A First-Person Perspective of the Syrian Protests

I departed for Syria on January 25, the same day that revolution began in Egypt. Among my very first memories of Damascus are the worried text messages from my family and friends, warning me of turmoil in the region. The next three months that I would spend in Syria studying Arabic would be played out against the ominous backdrop of the spreading unrest in the Arab world, culminating in my hasty departure on April 30. While I was there I tried to understand the politics and culture of the country, but only one thing has become really completely clear to me: the world does not understand Syria, students of the Middle East do not understand Syria, the media does not understand Syria, not even Syrians really understand Syria. Accordingly I do not claim to understand Syria, but as someone who has witnessed the current uprising firsthand, I have some thoughts I would like to share.

When Tunisia rose up, people were interested, nobody was nervous.  When revolution spread to Egypt, it became clear to the world that this socio-political movement was powerful, yet still the reality of this force sweeping into Syria seemed remote. In living rooms and café’s throughout Damascus people watched the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt as excited spectators: happy for the victories of the Arab street, but seemingly unconvinced that such a thing could happen here. Before Dara’a, it seemed possible, even likely, that Syria really would remain quiet despite the upheaval and protests in other countries in the Middle East. Everything that I saw and everyone that I spoke to seemed to confirm that fact. Many Syrians in Damascus seemed genuinely content with the status quo. No it wasn’t perfect, but they could go to school, get jobs, and economic reforms had been gradually raising their standard of living for the past few years. All they had to do was not rock the boat, stay out of politics.

As protests began to pop up around the country the impact was not immediately felt in Damascus. For the first few weeks after the initial revolts in Dara’a, I witnessed an effusive outpouring of support for the government in Damascus, much of which was clearly genuine. From my room atop the walls of the old city I watched thousands of regime supporters: faces painted, cars decorated, banners and signs galore. For at least a week straight I was kept awake at night by cars full of supporters would drive by honking and shouting.

It has not helped the protestors case that their demands have been as diverse as the various ethnic and religious enclaves of the country: the Kurds in Qanishli demand equal rights and citizenship that has long been denied to them, in Dara’a the reform of a regime, the families of political prisoners in Damascus and around the country demand the release of loved ones, certain areas like the city of Homs called for the removal of hated local leaders, and then there have been the more general cries for the removal of emergency laws and economic reforms.

As the weeks go on and the death toll rises, the protesters demands have grown more unified and are even calling for the fall of the regime, but it is not enough. Many Syrians were – and believe it or not still are – undecided about where they stand on the protests. Many are nervous, some are even angry with the protestors. Life in much of Damascus, Aleppo, and other parts of the country goes on as normal, albeit with a few inconveniences like the periodic shortages of bread and shop closings on Friday.

Personally, I find the situation in Syria is difficult to come to terms with. My heart is with the protestors. I believe in the democratic right to self-determination and I want all people to enjoy the same political and social freedoms that I myself enjoy. But things are not that simple. At the current moment there is nothing close to a viable alternative government in Syria. Democracy will not work in Syria, at least not right now. Syria has no democratic culture to build on and there are great internal sectarian divisions. The different cultures and religions of Syria  have been kept relatively harmonious by the regime. But perhaps even more detrimental to any democratic dream is the external forces at work. Syria’s ally Iran, as well as Hezbollah and other militant groups, would see the removal of a strong secular regime as a chance for a (religious) power grab.

I left Syria at the end of April with a heavy heart. My departure was earlier than I had planned – precipitated by Black Friday, the entry of military tanks into Dara’a, and a strongly worded U.S. warning to its citizens to get out before it is too late. To the friends I left behind: I am praying for your safety and for your country. Inshallah I will see you soon again, in Syria. 

Photo Credit: Valerie Szybala

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Valerie Szybala

Valerie Szybala is a specialist in Middle East affairs who recently returned from studying Arabic in Syria. She has worked for Dr. Jason Lyall at Yale University studying civilian casualties from coalition air strikes in Afghanistan and spent one summer as a researcher with the Israeli-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) in Jerusalem where she worked on peace process policy and track II negotiations. Valerie also worked for several years at the American Council of Young Political Leaders in her native Washington, D.C. Valerie graduated from Stanford University in 2010 with her M.A. in International Policy Studies.

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