Were one to credit the notion that Bashar Assad, Ali Khamenei, Hassan Nasrallah, some Gulf countries, Israel, the USA and several countries in the West, among others, are Stepmothers of ISIS and coddled them to varying degrees since the March 2011 Syrian Revolution—Well, who’s the Mother?
Spending a spring afternoon with a group of lovely Damascus University students a while back the discussion soon focused on the causes of the March 2011 Revolution which was sparked in Deraa, South Syria when four youngsters scribbled for fun some graffiti on a school wall. One line read, “Your turn is next Doctor.” referring to Tunisia and Egypt where despotic leaders were disposed by mass uprisings and hinting that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may well be next. The kids thought it was a sort of a joke, but the regime was not amused. The lads were quickly arrested, tortured, and held for two weeks without their parents even being told where they were or what had become of them.
Within days of the boy’s disappearance, anti-regime demonstrations swept Deraa demanding the children’s release and return to school where exam preparations were underway. The uprising quickly spread, to the shock of much of the population of Syria and a year later it looked like the Assad regime may be about to collapse.
With virtually all the foreign faculty and students and more than half the Syria faculty and students at Damascus University having left the country, the beautiful campus is even more peaceful these days and an excellent place to sit outside in the still well-tendered gardens and enjoy relaxed discussions.
I parried student questions seeking my 2-cents worth opinion and instead urged their views and analyses since they are the experts, two living in Deraa just blocks away from the main March 2011 demonstrations and others they call “shooting-gallery” sites which soon involved Hezbollah snipers.
One serious young lady, Reem, who is working on a graduate degree in Greek Mythology proposed an analogy which enthralled our gathering and which I promised to share with colleagues outside Syria.
Reem’s has an idea of the “Mother” of the March 2011 Revolution in Syria and the best hope to end the war which she believes has killed more than one million Syrians as of May 2018.
Reem postulates that in a sense the “Mother” of the long overdue Syrian revolt is akin to the Greek mythological figure Scylla. Once a beautiful woman, Scylla was betrayed by a corrupt and jealous rival, including the brutal despot Circe and his tribe who employed oppression and countless other measures to keep her and the people of the area subjugated. Scylla, reportedly a rare feminist, revolted and took on horrifying personal attributes including beheadings and led resistance actions which eventually forced the despots to flee.
Reem, who is also a science fiction writer and drama student offers an analogy that may at first blush appear a bit of a stretch. But what caused the people of Syria to revolt seven years ago was not some global neo-imperialists plan carefully orchestrated as some conspiracy theorists, “independent investigative journalists” and internet blogger types repeat ad nausea. But rather it was and continues to be an accumulation of grievances from over half a century of oppression and marinization mercilessly targeting the Syrian people, by despots who continue to control nearly every aspect of their lives, to maintain their own personal power and economic domination.
As noted above, the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 when, soon, regime security forces opened fire on and killed many pro-democracy protesters in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. Assad hardened his resolve, and by July 2011 the Syrian uprising had developed into what we know today as the Syrian civil war. What caused the March 2011 events in Deraa to spread shockingly quickly across Syria has little if anything to do with outside organizers bringing in “proxy terrorists” to topple the Assad regime. They saw an opportunity and started arriving more than a year later.
According to Damascus, Homs and Aleppo University students some of whom may still face charges, the fundamental causes, Mother, of the now seven-year-old Revolution include but are not limited to the following:
More than half a century of Severe Political Repression
Bashar Assad assumed power in Syria in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez, who had ruled despotically since 1971. Assad quickly scuttled any hopes of real reform, as power remained concentrated in the ruling family which owns more than 67% of Syria’s economy and Assad’s cousin Rami Maklouf, approximately 16%. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party system offered no serious opportunities for political dissent, and if any occurred they were immediately and often brutally repressed. Civil society activism and media freedom were severely curtailed, effectively killing the hopes of political openness for Syrians.
Discredited Ideology and a tribal economy
The Syrian Baath Party purported to be the founder of “Arab socialism,” an ideological current that merged the state-led economy with Pan-Arab nationalism. By 2000, however, the Baathist ideology was reduced to an empty shell, discredited politically by lost wars and geography with Israel and by a chronically crippled economy.
