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April 20, 2012, Friday

Why are Damascus and Aleppo quiet?

My piece for the Zaman daily, titled “Suriye, kendine yardım et!” (Syria, help yourself!) and published on Aug. 2, 2011, sadly predicted nine months in advance the dramatic point reached in Syria today.

The first problem I noted as being the discrepancy between the high expectations of Turkey for Syria in comparison to the limitations to Turkey’s power vis-à-vis stopping the negative turn of events in its neighbor. If Turkey were to intervene alone in the crisis while the rest of the world remained silent, it would lead to problems for Turkey. However, if it were to remain silent, its integrity would be damaged.

The second problem was that the crisis in Syria ran the risk of resembling the tragedy that unfolded in the former Yugoslavia 20 years ago due to Syria’s troubled internal balance, the competition between global powers and their subsequent inadequate intervention in the matter. It was only after the death of some 200,000 people that there was a call for Serbian state forces, which had crushed the unprotected Bosnians, to bring its bloodshed to an end. Unfortunately, after a number of deadlines had to be given to the Baath regime, its defiance of any reasonable offer was evident and was reminiscent of Bosnia.

The third problem was that hesitations regarding a post-Assad Syria worried and pushed the people of Syria as well as international actors to a state of cautiousness regarding a land that is so intricately involved in the global struggle for power vis-à-vis matters such as the Shiite Crescent, the Kurdish issue, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

This is one of the reasons why the large-scale protests that dethroned Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have not taken place in Syrians centers such as Damascus and Aleppo. But is this alone enough to explain the silence in Damascus and Aleppo?

And, in reality, while the flames of change were ignited in the capitals and large cities of Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, the uprising in Syria started in a town called Daraa, far from Damascus. The silence of large national centers such as Damascus and Aleppo only eased matters for the regime. Why did no Tahrir Squares form in Damascus or Aleppo, despite the fact that the Baath regime had a more oppressive and bloody legacy than the regimes toppled in other Arab countries? Was this due to the success of the Baath regime in the realm of security or was it that the locals in these cities weren’t all that convinced there should be a revolution?

When I was invited to the summit organized by the Genç Siviller (Young Civilians) of Turkey and the Nahda Network, what excited me most was learning the answer to this question from individuals associated with the Syrian opposition. An answer by Hasan Qasim, who came from Aleppo on behalf of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, presented clues as to the difficulty of the situation in Syria in addition to pointing out that the matter is much more complicated than it appears. He said: “When the revolutions began to take place in the Arab world, all eyes in Syria turned to Aleppo as a leader and driving force. However, the Baath regime had purged Syria of politics for 40 years. Particularly in large cities, there was no party or civil society formation that would facilitate a common movement. The regime had been hard at work for four decades in order to prevent the formation of a middle class that would carry forth the demand for freedom. Left in its place were blood ties, clans and regional affiliation. And cities naturally did not have such ties, either.

“It was difficult for the people to come together around a goal. Even the demonstration of Americans in Aleppo ended with them being thrown in jail. As such, it was only normal for big cities to be late in joining the revolution. This is why the uprisings took place in smaller towns. And the regime is busy with destroying them one by one. In the beginning, many demonstrations took place in Aleppo’s outer neighborhoods. However, they were put out with a kind of viciousness that one cannot imagine. Ten people were killed in a demonstration of 1,000 people. This was proof that the losses incurred per demonstration were very high in Syria. There were incidents in which 15 people from the same family were burned and killed.

“Until three months ago, the opposition, despite not having fired a single shot, was showcased as terrorists. I am secular person and they called me a Salafi. There was always opposition, and people only began to carry weapons when they were forced to. The soldiers who refused to open fire on civilians took the side of the opposition.

“And when thinking of Damascus and Aleppo, we should not forget the stance of the capital, either. Businessmen are always removed from civil movements. And in order to further intimidate them, the regime burned down businesses. Those who are in possession of capital love Syria. The collapse of business means the collapse of Syria. It is important that they no longer support the regime and now take under their wings the families of the slain and arrested.”

And the opposition, too, is aware that its fate lies in the attitude Damascus and Aleppo take; however, the measured reaction of Syrian activists, even when expressing their disappointment, is promising for the future.

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