals, intelligentsia, jurists, journalists, non-governmental organizations and academic society. Although these groups did not have a certain social base, they are important as they performed the ideational leadership of the anti-regime groups. After the death of Hafez al-Assad on June 10, 2000, the Sunni Arabs and Christian leaders were among the ones bringing forward the demands for reforms and leading the reform initiatives which are called as “Damascus Spring. The fact that Bashar Assad mentioned about democracy and freedoms in his speech on July 17, 2000 was interpreted as if he was supporting the movements demanding for a democratic conversion. A number of parliament members such as RiyadSeif who is the founder of the National Debate Forum attempted to constitute a social base regarding the form of the change in the meetings that was hold in their own houses. Christian writer Michel Kilo from Homs tried hard to constitute common demands among the groups who are demanding reforms. Kurds started to discuss the reforms in the organizations that they founded in Al Qamishli. The reform debates launched by the intellectuals provided for the first time political change demands within the society after the 1080 events in Syria. And in September the demanders of reforms succeeded for the first time at presenting a reform package signed by 99 people to the attention of the public. The Assad government did not react in a negative way to the reform demands which was signed by different people in the society and formed basically with four articles on September 2000, which was interpreted as a positive development by the reformists. The following demands were included in the communiqué signed by 99 Syrian writers and intellectuals (Leveretti,2005: 91);
- Abolishing the martial rule and state of emergency laws which had been in force since 1963,
- Granting a general amnesty to all the political prisoners including the returns from the exile,
- Guaranteeing the freedoms of meeting, pres and expression by means of legal regulations,
- Respecting the political, economic and ideational variety and recognizing the civil freedoms.
The reform demanders, though, not requested for a presidential election or multi-party political system stated their demands for change in many domains. The response of Assad to the reform demands was to liberate about 600 political prisoners in November and to close one month later the prison of Mezzeh which was for political prisoners. Moreover, it was allowed that newly-liberated lawyer AhkamNaisa reopened the Defense Organization of Liberal Freedoms and Human Rights of Syria. The Organization named their bulletin as “Voice of Democracy” and carried out their first interview with FatihJamus, the leaders of the Communist Party. Lawyer HalilMatuk who had signed the communiqué of 99s founded the Organization of Human Rights and started to organize some activities on the domain of social democratic reforms (Kedar, 2005:245).
In parallel with all these developments, On January 2001, the parliamentarian RiadSeif announced that they had made the formal applications to the concerned authorities for the establishment of the party that is called the Social Peace Movement. Seif stated that the party was based on a liberal and nationalist philosophy. Within the same month, a newspaper that is published in Lebanon printed a notice signed by 1000 Syrian. The most important grabbing demands in the notice were demands for political freedoms, principle of separation of powers, and transition to a multi-party system. Unlike the previous notice, the fact that presidential elections had been indirectly brought forward in the 2001 demands list, was attention-grabbing. In addition to that, for the first time, many segments of the society demanded the creation of an alternative civil society and a political zone out of state-control (George, 2003:182-186). As a response to the notice, the government declared that the emergency law was freezed. On February, he journalist Ali Ferzad stated that he was allowed to publish a weekly journal, called “Ad Dumari”.
However, the regime supporters thought that the opposition was taking steps that could lead to the demolishment of the system as a whole after February 2001, and that the opposition was out of control in this sense, therefore decided to take an action in order to interfere in the calls for reform and an arrest campaign against the opposition was launched. Upon the beginning of attacks against the opposition leaders on February 2001, the expectations related to reform also started to change. The popular auhor Nabil Suleiman was attacked by unidentified persons. Afterwards, on March, the Vice President Abdul HalimKhaddam warned “the non-governmental organizations not to jeopardize the unity of the county” in his well-known declaration. Khaddam also added that, “the non-governmental organizations, which would like to hold a meeting, should get permission from the concerned authorities 15 days before.” The government started to criticize the ones, who ask for the abolishment of the emergency law. Although certain political prisoners were released due to the Pope’s visit on May 2001, the non-governmental organizations’ attempts for organizing meetings without getting any permission on August and September led to strong reactions; and a significant part of the opponents, among whom are also found RiadSeif, NizarNaif, Riad Turk, and MamunHamsi, were arrested and were brought under cotnrol of the civil opposition (Dean, 2003:1020). While the non-governmental organizations, which organized forums with broad participatition during the Damascus Spring, were closed; the meeting of opposition groups were not allowed either. The Committee for the Revival of Civil Society and Jamal al-Atassi Forum for Democra tic Dialogue carried out regular meetings, where reforms were actively discussed, in the aforesaid period. Hundreds of people participated in teh meetings, which were regulary organized on monthly or weekly basis, and they discussed on reforms and transitions (Landis- Pace, 2007:45-68). All of these were closed by the regime forces, and arrest operations against the ones who participated in the aforesaid meetings, were orgnized. Dr. Kamal al-Labwani the founder of the Syrian Liberal Democratic Union, who took part in the meetings that were carried out in Türk’s, Kilo’s, and Seif’s houses, was also among the ones that were arrested because of their speeches (Ayhan, 2011).
