(Editor’s note: Can someone please make sure the easily-impressed Andy Newman of Socialist Unity sees this post?)
Guest post by DaveM
The Ba’athist regime responded to the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions on Syria with predictable indignation. The centre of Damascus and other cities throughout the country witnessed more mass rallies in support of Bashar al Assad, alll of which were recorded for Syrian State TV and Addounia.
Syrian TV voiceover: “Along the length and breadth of the nation’s public squares and under the roof of its sky which embraces their cohesive [socio-ethnic & religious] texture, Syrians congregated and delivered their voice and message to the world: ‘We are the sons of this land. We know how to protect it and build our our dreams and civilization upon it.’
“In the sun’s capital city Damascus, from Sabe’ Bahrat Square the citizens stressed that the economic sanctions which were ratified by the Arab League directly target them [and by inference not the regime] and these sanctions are a mark of shame and disgrace in the league’s history and are a submission to the White House’s orders.”
Syrian A: “We’ve come here today to angrily express our rejection of the Arab League’s decisions to suspend Syria’s membership and of the siege which it wants to enforce on the Syrian people. The Syrian people will not be besieged because we are all patriotic, we eat what we sow and we wear what we make.
“Their tongue is Arabic but their soul and conscience is Occidentalist Zionist!”
Syrian B: “The strike which doesn’t break the back makes it stronger. It strengthens us. Hand in hand with the president we become stronger.”
Syrian C: “Imposing sanctions on Syria means imposing sanctions on the Syrian people. Imposing sanctions on the Syrian people will not succeed in starving them. The Syrian people who are prepared to live off stale bread, who live off their dignity.”
And so on, with the scene repeating itself in the outskirts of Damascus, Homs, Allepo, Hassaka, Der ez Zor, Quneitra, and Sweida.
So what do we make of these mass rallies? Are they spontaneous shows of affection for Bashar al Assad? Are people forced at gunpoint to attend them? Or is it a bit more complex than that?
The only people who can answer these questions are Syrians. So I asked one. This is what he told me about his experience attending rallies like these in the past.
So what makes people them take part in these rallies?
Fear, fear and fear again.
I know it’s a totalitarian state and everybody is shit scared of it. But what are the different means employed to get people on the streets?
People are threatened by their jobs. You already know that the public sector is the dominant one in Syria, i.e., controlled by the government. So the employees of the various sectors are ordered to take part in the protests and if they don’t, they will surely lose their jobs and positions. Also, maybe you know that the great majority of positions requires you to be a Ba’athist. So, if you are not Ba’athist, you don’t take the job…
Of course, you also have some people who demonstrate out of conviction; they are either Ba’athists to the bone or simply they like Bashar…
What are the consequences if they don’t take part?
They lose their jobs and–very possibly–their lives.
What would happen if the crowd was small?
The crowd cannot be “small”. Have you noticed that the Syrian TV always shows the pro-demonstrations in the usual spots in Damascus? (Sabe’ Bahrat, Ummayad Square). City centers are the places where the demos take place because cities, obviously, have government-employed people (the public sector thing above).
I know you told me about the party members who went into the universities and schools and took lists. I’ve also heard about public sector workers having their ID cards taken away and only given back when they’ve been seen in the crowds.
That is the other issue: students also are forced to join this demos. Now you have government-employed people and students.
But are there other more subtle methods? For example who hands out the Bashar pictures on sticks? It’s not as if people keep them at home.
Some people who belong to Ba’ath party provide Bashar pics and flags. When people are taken out to the street, they are given these sticks and pics. At times, they would ask us to buy them. But most of the time, they had them ready for us—just in case we were in shortage of them.
Is there anybody else I can speak to about the psychology of these things?
I am afraid not. I have a monopoly over this issue :)
Final question, did you guys have to hand the Bashar-on-a-stick pictures back to the Ba’ath co-ordinators after the rally? Or did you get to keep them? I’m guessing you had to hand them back.
I am afraid I don’t know, though I remember everybody tried to get rid of them by giving them to other people!
[Note: Putting a picture of Bashar al Assad in the bin after you’ve finished with it would be more than anybody’s life is worth!]
There are also people who willfully attend these rallies, mainly members of the religious minorities – Christian, Shia, Druze, Alawite, Ismaili – who fear a Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood-run Syria. They can’t be unaware of what’s happened to the Copts in post-Mubarak Egypt; nor are these images of Burhan Ghalioun or the delegation of the Syrian National Council meeting with Yusuf al Qaradawi going to put them at their ease.
In addition there have been disturbing reports of sectarian killings taking place in Homs.
Being a minority in the Arab world means being in a very vulnerable position. Jews and Kurds managed to deal with this by establishing their own nation-states with their own armed forces. And Christians have tended to emigrate.
So the Syrian minorities who attend these Assad rallies do so for exactly the same reasons as the others who attend: “Fear, fear and fear again”. However their fear isn’t of Ba’athism, theirs is the fear of the unknown, the fear of what may replace it. The Arab world is far too dangerous a place in which to entertain wishful thinking or just hope things will just work out fine. Israelis aren’t the only ones familiar with this lesson; the non-Sunni Arab minorities in the region are also very aware of it.
A post-Assad Syria has to include them and they have to have the same rights and protection as everybody else; otherwise what’s the point of all the sacrifices just to replace Michel Aflaq‘s brand of fascism with Hassan al Banna‘s?