By B. Raman
“Good Friday” on April 22,2011, saw violent protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad all over Syria. For the first time since the protest movement started in the southern city of Daraa bordering Jordan five weeks ago, simultaneous, partly spontaneous and partly well-orchestrated protest rallies were held in all major towns such as Damascus, Daraa, Douma, Hama, Jabla, Kamishli and 14 others. The 44-year-old President has been in power for 11 years.
Barring the ruling Alawite minority, members of all ethnic, religious and sectarian groups in the country — the Sunnis, who are in a majority, Christians , Kurds, Ismailis, Duruz and Palestinian and Iraqi refugees (one million each) — participated in the “Good Friday” protest rallies. Muslims of different sects gave shelter to injured Christians in their mosques and Christians of Daraa gave shelter to injured Muslims in their churches. At the end of the day of protests, seventy-two people were reported to have been killed due to firing by the security forces on the protest rallies.
“God, Syria and Freedom” and “Daraa is Syria” were among the slogans shouted in the protest rallies. The protesters were keen to counter the propaganda by the security agencies, which sought to project the protest movement, which has been continuing relentlessly for over a month, as an armed insurrection by pro-Al Qaeda Salafis and other Islamic extremists. They, therefore, avoided shouting slogans of an Islamist kind.
The reference to Daraa in the slogans was to highlight the role played by the people of Daraa — many of them reportedly Christians — in igniting the protest movement. Daraa is now described as the epi-centre of the anti-Assad movement. Whereas in Egypt, the protest movement started in Cairo and radiated to the other provinces, in Syria, it started in the bordering region of Daraa and from there moved towards Damascus. Protest rallies were reported from some suburbs of Damascus on Good Friday.
According to a post in Wikipedia, Daraa is a city in southwestern Syria, near the border with Jordan, with a population of approximately 75,000. It is the capital of Daraa Governorate, historically part of the ancient Hauran region. The city is located about 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Damascus on the Damascus-Amman highway, and is used as a stopping station for travelers.
The protest movement in Daraa did not start as a pro-democracy movement. It started as a movement to express the anger of the residents of the area over the perceived failure of the local administration to deal with acute water scarcity in the region. The mishandling of the protests and the use of repressive measures against the protesters by the security agencies led to a purely local phenomenon assuming a pan-Syrian dimension, with demands for the end of emergency laws, the release of political prisoners and reforms.
During the first protest rally in Daraa on March 15, the residents accused the then Governor Faysal Kalthum of postponing the acquisition of property rights and preventing farmers from drilling water wells for irrigation. Yussef Abu Rumiyeh, the Member of Parliament from the area, accused the security forces of opening fire “without mercy” on the protesters and criticised the President for not offering condolences to the families of those killed. Bashar sacked Faysal Kalthum on March 23 and appointed Khaled al-Hannus as the new Governor. This did not pacify the people and the protest movement spread to the port city of Latakia. A spokesman of the protesters was quoted by the “Guardian” of the UK as saying: “The residents of Daraa want more than a switch in Governor — they want the security services to stop oppressing them, the emergency law lifted, property rights respected, the detained freed and freedom of expression guaranteed.”
President Bashar, who showed signs of being confident till about a fortnight ago of his ability to bring the situation under control, is no longer so. The more the concessions he makes, the more the protests gather momentum. His action in repealing the hated emergency laws — a major demand — has not pacified the protesters. It is becoming evident that the protesters now want no less than his exit from power and the end of the ruling Alawite minority regime.
President Bashar co-operated with the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its anti-Al Qaeda operations. As a result of this co-operation, Syria allegedly became a favourite rendition centre of the CIA where Al Qaeda suspects were brought for interrogation by Syrian interrogators who had no qualms over the use of torture.
The US is now trying to mark its distance from the regime. In a statement after the Good Friday protests, President Barack Obama called for a halt to the “outrageous” violence. He said : “This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.”
According to the BBC, in their first joint statement since the protests broke out, activists co-ordinating the mass demonstrations have demanded the establishment of a democratic political system. The demands issued by “Syrian local organising committees” include:
- An end to torture, killings, arrests and violence against demonstrators
- Three days of state-sanctioned mourning for deaths so far
- An independent investigation into the deaths of protesters and judicial proceedings in the light of evidence revealed
- Release of all political prisoners
- Reform of Syria’s constitution, including a two-term presidential limit
The protest movements, which started in Tunisia in January, and then spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, show no signs of abating. In Egypt, the movement has been re-kindled by anger over the ruling military junta’s perceived reluctance to act against the remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime. The re-ignited movement does not have the secular unity of the earlier movement. The Muslims and the Christians seem to have come to a parting of the ways. The protests against the military junta have been accompanied by protests against the appointments of some Christians as Governors of interior provinces.
13. Apart from proforma statements of support and instigation, Al Qaeda has been adopting a cautious line avoiding any statements or action that could be exploited by the security agencies of the affected countries to demonise the pro-reform/democracy movements as Al Qaeda-directed and crush them.
About the author: B. Raman
B. Raman was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: [email protected]