So that, the first reform wave was ended by consolidation of Bashar Assad power. Nonethless, all of these also caused Bashar Assad to lose his legitimacy and trust on the people asking for reform. Upon this, the Syrian opposition started to mention that Assad was not reformist, and that he had the same aministrative mentality with his father Hafez Assad. The fact that a transition on institutional basis did not take place in the Syrian regime after Bashar Assad’s taking his office as the Head of State, was the indicator that the regime would not be able to democratize. While the military and intelligence structures carried on their oppresisons on the Syrian society, person and ersons, who were cloer to the regime made further use of the economic revelation as well.
The Second Opposition Wave
The Second reform wave in Syria appeared by the U.S.’ criticizing the policies of Iraq and Lebanon in the post-2003 Iraq Invasion period. According to what a Syrian expert told us during the interview in Damascus, “between 2003 and 2004 Syria really expected a U.S. invasion. Bashar Essad had newly been elected and the elites in Damascus got the idea that the regime would collapse as a result of the U.S. oppression. Under these circumstances, upon the oppression of the European countries such as France, a UN sanction was brought into question. Under these conditions, on one hand while the Syrian regime had to withdraw its soldiers from Lebanon, on the other hand it closed its eyes to calls for reform coming from inside” (Interview, 2008). Upon the increasing international oppression on the Syrian regime, the oppositon groups once again started to bring the calls for political reform intoquestion inside the country.
The Essad administration showed a positive approach towards the reform requests, due to the increasing international oppressions. The opposition groups created “the National Coordination Committee for Protection and Promotion of Fundamental Freedoms and Human Rights.” The Committee for the Revival of Civil Society once again published a notice. This notice aimed to open the dialogue channels among all social groups including Muslim Brothers. The leading human rights defender of Syria SuhairAtassi tried to revive the Jamal al-Atassi Forum once again. The journalist and activist Ali Abdullah announced a letter, which contains allowing the political party activities, from the General Secretary of the Muslim Brothers Ali Sadraddin El Beyanuni directly to the public, in Damascus. So that, although the capital punishment existed, the Muslim Brothers had been represented in the public opinion for the first time since 1982. In this period, even the creation of an opposition party, in which the Muslim Brothers would also take place, was brought into question. Upon the increasing reform requests, the Assad administration put emphasis on the arrestment policies, and on May 2005 the administration arrested 11 activists among the Jamal-al Atassi Forum administrators. Among the ones, who were arrested, 68-year-old journalist and academician Hussein Aludaat, SuhairAtassi, and Ali Abdullah were also found (Arab Commission For Human Rights, 2005). Inspite of this, in the end of 2005 the opponent writer Michele Kilo went to Morocco, and he made an interview with Ihvan Secretary of General, and then it was announced that the opposition settled on 4 subjects. These were the principles of democracy, a violence-free opposition, the unity of opposition groups, and of democratic transition. In his speech, the Secretary General Beyanuni stated that Michele Kilo was entitled to conduct interviews with the Ba’ath leaders. During the days, when the international oppression increased on the Damascus regime, the opposition groups both criticized the regime in a harsh way with a notice they published under the name of “Damascus Declaration” on October 2005, and also they seriously called for a dialogue, and they once again brought their requests for the political reforms into question. In the Declaration, the Ba’ath regime was accused of establishing an authoritarian, totalitarian, and an arbitary administration; in addition the preparation of a new constitution, the creation of a constituent assembly, and carrying out equitable elections were mentioned. The Declaration, which was written by Michele Kilo, was also signed by 250 well-known opponents besides 5 opposition parties. The document, which is composed of approximately 5 pages, was also signed by Syrian arab nationalist he, the Kurdish Democratic Alliance, the Future Party led by Sheikh Nawaf al Bashir, the Comittee for the Revival of Civil Society, and the Kurdish Democratic Front in National Democratic Meeting. Among the signatories was found opponents such as; RiadSeif, Cevdet Said, DrAbdülrezak, Samir el-Nashar, DrFidaEkrem el-Hurani, DrAdilZakkar, Abdülkerim el-Dahhak, Heysem el-MalihveNaifQaysiyah as well, besides the political parties and the non-governmental organizations (Landis, 2005). However, the fact that on