Does Syria's Uprising Stand a Chance?

Does Syria's Uprising Stand a Chance?

The Syrian revolution is unique in the Arab Spring, but the regime is using technology, regional support and its history of brutality to fight back.

By Christopher Watt July 7, 2011

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text "God protects Syria." Photo by Bertilvidet.

One Friday in Damascus, as I was rounding a corner downtown, a white sedan occupied by five men rolled to a stop on Maysaloun Street, near, perhaps incidentally, the local agency of Iranian Air. What looked like an argument ensued inside the car; it was punctuated by a pop; and a body fell out a back door, landing on the sidewalk before hanging over the curb. Another man stepped from the car and stumbled backward across the sidewalk, clutching his head in anguish. Blood spreads faster than you think, the dead man's brain matter gathering at the curb in a stream. The other man grabbed the body and restored it to the car before it sped away. The central but deserted site may have been chosen with care. In Damascus, just like elsewhere in the Muslim world, Friday is a day of rest and prayer. I was not aware of other witnesses, nor was it clear whether the assailants noticed me. Had the man been murdered, or did he himself pull the trigger? A small crowd gathered around the emergency vehicles late to the scene, no one quite sure, it seemed, of what happened.

Some years ago I spent two months in Syria, walking across the border from Turkey to Aleppo before arriving in Damascus. The Iraq war was supposedly just beginning to die down next door, which is to say that "the surge" was underway and one million Iraqi refugees were living on dwindling resources in neighbourhoods outside Damascus. The regime was endorsing words like "liberalization" and "reform" when speaking to foreign investors, while simultaneously using the Iraq debacle as evidence against democracy when speaking to the Syrian people. It is perhaps fair to say that Syria had reached the proverbial "crossroads" of journalistic cliché, never mind that five-thousand-year-old civilizations generally tend to answer to that description anyway.

Today, Syrians are trying to overthrow not just an authoritarian regime but the social pact behind a permanent state of emergency that is almost fifty years old in Syrian law. The uprising began in the southern town of Daraa. More than four hundred have been killed there since the government deployed tanks, snipers and thousands of soldiers against the town on March 15, 2011, just days after President Bashar al-Assad officially repealed the emergency law to appease the mob. Protests spread nevertheless to northern villages and towns around cities like Hama and Homs. The army has largely remained loyal to the regime, Syria analyst Joshua Landis told me in early June, which helps account for differences between Syria and other Arab states, where the old order has recently met opposing force. More recently, soldiers have begun to defect.

The government crackdown is abetted by Syrian alliances with regional powers such as Iran, a country that has reportedly supplied the Assad regime with trainers and weapons since the uprising began. If the conflict in Syria becomes a civil war, it may have implications unlike those of other uprisings during the Arab Spring. If NATO does not "intervene" as it did in Libya, perhaps that's because—according to Western diplomats, intelligence sources and Iranian opposition groups quoted in various publications—Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently landed four cargo planes in Damascus at an IRGC-dedicated operational base. Though the two countries do not share a land border, Syria in recent years has been Iran's gateway to the West.

The most entrenched regimes only achieve that state by waging a permanent war of self-repair. In 2007, the morning after the shooting, I walked to the same corner, but this time on the dead man's side of the street, the blood now gone. After the shooting I had taken refuge at a nearby internet café, where the owners—one imported tuxedos to Saudi Arabia, the other was a metalhead with near-perfect English—ran a cultural halfway house of sorts for travelers and businessmen. A description of the shooting caused them to pause. "That kind of thing doesn't happen here," they said. Syria's numerous intelligence agencies and police squads were so pervasive—at least two hundred thousand of Syria's twenty-one million people were on the take, one source told me—that random violence was and presumably is still rare. Uncannily safe streets were one result of Syrian security's near-total monopoly on force. Cause and effect is rarely clear in such places; what's known can often never be proven; those who fall are never pushed. It stands to reason that public executions might typically have some state-sanctioned political or economic intent about which it is best not to speculate, or inquire.

Much has changed in recent weeks. The military and its affiliates have been accused of killing more than 1,400 Syrians and detaining at least eleven thousand more since January to preserve the sclerotic status quo. The fighting has been vicious by anyone's measure, such that Amnesty International labeled a May operation against the town of Talkalakh a "crime against humanity." The government lost 120 police alone in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, according to unverified Syrian state sources, while residents disputed government claims that "armed gangs" were terrorizing the town, saying rather that the army itself was killing deserters. The regime has also created martyrs such as thirteen-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. A video of al-Khateeb—who was apparently tortured to death—was produced by family upon the return of his corpse and shared by thousands on Youtube and other social networks. Defiance reigns on the traditional day of rest, but that's not all: "Fridays still see the largest number of demonstrators, in what ranges between 100 and 200 locations, but more regular, mostly nightly protests, sit-ins and strikes have also become a regular feature of life in many parts of the country."

The Green Revolution in Iran demonstrated an understanding on the part of both protesters and state forces that massacres do not play well in the internet age. Technology has transformed the age-old concept of martyrdom. For some it is a freely chosen act of public relations, while others are reborn as a meme. It takes times like these for deaths like Hamza Ali al-Khateeb's to become known. Syrian forces opened fire on those who took to the street in mourning, killing as many as fifty-four in Hama, according to the Local Coordinating Committee, an opposition umbrella group, while another thirty-five were gunned down a few days later, according to human rights groups, in two northern towns against the regime. Elsewhere, videos reportedly surfaced showing Syrians waving banners condemning countries like Iran and North Korea for siding with the state throughout the bloodshed.

