Syria: Protests spreading across whole country and involving new layers

Monday, 18 April 2011
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We have received two letters that give a very interesting insight into what is happening in Syria. In spite of the regime's combination of repression and concessions, the movement that initially began with the youth continues to build up and spread to other layers of society.

Solidarity protest, Milan. Photo: Milano 26 Marzo 2011Solidarity protest, Milan. Photo: Milano 26 Marzo 2011 Letter 1)

Dear Comrades,

Two weeks have passed since the Friday of Martyrs and much has happened in Syria. The revolutionary movement is growing by the day and we have witnessed a number of interesting developments in the last two weeks. I will be reporting the events of the last two weeks here and send an update tomorrow to share with you what I think of the situation overall in terms of where different classes are standing as it is becoming clearer as events unfold.

The week before last, leading to the Friday of Resilience, witnessed a major movement in the towns and suburbs surrounding Damascus including Douma, Kiswa, Mou'adamieyah, Harasta, Daraya, Arbeen and Kafar Batna. The security forces in Douma, as in Darr'a, although they had fled the city, remained besieging it and coming in and out to arrest people. Darr'a saw a general strike on April 5th and 6th. Two policemen were shot dead in Damascus and the government came out immediately to blame "agents provocateurs" and "conspirators". Asad tried to contain the situation by sacking the cabinet and throwing some reforms to the religious sections of society by allowing veiled women back into education and closing a casino! He also invited to his palace the heads of both the Arab and Kurdish tribes of north-east Syria (Euphrates region) to "discuss" with them the latest developments in the country, or, in other words, to ask them to use their tribal influence to hold back their youth from joining the protest movement. In a last minute desperate measure, he enacted a decree on Thursday giving the Kurds Syrian citizenship (after being deprived of this for about 50 years) and trying to drive a wedge in between the Arabs and Kurds.

All this was in in vain, as on the Friday of Resilience protesters came out in most cities, including a very strong participation in the Kurdish cities and towns. The protesters were thousands or hundreds, depending on the city, town or village. Demonstrations were seen in Darr'a, Jasem, Enkhel and other towns and villages in the Horan plains (southern Syrian), in many of the previously mentioned towns and suburbs surrounding Damascus with a quickly dispersed attempt to demonstrate in front of the Rifa'ie mosque inside Damascus, in Homs, Talbiseh and Hama (central Syria), in Latakia, Jableh, Banyas and Tartous (western coastal Syria), in Qamishli, Amouda (Kurdish cities) and Raqa, Bou Kamal and Der Alzor (North East Syria) and in Al Bab City and other small towns in the provinces of Aleppo and Edleb (northern western Syria).

This widespread action was met by the regime's security forces with live bullets and many were killed. The same night, around a 100 Syrian youths and activists (including members of one of the communist factions) staged a sit down in a square in the Al-Slebeh neighborhood in Latakia, but were violently dispersed when the security forces opened fire (either directly on them or in the air, which has to be confirmed) and chased them down the streets while shooting in the air and throwing grenades to terrorize the city. By the end of the Friday of Resilience the estimated number of people killed since the beginning of the movement (a 3 week period) had risen to around 170, with hundreds injured and arrested.

Last week, leading to the Friday of Persistence, witnessed a number of very interesting developments. The coastal city of Banyas had seen continuous mass protests for two weeks with no intervention on the part of security forces. This changed on Sunday [April 10] when the security forces and regime thugs decided to storm the city after ten army soldiers had been shot dead. The Syrian revolution Facebook page reported that these soldiers had been executed after refusing to fire on the protesters. There have been a number of similar stories of executions in the army but nothing can be confirmed yet. The Syrian government claimed that the soldiers had been killed by the same so called "armed gangs" that have been attacking and killing both protesters and security men! The media of the regime has been using this incident to spread its propaganda attacking the revolutionary movement and relating it to Muslim Jihadists or to a foreign Saudi/Lebanese/Israeli/American conspiracy to deal a blow to the stability of the country in the interest of Israel and imperialism!

