Syria's Day of Anger? Most Syrians suspect few will take to the streets.
Using Facebook a group has tried to organize a street protest for Friday. The Syrian government appears confident, however, that it can survive the current tumult in the Middle East by clamping down on dissent.
Damascus, Syria — A Facebook group named The Syrian Revolution – set up by expatriates – is calling for protests in various cities throughout the country and at a number of Syrian embassies overseas. More than 13,000 people are virtual members of the online forum.
But Syrians are skeptical that the “Day of Anger” planned for Friday will initiate large-scale, antigovernment opposition.
That skepticism underscores the government's apparent confidence that by muzzling opposition and maintaining a popular foreign policy, it will be one of the nondemocratic regimes in the region to survive the current tumult.
“The Syrian regime is very tough,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University, wrote by e-mail from the US. “It will try to nip any demonstrations in the bud by arresting those who organize them or show up.”
If protests do transpire in Syria, each will be closely controlled and probably attract no more than a few hundred protesters, says Mazen Bilal, editor of Suria al-Ghad, a prominent Syrian news website. A few dozen people showed up for several "solidarity vigils" for Egypt in the capital this week, with police breaking up one gathering at the Egyptian embassy.
To some Syrians, the lack of assertiveness is disappointing.
“The Syrian people are chicken,” says Lochmann, a Kurdish architect who supports the opposition and asked for his last name to be withheld. Syrians understand the government’s swift and violent approach to suppressing dissent, he explains, from the razing of the Muslim Brotherhood-stronghold of Hama in 1982 by former President Hafez al-Assad to the crackdown by his son, current President Bashar al-Assad, on Kurdish protesters in eastern Syria in 2004 that killed at least 30 people and imprisoned hundreds.
The protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen have not gone unnoticed in Syria. During a recent drive through Damascus, a chatty taxi driver named Ahmad talked excitedly about the uprisings. “Arab people are ready for change,” he said. But when asked if Syria was similarly prepared, he answered simply: “No.”
Indeed, citizens often responded nervously to questions about the impact of regional protests on Syria.
When asked about whether the army is training soldiers on crowd control, a young soldier named Muhammad said: “No, it’s the same as usual. We prepare to fight Israel.”
The threat of sudden, secretive detention is one useful deterrent against dissent. Some 10,000 political prisoners reside inside Syria’s jails.
Another is the lesson of Iraq. “The presence of almost 1 million Iraqi refugees has chastened them to the dangers of regime collapse in a religiously divided society,” Mr. Landis says.
Local sources say the antigovernment movement lacks widespread popular support in part because Syria’s young president and his anti-American, anti-Israel foreign policy has made him more popular than some of the older, pro-West leaders facing turmoil. Most who feel differently are either in jail or out of the country.
“In Tunisia and Egypt, the people have a list of what they want to see happen,” says a young journalist who asked to remain anonymous. “In Syria, the opposition is out of the country and hasn’t been active here for years. I don’t think people here know what they want or why they are protesting. They are just copying what they’re seeing on TV, but they don’t have any real demands.”
Nevertheless, the government is closely monitoring and disrupting possible dissent. Syria’s only two Internet carriers, MTN and SyriaTel, have begun cracking down on access to foreign proxies, which Syrians commonly use to access banned websites like Facebook and YouTube. In mid-January, officials began confiscating Internet routers from coffee shops offering free wireless to customers.
Leaders have also supported "spontaneous" progovernment protests – attended by paid civil servants carrying matching, government-issued posters of Assad and Syrian flags. In the Kurdish neighborhood of Rukn el-Din in Damascus, the presence on the street of mukhabarat – easily discernible, plainclothes Syrian secret police – doubled this week, Lochmann, the Kurdish architect, says.
The government is also offering some carrots, trying, for example, to minimize discontent over living standards. Syria doubled the heating oil allowance for about 2 million state employees and pensioners the same week that concerns about rising prices helped topple the regime in Tunisia. The move contradicted the government's stated plan to eliminate fuel subsidies by 2015 and was a “direct result” of events in Tunisia, Bilal says.
“Syria is getting a good lesson from its neighbors,” Lochmann says. “These protests will be small, but you know what they say: ‘A journey begins with a single step.’”