Cautious reform of the remnants of socialism opened the door to private investment, triggering an explosion of consumerism among the urban upper-middle classes. However, privatization only favored the wealthy, privileged families with ties to the regime. Witnessing this, a large majority of Syrians, later to become the core of the 2011 uprising, seethed with anger as living costs soared, jobs remained scarce and inequality deepened and spread.
Drought and Population Surge
In 2006, Syria began to suffer its worst drought in nearly a century. According to the United Nations, 75% of Syria’s farms failed and 86% of the livestock died over the next five years between 2006-2011. Some 1.5 million impoverished farmer families were forced to move into new urban slums in Damascus and Homs, alongside Iraqi refugees. Water and food were almost non-existent. The Assad regime with practically no resources to share in these communities, essentially ignored citizen petitions and social upheaval, conflict, and uprisings quickly spread.
Syria’s youth population explosion was and remains a demographic time bomb. And in 2011 it ignited. The country had one of the highest-growing populations in the world, and Syria was ranked ninth by the United Nations as one of the fastest-growing countries in the world between 2005-2010. Unable to balance the population growth with the sputtering economy and the lack of food, jobs, and schools, it contributed to the causes of the Syrian uprising.
Although the state media, was always and remains tightly controlled, the proliferation of satellite TV, mobile phones, and the internet after 2000 meant that any government attempt to insulate the youth from the outside world was doomed to fail. The use of social media became critical to the activist networks that continues to underpin the uprising in Syria.
Corruption and State violence
Corruption and State violence is probably the subject that most motivates and enrages Syrian students (just as it does Iranians in their country) leading many to join the 2011 Revolution. Whether it is a license to open a small shop or register a car, have a failing grade changed to pass a course or buy a University Degree (current price of buying a BA Degree at Damascus University, students claim is $ 1000— signed, sealed and delivered in five days. Sooner if you are Alawi or have access to Wasta—then it can arrive in three days. Well-placed payments have for half a century worked wonders in Syria. Those without money and sectarian (Allawi) or Wasta contacts naturally fume and express strong grievances against the regime.
These were among the factors leading to the 2011 uprising. Dear reader, please examine carefully the conspiracy theories blaming what is happening in Syria entirely on outsiders or some worldwide neo-imperialist plan. That is not what is happening here. The system is still currently so corrupt that anti-Assad rebels regularly buy weapons from government forces. Families can sometimes bribe authorities to release relatives detained during the uprising. Those close to the Assad regime take advantage of the widespread corruption to further their own businesses. Black markets and smuggling rings have become the norm, and the regime looks the other way. The middle class has been deprived of their income, further fomenting the Syrian uprising.
Syria’s powerful intelligence agencies, known collectively as the infamous mukhabarat, more than half a century ago penetrated all spheres of Syrian society. For more than half a century State violence has always been widespread with countless thousands of disappearances, arbitrary arrests, executions and repressive acts in general.
The brutal response of security forces to the outbreak of peaceful Derra protests in spring 2011, many of which were documented on social media, helped generate the snowball effect as thousands across Syria joined in the uprising.
A UN commission of inquiry has offered evidence it has that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes – including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. They have also been accused of using civilian suffering – such as blocking access to food, water and health services through sieges – as a method of war. The UN Security Council has demanded that all parties end the indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas, but thousands of civilians continue to die monthly. Many have been killed by barrel bombs dropped by government aircraft on gatherings in rebel-held areas – attacks which the UN says may constitute massacres.
Syria is a majority Sunni Muslim country, and a majority of those initially involved in the Syrian uprising were Sunnis. But the top positions in the security apparatus, the Army, the Assad Regime, the Economy are in the hands of the Alawite minority, a Shiite religious minority to which the Assad family belongs. These same security forces committed massive violence against the majority Sunni protesters.
Most Syrians pride themselves on their tradition of religious tolerance, but many Sunnis still resent the fact that across the board power is monopolized by a small handful of Alawite families. The combination of a majority Sunni protest movement and an Alawite-dominated military added to the tension and uprising in religiously mixed areas, such as in the city of Homs.