Syrian TV surprised the nation again with a new mockery showing three alleged conspirators, who according to them had Islamist tendencies, and they confessed to having received money from someone in Lebanon to cause troubles in Syria and shoot at people and police. So we are to believe that all this killing was carried out by three people! The security forces launched a campaign of terror in Banyas and its surrounding villages, shooting at protesters, smashing property and mass arresting people. In the Bayda village, every single male in the village was arrested and were not released till the next day when the women and children of the village protested on the highway completely blocking traffic. Later one leaked video showed dozens of men in Banyas and Bayda thrown on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs and the security forces beating them with batons, kicking and stepping on them and humiliating them. This again sparked a wave of protests in a number of towns.

The most significant development of this past week, however, were the protests at the University of Damascus on April 11 and at both the University of Damascus and University of Aleppo on April 13. The protests numbered a few hundred students and were brutally attacked by the regime's security thugs and many were arrested. One student was beaten to death at the university of Damascus and 31 are going to be expelled. This has upset many youths and could trigger a student movement and students strikes.

On Thursday, a few hundreds demonstrated in the city of Sweda (the Arab mountain) which is a neighboring city of Darr'a. This was a heavy blow to the regime's fairytale about "Islamists", since Sweda is mostly inhabited by the the Druze minority and a sizeable Christian community. Asad tried to contain the situation in preparation for the Friday of Persistence by releasing a few hundred that had been arrested in demonstrations but again in vain. The newly formed government (in itself a major provocation as it is the same old mix) also issued orders to public sector employees to come to work on Friday for a few hours in an attempt to reduce the numbers going on the protests!

However, the Friday of Persistence surpassed expectations with protests breaking out in most of the cities that had protested on the previous Friday and also reaching the heart of the biggest two cities, Damascus and Aleppo, as well as new cities such as Jisr Al-Shoughor in northern central Syria and the mostly working class city of Al-Tabaqa (Al-Thawra) on the Asad Lake by the Euphrates. Demonstrators in Barzeh inside Damascus clashed with the security forces and there were reports of injuries. The protesters of the suburbs, Douma, Harasta, Arbeen, Zamalka, etc., tried to march to Damascus and a couple of thousand of them managed to almost reach Abasie'ien Square where they wanted to stage a sit-in. They were confronted by a large number of security forces who were successful in using batons and teargas to break up the march. The security forces overall did not resort to using brutal force except in the city of Latakia were three were killed by the fire of snipers.

It seems as if the regime wants to try to absorb the movement by dealing less violently with it and meeting with respected figures from different cities/communities to deliver some promises and hopefully diffuse the movement. However, this is more likely to be taken by the revolutionaries as a sign of weakness than a sign of cooperation as many youths have rejected these mediation efforts of the so-called “society figures”. The revolutionary movement does not seem to be fading away, on the contrary it is growing stronger, learning, and attracting more people day after day.

Letter 2)

Dear Comrades,

This is to follow up on my last letter. Tomorrow [Saturday] is expected to be another big day for Syria, April 17 is independence day (Eid Al-Jalaa) and activists have called it the Sunday of Al-Jalaa (the Sunday of Departure).

The mood among the youth is definitely one of militancy and discontent. This is obvious on Facebook where the membership of the Syrian Revolution page is increasing massively and all sorts of other small groups and pages for action in different cities have sprung up and much discussion is going on. This has concretely expressed itself in the student protests and the increasing participation and leadership of the youth in the protest movement. Also, the events on the Friday of Persistence are only going to have an electrifying effect on the youths. For example, the inhabitants of a small town called Al-Rastan, close to Homs, managed to block the international highway and bring down the biggest statues of Hafez Al-Asad in the country. Pictures and videos of this have been widely circulating and it is easy to imagine the radicalizing effect of this on the youth and other sections of society as well.

Although the youth have been the driving force of the movement, things have gone far beyond a protest movement of only the unemployed youth. As the names of the detained individuals are coming out, it is surprising to see how many of them are engineers, doctors, activists and lawyers. A couple of days ago around 100 doctors protested in the Al-Mouwasat Hospital in Damascus after security men assaulted a doctor and arrested another for refusing to cooperate with them. Last week, the engineers in Darr'a protested in front of their union building and the lawyers in Sweda have been occupying their syndicate office. This shows that the movement has definitely penetrated the petite bourgeoisie and the semi-petite bourgeoisie/semi-working class elements.

