Social unrest in Syria has grown in the last few days. Hundreds of people in Damascus, the capital, and the city of Homs have clashed with security forces, with protests in many other areas.

Protest at Banias, Syria

Syrian security forces dispersed a demonstration this morning, after Friday prayers inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. In Homs, pro-democracy protesters demonstrated in front the mosque Khaled Ibn Walid where they were severely repressed by the security services.

“God, Syria, Freedom and enough” chanted the protesters inside the mosque.

Demonstrators who were leaving the mosque were dispersed by security agents in civilian clothes carrying sticks. At least two protesters were taken away by security agents, but some sources suggest many more.

Significantly, unrest has developed in different areas of the country. In the small town of Banias, located on the Syrian coast near Tartous, demonstraters chanted for freedom and dignity after Friday prayers.

In Dara a mass of people demonstrated and marched to the house of the mohafiz, governor, of the city. In the city of Deir Zor, a football game was interrupted because the public went on the field and chanted songs for freedom in Syria.

Syrian communication officials have today attempted to restrict internet access, bidding to end the diffusion of images of protests.

A Facebook page titled “Revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011”, which had over 49,000 supporters Friday, called for demonstrations today. It has posted various videos of demonstrations.

Protesters have defied emergency law enacted in the country since 1963, when Syria became a single-party state. Relatives of political prisoners gathered on Wednesday near the Interior Ministry. 34 people were arrested, 32 of whom were indicted on Thursday for “undermining the prestige of the state,” according to a human rights organisation.

Syrian NGOs have called on the government to “immediately release all prisoners of opinion and conscience in Syrian prisons” and “stop practising the policy of arbitrary detention against political opponents and activists of civil society and human rights.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for the release of all detained demonstrators. An estimated 4,500 “prisoners of opinion” are inside Syrian jails.

Syria, with a population of 22 million, is a significant player in the Middle East. A political ally of Iran, it shares borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syrian politics cannot be removed from the bigger picture of the Middle East.

In recent weeks protesters have been forbidden showing their support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, with solidarity demonstrations and sit ins repressed by security forces.

On Tuesday 22nd of February, 14 people were also arrested and several people beaten by uniformed and plainclothes police after about 200 staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan embassy to show support for Libya’s protesters.

Civil rights campaigners have suffered intimidation tactics these past few weeks, including visits from agents of the intelligence services and close monitoring of internet and telephone conversations. Some activists have been warned not to leave the country. These repressive measures are of course familiar from the old regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, when faced with mass popular revolt, and elsewhere in the Arab region.

The political background

These demonstrations are the first attempts to break the wall of fear in Syria. Many people still live with the memory of Hama massacre in February 1982, when the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama to quell a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 – 40,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers, and large parts of the old city were destroyed.

The regime has also used the sectarian divide to present itself as the representative of a moderate Islam and protector of minorities, which composed around 20 to 40% of Syrian population, against so called retrograde Islamic movements which will turn the country into an Islamic regime.

The small movements of protests are triggered by the revolutionary events of the Arab world, though underlying reasons also explain these demonstrations. The repressive and authoritarian nature of the regime is undoubtedly the main reasons behind the protests. The country has been living under the state of emergency since 1963, which suspended or curtailed very strongly many legal rights such as freedom of expression and association.

Bashar Al Assad became president in 2000, following the death of his father Hafiz Al Assad who had ruled for 30 years. The situation changed for a while before repression came back as the rule.

Since 2000, Syrian civil society has actually gone through two different phases. Firstly, the movement from 2000 to 2006 was characterised by political and civic interactions between their participants. We can observe examples such as “The Statement of 99” or the “Committees to Revive Civil Society,”(which was announced in a statement that was called “The Statement of 1000”), both of them gatherings of intellectuals, artists, writers, scholars and even politicians who demanded reforms and democratization of the State.

This was accompanied by the opening of forums to debate – and between 2004 and 2006 by a wave of sit-ins, a new political phenomenon in Syria.