March 2006 the International Commission of Inquiry into the Hariri Assasination avoided from directly accusing the Syrian regime in the 2nd Report (Mehlis, 2005) and the policies of the U.S., which was engaged into the Iraqi and Iranian problems, once again led to the Essad administration to directly turn towards the whole opposition. On March 2006, large-scaled arrests started again. Dr. Kamal Lebwani, who had been rearrested on November 2005, was condemned to twelve years in prison in 2007. Michele Kilo and Christian Anwar al-Bunni were arrested in 2006 and they were condemned to five years in prison in 2007. While some of the signatories of the Declaration had to fleed; other were arrested and their political activities were put an end. So that, the second “Damascus Spring”, which started in 2005, once again gave its place to the “Daascus Winter”.
Despite the oppression and arresment policies, the opposition groups reorganized under the name of the “Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change” on December 1st, 2007. The opponents, who created a National Council within themselves, determined a planned fight in order to carry out the reforms they had already put forward beforehand. In the National Council, where Dr. Fida al Hewrani was elected as the President, AbdulhamidDarwish and AbdülazizAlkhaier were elected as Vice Presidents, RiadSeif was elected as the Secretary General, and the leaders such as; Amin Obeidi, Nawaf El Beshir, Riad Turk, Suleiman al Shammarve Ali Abdullah were elected as the Members of the Executive Board (The Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, 2011).
Short while after the opponents established the National Council, many leaders, who were members of the Council, were arrested. A considerable part of the Council administratives, who were arrested in 2008, were condemned to 2,5 years in prison. In this way, the policy of suppressing all the opposition voices within Syria was carried on (The Syrian Human Rights Committee, 2008). Although the reformists were suppressed, the ideas they put forward were adopted by the other parties as well, and in 2011, the issue was brought into question once again.
2011 UPRISING: THE THIRD OPPOSITION WAVE AND THE FUTURE of ASSAD REGIME
The anti-regime demonstrations, which started to get organized on February 2011, and climbed up with mass participation actions in different regions of the country such as; Damascus and Dar’aa in the first place on March, were carried to a new stage after the troop entered in Daraa as from 22 April. While the opponents constantly called for carrying on mass actions after the Daraa invasion; the international community, the UN in particular, started to give harsher messages to the Syrian administration to prevent to live a new Hama once again. Upon the fact the army directly intervened with the demonstrators especially in Daraa and in Baniyas, the issue was tried to be carried up to the UN Security Council’s agenda, and France tried hardly to issue a resolution against the Syrian administration. Upon the fact that tanks laid siege to Daraa on25 April, because of the difeerent opinions among the members of the Security Council, which brought taking a decision on using force against the demonstrators in Syria into question on 27 April the issue had been directed to the UN Human Rights Council. It is apparently observed from the declarations, which are related to the draft resolution to be preapared, of England and France that they are the supporters of strongly reprobating the regime. In the UN Secretary General’s statement that was made before the conference, the fact that tanks were resorted to against the civilian demonstrators was harshly criticized grabbed the attention (Malas- Lauria, 2011)ç
On the other hand, a severe increase has been observed in the attacks a short while after theteh first armed attacks against civilian demonstrators in the province of Daraa, which is found in the Jordan border of the country, and whose total population is approximately 1 million. While the civil death toll as a result of the intervention in the demonstrations, which were organized in major provinces of the country such as; Homs, Latakia, Hama, and Damascus, was approximately 700 as from the first week of May; hundreds of demonstrators were wounded due to the bullets coming out of the firearms during the assaults. Although Bashar Assad made some efforts for reform such as launching reform attempts, and in this framework heading towards creating a new government, changing the governors of Daraa and Homs, disannuling the 1962 census in Al-Hasakah, creating a new commission, and thus making attempt to confer Syrian citizenship to some of the Kurdish with no ID, determining on actively fighting against the illegals, increasing salaries, declaring the abolishment of the Emergency Law, which had been in force for 1963, in 7 days short while after the beginning of the demonstrations, the demonstrators were subjected to attacks led to further events.