The working class intervention in an organized fashion is yet to be seen. The Syrian working class has lived under the yoke of a brutal Stalinist police state that has penetrated all spheres of life for the last 40 years. The unions are strictly under the control of the state and, unlike Egypt, there has been no strike movement in Syria for decades. It is not surprising that it is going to take time for the Syrian working class to move as an organized force. However, signs of deep dissatisfaction among its ranks are obvious. Syrian TV just recently discovered the virtue of going on the streets and listening to people's opinions and demands! They went to the Al-Slebeh neighborhood in Latakia and talked to people. One very upset public sector employee complained about corruption and the inaccessibility to government jobs for the youth unless they had a "connection" and the existence of dozens of names that get paid but never show up to work. An upset fisherman heavily criticized his union's leadership that does not listen to the membership and asked for health benefits and retirement financial security.

Many of the areas where the protests are taking place are quite industrialized. For example, the coastal region has a number of industries. Just outside Latakia there is a tobacco factory, a cement factory and a textile factory. In Banyas, there is the Banyas oil refinery. Latakia, Banyas and Tartous are all ports with many port workers. These workers are coming under the pressure of their class seeing their relatives and friends protesting and dying on the streets and are due to eventually move. In addition, the regime is attacking ambulances and killing drivers as well as forcing firefighters to cooperate with its oppressive machine and this is only going to serve to radicalise the working class further.

Hafez Al-Asad came to power to purge the Ba'ath party, reduce it to a mafia-like clique of his family and relatives, and establish a proletarian Bonapartist regime in the image of Stalinist Moscow. The regime based its policies on a very delicate balance of forces of the working class, the peasantry, the petite bourgeoisie including the rich merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo, and the remnants of some small capitalists and industrialists that were not expropriated. Capitalism was eradicated and banks, heavy industries, transportation and all vital sectors of the economy were nationalized and they remain so today.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ruling Stalinist caste sought to transform itself into a new capitalist class. The transformation process effectively started with the death of Hafez and the arrival of Bashar to power. The ruling caste knew very well that they had to attack the toiling masses in favour of the nascent bourgeoisie and were perfectly aware of what the ramifications of that was going to be. Therefore, they proceeded very slowly, attacking certain layers of society while leaving others alone, or only partially attacking the masses. For example, after lifting government subsidies on fuels, they came back with coupons to give back part of those subsidies to families and businesses. This attack led to increasing the load onto the backs of the masses and small private businesses.

The results of eleven years of this process has been the upsetting of the previous delicate balance of forces which has been reflected in the demonstrations of the last four weeks. The peasantry, the public sector working class, and the small and medium petite bourgeoisie in the towns and cities have been harshly hit by the so-called liberalization of the economy and are the ones on the streets. The nascent bourgeoisie and the upper layers of the petite bourgeoisie (especially the merchants) have been accumulating immense wealth in the recent years at the expense of the masses and thus are coming out fiercely against the movement. A new, relatively privileged layer of the working class, employed in the private sector with wages about double those of the public sector has also emerged in the recent years and also seems to be against the movement. Due to their organic mix with the remaining working class and petite bourgeois they seem to be bringing a significant layer of society under their ideological influence derived from their own interests. Unlike other Arab countries where the liberalization processes started much earlier, the situation in Syria has not reach the point of a sharp social stratification of different strata of the toiling masses which seems so far to be in favour of the regime.

I just listened to the second President's speech and it was totally different from the first. He came out with a series of promises and admissions of the need to reform. He talked about investing in the agricultural sector, giving tax breaks to small business, creating projects to tackle unemployment (which he considers the biggest evil), fight corruption, and a better distribution of the wealth among different classes and areas of the country. There was very little of the intimidatory language and talk of conspiracies and the overall speech came across as a major concession to the masses and an attempt to keep his supporters on his side. There was talk of lifting the Emergency Law and enacting the Law of Multiple Parties but there was no mention of political prisoners. From the reaction of people on Facebook it seems this is not going to work. Many people just want him to go. The movements has been growing slowly but steadily and if it continues in this manner things are looking like we are moving towards the overthrow of the regime at some point.

[Note: The attempt of the regime to absorb the movement seems to have been very short lived. After the speech people came out immediately to protest and there was another massacre last night in Homs and Lakaia when security forces opened fire on protesters.]