Freedom, freedom and freedom, only

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The Syrian rebellion began in a small farming town 60 miles south of Damascus. On March 6th, 15 young boys painted messages on these school walls.

“Freedom, freedom and freedom, only. ” “Down with the corrupt Assad.”

They were copying what they’ve been listening to in Al Jazeera and other TV channels covering the Egyptian uprising and the Tunisian uprising. Soon after, the boys were rounded up by the government’s secret police, the Mukhabarat. Their fathers went to see the police chief, a cousin of Syria’s president, Bashar al Assad, and begged him to release their children.He refused. And he said, “Forget that you have these kids. Go and make other ones.” And if they were not men enough to make children, then, “Bring us your wives, and we will make children for you.” One boy was never returned. Several of the children had their fingernails pulled out. They were beaten. And there are even reports of rape being committed against these children.And in a close-knit tribal society like that, there was only one thing they could do, they rioted.

That very instance of repression, of torture, seemed to bring the town together. Here were the children of the town being mistreated by a government that was distant, that had neglected Deraa. And almost from that moment, the uprising seemed to gained momentum.

It led to a major demonstration that was put down brutally by force, with the killing of several civilians. Many Syrians, who hoped that President Bashar al Assad might intervene, felt betrayed.Those who believed in President Bashar al Assad lost all that faith when the first bullet was fired at a civilian in the street in Syria.

For over four decades, the Assads have ruled Syria, a fractious country of many tribes and religions. The Assads come from a long-persecuted minority Muslim sect, the Alawites. The Alawites had traditionally been the repressed and oppressed in the country. In fact, a famous Sunni medieval philosopher by the name of Ibn Taymiyyah once declared that the Alawites were worse than Jews and Christians and were infidels and there should be holy war carried out against them.But Hafez al Assad found a path to power through the military. Under French colonial rule, Sunnis had resisted serving, while Alawites like Hafez found opportunity. The young Assad was also a rising star in Syria’s Socialist Ba’ath Party. At age 40, he engineered a coup to seize the presidency. Hafez al Assad rose to power from the bottom up. He had to fight the battles that came with the coup d’etats, that came with trying to corral the different forces of the country into his camp. He ruled by putting trusted family members in high government posts. The brother is in charge of security, the cousins of the banking system, in-laws in security, as well, military. So the reality is, this is a family business (very similar to the Mafia) Assad used force to get what he wanted The Ba’ath Party promised to get rid of sectarianism. He demanded, and for the most part, that the Syrian people would accept a little bit less freedom and liberty in return for stability Assad also secured his power by taking in millions in Soviet military aid and welcoming thousands of Soviet advisers.But in 1979, there was a revolution in Iran. The dynasty of the Shah was replaced by an Islamic state under Ayatollah Khomeini. In Syria and across the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists rose up.

And there were attacks against the regime. It was essentially a civil war. I was living in Aleppo at the time . A bombing campaign targeted government building and Alawite military officers and cadets. These attacks went on for a number of years. We had curfews- airports were closed and their were killings on a daily basis

And in 1982, the regime basically said, “That’s it. That’s enough. We have to deal with this once and for all. We have to show that we’re in control.” Their chief target was the stronghold of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hama. In 1982, the Syrian regime launched one of the worst massacres in the history of the Middle East. The regime used artillery to level large parts of the town. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. Bodies were buried before pictures were taken. I just remember there was a lot of rubble and a lot of destruction. It looked like a war zone. And the other thing I remember were  neatly bulldozed areas as we drove through the city. These were probably also the mass graves that everybody talks about.

That was a very stark moment in which the Alawite-dominated regime, the Ba’ath Party, made it clear to Syria that it would not tolerate any opposition. It was a ruthless— but it did deal with the problem from the perspective of the Syrian regime because until recently, they really haven’t had any serious opposition to Hafez al Assad or his son when he came to power in 2000. A phrase was coined, “the Hama Rules,” the idea that you quash rebellion by making sure that your citizens know that you play by no rules at all.

Almost 30 years later, Hafez’s son, President Bashar al Assad, faces a similar test in Hama. Hama looked like Cairo. It looked like Tunis. This was a popular uprising. And the government was very threatened – I think there’s a sense out there within the government that what they’re facing right now is redolent of what they faced in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And it helps feed the notion that, “We can deal with this by security and security alone.” If we’re faced with a crisis, go back see what we did the last time we got through a crisis. So the last time they got through a similar crisis was Hama. So you have a protest. You have an uprising. You suppress it. You do not negotiate with the protesters, so there’s no negotiation. Bashar’s mother is said to have told her son to act like your father and take control of this rebellion. So like all good boys he listen to his mother and sent in the tanks, snipers and other weaponry.

This is how the Assads, both father and son, deal with domestic threats. Many Syrians had hoped Bashar would be different from his father. During the first massacre of Hama, Bashar was studying medicine at the University of Damascus. The studious 17-year-old expressed no political ambitious. After graduation, he moved to London. He was not earmarked for the presidency. He was going to be an ophthalmologist and he was prepared to do that for the rest of his life. The heir apparent was Bashar’s older brother, Basil. But in 1994, he was killed in a car accident. Bashar was ordered to come home. He joined the Republican Guard and was sent to serve in Lebanon, preparing for the day he would take office.

Everyone knew he was going to take over. We all knew that Hafez al Assad was dying. Bashar was inaugurated in July 2000. The young doctor, with his British-born Syrian wife, a former banker at JP Morgan, promised reform. People were happy with the idea of reform early on in Bashar’s reign. He opened up the country to the Internet. He lifted exit permits, which were required for Syrians to travel, and he allowed more trade in the country. He said, “We can open up. We’re going to have some private newspapers, private press, Internet.” And he believed that he could win the hearts and minds of the people through modernization and let a lot more light in. He promised economic reforms, and he promised political reforms. And so there were political salons that began to emerge and people began to talk about ideas. How is Syria going to meet the future? Which path is it going to take? And there was an era, I would say, in 2003 – 2004 in which there was an open debate, and a healthy one. Business was booming and we had more tourism than ever before in the country and it was increasing every year.

He was genuinely popular among the young people, who hadn’t lived through his father and who saw him as a potential reformer. And he kept on telling them that life is going to get better. And they could see fairly dramatic changes, at least for the wealthy. He was written up in all the major papers in the Middle East and also in Europe. People wanted to come to Syria and meet this young new president that was going to change the country. In Damascus and Aleppo you really saw the transformation. There was a sense of commercialism. People felt that they were seeing things in the street that they might see in Beirut, a much more prosperous city, but the regime’s old guard watched with fear. They urged Bashar to stop his political reforms. They told him it would undermine the regime.
The political establishment — the Ba’ath Party — and those in the senior ranks of authority decided that if this free political debate was going to continue, they were going to lose their heads. The people that were in power with the father did not like what was happening and they wanted everything reigned in- and there was sudden clampdown in 2005, hundreds of activists and intellectuals were arrested.  For the next several years, as Syria faced drought and high unemployment, especially in the countryside, President Assad’s popularity eroded. Last year, a popular revolt in Tunisia toppled a dictator. Egypt was next. It was unclear if the Arab Spring would spread to Syria, but we see that it has and it is now in the 19th month and Bashar is still refusing to leave power and the shelling and bombardment of the towns is going on daily.

This is not the life that anyone wants to live- you go out for a loaf of bread or some milk for the family and you are not sure that you will be coming back since there are snipers on the buildings that start to shoot at any movement. God help the Syrian people.

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