The demonstrations, which took place in Homs, on the same day with the aforesaid declarations, showed that the people do not rely on the Bashar Assad administration, and that Bashar Assad lost his legitimacy. As a matter of fact, when arrived on March 19th, with the influence of increasing social opposition, the Assad regime had to make fundamental changes, for the first time in its history. After the Council of Ministers meeting on 19 April, the important decisions taken are as follows: “Closing the State Security Courts, which were created with the decision dated 1968 and numbered 47; and transferring the the including cases to the concerned legislative authorities; approving the enactment draft in the legislative decrees regulating the peaceful demonstration right of the citizens, which is identified as a right among the fundamental human rights in the Constitiution; the abolition of the Emergency Law; political partied law from the concerned ministries; demanding the information and local government enactment drafts as soon as possible (Sana News:2011).
While on one hand the new legal regulations show that the regime failed the its policy of suppressing the developing social opposition movement by resorting to force, on the other hand they also show that the Syrian people exceeded the fear threshold. Because some days before the adoption of these laws, the government had announced all the demonstrations and meetings as illegal. However, the expansion of the demonstrations in Homs in a short period of time and the harsh intervention of the security forces in the demonstrations taking plac eon April 18th and 19th led to the climbing of the reaction. Another indicator, which shows that the fear threshold was exceeded, is the fact that after the February 1982 Hama events a military opposition against the security forces was lauched for the first time. The fact that armed attacks were organized against the high-level security forces in different regions of the country, Daraa, Homs and Aleppo in particular, shows that the demonstrators did not overlook the military methods for a radical change as a choice. On the other hand, the fact that Essad wanted to give legitimacy to the force policies that he would carry out in the forthcoming days by bringing certain reforms into question instead of giving priority to the reforms, could be put forward as well. In this way, it can be put forward that the regime headed towards persuading the national and international public opinion on resorting to force.
Attempts of Suppressing the Social Opposition by Military Methods: Demonstrations of Challenging the Invasions
Upon the fact that after the 29 April demonstrations, the opponents once again put forward their reactions against the regime by organizing major actions on May 6th Friday, the security forces resorted to serious measures in Sunnite Arab regions under the administration of Damascus, Baniyas, Latakia, and Homs. In this context, in the demonstrations, which were organized on April 29th, approximately 60 civilians lost their lives, among whom lost their lives in Daraa. In fact, in the tension starting in the early February and March between the regime and opposition movements in Syria, the organization of Frustration Days on 17 March pointed out the beginning of a new period. The demonstrations, which continued with mass participations in the post-17 March period, continued with greater and bigger participated demonstrations every Friday on regualar basis. After the Frustration Day demonstrations, on one hand the Essad administration decided to make reforms in a short period of time, on the other hand it headed towards suppressing the demonstrations with the force policy; but the death of around 800 people during the events eliminated the importance of the reform arguments (YaLibnan News, 2011).
Because while on one hand the reform promises are given, on the other hand the tanks and heavy weapons forces entered in the settlements, where the demonstrators were intense such as; Al-Baida, Deraa, Baniyas, Rastan, and a great arrest campaign was launched against the opponents by the method of searching from house to house led to the opposition’s and international public opinion’s losing their trusts towards the reform promises. As a matter of fact, despite the declaration of legal regulation related to the abolition of the Emergency Law, which was in force as from 1963 in the country, there was no any improvement in practice.
