As predicted, Syria’s day of rage did not meet with the same response as that of others in the region. “The only rage in Syria yesterday was the rage of nature,” wrote Syrian journalist Ziad Haidar, in reference to a cold spell and heavy rain on the day of the protest. While the facebook group promoting the day of rage attracted many followers, there were several key differences separating Syria from Egypt or Tunisia. Facebook is banned in Syria, and the page was reportedlyset up by expatriates. Although it gained 15,000 followers by Friday, most were also believed to be non-resident. The Syrian government has been extremely vigilant about quelling opposition to the forty year government of president Bashar al-Assad and his father. The country has an anti-US, anti-Israel foreign policy that is popular at home and Assad is also seen to be slightly more open to change than others in the region.
Approximately 10,000 political prisoners are currently being held in Syrian jails. A national state of emergency has been in effect in Syria continuously since 1963 and it is consistently used to suppress and punish any dissent. According to Amnesty International’s report on Syria for 2010, “Critics, human rights defenders, alleged opponents of the government and others were detained, often for prolonged periods; some were sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. Torture and other ill-treatment remained common, and were committed with impunity; there were several suspicious deaths in custody. The government failed to clarify the circumstances in which [17 prisoners and five others] were killed at Sednaya Military Prison in 2008 and, again, took no steps to account for thousands of victims of enforced disappearances in previous years. Women faced legal and other discrimination and violence. The Kurdish minority remained subject to discrimination, and thousands of Syrian Kurds were effectively stateless. At least eight prisoners were executed.”
In preparation for possible dissent this month, Syria’s only two Internet carriers, MTN and SyriaTel, have begun restricting access to foreign proxies, which Syrians use to access banned websites like Facebook and YouTube. In mid-January, officials began confiscating Internet routers from coffee shops offering free wireless to customers. On February 3, Human Rights Watch reported a group of 20 people who beat and dispersed 15 demonstrators who were holding a candlelight vigil for Egyptian demonstrators while the police watched. They were told, “If you want to be with Egypt, go to Egypt.” When Suheir Atassi, one of the main organizers, went to the local police station to file a complaint, a security official insulted and slapped her and accused her of being a “germ” and an agent of foreign powers. Ghassan al-Najjar, an activist in his mid 70’s who had called for the protests, was arrested the day before the scheduled protest.
The Syrian government has remained highly critical of both the US and Israeli policies in the region and supportive of Hamas and Hezbollah, both positions which are popular with the Syrian people. Some Syrian media accused the foreign organized Syria protests of being a plot by the Israeli government to destabilize Syria. The Baath newspaper, ran an editorial saying the uprising in Egypt is proof that all the troubles of the Arab world stem from “the complete acquiescence of some (Arab) regimes to the U.S. and their acceptance to take Zionist dictates.”
The Syrian government has taken a proactive stance to addressing some Syrian concerns in the leadup to the protests, announcing 12 billion Syrian pounds (US$250 million) for a fund to help the most needy families in Syria and doubling the heating oil allowance for about 2 million state employees and pensioners in contradiction of their previously stated policy to eliminate fuel subsidies by 2015.
Fears of the violence currently being perpetrated by pro-Mubarak thugs in Egypt and worries of further sectarian division also prevented protesters from supporting the event. Syria is home to almost one million Iraqi refugees, a daily, visible reminder of the dangers of regime collapse in a religiously divided society.
The Syrian people appear to be putting their faith in change coming from Assad’s current government. The Committee to Protect Journalists has a discouraging view of the changes promised at the beginning of Assad’s regime which are still undelivered at the end of ten years.Amnesty International is also reporting no progress. Human Rights Watch states “There was no significant change in Syrian human rights policy and practice in 2010.”. On January 31, Assad gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he talked of “stagnant water”, which bred pollution and microbes, and “because you have had this stagnation for decades, let us say, especially the last decade in spite of the vast changes that are surrounding the world and some areas in the Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, because we had this stagnation we were plagued with microbes. So, what you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease. That is how we see it.” The words show understanding, but the actions have not followed as yet.