The Complexities of Syria's Violence
By Anna Haq
May 2, 2011
The "Arab Spring" has reached Syria. Coded phone conversations and postings on Facebook feed the speculations about events and their meaning. Without journalists in the country, Facebook has become one of the main informative venues. In Egypt, Facebook helped to mobilize youth against the Mubarak government. In Syria, Facebook provided a platform to call for national unity and to condemn the foreign "terrorists" who supposedly started the unrest a few weeks ago. Over the past few weeks, a considerable number of Syrians on Facebook has changed their profile pictures to either the Syrian flag or the picture of President Assad next to a lion (Assad means lion in Arabic). On April 27th, pro-government activists created an electronic page for the Syrian Army and invitations were sent around Facebook to join that page in support of the army's efforts to defeat the destructive attempts of these terrorists. On the same day, a Syrian intellectual described Dar'aa as a "cancer that has to be removed to ensure the well-being of the whole Syrian nation." The Syrian events do not belong in the same category as the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
Syrian pride is new to the Syrian youth. For those who grew up in the 1980s and experienced the claustrophobic authoritarianism, it was hard to be patriotic. Syrian expatriates sought financial stability and social freedoms elsewhere, yet nonetheless are the main authors of the pro-government Facebook posts. Sections of the Syrian young have taken to the street to chant for a regime that suppresses them. How to make sense of this revival of Syrian nationalism? The answer lies in a narrative that counters that presented by mainstream journalism (both Arab and Western).
Peaceful demonstrators are on the streets of different Syrian cities. They demand freedom, but they do so in the name of a majority that is not on those streets. Until April 22nd, these demonstrations did not exceed about fifty people at a time (in most cases, fifteen to twenty people would gather bravely). Mainstream journalists, perhaps buoyed by the Arab Spring, exaggerated the number of demonstrators (and perhaps tampered with pictures taken from pro-government demonstrations to make them seem anti-government gatherings) led the Syrian government to exclude all journalists. This was a bad decision. It meant that the reports coming out of Syria are mystifying; with the government's own accounts always seen as suspicious while the anti-government accounts generally taken as truth.
Liberal Syrian intellectuals depict the pictures of dead youth in the mainstream media not as "martyrs" in the anti-government struggle, but as "the terrorists," "the intruders" or, more explicitly, "the fanatic salafis." The mainstream media has utterly ignored this third aspect, whether because they don't have access to that part of the story or because they deny it. The end result in the mainstream tale is that the Syrian government becomes the sole perpetrator of violence. Neither the autocratic nature of the Syrian regime, nor its aggressive response to dissent should be denied or neglected. The humanitarian concern, however, is that by failing to acknowledge this third "terrorist" party and its actions, we remain short of the fact that the peaceful demonstrators in Syria are facing a dead-end: their demands go unattended because the government has to handle this larger violent attack first. And by confusing the murdered "terrorists" with "martyrs," we undermine the possible "genuine" concessions that the Syrian government might put in place as part of its "modernization" plan.
Praising the Syrian government and its army has become the casual ending of any conversation you may have with those who live in Syria. "We don't fear terrorism, we believe in our leadership and the army" is one of the recurring comments you see on Facebook. What seemed at the beginning a natural reaction of people who have lived in fear of their government for decades, became the dominant narrative of all who expressed a larger fear of an unknown attack that might stir deep-rooted sectarian tension which might jeopardize Syria's stability. The number of youtube videos posted by "eye witnesses" and/or people calling into to talk shows on al-Jazeera or BBC Arabic are numerous. In a recent posting almost a week after the notorious battle in Homs (April 19), a doctor from the Mustashfa al-Watani (the National Hospital) in Homs—owned and run by the government—was crying his lungs out: "I was in the OR and they were shooting at the hospital." When asked who was shooting at the hospital, he replied: "I am a doctor not a politician. My job is to help those who walk through the doors of the hospital even by giving my own blood which I did. I don't care who I gave my blood to, my humanitarian job is to save lives and that's what I am doing here even under the bullets. THEY were shooting at the hospital that's all I know."
