A newer version of this piece has since been published online by Prospect Magazine. Click here to read.
The great waterwheels of Hama don’t turn much anymore. Their once mournful groan has been silenced, as the Orontes River has been reduced to a muddy stream, dyed green by algae. By neglect, and an absence of environmental awareness and governmental will to protect the natural habitat, the norias now rest dry and stagnant, slumbering peacefully, hewn to the river walls, some way above the litter-strewn waterline.
The pace of modernisation in this central Syrian city moves only a little faster than these dormant norias. Hama is deeply conservative and observes religious practice fastidiously. It is the expectation as opposed to the rule to see a woman uncovered. And whilst many adopt a simple hijab, it is far from uncommon to see chadors or even njiabs and burqas. It reflects the sensibility of a city that stands free of modernity, rooted in Islamic custom, and unchanged in the face of the state’s secular agenda.
Hama, of course, is also the site of one of the most cruel and barbarous breaches of human rights since the Second World War. When the Islamic Front – an umbrella organisation which included the Muslim Brotherhood, then a mainly urban movement made up of bazaar traders and middle class professionals – took over the city in February 1982, Hafiz al-Assad responded with strength and laid waste to the city. After besieging the perimeters, and declaring anyone who remained inside to be a combatant, Syrian security forces moved in, shelling and destroying most of the Old Quarter, and murdering up to 25,000 people, mostly civilians.
Since Hama, dissidence and organised opposition has been non-existent. Now, in this most beautiful of springs, a lotus flower grows in the mud. Syria has awoken. In the southern city of Deraa, the last post on the way to Jordan, protests have broken out in sympathy with their Arab brothers and against the Assad regime. With “God, Syria and freedom only” as their slogan, this movement is unlike the organised Islamists that rocked the country in the early ‘80s.
The south is more cosmopolitan (comparatively) than the traditional north. Damascus is unlike any other city in Syria, yet its influence on surrounding settlements like Deraa is evident in the nature of the protests. Jordanian influence cannot be discounted either, not in terms of direct political manipulation, but more a psychological permeation. Life across the border is ever-so-slightly more prosperous, and a little freer, where although King Abdullah retains a firm hand on the wheel, Jordanians do have the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Residents of Deraa would have access to open media that those residing in the north would not necessarily be able to see or hear.
Like father, like son, Bashir al-Assad has responded to dissent in much the same way as Hafiz. Syrian police sealed off the city on Saturday, after thousands of members of the nation’s security forces swarmed the city, opening fire with live ammunition and slaughtering at least five activists. More were killed over the weekend, as the numbers of protestors swelled to mourn the glorious dead. UN General Secterary Ban Ki-moon has described this use of deadly force as “unacceptable”.
That the Ba’athist regime has reverted to type in this manner ought not to be of any surprise. Syria is the only Arab state (save Algeria) to remain vehemently opposed to the international intervention in Libya. (Though, this is not to say that other governments have been rejoicing, either.) Guardian sources in Damascus conclude that al-Assad does not wish to set a precedent that could result in meddling in Syrian affairs. True, yet Syria has been very much out of step with the Arab world since she aligned herself with Iran during the wars of the 1980s, when the rest of the region made bedfellows with Saddam Hussein.
It is a marriage of convenience in many ways. Peter Mansfield describes it as a “bizarre friendship between a professed Arab nationalist and an Iranian Shiite fundamentalist.” Syria benefited during the 1980s from a regular quota of free Iranian oil and from the pro-Iranian sympathies among the Shiites in her client-state, Lebanon. This axis of evil continues today, with Iran and Syria cooperating to funnel weapons to their minions, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
These protests in Syria are of tremendous significance. Whilst al-Assad is unlikely to be toppled in the easy manner of Mubarak or Ben Ali, if at all, discontent could force the government to deliver on the promises of reform it has hinted at since Hafiz’s death in 2000.
Moreover, a more open Syria could be drawn out of the Iranian orbit. This has been a longstanding aim not only of the United States, but Israel too, who view the so-called ‘Syrian track’ as a navigable route to peace in the Middle East. Such a transition is not out of the question: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wily old Hafiz did conduct an about-turn, assisting with 20,000 troops during the Gulf War, ending ties to Abu Nidal and restarting talks with Israel over the Golan Heights.
For now, however, our thoughts must remain with those on the streets of Deraa and Damascus. As stated, unfortunately, the Ba’athist regime is unlikely to fall as easily as those in Egypt and Tunisia, if it does not all. More than that, Bashir al-Assad has as far displayed little appetite for comprehensive reform, and has during the Arab Spring shown no mercy toward his people. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the world will witness another Hama, or that the green-brown Orontes will run red, before the seasons change to summer.