These events are not entirely without precedent. The city of Hama has a population of about seven hundred thousand people and is located about four hours north of Damascus. It is famous for waterwheels along the Orontes River and a massacre that took place there in 1982. President Hafez al-Assad—father of the current leader and once described by Bill Clinton as the smartest Middle Eastern politician—took issue with the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab organisation of Islamists typically from humble backgrounds. At times, the Muslim Brotherhood has been dedicated to overthrowing the Arab world's secular, nationalist regimes, and has been blamed, not without reason, for inspiring a generation of militants known as al-Qaeda.

To bring a six-year insurgency to a conclusion, al-Assad shunted the Muslim Brotherhood into Hama—the ultimate act of kettling—and proceeded to level the town with artillery and little regard for the civilian population. Conservative estimates place the number of dead at ten thousand, though Amnesty International says the final count  may be as high as twenty-five thousand. The massacre prompted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to coin a phrase for scorched-earth violence intended to forestall domestic reprisal regardless of international consequence: Hama Rules. In Syria, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has since been punishable by death. A general amnesty for prisoners of the current uprising issued by current president Bashar al-Assad in late May probably will not change that: "Amnesty is an effort to do something without providing structural change or resigning," Landis said, which is to say that it is not intended to change the past.

Foreign reporters have been largely banned from Syria since March. As of early July, Hama was surrounded by government forces again, without water and electricity as residents conduct what by many accounts are strictly peaceful protests. Meanwhile, rights groups, diplomats and journalists are meeting former residents of Jisr al-Shugour and other northern towns across the border, in southern Turkey.

Predictably, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as both tools of opposition and means of following the conflict. In February, a month after the protests began, Syria renewed efforts to restrict access to many websites, including Facebook. The regime, or at least forces sympathetic to it, has also used social media for offensive purposes. A detailed analysis of a group called the Syrian Electronic Army was recently published by the Information Warfare Monitor (IWM). The report, entitled The Emergence of Open and Organized Pro-Government Cyber Attacks in the Middle East: The Case of the Syrian Electronic Army, presents compelling evidence that the Syrian government is behind the Syrian Electronic Army's cyber attacks on Syrian protesters and Western websites.

"Interestingly, we are witnessing more governments using once-vilified social networking and video sharing websites as tools to promote their agendas and influence conflicts in the idea-sphere," says the report's author, Helmi Noman, a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab, located at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. American officials have argued that Tehran may be lending a hand in such attacks. "Iranian-assisted computer surveillance is believed to have led to the arrests of hundreds of Syrians seized from their homes in recent weeks," the Wall Street Journal reports. Noman responded by email to a question about possible Iranian support on the cyber front in cautious terms. "So far we have found no evidence," he wrote, while an update to Noman's initial report concluded that the possibility of active collaboration between Iranian and Syria pro-state hackers was low.

Perhaps more significantly, in late June President Assad praised the SEA in a nationally televised speech: "There is the electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality," Assad said. Despite Assad's arms-length turn of phrase, the SEA is hosted on national networks, a first for pro-government internet armies in the Arab world, the IWM observes. Using a denial of service software program called "Bunder Fucker 1.0", the SEA has targeted news organisations such as Al-Jazeera, BBC News, al-Arabia TV and Orient TV, a UAE-based satellite broadcaster led by Syrian Ammar Qurabi, who is also head of the Egypt-based National Organisation for Human Rights. The SEA has also claimed responsibility, the IWM notes, for defacing websites belonging to the Center for Small Business in Israel among other Israeli sites that do not contain political content. That has not stopped the SEA from leaving a taunting message behind: "We Are the Syrian People , We Love our President Bashar Al Assad and we are going to return our Jolan Bac , our Missiles will be landing on each one of you if you ever think of attacking our beloved land SYRIA SaQeR.SyRia@Gmail.com". On June 27 the SEA announced on Facebook that it had defaced a number of .uk sites, including one belonging to Okehampton Town Council, the onslaught continuing but this time addressed to the "Great British People."

Linking governments to cyber attacks by individuals and non-state actors proves difficult in a domain where plausible deniability is a ruling principle. "Attacks don't come with a return address," says Bruce Schneier, chief security officer of the British company BT, in a recent MIT Technology report about attacks against Google Gmail that emerged from China: "This is a perennial problem. It's not a problem of anonymity; it's a problem of how the Internet works." As British Minister of State for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey wrote in a recent report: "Establishing who is behind any attack and its purpose is difficult, particularly where aggressive state-sponsored activity is undertaken through proxies." As with the Georgia-Russia war in 2008, in which Georgian news sites were hacked prior to Russian military attacks, some level of encouragement, if not active coordination, between states and hackers is often assumed. On June 3, a day of massive protest in Syria, the government shut down the internet entirely, according to reports from sources such as Global Voices and Renesys via another Citizen Lab-affiliated project called the OpenNet Initiative.

There's a bleak joke told in Syria. A man gets into a car accident and flees the scene. Later, he receives a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line asks: "Do you know who this is?" No, the man replies, to which the voice responds: "This is President Assad, and now I know who you are." But the Syrian people are saying no to fear, no matter how fearful they may be. A young Syrian woman protesting outside the Syrian embassy in Jordan photographed in an Associated Press report carried a sign which read in translation: "Be patient Syria, the victory is written by the blood." Government subsidies, jobs, the right to complain, often life itself—everything has been given in Syria, if only so the state can take it away. The regime is gambling its citizens will still bet on the devil they know. It may even pay off. And yet, speaking anonymously, a US State Department spokesperson said, "We want to see a democratic Syria, but this is in the hands of the Syrian people."

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