As it would be recalled, after a while the demonstrations were firstly organized in Daraa and in Haseki, they spread to Latakia, Homs, Hama, Bayda, Baniyas and Deir al-Zor, then, the anti-regime protests were witnessed in many settlements. The Republican Guards, which were the sole troops deployed in Damascus center, achieved partial success in preventing anti-regime protests from taking place in Damascus. However, after the anti-regime protests took place Duma, administratively belonging to Damascus, both Republican Guards and elite troops under Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad’s command poised to launch an intense operation against the opposition groups. During the protests on in Daraa, assaults against the security forces took place, and then the armed forces surrounded a settlement for the first time, where the opposition groups were active and blamed them for being in cooperation with the terrorist groups. For the reason that the protests went on in Daraa, news that the subordinate units of the 4th Mechanized Division under Maher al-Assad’s command began to surround the city in April 25 and after the protests on April 29 they entered the city and started hunting dissidents house by house as it was in 1980s, came to the forefront of the world public opinion. It was stated that approximately 62 people were killed during the demonstrations that were organized in different regions of Syria on April 29, Friday (Oweis-Al Khalidi, 2011).
After the security forces launched an operation directly against the dissident people and groups, approximately ten thousand people were arrested, and tens of people were killed during the conflicts in Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Baniyas, Al-Rastan, Bayda, where the dissidents are active. Although the security forces entered the city after the attacks against the security forces in Bayda, the troops that remained out of Daraa city center on 25 April, entered the city center after the demonstrations on April 29 and almost 27 protestors were killed during the clashes in Daraa. The fact that the security forces entered Banias on April 3 after Daraa, proved once more that the regime would give priority to apply rigid response against the protestors. In addition, the al-Assad administration declared the end of the operations in Daraa, where the Friday protests have taken place, on April 5, which was evaluated as a setback on the part of the government. However, the ongoing anti-regime protests by the Syrian opposition despite the declaration of retreatment from Daraa and the initiation of the retreatment will make the international community give priority to more active policies on Syria.
Consequently, the important developments took place during the demonstrations on Friday May 6, for both the dissidents and for the regime. Although al-Assad administration declared that the troops would retreat from Daraa, where the protests had begun, it intensified its military presence in Banias, Al-Rastan, Homs, Hama and Damascus in order to get the clashes in under control and stated that they would not allow the protests. As a result of that, the dissidents took action to organize a demonstration on May 6. In this context, it was claimed that approximately 30 people were killed during the protests that started after the Friday prayers. The Syrian Human Rights Group stated that the total death toll was 28, including 16 people in Homs, 6 in Hama, 2 in Jableh and 4 in Deir al-Zor (Al Jazeera News, 2011a).
The armed forces entered Banias and the Sunni districts belonging to Damascus and Homs, and then started to arrest the dissidents from house to house, which caused the tension to increase. Al-Watan, the daily newspaper, interviewed with Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, and he put forward that they speeded up the reform initiatives and the riots were about to come to an end and Syrian Ministry of Interior urged that they gave extra time to the protesters to turn themselves in and hand over their weapons until May 15. According to a report by the Interior Ministry, it was stated that the number of those who turned themselves in, reached 1093 by May 8-9 and they were immediately released after they affirmed their regret (TRT News, 2011a). According to a statement, made on May 11, it is declared that the number of those who turned themselves in to the security forces reached 3308 (Sana News, 2011b). As it is clear from the latest statements, the Damascus regime proved that they would use all their power in order to terminate the demonstrations. It is evident that the most significant one of all the methods that were applied to stop the demonstrations was the mass arrest of the dissident people and groups. Thus, the security forces launched a wide-scale operation against the dissidents in Homs, which is the third biggest city of the country. According to a statement that was made by AmmarQurabi, the head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights, dozens of people lost their lives due to the crackdown by the security forces in Homs, Hama, Latakia, Daraa and Deir al-Zor, where the peaceful demonstrations occured. According to Qurabi, only on May 11, 19 Syrian citizens were killed by the Syrian security forces in Harra, belonging to Darra. The mass arrests against the dissidents in Homs and in the cities, where the Sunni Arabs live, deserve attention. The activists put forward that not only ten thousand people got arrested but also hundreds of people are missing (Shibeeb- Tayel, 2011). However, the continuation of the anti-regime protests by the dissidents despite the suppression will cause serious problems for the Damascus regime.
