Dimashqiehi: Opposition to a tyrant drives Syrians

"Many characterize the situation in Syria as a "Many characterize the situation in Syria as a civil war," says Najah Dimashqiehi, "implying that the civilian population is caught up in a sectarian bloodbath." That misses the point. Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Nancy Ohanian

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DAMASCUS, Syria

The Syrian revolution that erupted in March 2011 and is still continuing tends to be interpreted too superficially by the international community.

Many characterize the situation as a civil war, implying that the civilian population is caught up in a sectarian bloodbath.

In fact, Syrians are paying a high price for attempting to oust the most vicious and authoritarian regime that has ever ruled their country. A people who remained silent until the flames of freedom, coming from Tunisia and Egypt, made it possible to hope for change launched a peaceful movement that was met by brutal repression.

To understand what has been going on in Syria over the last 17 months, you need to know the country's recent history and how the Baathist regime ruled for more than 40 years.

In contrast to Libya, Syrian independence in 1946 brought free elections -- women had the vote by 1949 -- a judiciary, parliament and political parties in which many people became engaged. In the 1950s, numerous secular parties became popular, including the Baath Party, which seized power in 1963.

In 1971, the Baath Party installed Hafez al-Assad as president. In time, what had begun as a state governed by a party with a socialist agenda was transformed into a brutal dictatorship. Backed by top army officers, President Assad sidelined civil institutions by the 1980s and turned the country over to the security agencies that operated hand in hand with a small business elite.

The current regime came out of a coalition of Sunnis, Alawites and other groups. The Assad family gained privileges that also extended to some of the Alawite community, thus creating the false impression that it was only Alawites who were in power.

The Syrian army was trained to be loyal only to Assad and his family. On the orders of the regime, it carried out a series of massacres. One of these, in 1979, came in response to a coup attempt against Assad. In 1982, the Hama massacre is believed to have left 20,000 to 40,000 civilians dead.

These massacres consolidated the Assad regime's grip in power. As one commentator said of the 1980s, "It is not Assad who rules Syria now, it is fear."

The year 2000 brought hope of change. The late president's son, Bashar al-Assad, came in with talk of reforms, promising political and economic changes that never materialized. Deceptive economic growth figures concealed the fact that the new business elite was the principal beneficiary. Activists striving for political reform were repressed as the regime employed the rhetoric of Arab nationalism and resistance against Israel and the West to maintain its hold.

People realized they were under the same regime as before, just with different personalities in charge. Even so, many remained hopeful and waited for reform.

In 2011, peaceful demonstrations were met with ferocious, violent repression. Moreover, the regime started to generate an armed conflict by allocating weapons to its supporters -- Alawites in particular, but other communities as well. The pretext was that they were fighting Sunni jihadists who were out to kill minorities and establish Islamic rule.

At this point, many Syrian intellectuals from all faith groups lost any hope of reform. They no longer believe that change can come from a regime that is prepared to engulf the country in a conflagration either to ensure its survival or to avenge its own demise. People know that if they back down, they will have to endure an even more repressive police state that deploys bands of thugs empowered to take punitive action against them.

The revolution cannot now retreat.

Najah Dimashqiehi is a reporter in Syria who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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