Syria looks forward to a time past

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said his main objective was to address his people’s “closed mindedness”. This alone impeded reform and it might be another generation before Syria was ready for real change.

Dictators (including Assad’s father, Hafez) have long presented themselves as suppressors of extremism in the region generally and Syria in particular. They claim democracy will usher in fundamentalists inherently opposed to modernity, civil dialogue, international community legitimacy and civilised political and economic relations.

Perhaps because of this fear the world was silent when Syria was passed from father to son - there were even some approving statements about the new “young and modern” president. This led to a feeling of hopelessness among the Syrian people.

In fact, there was a fairly successful democratic state in Syria before the “revolutionary governments” that took over in the second half of the 20th century. Syria was ruled by national coalition governments and a Parliament that reflected the country’s ethnic and cultural mix. Moderation and openness prevailed.

Islamist parties negotiated and collaborated with secular parties of left and right. The Muslim Brotherhood won some rounds and lost others and accepted each outcome. There was no terrorism or extremism and it was unimaginable that the brutal 49/1980 law—under which those accused of being Brotherhood members were sentenced to death - would have been passed.

The international community was deaf to the appeals of Assad senior’s victims.

Civil War
In the 1980s, following the shutdown of all channels of expression, lack of democracy and the institutional violation of human rights, a few individuals resorted to violence. Assad turned these events into a catastrophe and plunged the country into virtual civil war. About 500 people fell victim to the initial violence; 50 000 were killed in response in the infamous massacres at Hama and elsewhere. Many others were displaced and more than 17 000 people remain unaccounted for after being arrested.

The result was the disenfranchisement of the entire Syrian people. The regime accused social and economic activists and political opponents of being “Camp David agents”, referring to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt—though the major disagreement is not over foreign policy but internal affairs and the lack of democracy.

When Assad Junior came to power the Muslim Brotherhood and others were conciliatory, stating that he should not be held responsible for his father’s crimes. Two years ago the Muslim Brotherhood ended its opposition activities in solidarity with the regime’s support for the Palestinians during the Israeli war on Gaza.

But Assad has repeatedly rejected his opponents’ extended hand. It was incidents such as the recent brutal sentence imposed on the 18-year-old Tal al-Mallouhi—tried for espionage just because she blogged about her longing for reform - that mobilised the Syrian people.

In the past few days the Syrian media have claimed that opposition groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, are behind the protests. The aim is to justify the regime’s violent response to the Syrian people’s peaceful protests.

In fact, no opposition group can claim ownership of this youthful revolution. We, with many others from across the political spectrum, called for the formation of a national coalition to support the youth, but do we not claim ownership of these historic events?

We are committed to peaceful methods and endorse the aims of the revolution to build a civil state committed to the rule of law, governed by a new constitution that emerges from the will of the people through a transparent and free vote. It is time that all Syrians—men and women alike, regardless of ethnicity or religion—enjoyed equal citizenship.

The dictator is not to be believed. Syrians are a civilised and progressive people; we come from a long line of poets who wrote about love and peace. These protests call for nothing more than the recapture of the people’s collective sense of dignity, citizenship and freedom.

Let’s hope there is a different attitude in the international community which, for so long, has let them down. Hundreds have fallen to live fire from the regime’s security forces and many more will undoubtedly fall before the people’s aspirations are met.—

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