Although it has been long since the public protests in Syria on March 17, it has become evident that the Assad administration could not take control over and suppress the anti-regime opposition movements. Starting with democratic demonstrations in different regions of Syria, the opposition is observed to focus on military resistance strategy after the example of Libya. Different from Tunisia and Egypt, the success of the opposition movement in Libya in ousting the Gaddafi administration with military methods by receiving an external support can be said to affect the Syrian opposition movements the most. In a statement made by one of the founders of the opposition armed structure named the Free Syrian Army Colonel Riad al-Assad said some 15,000 soldiers, including officers, had already deserted, and he was waiting to move his command inside Syria. The most Sunni Arab senior officer to defect from Syria’s armed forces has said “there is no option but to topple President Bashar al-Assad by force and he was directing a military uprising against the Syrian leader” (Ya Libnan-2, 2011).
However, in October, it has become obvious that the Syrian regime did not take the steps expected by the international community including Turkey and it did not have this will to do so. While the Assad administration could not demonstrate a solid will for the transformation to a democratic system, it also failed in oppressing the opponents. Therefore, after this step, we can argue that now we are moving towards a period in which Syria is to go towards a civil war, the civil war will start to turn into a denominational power struggle and the international community including the UN will not determine a common approach against the developments in Syria. In this process, while one seeks the answer to the question of who are the main actors in the power struggle in Syria, it is seen that the actors are divided into two groups as internal and external ones. Regarding the national actors, it can be seen that President Assad and military and civil units who devoted themselves to the protection of the regime constitute the internal actors. There are officially and unofficially organized actors in the military and civil units. With regard to the opposition figures amongst the internal actors, there are civil initiatives that are mostly composed of Sunni Arabs, which have different organization in each city. One needs to add the intellectuals, politicians and enlightened figures that supported the Damascus Spring in 2000 to this group. It is also possible to categorize the national actors of the power struggle in different ways. For example, it is necessary to define the soldiers that recently resigned from the army and tended to establish an opponent military army within the national actors.
The Position of Sectarian, Ethnic and Security Forces against the Riot
It is really interesting that the individuals from different segments of society participate in the demonstrations although some regime-minded authors argue that the anti-regime protests are organized by the opposition groups that are supported by some ethnic and sectarian groups in Syria (Interviews, 2011). For instance, the fact that the intellectuals leading the anti-regime opposition from 2000 to 2011 the journalists, the lawyers, the doctors with liberal and leftist orientations, are from the Sunni Arab, the Kurdish and also the Christian ethnicities, deserves attention. For example, during the period after 2000, Michel Kilo, who is one of the opposition symbols, has a Christian origin. He had a contact with the Muslim Brotherhood in the course of reform initiatives in 2005. Nonetheless, it is thought that the anti-regime opposition is supported by the Syrian citizens, who have mostly Sunni Arab and Kurdish ethnicities as a social base. On the other hand, the position of the Druze is not clear. Especially, after President Salah Jadid was captured in As-Suwayda in 1966, Hafez al-Assad threatened to bomb the city and purged the majority of the Druze officers from the army ranks, a rift has occurred between the Druze and the regime. Before the intra-Baath coup attempt in 1966, Mansour al-Atrash whose father was Sultan al-Atrash, the spokesman of Revolutionary Command Council (parliament chairman), and the ousted president Amin al-Hafiz were arrested and sent to Mezzeh Prison. This affected the Druzes negatively. Furthermore, the policy, which the Syrian regime applied against the Lebanese Druzes, disturbed some segments of the Syrian Druze, particularly Kemal Jumblatt. It is stated that there was a social support among the Druze despite economic problems and unemployment towards the regime. In addition to this, Sultan al-Atrash’s daughter Muntaha al-Atrash, who is a human rights activist, made a statement on April 12. She highlighted that Syrian President Al-Assad put forward the sects as an excuse, and didn’t approve of launching reform initiatives; however she emphasized that the sectarian tension would not take place and the President should step down (Al-Tabaei :2011).
