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By **Robin Yassin-Kassab**


Three weeks ago I wrote that Syria was not about to experience a popular revolution. Although I’m no longer sure of anything after the events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain)—and although it’s made me unpopular in certain quarters—I’m sticking to my original judgment. No revolution in Syria just yet.

Until a month ago, I would have agreed with Joshua Landis (quoted here) that many, perhaps a comfortable majority of Syrians were not particularly interested in “democracy.” Before either Landis or I am accused of orientalism, let me say that human and civil rights are not identical with democracy. Any Syrian who knows he’s alive wants his (or her) human and civil rights respected, but many fear that ’democracy’ would lead to sectarian fragmentation. This is an entirely logical fear: the “democracies” to the west and east of Syria—Lebanon and Iraq—are strife-torn sectarian democracies. Sectarian identification remains a problem in Syria. A freedom-loving Alawi friend of mine was put off the failed “day of rage” Facebook group because he found so many anti-Alawi comments posted there. Other Syrians were put off when they realized that many of the posts came from Hariri groups in Lebanon.

Many Syrians fear that “destabilization” wouldn’t bring democracy anyway. When Hafez al-Asad died, most Syrians had contradictory feelings about Bashaar’s succession: on the one hand, the notion of a hereditary presidency was humiliating and absurd; on the other, young Bashaar seemed a better option than tank battles between aspiring generals.

Although early hopes of sudden liberalization were dashed, Bashaar’s presidency has been reasonably popular. The economy has been growing, but the gap between rich and poor has grown too. Most Syrians struggle to get by, yet are not nearly as poor as those in Egypt’s slums. Foreign policy has not humiliated Syria’s national feelings, as was the case in Egypt.

But if Bashaar and his foreign minister pass the approval of many, his corrupt cousins and generals and secret policemen do not. And here’s the problem. In Egypt and Tunisia the army sided with the people against the regime, or at least the head of the regime. In Syria, the regime’s body is more vicious than its head. In any case, the Syrian army would not side with the people. The upper ranks would have too much to lose, and do not necessarily trust each other. Many of the middle and lower ranks, Alawis and other minorities, would also fear generalized revenge attacks against their communities, or sectarian Sunni rule, if the regime shook.

If it became possible, could a democracy do a better job of foreign policy? Almost definitely, yes—and I say so as someone who respects most of Syria’s foreign policy, certainly when compared to the foreign policies of other Arab regimes. A free civil space would permit committed, intelligent, articulate Syrians to organize against Zionism and imperialism. The West would not find it so easy to ignore a Syria with all its creative energies unleashed. And an economy free of large-scale corruption would give Syria more resources to fuel its battles.

Domestically, democracy could do a whole lot better. Syria is much safer than it has been, but barbarities still occur with prosaic regularity in police stations and prisons across the land. A recent example is the sad case of Tal al-Molouhi.

Syrians are sick of all that. And now they may have a brighter alternative than Iraq or Lebanon to brood upon. Egypt is closer to Syrian hearts than it seems on the map. If a democratic, non-sectarian Egypt reclaims its regional role, profound change in Syria will be a matter of time. They say Syria is fifteen years behind Egypt, but time is speeding up.

So the regime needs to get a move on. Bashaar has said, perhaps with some sincerity, that the difficult environment of his decade in power—wars in Iraq and Lebanon, Israeli attacks, targeting by neo-cons—was the factor which slowed reforms. But with the transformation in Egypt, the region is about to become much more hospitable to Syria. Reform in the new circumstances should be easy.

And also inescapable. Inspired by the larger Arab revolution (Syrians like to be at the forefront of any Arab revolutionary movement), people will increasingly demand to be treated fairly and humanely. That’s what they’re doing in the film above. This spontaneous and unprecedented demonstration in Hareeqa (in the Old City souq area) blew up after police beat a local man (explanation here). The Interior Minister turned up, a sign that the regime is acting with intelligence (when Mubarak went, Syrian TV very adroitly broadcast Jazeera’s live feed).

But more important than the regime response, the film shows the new mood—people demanding respect and dignity. They chant “The Syrian People Won’t Be Humiliated.” If there are more protests over local human rights issues—and there may well be—people may go on to demonstrate against corruption. If they ensure that their slogans are non-sectarian, and organize protests with people of all backgrounds, then sectarian fears will loosen, and much more becomes possible.

Copyright 2011 Robin Yassin-Kassab


This post originally appeared at

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a co-editor and regular contributor at PULSE. He is the author of The Road from Damascus.

To read blog entries from Robin Yassin-Kassab and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .


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One Comment on “Robin Yassin-Kassab: Syria Speeding Up

  1. Syria Revolution will work out. The freedom fighters will prevail.

    Poem: Suppression, I accept not – by Bhuwan Thapaliya

    I came into this world

    not like the river but like a drop of water

    and will soon evaporate

    I came into this world

    not like the river but like a drop of water

    and will soon evaporate

    Though, I am only a drop of water in the majestic ocean of nature

    I yearn to create a vigorous ripple of freedom, in the eternity of the water

    For I am a man of eternal freedom,

    and suppression I accept not

    I will not accept it

    The living God within me urges me to be free, and to

    march on the road of freedom sans any dread

    My heart, like Einstein, thinks in another dimension

    unknown and unknowable

    even to my own mind

    And like Goethe, looks at things in a different manner,

    different than those thinkers

    bestowed with pristine minds

    Freedom, the gift of God, is the inherent right

    of every individual

    in this compressed world

    I will fight till the end to free the masses

    from the grip of suppression

    and ignite the lamp of freedom

    I will free the masses or die in the attempt

    but I will never live to see

    the naked dance of repression

    I am not afraid of those suppressors,

    nor am I afraid of the death

    that they are planning for me;

    they can kill me but not freedom forever

    My blood boils whenever I see the strong ones

    pulverising the lean, and my heart cries

    whenever I see the starving pauper

    in the abattoir of the prosperous butcher

    For me

    a red rose is a red rose

    it is not white just because they call it white

    to disguise the ignorant

    They can conquer Everest but not my spirit

    they can stagnate the river

    but not my impetus

    They can take my sight away

    but not my vision of freedom

    They can cut my tongue into pieces

    but not my voice of freedom

    They can stab me with the dagger of despotism

    but not impede the blood of freedom

    I know the road to freedom is blocked with obstacles

    but obstacles cause no despair

    if they are encountered with hope

    We must act now and not merely just look away

    when our freedom

    is threatened from within

    Because it is better to perish without freedom

    than to have a yearn for freedom

    but not the valour to harvest it

    Don’t be a coward

    Be prepared to receive bullets to your chest

    because, in the struggle of freedom, tolerance

    of suppression is an offence

    Stand up stand up

    Gather your courage. Come out

    into the field; let’s march hand in

    hand together, right beneath the

    nose of the suppressors, for the

    emancipation of our freedom

    Let us not forget that

    The ocean is composed of drops

    of water, and all drops possess

    equal potentials, but only, when

    they mix with other drops do

    they form a powerful bond


    Listen, my oppressed brothers

    listen, my trodden sisters

    listen listen

    to the natural desire

    of your ceaseless soul

    Do not fear

    trust your soul

    and march ahead

    with a resolute heart

    for the better tomorrow

    And scatter

    the seeds of freedom,

    where does it go?

    it does not matter

    scatter it more with hope

    Welcome the freedom

    welcome it today

    and enjoy it evermore

    but do not use your freedom

    to suppress the people’s soul

    to suppress the people’s soul

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