Syrian dissidents unite to oust Assad
By Ahed Alhendi
The opinions expressed are his own.
Twenty years ago, I was a school kid chanting with my peers, “Our leader forever, the father, Hafez Assad!” Back then, I could not have imagined that one day I would see his statues destroyed all over Syria by the people — a sight now common within the country.
Most of those demonstrating in Syria are young people who were taught to love and adore our only president, and later his son, Bashar. As young Syrians, we have always treated the Assads as something of a holy family. We all were forced to join the Baath Party Pioneer Organization at the age of six and we grew up soaking in the Assads’ propaganda — the school system, the single TV station, the official newspaper; they all had a picture of Assad as their logos.
Now, the voices of freedom are sounding louder than the engines of armored vehicles and the whistling of tanks shells. Bashar Assad thought that the military would intimidate and quiet the protesters, but the shout “Bashar must go!” is only getting louder.
Those shouts, however, are not particularly well-organized. Because Syria has been ruled by the Assad clan for more than 40 years, the country’s political life is effectively nonexistent. Nearly all leaders and members of serious opposition parties — both Islamic and secular — have been kidnapped, exiled, jailed or killed.
The year 2000 brought with it a so-called “Western-educated doctor” to inherit the “republic” from his father. Syrian dissidents thought that they would be able to recover from three bloody decades of Hafez’s rule that resulted in more than 30,000 deaths and 15,000 forced deportations.
The exhausted opposition groups succeeded in forming an alliance called the Damascus Declaration. This alliance brought together a multitude of diverse groups calling for democratic change within the country, creating what was widely seen as a shadow government.
The regime, however, cracked down on this effort, arresting many of its members and jailing twelve top opposition leaders, as well as forcing the remnants of some of these groups to make statements denouncing the Damascus Declaration for allegedly serving an American agenda. This sucked the oxygen out of opposition efforts, cutting short the movement’s momentum and denying it much-needed press coverage, effectively killing the Declaration.
Even though rebelling against dictators became fashionable in the Arab world this year, many thought that Syria was immune to change. March 15th, however, was a turning point. On that day, only a few people marched in the heart of Damascus calling for freedom. Now, almost three months later, most of Syria’s large cities are seeing tens of thousands of demonstrators calling on Assad to step down.
Because Syrians were not ready for such momentous change, political parties have so far played a minor role in the uprising. Recently, however, they have begun to play their parts. The organizers of the demonstrations formed “local coordinates” that have been organizing demonstrations all over Syria. These groups began with dedicated cores of just a few members who would go into the streets and initiate demonstrations. They quickly became far more organized; each small neighborhood now has a committee that organizes the protest right down to the placards that will be held by demonstrators, and these groups from each town coordinate across the country in a highly organized national movement.
The majority of these groups are made up of university students and democratic activists, such as Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian feminist. The role of religious movements is very limited, even though most demonstrations start at a mosque — a logistical matter, as mosques are the only places where people can gather without arousing suspicion.
I speak with the leaders of these groups on a daily basis. Most of them are young and unaligned with any formal political movement. They embody the spirit of the Damascus Declaration, which they hope to revive at a conference that just took place in Antalya, Turkey, for Syrian political parties, businessmen and tribal leaders.
What makes this most recent conference different from the others, different even than the relatively strong opposition movements of the 1980s, is the participation of the tribes. Today, the opposition is far more diverse and cohesive; all the tribes — businessmen, youth leaders, Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and Kurds — were represented at Antalya.
At the end of the conference, the participants voted in favor of establishing a 31-member national committee with four members, one each from the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurds, tribal leaders, and Damascus Declaration members, as well as 15 independents and young people.
All signs point to further brutal crackdown by the regime. The number of protesters is increasing so fast that the security forces cannot imprison all of them, and unrest is spreading within the country. Unfortunately, the Syrian people have no international powers on their side, while Assad’s regime is being backed by its allies in Russia, China and Iran (a fact protesters acknowledge by burning the flags of the regime’s allies).
Assad’s legitimacy has fallen particularly after his security forces killed dozens in the city of Hama, a symbol of his father’s brutality. Statues of Assad have been removed recently by government officers in Hama and Dair Al Zor out of fear that protesters will destroy them, indicating just how bad the regime’s image is within the country. But calls for this ruthless dictator to reform are misplaced and even dangerous. Dissidents throughout Syria know that the Assad regime will end up on the ash-heap of history; we hope the West realizes this too.
Alhendi, a former political prisoner in Syria, jailed for online activities, is the Arabic programs coordinator at CyberDissidents.org, a New York based human rights organization.
Photos: Syrian woman living in Jordan holds up her hand, painted with the Syrian national flag, and shout slogans demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad steps down during a sit-in near the Syrian Embassy in Amman June 1, 2011. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed; Protesters use their shoes to hit a defaced poster of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad during a demonstration to express solidarity with Syria’s anti-government protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Ankara June 10, 2011. The words on the poster read: “Murderer. Go away”. REUTERS/Umit Bektas; A Syrian protester is silhouetted behind a Syrian flag during a demonstration against President Bashar Al-Assad in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman June 9, 2011. REUTERS/Majed Jaber