In 1924 the Islamic caliphate ended. Muslim countries were overrun and controlled by the colonial powers of Britain, France and Italy. This situation lasted for some years before these countries gained their independence. Nationalism took hold and soon after these countries slipped into dictatorships or Baathist regimes. During this time Syria was ravaged by over a decade of coup and counter coup. One group of officers would form a junta and take power, only for another to do the same a year or so later. This situation continued until an ambitious officer by the name of Hafiz Wuhush rose and took power. One of his first acts was to change the family name to the more becoming Al- Assad. What made him different was the fact that he was from the Alawite clan and religion; all other suitors to power had been Sunni, and this was a Constitutional requirement. After an apparent conversion, he was to maintain power and implement it at a level of brutality and repression that no previous President could manage. He began by a gradual purging of the officer class from Sunnis. Any excuse would be sought to sack them and then replace with their Alawite colleagues. Young cadets from Sunni families were rejected entry from officer academies. Eventually the upper levels of the military consisted almost entirely of Alawites. Freedom of expression, which had hardly been the hallmark of previous regimes, was now completely dismantled. Any utterance against the regime, any suggestion, criticism resulted in imprisonment without hope of return. This was more than a shift in power but a complete overhaul of society by a tiny minority who previously enjoyed no such influence.
From the 1970s onwards, Sunnis everywhere realised this was a man and a regime that allowed no room for discussion or negotiation; the only option was to fight it. Open warfare began against the regime, marked by assassination of key officers by the Ikhwaan ul Muslimeen. Hafiz responded with one of the worst massacres in modern history in Hama where 40,000 inhabitants were slaughtered. An attempted assassination on Hafiz resulted in his brother killing over 800 prisoners by burning them whilst they were alive. The 80s continued to witness the struggle; Its soundtrack was nasheeds. As political emigrants fled the violence, this was the one connection they maintained with the revolution, it kept the hope alive. But as the Mafioso government became the norm, people became weighed down, despondency and despair took over and oppression was normalized. Intelligence networks became entrenched in the city, normal people were employed in their thousands to spy on their friends colleagues and neighbours. In all institutions the party line was enforced. Islam was no longer allowed to be a religion of change and struggle but people were confined only to acts of individual worship – nothing that would encourage the community of conscience to develop. The culture became one of silence of acceptance. Poems and essays of intellectuals gathered dust as their writers were left forgotten in prisons. The nasheeds fell silent and people forgot the words.
Then in February 2011, a young graduate from Tunisia, unable to find suitable work, forced to sell vegetables, was pushing his cart along the street. Having strayed into an area where we was not permitted to sell his produce, he fell under the wrath of a female council officer who slapped him. In Arab culture there is little more humiliating than being hit by a woman, but she represented authority and he had no power to speak, or act against her. He felt he had nothing left for his honour, dignity and life but to douse himself him in petrol and burn himself to death. This one act of a desperate man started a chain of events that lead to the flames from his body rising to a fire that spread throughout the entire Arab world.
A few months later one ember reached Syria. A young school teacher, calling her friend in Deraa, noted how swift the exit of Husni Mubarak had been, and hoped for the same fate for Bashar Al Assad. These words were to breath air into that ember, and the western educated and urbane son of the grotesque Hafiz, who by all accounts made excellent dinner -table company, would prove himself his father’s son. Her conversation just like hundreds of thousands of conversations was being tapped by intelligence services. She was arrested and subjected to unspeakable humiliation just like thousands of innocent people had been done for the three previous decades. Except that something slightly different occurred this time. Her class of 10 -12 years old students, as children usually do, had the audacity to write ‘bring down the leader’ on their blackboard. What would be a harmless piece of graffiti in any other country, caused the whole machinery of the Syrian state to be engaged. The schoolteachers informed the headmaster, the headmaster informed the local police sergeant, the sergeant informed the intelligence officers and the children were arrested. They were beaten, imprisoned in the station, and the nails were ripped from their fragile hands. As was expected the parents of the children gathered outside the station. They were completely used to their lives being monitored, to torture, and a complete lack of freedoms. But even to people so accustomed to this, an attack on their children was devastating. Perhaps even after such horrible crimes, if the children were returned the situation would have returned to normal. Instead the parents were told to forget about their children, go home and have sex with their wives to replace them, because they would never be returned, and if this was not possible to bring their wives to the station and they would do the job for them. This would have caused anger anywhere, but in Deraa where the people are known for their conservatism and great honour where there women are concerned, this had amplified effect. More importantly this situation still might not have escalated in any other city in Syria, but here tribal loyalties and affiliations are stronger, word spread quickly, and protest began. The regime responded the only way it knew how – killing. But the protests grew stronger with each attack and spread from Deraa to Homs and Hamma, Idlib and even Damascus and to the hearts and minds of the sunni population.
Homs became an example – a city that people took back as rightfully theirs. The fear was removed and when that happens it never returns. The regimes tactics was now pushed into overdrive. The normal regime of torture an art that the Syrian state had perfected simply could not cope – instead people were murdered as soon as they were captured, it was simply a fact that there was to many people to repress, it was easier just to kill to shoot and stab and hack their way through the people.
The situation has continued until now there is no turning back. The governments intelligence networks have been effectively destroyed. You only monitor people to anticipate dissent, once it becomes open and loud, for a regime that thinks like Bashar’s the only option is to kill.
The Alawites comprise no more than 5% of the population, they have conspired with outside powers to manipulate Muslims for hundreds of years, from their wild mountainous home, where they were banished to by Salahudiin al Ayyubi amongst others, they have now occupied a hold over an entire populous. The regimes killing of over 10,000 innocent men, women, children, babies, unborn babies, its imprisonment of more than 120,000, has meant that there is no turning back. Every day Bashar kills hundreds of people. A healthy turnaround as far he is concerned. Their actions are as desperate as they are fruitless. Effectively they want to kill as many people as they are before they are banished once more to the hole from which they emerged.
They are not however alone. They are part of a network that has not seen this amount of power and influence since the fall of the Fatimids some 700 years ago. They too realise what is at stake. It is therefore incumbent upon them to come to prop up this discredited regime for us long as they can. Alawites from Turkey, some 10,000, have joined the government in the murdering and raping, including Iraq, Hizbollah and of course Iran. The shadow of Israel is never too far. The first thing that Israel has done to harm the Syrian people is simply by being there. Nothing separates Syria and Libya except that the world has to take care that no instability should be allowed to jeopardise the state they have robbed from others.
We are at an historical crossroads that no man can take credit for having started. When Allah wants something to happen he says be and it is. It is Allah who had written down that in 2011 all the elements for a struggle that began 30 years ago would be in place; that Independent satellite news channels, the internet, mobile telecommunications and convoys bringing hope to the Arab world, would be the canvas which a vegetable seller from Tunisia would set alight. Words, profound in meaning but locked away, have now found their true meaning. The people have found their voice. Allah alone can grant them victory.