Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, created a police state that derived control from a system of informants, and an array of loyal army-intelligence-special forces. Unofficial communication among and between social actors and groups was always dangerous because the government had agents even within the family, which is common in totalitarian countries, although Syria was not entirely totalitarian. Widespread fear of government retaliation has debilitated the opposition for decades. The older generation especially remembers how the army besieged Hama in 1982 and massacred tens of thousands of people who opposed Assad rule. Since then this unspoken fear has paralyzed the Syrian opposition and kept them divided. They are just complacent cohorts who mind their own business. That is why the Syrian revolution took off so gradually one year ago with just minor protests. Harsh government repression, however, turned the spark of rebellion into a bush fire. It took one year to radically transform a timid and passive Syrian society.
Yet, there are obstacles. Some sections of society do not want a regime change.
The non-Muslims see the government as the guarantee of secularism, and they find it comfortingly predictable no matter how tyrannical it is. The Alawites, from which the Assad family and most of the ruling oligarchy has emerged, strongly support the government. This sect has been the main source of the ruling coalition. The Alawites man and manage most of the government agencies, and still remain unified and loyal to the regime. Any revolution that can succeed in changing the Syrian regime must address the Alawite issue. The sect must be ensured that they will not lose everything and that their dissidents will have their share of power in the post-Assad period.
Another group that has not been won over by the “revolutionaries” is the Kurds. They have always complained about the regime’s repression, and the government’s treatment of them as second-class citizens. They want an autonomous position. Acting with this vision in mind the Kurds bargained with Assad’s government, and 300,000 Kurds were rapidly granted the citizenship they were denied before. This year Kurds also publicly celebrated the Newroz festivities for the first time. The group believes more benefits are to come if it does not confront the government for the time being. They could have risen up alongside the opposition (Syrian National Council) if they were promised autonomy, but now they are waiting the most opportune time.
Another group that feels grateful to the government for hosting them in Syria is the Palestinian community. Altogether the Kurds and Palestinians constitute 25 to 30 percent of the population. All is not lost; however, there is a second critical factor that fuels the revolutionary zest. It is the deep resentment of the people for what the regime has done to them.
When the older Assad came to power in 1971, he tried to eradicate all vestiges of European culture and closed the country to the outside world. He ended foreign language instruction in schools and put into effect a curriculum that was built on worshipping the state. Awards, wealth and positions were distributed through the state machinery. Syrian youth lost hope in their country.
Rather than unity, the government systematically emphasized differences and prevented communication among population groups. People could, virtually, only communicate with and through the state. Ethnic and religious communities were kept apart, and even large families were divided under different family names so they would not identify themselves as tribes. Cooperation between towns and cities could be realized only through the central government. The brutality of concentric intelligence, coupled with the security apparatus, created the conditions for a social life that became virtually apolitical.
Today the Syrian society has by and large overcome the fear factor. Now they need wider participation in the rebellion and trust building amongst themselves. All of the groups that line up against the government must know that they will not bear the brunt of the past and that they will share power in the post-revolutionary political system. That will be the litmus test of success for the Syrian National Council.