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The Levant Winter – Syria’s march to freedom

Hisham Omara leads our coverage of UMSU’s Middle East and North Africa Week with a deeply personal account of the ongoing uprising in Syria

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The cradle of civilization in the Middle East is at an historic crossroads. The sweet scent of the Arab Spring turned into an intense summer heat wave and now, slowly, the leaves are falling on the autumn season of this battle. Tomorrow, the Syrian people will mark the eight month anniversary of the uprising – the start of a collective, nationwide fight for freedom and dignity – and they hope and pray that their perseverance will be rewarded with the change that they so desperately crave. The extraordinary events of the Arab Spring were a testament to people power, but they also posed a pertinent question for Syrians – who can carve the path to our present and future? Who determines how we live?

Anti-regime protests began in January on a relatively small scale. Initially, the unrest was not expected to extend beyond a spontaneous and uncoordinated set of short-lived demonstrations and clashes that occurred in cities such as Hama, Jisr al-Shughour and Daraa, which would become the focal point of the uprising. Here, Syrians marched in opposition to nepotistic President Bashar al-Assad, whilst young men defied the government by drawing anti-regime graffiti. By mid-March, the protests had morphed into a fully-fledged uprising, with scores of savvy grassroots movements springing up all across Syria to execute well-planned, daily demonstrations from Ar-Raqqah and Hasakah in the north-east to Daraa and the capital, Damascus, in the south-west.

To the casual observer, the situation in Syria is nothing more than a never-ending cycle of violence, with no conclusion in sight, and President al-Assad is banking on exploiting this perception by all means possible in a bid to reassert its dominance. As the uprising gathered pace, the regime unleashed its brutal security forces, who have resorted to collective punishment, cutting off water and electricity supplies and besieging entire communities whilst employing tanks, bombs and rockets to shell cities – a horrifically violent reminder of the 1982 Hama massacre which killed as many as 40,000 people. The 2011 uprising has seen at least 3,500 people killed to date, including 217 children. 20,000 more have been detained by the government, and tens of thousands have sought refuge in neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon. The Syrian regime is firm in its stance – determined to crush the revolt as efficiently as possible – but so are the protesters.

As the winter sets in, analysts are trying to articulate an end game. Unfortunately, the international community has no desire to intervene militarily in Syria, instead opting for light rhetorical condemnation. Such international condemnation is barely forthcoming; both Russia and China recently vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution which would have formally condemned the authoritarian regime. The road to salvation for the Syrian people is fraught with many similar obstacles.

Syria lies at the very heart of the ‘fault lines’ of the Middle East, a microcosm of the region and its complexities. Take one look at Syria’s strategic location and observe the countries with which it shares a border (Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel), and you will recognise that this is a salient fact. It is for this very reason that western countries will not intervene in Syria as they did in Libya – here, there is much more at stake since Syria is geographically located at the heart of the Middle East and geopolitically positioned at the centre of the region’s problems. Regime change in Syria would inevitably create new regional and international alliances, thereby changing the current order and balance of power in the Middle East. With the exception of Turkey, no other country has shown any interest in military intervention.

The intention of this article is not, however, to engage in a futile exercise of geopolitical speculation but to draw attention to the real issue – the human suffering that ignited and continues to fuel the struggle of the Syrian people. Every drop of blood spilt is significant and worthy of commemoration as Syria takes the tentative steps towards freedom. This is not about politics; this is about a people who deserve and desire dignity, respect and freedom. This is not an eight month struggle, but a fifty year struggle – a struggle for a people who have been robbed of their souls, a struggle against a system that has psychologically eradicated a nation. It is a struggle which has produced many painful tales, such as the story of Sahar, the cousin of a close friend, who was separated from her severely ill mother during the siege of Hama. The regime cut off the city’s water, electricity and phone lines. Dismayed and running out of means to contact her mother, Sahar turned to Facebook, posting, “Does anyone know where my mum is? Is she alive?” The people of Hama continue to bury their loved ones in their backyards for fear that the snipers stationed on rooftops will take notice. They mourn their dead in silence; weeping and broken but resolutely defiant.

Despite the best efforts of the Assad regime to quell any kind of cohesion, and irrespective of the deafening silence of so-called allies in the Arab world and supposed ‘freedom fighters’ in the international community, Syrian protesters have built meaningful bridges with the vastly different disenfranchised communities across Syria. They continue to protest, weathering the storm, hoping for another Spring.

With all of this, I am reminded of my friend’s young sisters. As they chant ‘yaskot, yaskot, Bashar al-Assad’, waving the Syrian flag with their tiny hands, I can see the beam of hope shining through their eyes. I dream of a Syria that is free and embraces the hopes and desires of its children. As the Syrian poet Naguib Al Res wrote so fittingly, “there is nothing after night but the dawn of rising glory”.