The second opposition group is composed of the Sunni Arabs including the Muslim Brotherhood and Atassi family. These there groups have both rooted and efficient backgrounds throughout the Syria history. In this context, it is needed to touch upon the opposition movement starting at the early 1970s and transforming into an armed rebellion in 1978. Especially during the civil war in Lebanon, the fact that the Syrian regime supported the Maronites and declared war against Palestinian and Sunni Muslims caused the Syrian Sunni Arabs to question themselves about their relations with the Syrian regime. The Sunni opposition firstly started to protest the policies of the regime in a non-violent way, however they resorted to armed-assaults after the government used forced against them in 1978 and the Muslim Brotherhood became prominent as an organization that carried out the armed Sunni Arab opposition. The other Sunni dissident groups either got suppressed or had to flee abroad because of the suppression of the regime. Nonetheless, the Assad’s regime tended to solve the problem through military methods against the first opposition movement, which had a broad social support. He managed to suppress the opposition as a result of Hama massacre in 1982. Nevertheless, the Sunni opposition movement carried on its presence in the society in the course of time. As it is above-mentioned, the Sunni Arabs was leading the social group that the opposition movement was based on, during the first and second reform waves. It is observed that the Sunni Arabs have a determinative role within the inception period and the continuation of the third opposition wave in 2011.
The other opposition movement is composed of Kurdish anti-regime groups. The Kurds emerged through the demands of enfranchisement and constitutional equality, which is different from the opposition of the Sunni Arabs. The relations between the Syrian regime and the Kurds have always been up-and-down. The Kurds, who were faced with the Arabization policies after 1960, went there from Turkey. However, some of the Kurds, who had problems with the Arabs after the French had left the region, were disfranchised after the census in Haseki in 1962. It is estimated that the Kurds, who have two different status like “outlander” and “displaced”, have a number of between 300 and 400 thousand people. Especially, after the Iraq War in 2003, the Syrian regime altered seriously its point of view towards the Kurds and they were assessed as they were in co-operation with the USA. Within this framework, in 2004, after the conflicts between Arab and Kurdish football teams, the Kurds participated in mass protests in Al Qamishli and the civilians were killed during the clashes. Al-Assad’s government tried to prevent the conflicts from spreading by means of promises about the reform and forming a commission. Nonetheless, due to the fact that the government did not keep his word about reforms in the course of time, the distrust against the regime increased. The regime was protested during the mass demonstrations that were organized for Sheikh Khaznawi, who was killed by torture in June 2005. Many Syrian Kurdish politicians were arrested because of their political activities between 2004 and 2011. The Kurdish figures such as the members of Yekiti Party, AzadiKurdish Party, Syria Future Party, KDP-Syria and PYD, took place amongst the arrested politicians. Except for the political parties, the social organizations and the student associations were faced with suppression. On March 12, 2009, twelve students were arrested in alleged organization of the demonstration to remember the kills during the clashes in Aleppo in 2004 (Human Right Watch, 2009). In 2011, the Kurds remained quiet against the incidents by the begining, which commenced in Daraa, but due to the ongoing protests, they started organizing demonstrations in their region. It is really important that the Kurdish groups continued protesting even though the census in 1962 was declared “null and void” and Bashar al-Assad talked to the Kurdish tribes directly. After the leader of liberal Kurdish Future Movement Party was assassinated on 7 October 2011, the Kurds accused the Syrian government of killing Tammo, and the next day more than 50.000 mourners marched through the streets of Qamishli in a funeral procession for Tammo. Syrian security forces fired on them and have killed at least 5 people. Tammo’s son, Fares Tammo, has urged Syria’s Kurds to throw their support behind the revolt, telling the New York Times: “My father’s assassination is the screw in the regime’s coffin. They made a big mistake by killing my father”(Blomfield, 2011). As a result of this, it is observed that the opposition movement would go on through including the Kurds, as well.
Identifying the other opposition groups in Syria, it is possible to unite all the segments that were supposed to be exposed to discrimination because of the political, constitutional and economic practices of the regime. Consequently, it can be assumed that this group includes the youth demanding more freedom and democracy from different ethnicities and sectarian orientations, for which the corruption, the unemployment and the wealth of the regime supporters cause a considerable discomfort. In Syria, under the martial law, different segments of society are faced with the lawless arrests and suppression through the activities of the security apparatus. There are a lot of problems such as corruption, income injustice and undemployment besides political imprisonment. Furthermore, the Sunni Arab tribes have undertaken a serious opposition. Since the protests in Daraa were suppressed, the loyalty of the Arab tribes to the regime was affected negatively and this forced them to participate in the opposition movement. The majority of tribes in Daraa have an important role in trade and relations with Jordan. During the border trade with Jordan, they had to remain silent when the security forces exert violence upon them. This caused the regime a loss of legitimacy over the tribes.
On the other hand, the possibility of a Sunni-Alawite conflict after the clashes, deserves attention.Yet, it is essential to state that some Alawites have problems the regime. The anti-Assad groups include Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of Bashar al-Assad, and RiblaRifaat al-Assad, his cousin. Thus, it is not true that all the Alawites support the regime. Some Alawites also have trouble with the regime. During the period of forming a new democratic system, representation of the Sunni Arabs, the Alawites and the other Syrian groups will help the construction of peace and stability. Furthermore, it is expected that at the end of the day, the Alawites will stand with the regime.
It is the first time Bashar al-Assad regime is faced with a serious opposition movement. The opposition movement of 2011 has an important public support whereas the oppositions in 2000 and 2004 did not. Although Bashar al-Assad promised to launch reforms for eleven years, while there hasn’t been any change. This situation decreased the legitimacy and reliability of the regime. The loss of legitimacy and unreliability indicates that opposition will rise despite Bashar al-Assad’s statement of reform initiatives. However, al-Assad’s government proved that they would apply all the methods to stop the demonstrations by means of sending the troops in Banias, Homs and Daraa in recent days. Contrary to expectations, it is obvious that Syria awaits a difficult period including the international intervention.
The impacts will be shaped by ongoing social opposition crisis in Syria. If we categorize the possible scenarios in themselves, in the first scenario, it is claimed that Syrian regime will provide the stability in the country through the partial reforms. Those who put forward this hypothesis, assume that the al-Assad’s regime has the capacity and the competence to manage the crisis in the medium term (Landis and Abdulfettah, 2011). The first scenario is based on the assumption that the riot will be prevented by means of according some rights to the Christians, the Druzes, the Alawis, the Ismailites and finally the Kurds. Apart from the support of these groups, the dissident protests will be blocked to spread from specific regions and borders through the active intervention in the process of the security forces and the intelligence units and it is thought that the system will be stabilized by means of granting some economic and political privileges to these groups in medium term.
The second scenario is based differently from the first scenario on the spread of the crisis to whole country and an internal conflict among the different social and ethnic groups. Within this scope, there will be disintegration in every department from the security forces to political and diplomatic units and a scenario will emerge, in which all the groups will clash with each other, may deserve attention. The disintegration especially amongst the security forces is likely to let this kind of scenario emerge.
The third scenario assume that the regime will take harsher measures to sustain its survival despite its failure in the management of the conflicts and as a result of that, Syria will be faced with the economic and diplomatic sanctions. Weakening the Syrian regime remains on the agenda by means of the economic and diplomatic sanctions that were imposed by USA, EU and UN Security Council. It will be really difficult for Damascus government to overcome the possible economic problems in the long term if the decision of the economic and diplomatic sanctions is accepted. A possible crisis on spare parts, access to raw materials and food problems will have a direct impact on daily life, which will strengthen the anti-regime groups.
The last scenario is about an international intervention in Syria such as in Libya. This is a low probability; however, it is obvious that this scenario might be brought to agenda in case the crisis escalates. Apart from these, another scenario is that Syrian regime will overcome the crisis through giving priority to the reforms that initiate a democratic process. The minority groups who lead the security forces and the presidency may agree on switching to multi-party system in political field. Consequently, it is likely to prevent the ongoing crisis by means of initiating a process that includes all the Syrian groups, particularly the Sunni Arabs.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Veysel Ayhan
This report was published in Alternative politics: Special Issue of Arap Revolts, Vol. 3, No. 3, November 2011
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