As Syria enters its tenth week of protests the uprising continues despite continued repression. George Boustani looks at recent events and where the Syrian spring is heading.

Syrian women protestorsThe popular uprising in Syria has entered its 10th week, despite the harsh repression against the protesters and their relatives. More than 1000 civilians’ deaths have occurred according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in London, while more than 9000 people have been arrested and detained over the past weeks. Between 1000 and 5000 Syrians have found refuge in Northern Lebanon following the repression by the army and the secret services in their region.

Demonstrations have been ongoing in Syria since the 15th of March, gathering Syrians throughout the country, including in the two main cities of Aleppo and of Damascus, but to a lesser extent than others and concentrated in the suburbs. There have been defections in the army, but only on a small scale, while some members of the Ba’ath Party have resigned in different cities including Banyas and Deraa.

Last Friday a 17-year-old activist, Mohammad Akram al-Tumah, immolated himself, echoing the self immolation of the young Tunisian man of Sidi Bouzid last December that sparked protests across the Arab world. Demonstrations gathered tens of thousands of people throughout Syria this weekend, while protests also happened at night in various cities these past few days.

The President Bachar al Assad has largely dismissed the protests as part of a foreign-backed imperialist conspiracy to encourage sectarian strife in Syria and undermine the “resistance stand” of the Syrian regime against the Israeli State. Syrian authorities have accused small “armed terrorists groups” for the unrests, backed by salafists and foreign powers, who they say have killed more than 120 soldiers and police. Syria has also barred most international media since the protests broke out two months ago.

The popular movement has included the different ethnic and sectarian components of the country. The main slogans chanted by the protesters, notably “By our souls, by our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Deraa” or “The Syrian People are one” shows that the movement s has developed in a feeling of national solidarity and social recognition that transcend sectarian division. The Facebook group “The Syrian Revolution 2011”, which now has over 180 000 members, has repeatedly condemned sectarianism and any form of discrimination between the Syrians, giving primacy to the national banner, against attempts by the regime to portray the protest movement as sectarian. The Syrian Revolution 2011 facebook group has actually issued a “code of ethics against sectarianism in Syria” on March 24. The names of the Friday demonstrations among the organizers has also been decided in order to be the most inclusive possible, designating for example last week the “Azadi” ( Freedom in Kurdish) Friday, while on the Easter weekend they called the “Azime” (Great) Friday for the Christian Fest ( Christians in Syria call the Friday before Easter the Great Friday).

The regime has lost or is losing most of its so called credentials since the beginning of the protest movement, which was able to show the contradictions of it. Let’s see how these so called credentials can be deconstructed.

Syria: a socialist country?

The economic liberalization policies started in the beginning of the nineties, which were accelerated and boosted since Bashar Al Assad’s arrival to power in 2000, has not been beneficial to the country’s economy and to the society as a whole, quite on the opposite it benefited only to a small oligarchy and few of its clients. Today, the Syrian popular uprising seal the regime project failure, the Baath was popular 30 years ago when it offered social advancement in rural areas and among religious minorities, while now the Baath Party is an empty shell. The uprisings in Deraa as well as other rural areas, historic bastion of the Baath Party and the regime which had not taken part in the insurrections of the 1980s, show this failure. Cities such as Qamichli and Homs have also participated in the protest movement, Homs have actually witnessed the largest demonstrations and even a huge sit in few weeks ago in downtown gathering around 50000 people during few hours, before being dispersed by security forces shooting on protesters.

The regime economic liberalization policy has almost reproduced the Baathist socio-economic situation that prevailed before it took power in 1963: 5% of the population has more than 50% of national income.
The only missing component until now in the protest movement is the middle class in Aleppo and Damascus, which has so far hardly participated in the protests, something that, if it were to happen, would greatly strengthen the protest movement. It is likely that the economic costs of the popular uprising, despite measures by the government and the Central Bank to facilitate access to money or to favor loans to companies, will soon make the middle class realize the importance of political reform. We have nevertheless witnessed demonstrations in both cities, notably in Aleppo University campus and protests were witnessed in Midan neighborhood last Friday, a traditional neighborhood of Damascus.

Syria a mafia and clientelist regime

Bashar al Assad arrival to power has narrowed even more the spoils of the regime, which were distributed more widely under his father with various groups linked to the regime running businesses and winning state favors. The mafia structure of the Syrian regime can be represented by two men: Rami Makhlouf and Maher al Assad.

