The Mystery of Syrian Unrest

Demonstrations in Banyas, Syria, May 6th 2011. Photo credit: Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom (CC-BY)

By Elsy Melkonian

Also published on EMAJ Magazine

Syria has boasted a remarkable stability over the last 40 years. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, Syria knew no sectarian rivalries that struggle for power or discrimination policies against minorities or conflicts to set the stage for terrorist groups. People with different beliefs and belongings lived harmoniously maintaining peace and security for many years. However, skirmishes that started in Deraa, March 2011, moved across the country and changed the image upside down. Protesters weren’t pleased with their life in Syria anymore.

For the last three months, revolts have sparked on Fridays after the Muslim prayer at mosques. Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters in Syria demand a greater democracy. While the capital and the main cities remained quiet to date, skirmishes and most violent events took place in villages and smaller towns. Dozens of civilians have fled to the neighboring countries while thousand sought refuge in Turkey.

In its coverage of the clashes, international media speaks of brutal acts committed by the Syrian regime against the civilians. On the other side, Syrian media talk of armed gangs and radical Muslim groups pouring money into the hands of the poor farmers in small town to win them to their side. Besides, terrorist groups (according to the narrative of the Syrian media) are aiming to divide Syria and weaken its spirit of solidarity.  In response to all this noise, Syrian government has pledged to answer the demands of the protesters. So where does Syria stand now?

New Reforms

The unrest that sparked in Deraa urged the Syrian administration to adapt serious reforms. Buthaina Shaaban, president’s advisor, announced that the government is keen on meeting the demands of its people. “We ensure that implementations of these reforms will start soon because the Syrian administration is eager to maintain peace on its territory,” said Shabaan in a press conference held on March 24 in Damascus. These include 20% salary raise for employees of the public sector, more funding for healthcare, increase job opportunities for youths,  democratize the ruling mono-party (Baath Party) system into multi-party system, issue a new media law that protects censorship-free practice of independent media, alongside many other considerations to restructure life in Syria.

Shaaban’s speech made Syrians happy. Everyone looked forward to see the fruitful results of her promises. “I’m impatiently waiting to receive the salary raise,” says M.T., a school teacher on condition of anonymity, “It would help the people to face high living expenses“.

In fact, reforms are not new to the Syrian society although to date they were only related to economy. When Bashar Al Assad became a president in 2001 he worked on moving the country from its older socialist style economy to a free market. In practice everything started in 2004 when private schools, banks and companies sprung up across the country.  The modest middle class emerged to run small and medium size businesses. Moreover, the government authorized foreign ownership to encourage investment, but investors were mainly Turks or Arabs from the gulf.

However, the recent reform promises are still questionable. Shaaban’s speech was given on the 24th of March. To date, not much change is visible. Minister Shaaban announced that a new media law will replace the current law soon.  Discussions are still ongoing with no consensus on a final version. The 20% raise of salaries wouldn’t empower the citizens to face the inflation storm.

In 2010, UNDP experts published The Third National MDGs Progress Report which gives the index for poverty line during the period of 1997-2007. The report aimed at gaining insights from the past to plan for the next ten years. People who live in extreme poverty fell from 14.24 percent to 11.4 percent in 2004. In 2007 this figure deteriorated to 12.7 which mean that 6.7 million people are considered to be poor out of 21 million of total population. Hence, reforms which started with Bashar AlAassad did not contribute much to the boost the economic climate.

President Assad has successfully created an image of himself within Syria as a reformer, but without delivering much,” says Christopher Phillips, Syria Specialist at the Economist’s Intelligence Unit in London. “Assad has talked of reforms while retaining political power and overseeing a growth in corruption. Even his economic reforms have served only to benefit a modest middle class, while poverty and unemployment have increased due to poor management, lack of planning and high levels of corruption,” Phillips continues.

Questioning Human Rights during unrest

When protests sparked in Syria to ask for greater democracy, much violence was involved. The government was accused of using gunfire and mass arrest against civilians in its attempt to end these riots. However, the Syrian government stressed, in its recent reform plan, that only peaceful demonstrations are allowed. This means that citizens should approach authorities in advance to obtain a letter of approval.

I participated in the demonstrations that support President Assad,” says Michael Bitar a Syrian citizen. “We marched the whole city with no problem with authorities, but those who use weapons against fellow civilians, of course, should be punished. They are harming humans and public property,” he argues. “To set an example, there were peaceful demonstrations in front of the residence of the French Council. The goal was to send Sarkozy a message regarding the sanctions he is trying to force on Syria. We were all safe,” Bitar says.