Reem and her fellow students draw solace from the Greek mythological Scylla for what they hope is her “invisible hand” and inspiration in organizing the 2011 Resistance to more than half a century of Syria’s repression and more than seven years of horror they each have experienced first-hand. All losing loved ones, their homes and most of their friend’s not being able to continue their studies.
But with husbands, sons and fathers dead or missing, many women, according to Reem, have been taking solace from what they believe is Scylla’s influence on women, many battered and abused by the conflict across Syria, who are today working with to rebuild what is left of their communities in our globally shared cradle of civilization.
One example where arguably the Greek Mythological Scylla inspires thousands of Syrian women today in Syria is among the three million civilians who today are under siege in Syria’s Idlib province. According to UN officials, conditions are becoming worse by the day and are creating yet another humanitarian catastrophe.
As reported by Simon Tisdall of the UK Economist on 5/26/18, for thousands of families, Idlib may be the refuge of last resort. But with the Syrian army, supported by Russian and nearly two dozen Iranian trained and funded militia, cutting off the south and east of Idlib, Idlib is also being labeled by observers on the scene a “kill-b0x without any viable escape route for civilian trying to escape. Simultaneously, Turkish forces have blocked exist from Idlib to the north.
Documentation of the vital role of women in saving Syrian refugees trapped in Idlib is a new report, Idlib Lives – The Untold Story of Heroes, by the Syria Campaign and the international anti-war organization Peace Direct. It offers a compelling documentation of creative resilience and innovation, led by Syrian women, near the core of Syria’s continuing maelstrom.
Many of these informal civil initiatives in Syria are increasingly led by women, who have been unexpectedly thrust into leadership roles by the war. This as the UN reports that international assistance and aid has fallen to critically low levels.
Overall, the Syrian conflict has disproportionately affected women and girls. Traditionally conservative extremist groups have exacerbated the exclusion of women from leadership roles. Despite women in Idlib facing attacks from all sides, civil society in Idlib continues to operate with remarkable effectiveness and determination. According to the above noted Idlib Lives report: “In areas best-known internationally for massacres, there are untold stories of hundreds of women’s1 groups providing the services civilians need to survive.”
As much as any unlikely “future peace settlements” imposed from outside, these social society self-help initiatives are courageously pointing the way forward for a peaceful postwar Syria. As across Syria, Idlib’s civil society with major female leadership offers the most realistic opportunity for free and democratic institutions finally being established in Syria. Reem and some of her friends plan to join them this summer in Idlib.
Idlib, like Syria generally is at a critical point and its survival is by no means assured. But if international politicians, donors, international NGOs and policymakers invest in Syria’s people, in Syria’s civil society, in Syria’s women, the international community will see ideas and solutions flourish.
Mariam Shirout is manager and teacher at an after-school support institute for children. She is also a co-founder of the Syrian Organization for Women and director of the women’s bureau at a civil activist group in Idlib. She reported to the UK Guardian: “We do lots of activities with the students. Once we cooked together and distributed the food to low-income families. When I see the children coming to the center under the bombardment, because they want to spend time with their friends and me, I can never think about stopping, ever.” She also finds time to help women find work and start their own businesses.
One volunteer who is a project coordinator for the Syria Civil Defense Women’s Center in Idlib explained that: “What we women have been through has made us stronger. If people stayed at home to grieve, life could have stopped a long time ago. Life won’t stop: we need to keep going and working. I believe in working until the last possible moment.”
As most of us realize, what began as another Arab Spring uprising against an autocratic ruler has mushroomed into a brutal war without an end in sight. The Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition- who arguably suffered most from the current regime has attracted varying degrees of support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, along with the US, UK and France.
Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have shored up the Alawite-led Assad regime and gradually increased their support. Tehran is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster Mr Assad, providing military advisers and subsidized weapons, as well as lines of credit and oil transfers. Russia has meanwhile launched a massive, largely indiscriminate air campaign against Assad regime opponents while significantly sparing ISIS and other Islamists.
Students and particularly women in Syria are becoming deeply involved in liberating their country, rebuilding it and preparing to help govern it by establishing meaningful civil societies.
If the Greek Mythological figure Scylla inspires students, women and Syrian civil society generally, against great odds to rebuild their country, as they are attempting to do today in earnest, bless the Greek Mythological lady Scylla and all for whom she provides much needed strength to persevere in rebuilding Syria.