While the doctor's testimony underlines how the attacks have escalated in Homs, it does reinforce the ambiguity of the news coming out from Syria. In Homs, the events begin with the slaughter of two army officers and their families in their homes by unknown persons. On Tuesday, April 19th, policemen came to downtown Homs to disperse the fifty or so peaceful demonstrators. The so-called "terrorists" came on the scene, shot at the policemen and demonstrators who were in the main square. A firefight broke out between the army and the terrorists. Most of the injured people and the dead bodies from the clash were taken to Homs' national hospital. Some reports suggested that the Syrian army was taking the injured out of the national hospitals into army hospitals to hide the exact number of causalities. We still don't know who was shooting at the hospital: was it the army or was it the terrorists? Both are equally capable of doing such things. Local sources remain ambiguous – they don't collapse the very poor information into certainty, which has been the typical approach of Arab and Western reporters based in Beirut, Cairo or Amman, who take mobile phone videos into a prescripted context.
As the conflict escalates, more voices have entered the web, some on the side of the government and some not. On Wednesday April 27, radio Sham FM broadcasted an interview with a woman from the southern city Dar'aa, where most of the turmoil has been taking place. She talked about how locals from the city are not able to enter or leave the city. The army has blocked Dar'aa. She then denounced the "armed terrorists" who have attacked the army, policemen and civilians, and accordingly, caused the turmoil. She yelled repeatedly, "We do not want freedom. President Assad gave us freedom we do not want it. Freedom is the cause of this turmoil." When asked what the people of Dar'aa want, she yelled out: "We want things to go back to 'normal', when policemen can interrogate predators. We want the old days when we could walk freely in our city at any time without fear of armed terrorists. If this is freedom, we do not want it."
The previous day, on April 26, S.N.N (Sham News Network) circulated a video of a young man from Banias, the coastal city that witnessed violent events in recent weeks. He addressed the international community in clear English stating, "we are demonstrating to claim our rights, our justice, our freedom, and they say we are salafi, we are al-Qaida, we are abu-Sayaf, and we are terrorists and we want to make an Islamic republic here. I say it is a big lie, it is a big lie... In Syria, in Banias, in all of Syria, Christians and Muslims are brothers. In the same street you can see mosques and churches. Sunnis, Alawi, Kurds, Shia, Druze—we are all brothers, we are all friends we are all rebels... Why do they kill us? Why do they fight us when we make demonstration? Why do they kill people in Dar'aa? Why? I ask why and I want an answer..." Regarding the demonstrations, he noted: "these 300 people they want freedom, they want their rights, they want justice in Syria, we want to make real Syria true Syria." This video which landed later that day on the main page of Radio Monte Carol International, was followed by another shorter video from Homs of youth chanting: "we are not Salafis, we are not terrorists. The people want the regime down." Such anti-government videos posted on Facebook instigated a wide wave of rage against those who posted them; for their "anti-peace" postings has no purpose but "to encourage unnecessary chaos that might end up in another bloody encounter between the army and the terrorists with civilian casualties", as one posting furiously claims insisting that "most of the armed clashes have been instigated by predators who hid among demonstrators or seized the opportunity of a demonstration to start firing randomly at civilians and policemen." The Ministry of Interior issued a decree on Thursday, April 28, banning unauthorized demonstrations. Shams FM urged fellow citizens to stay home on Friday, April 29, so as to allow the government to track down the "terrorists" and to bring peace to the cities.
What is at stake here is for more reliable information. Cartoon images of an evil government versus a peaceful population do not help the Syrian people, and only provide fodder for those who believe that they must intervene to help along a pliant population. What is needed is for the Syrian government to allow journalists free access to cover the events, and perhaps allow the UN Human Rights Commission to send in its team to create a more accurate narrative of what is happening in the cities of Syria. This is the most authentic democratic demand of the moment. It is what will allow the peaceful demonstrators to make their case without fear of being shot by either the "terrorists" or the army.
Anna Haq is the nom de plume of a Syrian writer and intellectual. She would love to use her real name, but thinks it would only unnecessarily inconvenience people she loves. She can be reached at Anna.Haqq@gmail.com.