Calls for sit-ins came from political parties and civil organizations at the same time. The government of Bashar Al Assad cracked down on this movement. Forums were closed, sit-ins were severely repressed and many intellectuals who launched this call for civil society and democratization were imprisoned. This repression led to the separation of opposition forces and civil society groups, as it became compulsory for this latter to survive.

The economic background

Bashar Al Assad accelerated considerably the process of neo liberal policies started by his father in the 1990s, creating more and more inequalities between the people. The lower and middle classes did not benefit from the economic growth of these past few years, 5% in average since 2005, and even worse, they suffered from it in many ways.

The poorest are struggling to help themselves in the new economy due to a lack of employment opportunities, while the middle class is plummeting towards the poverty line because their incomes have not kept up with inflation, which rose to 17% in 2008. The reasons behind the increases in prices were notably due to speculative real estate boom and the partial removal of common government subsidies.

Wealth gaps have continuously increased these last few years. The unemployment rate is rising and there is now a 20-25% of unemployment rate. The labour market is unable to absorb the 380,000 people who swell the ranks of job seekers every year, while the government promised the creation of 250 000 jobs every year in the tenth year plan, which it was not able to deliver.

The process of privatisation of public companies has been for the benefit of individuals close to the regime, but to the detriment of the majority. The agriculture sector is suffering from the country’s move to a “social market economy” and the government’s introduction of a new subsidy regime, i.e. the implementation of neo liberal policies, to fulfil international trade agreements such as the Association Agreement with the European Union.

Syria used to have a highly interventionist agricultural policy which ensured the country’s food security and provided the Syrian population with relatively cheap access to food items.

This is being replaced by a more liberal market with harsh consequences for farmers and peasants, who account for about 20 percent of the country’s GDP and 19 percent of its workforce.

Unable to survive financially and faced with extreme rural poverty, they are now abandoning their land and migrating towards the cities in search of work.

Data from 2007 show that 2 million people live in extreme poverty, defined as those unable to obtain their basic food and non-food needs. The majority of the people living in poverty are from rural areas and they live with food insecurity.

Neo liberal policies undertaken by the regime have satisfied the upper class and foreign investors, especially from the Arabic Gulf, by liberalising the Syrian economy for their benefits and at the expense of the great majority of Syrians hit by inflation and rising living costs.

Syria’s agriculture and public sector are declining. The regime offers no effective strategy to strengthen them.

The new movement, not foreign intervention, offers hope

These economic elements, in addition to the lack of democracy, are underlying forces pushing protesters to demonstrate against an authoritarian regime. Under pressure, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Moallem declared recently that measures for political reform s will be introduced this year. He added that Bashar al-Assad had recently discussed a reform programme which will begin with the amendment of the laws concerning municipal and legislative elections, to allow people to be able to better decide their fate and their future.

The regime also announced the creation of a “National Fund for Welfare ” of $250 million, intended to help some 420,000 families, while increasing by 72% heating allowances for public servants and pensioners (about 2 million people). Finally, the Syrian government has recently announced a series of measures to bring down prices of basic foodstuffs.

The so called ‘political reforms’ from this authoritarian regime are actually not enough. Neither are the minor measures to raise salaries or to adjust other socio economic issues. The high level of repression also makes many Syrians doubt the truth of such declarations coming from this regime.

This does not, however, mean Syrian protesters need foreign imperialist powers “helping” them to achieve their freedom. The people of the region have shown they don’t need wars promoted by Bush and Blair to implement democracy in their countries. Popular movements have shown that protesters are not object of history but its subject.

In addition, this movement might put an end to the fantasy this regime protects anyone, especially minorities. There is no need of a corrupt, authoritarian and oppressive regime to protect anyone or any group. The only true and long term protection and guarantee for any Syrian citizen is a state under the control of ordinary working people, which respects their basic democratic and social rights to live in dignity.

The demonstrations witnessed these past few days in Syria could be the beginning of a courageous united movement struggling against a repressive authoritarian regime.

“Hurryie” (“Freedom”), as protesters chanted in Syria, is the watchword now.

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