Friday, June 24, 2011

'They Can Only Kill and Hope': Journey Through a Divided Syria


It was not the resistance to the system itself that drove people to the barricades, but the regime's immoderate, brutal reaction, says the Damascus political insider, who did not want to be identified by name. The "closeness to the people" that Assad liked to invoke apparently represented nothing but the distance between the soldiers' weapons and the protesters, the informant says bitterly. "There are no longer any policies. Other than violence, they have no solution. They can only kill and hope."

Back in 1970, Hafez Assad, the current president's father, who was defense minister at the time, had the rest of the cabinet arrested and staged a coup in the name of what he called a "corrective movement." Hafez Assad became Syrian president in 1971, a position he would hold until 2000. Ever since the 1970 coup, violence has consistently been the ultimate tool of power in the country. But in the days of Assad senior, there was no Internet, and neither YouTube nor camera phones existed, so that the killing remained invisible.

When the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in armed resistance in the city of Hama in early 1982, killing dozens of party officials, intelligence agents and their families, Hafez Assad had the city surrounded and bombarded as if it were enemy territory. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people died in the massacre, which went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Assad pursued his policies like a game of chess -- coldly, intelligently and methodically. He positioned Syria as a "front-line state" against Israel, and in 1991, he effortlessly switched sides and supported the Americans in their campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He had planned everything carefully, but his succession didn't quite go according to his plans.

The first-born son Basil was his intended successor. But he died in a car accident in 1994 when he tried to drive his Mercedes around the tight curves in front of the Damascus airport at 200 kilometers per hour.

As a result, the second-eldest son, Bashar Assad, was chosen instead. After having been brought home to be groomed as the heir to the throne, he assumed the presidency in the summer of 2000, after the death of his father. He was in the unusual position of being a dictator who had not had to shoot his way to power, but simply took over his father's position.

Even after a decade in office, Bashar Assad still looks like someone who became president by mistake. He always seems a little uncertain or confused, sometimes overcompensating with exaggerated gestures. On the largest poster displayed on a wall near the university, he looks as if he were giggling in his medal-laden uniform, while his father, on the next poster, merely shows his predator's smile.

Assad junior promised to put an end to the personality cult surrounding his father and remove the ubiquitous presidential portraits. He was the most prominent member of the Syrian Computer Society. But the "Damascus spring" of small freedoms and great hopes ended after only a year. The system simply continued, as if it had been set on autopilot by a dead man.

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