‘100 Days in Syria’: An eyewitness account of a country imploding

By Yacov Ben Efrat

In seeking the “truth” about Syria, I came across a book by Lebanese reporter Ghadi Francis, “My pen and pain: One hundred days in Syria” (Beirut: Saqi Books 2012), in Arabic. I did not find the “truth” but I did find many things which explain the outbreak of revolution in Syria, and especially its cruelty compared with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Francis identifies with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. She is in favor of a “Greater Syria” and her point of departure is not at all hostile to the Baath regime. On the other hand, as a young journalist she surveyed Syria from top to bottom for 100 days, between May and August 2011, seeking the reasons for the uprising and its character. Throughout the book, she remains “neutral.” Though she distances herself from the regime, she does not identify with the revolution. The reality she encounters causes cracks in her opinions, and by the end of her journey she finds herself arrested and then deported, forbidden to return.

Francis covers Syria’s history, landscapes and markets, and her enchantment with its beauty and people is tangible. She is both tourist and reporter, thus bringing the reader into both the heart and bowels of Syria. From her account, it is clear that class conflict combines with ethnic conflict in Syria. If the spark which caused the uprising consisted of social disparities alone, perhaps the results would have been similar to those of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s revolutions. But in Syria, the minority Alawite regime surreptitiously nurtures ethnic identification, which is why the country is bleeding and crumbling from within.

Francis tries to give voice to what she calls the “silent majority” – the 50 percent who did not take a stand at the start of the uprising. This 50 percent includes Sunnis in Damascus and Aleppo (Halab), the two largest cities, as well as residents of ethnic minority areas such as Swaida in the Druze Mountain region, Alawite areas, and Christian neighborhoods in the bigger cities. She meets Syrian intellectuals who oppose the rebels, who spent long years in jail but are nonetheless against armed uprising. She meets merchants and members of the middle class who loathe the regime but still have faith in the president. As in other cases in history, they too blame the “court,” which prevents the progressive president from carrying out reforms that would bring an end to the uprising. She also meets young people from the Local Coordinating Committees which organize the uprising.

According to Francis, the revolution is village-based and conservative, with religious tendencies. But she has no doubt that it is Syrian and not imported from abroad. The Syrian village is rising up for many reasons – each region has its own motives – but anger is directed at one focal point, one family: the Assad family and its branches.

Why the uprising?

The port city of Latakia, in the region of Assad’s birth, is revealed as a city divided between the poor and rich, Sunnis and Christians. The poor neighborhoods were those that rose up against the regime. Latakia’s poor live in Sakanturi and the so-called “Shriqi”; they are mostly villagers from Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour who came to the city seeking work. Their wives work as servants in the houses of the rich, and the two classes do not mix. As the poor revolt, the intellectuals would have preferred a “clean” revolution; in other words they would have liked Assad to carry out reforms without this bloodbath.

During her visit to the centers of the revolution, Francis discovers that each town has its own reasons for rising up. In Daraa of the Houran region, which sparked off the revolt, the farmers lack water and cannot bore wells without bribing the military which is responsible for the area. In a town near Damascus, hundreds of families who once earned a living operating service taxies now find themselves unemployed after the regime gave the Maluk company the franchise to run bus lines. In Saqba, residents worked in the furniture industry until hundreds of families lost their livelihood due to cheap imports from Turkey, China and Malaysia. In Dariya, also in the Damascus region, residents are not granted building permits, which makes Damascus’ environs a band of poverty and illegal construction lacking even the most basic services.

The further north she travels, the more injustices the journalist uncovers. Residents of Hama, focus of the current uprisings, have been prevented from working in public services since 1982 as revenge for their support of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Kurd areas, the authorities have rescinded the citizenship of some 200,000 people who now live with no official documents. The picture that emerges from Francis’ writing is of a state which no longer functions, which hides its failings by preventing independent media coverage while state media paints a rosy picture completely disconnected from reality. Furthermore, security services are posted at every corner to silence voices of protest.

During the first months of the uprising, public opinion was united in the belief that the regime should carry out far-reaching reforms: change the constitution and cancel the article which grants the Baath Party sole right to rule; cancel the emergency laws; permit party organization, media freedom and freedom of speech; clean up the corrupt administration; rein in the army; and grant authority to legislative bodies. Indeed, Assad responded with a number of gestures such as the cancelation of the emergency laws, the call for dialogue with the opposition, and the meetings with leaders of the various regions. Thus expectations were raised.

But in reality nothing changed. Assad stuck with his claim that the uprisings were acts of terror and that the rebels were foreign agents. But Francis’ testimony refutes this claim completely. And since it was impossible to accuse her of being an infiltrator hostile to the regime, she was simply thrown out of the country. In retrospect, she realized that taxi drivers in Syria are compelled to inform in return for a license, and that a certain driver with whom she spoke too freely turned her in.

Since she was deported, the mask has fallen from the face of the regime. Assad was not willing to remove the gang close to him, including his brothers, cousins and security officers, which had taken over the state. Intellectuals and businessmen, who had enjoyed Assad’s economic liberalization policy, could no longer ignore what was happening all around them. The liberalization of the economy benefited just a thin social stratum, but severely hurt huge swathes of the population, especially the youth. Economic liberalization and a cruelly oppressive regime lead sooner or later to an explosion, and in this Syria has been no different than Egypt or Tunisia.

Meanwhile, the opposition which sought dialogue with the regime has abandoned Damascus. Some of its members have been arrested and some have gone underground, including Michel Kilo, Francis’ hero. Kilo was among the initiators of the Damascus Declaration of 2005 which called for democratic reforms. Today he writes for the Saudi newspaper Asharq alawsat. He too has lost all hope in the regime and calls for its downfall. Bashar Assad is no different from dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. From his point of view, Syria is his private property which he inherited from his father, while the people are his subjects, under his absolute authority, meant to worship him and his heirs. If they refuse, they will simply be wiped off the face of the earth.

The regime’s fate is sealed

Since the massacres at Houla and al-Kubeir, the Syrian regime has few friends. In her book, Francis described Damascusat the beginning of 2011 as a thriving city whose cafes hummed with debate on the future of the country. She described the traders of Aleppo as people who would not easily repeat the mistake of 1980, when they supported the Muslim Brotherhood and suffered the strong arm of the regime. Now, just a year later, the traders of Aleppo andDamascus have joined the rebels. They could not remain indifferent to the horror of 40 children massacred at Houla. They know repression will not succeed in stopping the revolt. They understand that this repression annuls the legitimacy of the regime which is willing to bomb cities and trample the thousands of dead, wounded, refugees and detainees in its efforts to survive.

It was fascinating to see, with the hindsight of one year, how many opportunities the regime has had to adjust its path and prevent the disaster which has now gripped Syria. Despite all efforts to discredit the rebels, and despite the fear of religious fundamentalism, the book reveals that Syrians of all stripes – including the unsure, the committed, the religious and secular, those of all ethnicities and beliefs – agree that the country must change, that it is in need of democracy, a constitution, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and an end to oppression and corruption. This is a Syrian revolution, and these are Syrian aspirations, and all the regime’s attempts to deny and defame are doomed to fail. Assad’s time is up.

Yacov Ben Efrat is secretary-general of Da’am – Workers Party. The piece was originally published in Challenge, a magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger.