Like nearly 25 million other Syrians, one cannot help but feel stunned and exasperated by the events engulfing our country. How did we get here? How can a country long associated with “stability” suddenly unravel and enter what seems to most like a black hole?
Things could not look more differently back in November 2000. Barely few months into his Presidency, the 34 year-old new leader declared the closing of the Mezze prison and the release of hundreds of political prisoners. Those hoping for the birth of a new Syria felt vindicated. Surely, the past thirty years of the heavy handedness of the much feared Moukhabarat agencies would soon give way to a new atmosphere of political, legal and economic reform.
Michele Kilo, Burhan Ghalioun, Riad Seif, Aref Dalila, Anwar al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani , Mamoun al-Homsi, Omar Amiralay, Suhair al-Atassi, Hussein al-Awdat, Antoun al-Makdisi, Fawaz Tillo, Habib Salih, Haitham al-Maleh and Radwan Ziadeh certainly all thought so as they made up the major figures of what later became known as the “Damascus Spring”.
Groups of like-minded people were suddenly meeting in private houses and discussing political matters and social questions. Such locations were soon referred to as “mundatat” or “salons”. Naturally, political demands soon grew into what was later referred to as the “Manifesto of the 99”. The principal demand consisted of the cancellation of the state of emergency and abolition of martial law and special courts; the release of all political prisoners; the return without fear of prosecution of political exiles; and the right to form political parties and civil organization. To these was often added the more precisely political demand that Article 8 of the Syrian constitution be repealed. The movement never called for regime change nor challenged the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s succession to the presidency.
Participants of The Damascus Spring were ahead of their time. The Arab world was yet to experience a spring of any kind. It is worth noting that the salons debated not only Article 8 but many political and social questions from the position of women to the nature of education methods and the Arab Israeli conflict.
How long did reforms last?
By February 2001, the security heads had seen enough. The young President must have been warned of the slippery slope nature that his promised reforms were likely to morph into.
A sudden change of heart caused such Political forums to be forcibly closed. Seif, Riad al-Turk, Mamoun Al-Homsi, Aref Dalila, and others were arrested and charged with “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife” and were sentenced by the Damascus Criminal Court to five years in jail. The other eight activists including Walid al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, and Fawwaz Tello were referred to the Supreme State Security Court which issued prison sentences between two to 10 years.
Only one salon, the Jamal al-Atassi National Dialogue Forum, was still permitted to function. The Atassi forum was finally also shut down in 2005 after a member had read a statement from the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The final red line was crossed.
Set below is a quote from that period:
“Maybe there are some economic changes, a private bank, and so on, but the laws controlling political life, freedom, they haven’t changed at all. Any time the Government wants to, it can put people in jail. We have emergency laws, special courts, illegal arrests, and the security chiefs have a say in every Government decision, including economic ones. In practice, the charges and the sentence come to the judge in the same envelope” – Mr. Anwar al-Bounni, a lawyer active in the Human Rights Association of Syria
Human journeys are akin to making constant decisions about which direction to take when one faces a fork in the road. Destinies can be decided by such decisions. Bashar al-Assad’s very own destiny may well have been decided by that choice 18 months into his leadership. The new era of freedom and reform that started with the closure of the Mezze prison was on one side of the fork. The advice of the security agencies and the regime’s hawkish elements pointed to the other side of the road. Mr. Assad sided with his security men and he was soon to order the swift closing of that Damascus Spring now more than a decade old.
Back then, there were no armed terrorists, salafis or foreign conspirators. Syria was on the cusp of potentially leading the Arab world in political reform. The activists of the time saw their young 34 year old new President as the agent of change. Had he obliged, he would have arguably been a truly generational Arab figure who would lead his young nation into political freedom and economic prosperity.
Regrettably, the other side of the fork was chosen.
Many will take issue with the above note and claim that it is too simplistic. Surely, Syria’s current predicament cannot be related to events from a decade ago many will argue. While no one can dismiss the international geopolitical dimensions of the current crisis, it is simply not credible to argue that consistent domestic political and economic failures do not lie at the heart of this tsunami engulfing this nation and its people.