The first one, Rami Makhlouf is the maternal cousin of the President, who World Finance magazine presented and awarded him for his visionary leadership and contribution to the Syrian economy earlier this year, the London-based journal declared that the businessman had acted as a symbol of positive change within his country. Once again we can see the relationship between dictatorship and neo liberalism, while protesters in Syria were calling Rami Makhlouf a thief and targeting the telecommunications shops of his company Syriatel, as he represents a symbol of corruption and opulence in Syria. The son of the former commander of the Syrian Republican Guard, Mr Makhlouf actually controls as much as 60 per cent of the country’s economy through a complex web of holding companies.His business empire spans industries ranging from telecommunications, oil, gas and construction, to banking, airlines and retail. He even owns the country’s only duty free business as well as several private schools. His brothers are not far as well heading Shalish Foundation for military construction work and the building that handles all contracts for public construction, such as the proposed diversion of water from the Tigris to irrigate the governorate of Hassake, voted recently estimated at 2 billion dollars.At the same time, wealth gaps and inequality have continuously increased these last few years.

The lower and middle classes did not actually benefit from the economic growth of these past few years, on the opposite they suffered from it in many ways. The countries’ 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 second one, Maher Al Assad who is the brother of the President, heads the presidential guard and the 4th Division, which represents one third of the army, equipped with modern tanks unlike the rest of it. Maher Al Assad was the main decision maker in charge of the violence of the repression against the protest movement. The 4th Division led by Maher Al Assad with Syrian security forces have used tanks, gunfire and mass arrests. The regime has turned into prisons and torture camps few football stadiums and other centers, countless apartments and houses have been raided without legal basis, military units with tanks and snipers have occupied and devastated suburbs of Damascus and Homs, Daraa in the South, the coastal town of Baniyas and most recently in the city of Tall Kalakh near the Lebanese border.

We can see how the lifting of the emergency law did not change anything on the ground and in the nature of the repression, still violent. The end of the emergency law actually does not actually impact on the behavior of the regime because in 2008 President Assad extended immunity from prosecution to all branches of Syria’s security services under a presidential decree which will remain unaffected by the lifting of emergency laws.
These two personalities are a symbol of the mafia structure of the regime, which is far from being socialist as we can observe. Maher Al Assad in charge of the most important and best equipped Brigade in the army therefore protects the president and Rami Makhlouf is in charge of the economy, using the money as well to buy the loyalty of the most prominent merchant families from Syria.

Syria: an anti imperialist state?

The Syrian anti imperialist stand has been well used by the regime’s propaganda to gain popularity among populations inside and outside the country. But why is the West and Israel so scared therefore to lose Bashar Al Assad’s regime?

The sanctions imposed against Syria by the Europian Union and the USA included asset freezes, travel bans and an arms embargo of 13 targeted official, including President Bashar Al Assad. Nevertheless the aim of both the EU and the USA is to stop the violence and press Assad to agree to a process of reform, but not to force him to step down, as repeatedly declared by different officials. The international community has adopted a conciliate and not to severe position against Syria because no one wants to see chaos at the gates of Israel, especially since this regime has been able to maintain the most secure borders with Israel since the establishment of a demilitarized zone in 1974. The passivity of the Syrian State to try to recuperate the occupied territory Golan, not a single shot since 1974, has nevertheless not prevent it to crush the Palestinians and the progresssist movements in Lebanon in 1976, while participating in the imperialist war against Iraq in 1991 with the coalition led by the USA.

Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar Al Assad, actually declared few weeks ago that if there is no stability in Syria, there will be no stability in Israel, and adding that no one can guarantee what will happen if something happens to the Syrian regime. We have seen better as anti imperialist stand and we can understand therefore Israel satisfaction with the status quo with the Syrian regime. The USA on its sides needs Syria for the Iraqi issue, due to the influence of this country on the Iraqi resistance and other actors, and its role as a mediator between Washington and Iran, on Iraq.

This is not to say that the Western powers have traditionally been more hostile towards the Syrian regime, as we can observe with the imposition of sanctions while neither Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia suffered from it despite similar behavior against its people, because of its support to the Resistance in Lebanon and in Palestine. The Western powers can nevertheless not have a harsher stand against Syria, because it is engaged in a war in Libya and trying to put back a so called peace process, which never really started, in Palestine. They are therefore being very cautious in their sanctions and behavior against Syrian regime, which has strong influence all over the region and could threaten any attempts from Western powers or their interests.

In conclusion, the popular uprising in Syria is ongoing and will continue until the Syrian people achieve their democratic and social rights. The protesters have refused the so called “national dialogue” suggested by the regime, while the repression and killings continue, and above all without the release of all political prisoners, the authorization of meetings and peaceful demonstrations. The Syrians will make the popular uprising Permanent and will not leave the streets until they have their rights and dignity back.

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