Saturday, May 7, 2011

When the Regime Shows Its Ugly Face

Last Wednesday, May 4, I arrived in Amman, Jordan, leaving my program a few weeks early.  Since I am no longer living in the police state, for the first time since arriving in Syria I can speak freely about how I perceived the situation there.

I remember one of the first things I thought when I arrived in Syria was how much better everything was run than in Egypt.  Streets were cleaner, stores and offices more organized, Syrian food blew its Egyptian counterpart out of the water, the economy was noticeably stronger and there seemed to be a lower unemployment rate.  However, most important and most different from Egypt, Syrians seemed pretty content with their government.  To be honest, during the first months of the program, this last point made sense to me.  I heard about the occasional disappearance, and complete lack of political rights, but the country was doing all right.  And when compared with Egypt, Syrian ran like a well-oiled machine.  Which is why, back in mid March when some people down south in Dera'a started getting uppity, I, like many Syrians in Aleppo, shrugged it off assuming that they would get bored of protests after a bit.  However, unlike many Syrians, I did not believe the lies of the government which blamed "armed foreign criminal groups" for most of the violence.

What actually happened was an incredibly violent and disproportionate response from the security forces, which was probably the dumbest thing the government could have possibly done.  Protests started innocently enough in Dera'a with small groups of people calling for political, social and economic reforms; mainly abstract concepts like rights and freedom without any specific demands.  Then, the regime comes in and starts beating, imprisoning and killing people and wonders why things become more intense.  I kept asking myself, did they just expect citizens of Dera'a to bury their dead quietly and forget that innocent people had been murdered?  It didn't make any sense.

So, rather than fizzle out like I had expected, the opposite happened.  Protests became emboldened and demands for reform were replaced by demands for the downfall of the regime.  The Syrian government was as popular as a tyrannical regime could possibly be, and they blew it because, well, they're tyrants.  One should expect nothing less.  The rest is mostly history, but the basic developments haven't changed too much.  The government continues to use deadly violence against almost all protests (which thus far have mostly been concentrated in Dera'a, areas of Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli, Banyas, as well as a few others) and there have been reports of Dera'a bearing the brunt of the regime's wrath in the form of a complete military siege.  This is the most the military has done in the past 20 or 30 years, which is kind of ironic considering they have officially been at war with Israel since 1967.  I read a Facebook status written by a Syrian a few days ago that said "Apologies citizens of Dera'a, the military got the address wrong" (they were supposed to go to Israel).

These days, I feel like just about the only people in Syria that are still fanatically clinging to the righteousness of the regime are in Aleppo.  Living there was a big reason why I did not expect the demonstrations to really take hold.  Aleppo consists of many more minority populations than the rest of Syria, including Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds.  Excluding the Kurds, minorities in Syria have long enjoyed a pretty good position in society, economically and socially, and worry about what would happen if the Alawites, who have taken such good care of them over the past 40 plus years, lost power and were replaced by Sunnis.  Additionally, there are few Alawites actually living in Aleppo, so, as a friend of mine put it, there isn't any friction between them and Sunnis.  Alawites are nepotistically given positions of power in the government and military, and their lack of strong presence in Aleppo means that the Sunnis there don't see firsthand the discrimination to which they are subject.  There are a few other reasons why Aleppo has remained so quiet, but those are two of the main ones.

I obviously am very opposed to the regime in Syria, and have become more so along with many Syrians.  It is one of the most despicable forms of government in the region (although a few of its neighbors give it a run for its money in that regard).  However, as of now, there is still too much fear of the unknown, of what or who would potentially succeed Bashar if he was overthrown.  The propaganda machine in Syria is also far more effective than it was in Egypt; the government still has its credibility with a large percentage of the population, and has succeeded in discrediting much of foreign media (Al-Jazeera's sensationalist coverage hasn't exactly helped in this case). While I am optimistic that Bashar's days are very much numbered, he will not go without a long fight from both him and his supporters.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Other Deir

So for those of you who I haven't told, I have decided to get out of Syria within the next couple days.  Still haven't bought my ticket, but they're (almost) daily and the same price whether I buy it 5 days or 5 hours before the time of departure.  Upon my departure, I will give a more candid rundown of how I see the situation here.

Regardless, my last post reminded me that I haven't talked about my new home yet.  If you remember, in January I moved to a new place in the "new" old city of Aleppo, called Al-Jadeida.  It is also a monastery, or deir, but that is mostly just a name.  In practice, it's a student house for Syrians, mostly Damascenes, who are studying in Aleppo.  One of the students at the institute has lived there since the beginning, so my friend Chris and I decided to move to get more of an Arab environment than we were getting in our previous place.  But the real reason I'm talking about this is to show pictures of the beautiful courtyard of the Arab styled house that has been my home for the past few months.

Behind the tree is Chris preparing to throw an orange he has in his right hand at me.

Living here has also made me realize that in order for any foreigner to successfully live in the Middle East (or maybe just Syria) for an extended period of time, they need to have local friends.  I don't know that many Syrians, and most of them are from the Deir.  However, they left for a few weeks while they were on break from school, and during that time I spent most of my time with my room mate, Chris.  It was a bit weird, but because I was mostly only interacting with foreigners, it felt like I was watching a movie.  Everywhere I went were people with whom I had no relation, and I just watched them going about their daily lives.  They were separate from me, and I was separate from them.  When I'm hanging out with Syrian friends, however, it's a completely different feeling because I become inserted into the society, and feel like I'm a part of it, rather than watching it.  Not having any connection with Syrian society made me feel like a minority, different than everyone else, and constantly being judged for said difference, which is a draining way to live one's life.  Being able to meld into society allowed me to forget all the little things about Syrians that irk me, and it felt a lot more like I was somewhere I could live for an extended period of time.