On the other side, Human Rights Organizations, such as Amnesty International and others ignored all peaceful demonstrations and reported only on riots and clashes between the government and the protesters. Syrian government’s use of violence to solve the trouble was strongly condemned and was described as “brutal”.

A report entitled “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” by the New York-based Human Rights Watch was issued to sharply criticize violations of human rights in Syria during the unrest. The 54 page report contains interviews with the citizens of Deraa, the town where protests began. In this book, beatings, torture, and killings were described by witnesses of riots, yet with no specificities. The explanation to that, as it was mentioned in the report, was because the government decided to bar international reporters from accessing needed information.

Syria has an authoritarian closed regime,” says Mohdi Mouzzaffari, expert on Middle Eastern issues and professor at Aarhus University, “Barring the international media from accessing the country sends mixed messages. If Syrian government claims that armed groups are creating terror, they should allow international reporters in to verify their claim.”

The Syrian problem through the eyes of media

International media dedicated a fair share of its pages to cover Middle Eastern uprisings and Syria had a fair share too. Replacing reality footage with amateur videos found on You Tube and other social media, CNN, BCC, Reuters and other international mainstream outlets reported on the brutality of the regime against its people. Conversely, most Arabic Televisions, better defined as state propaganda to all ruling governments, reported on how Syrian police are killed by armed gangs and terrorists.

Surprisingly, Reuters’ correspondent to Syria Khaled YAacob Aweis was accused of filing false news against Syria and by leaning on stories told by ordinary people as ‘the news to be broadcasted’ without checking the accuracy of these stories. This led to withdrawal of Aweis’s accreditation in Damascus. Australian channel ABC confirmed that Reuters’ reports on Syria were false as pictures of civilians being beaten by armed force belong to neighboring countries and non-Syrian streets. As a result Syrian authorities barred all international correspondents from accessing the country.

Obviously Reuters was not the only one. Aljazeera, which has proven itself as an emblem for independent media in the Arab World, filed similar reports too. “I was enjoying a Friday lunch and a sunny afternoon with my family as we usually do in Aleppo,” says Hala, a young pharmacist from Aleppo, Syria’s second city. “Watching the television while having my lunch I suddenly saw breaking news on Aljazeera reporting on riots in Aleppo. That’s unbelievable! Aleppo has remained very quiet during the entire period of revolts.”

News on Syrian state TV refers to enemies who endeavor to weaken Syria’s solidarity and spark sectarian rivals. In his speech President Assad describes demonstrations that broken out in the Deraa, Hama, and other Syrian cities as chaos. “We are for supporting people’s demands, but we cannot support chaos”,” The chaos that presidents spoke of resulted in dozens of people killed every day.”

I’m sad for what’s happening in Syria,” says Osama Al Tessini a Syrian expatriate based in Germany. “I know there are false reports, but I’m sure that there is some truth in it since I’m in contact with my friends in Syria. This way I’m able to get see the clear picture, while the International viewer doesn’t have the chance to hear the natives. Out there is the international media.”

Cloudy future?

The future of the Syria under the current circumstances is hard to predict. The regime is still able to control the situation and the army is showing full support. “In Egypt the army sided with the public leaving Moubarak alone to face his destiny, “says Professor Mouzzaffari. “The Syrian army maintains loyalty to Bashar AlAssad, and that’s what is empowering the Syrian administration to stand on a solid ground. Speaking of the sanctions, I think that the Europeans states want to have a similar reaction to Syria as they reacted to Libya, but sanctions against the Syrian regime are unlikely for the time being.”

Those who survived the revolution experience, such as the Egyptians, think it is the only way leading to democracy and that it should be repeated in Syria. “Let Syrians choose their leader through fair and transparent elections,” says Hanan Solayman, an Egyptian activists and journalist. “The road to democracy is not immediate, but we’re living a transitional period.”

With similar uprisings in the Arab region, however, there were no filed reports on Reuters or Aljazeera. International media’s coverage is outraging the international public opinion through streaming violent videos. For the Syrian viewer, who is able to hear both sides, it is confusing to reach a right judgment. He is torn between the urgent need for serious reforms of the political and the socio-economic make up of his country, waiting for the leader who showed willingness to reform and mourning the killed and the wounded people every Friday.

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