Yes, It Was The Speech That Changed Syria, And Here Is Why !

In Buzzfeed’s-own Mike Giglio article “The Speech That Changed Syria” he cited the Syrian president’s speech on 30 March 2011, as the direct spark of what was to become a bloody war. Mike Giglio could not be more right!

As the Arab spring unfolded, political analysts around the world were busy trying to predict the spot in which the next uprising will erupt. Syria was frequently nominated on the short list of countries most likely to witness such event.

As many Syrians, I was following the news that was coming from Middle East with much interest. The scene was surrealistic more than anything. To see these totalitarian regimes, which were built on fear and oppression over years, tumbling in days under the pressure of ordinary people was astonishing. In fact it was hard to believe, since most of these tyrants managed to drain their people of every will and power to stand up to them, or so I thought. I experienced firsthand the methods by which such autocracies, systematically, tried to influence and adjust people priorities so that these
people are too busy thinking about surviving their daily lives to think about any other “extravaganzas” such as democracy and basic political rights.
As the domino effect of revolution was in action across the Middle East, I had many discussions, be it online with Syrian friends, or in real life with some British friends who were interested to learn about the developments of the situation in the Middle East, and the likelihood of an uprising in Syria, since they all know I am Syrian.
I always maintained the position that the Arab spring wave is going to bypass Syria. My argument was that the situation in Syria is very different. The Assad was very popular among the Syrians despite corruption, oppression, lack of human rights, and deteriorated living standards. As odd as this may sound, it can be easily explained.

Reasons behind the Assad’s popularity prior to 2011

Over the years, the Syrian regime has used a systematic procedure in order to integrate itself in the collective mindset of the Syrian people as a “historic” irreplaceable leadership.

In 1970, Hafez Al Assad came to power in a military coup from within the regime, as he was the defense minister in the Baathist (i.e., the Baath party led) government that was ruling Syria since 1963. Once in power, It was curtail for Mr Assad to legitimize himself as president (since he was not elected democratically to that position), but more importantly as a leader, especially that he was the man in charge of the army three years earlier when Syria lost the Golan Heights in the six-days war with Israel (1967).

Hafez Assad planned to go to war again in a bid to reclaim the occupied land and/or to repair his image at least. In coalition with the Egyptians, Syria declared war on Israel in October 1973, on the wake of which, Mr Assad proclaimed himself “the October Hero” and his priority, since, was to stay in power at any cost. To do so, Mr Assad needed to turn Syria into a police state where social, economic, and political activities of the Syrians are monitored and rigidly controlled by his repressive regime. The main tool to implement this transformation was the security forces, “Al Moukhabrat”.

In addition, it was deemed vital that younger generations are raised not only to accept the regime without challenge, but also to feel the need for it. Thus, a process of “thought reform” was in place.

Young people were enrolled in organisations controlled by the Baath party, from the elementary schools’ “Baath scouts” and secondary schools’ “the revolutionary youth” organisations, to the university Baathist student unions. All these organisations, as well as the government strictly controlled media, and the whole educational system were set the task of granting the president a status where he, by his person, represents the country and the nation.

There was to be no distinction anymore between the country as an entity and the person of the “historic leader” who was ruling it; in a sense young people were led to believe that they were blessed to have such a man in power, a man like no other, with near divine characteristics.

The Assad was to be portrayed as the man who brought stability and security to the country, and this was to be cultivated in the minds of the younger generations, alongside the idea that anyone criticizing the regime or its head figure is actually assaulting the nation as a whole.

The term “Souria-Alassad” (the Assad’s Syria) became very common when referring to the country in the media, the army, and the schools. Moreover, after the crackdown on the “Muslim brotherhood” (a political Islamic organisation) in the early 1980s, a slogan was introduced so all school pupils in Syria would pledge it every day first thing in the morning as they gathered in school yards, the slogan is translated as ” our vow is to fight off the imperialism, the Zionism, and the regression. And to crush their criminal tool, the Muslim brotherhood gang – Our eternal leader shall be Hafez Assad”.

Syria is a proud nation with a very rich heritage and a huge contribution to the human civilization, but over the last 42 years the regime did all it can to distort and exploit the concept of national pride and patriotism. The president became a synonym to the country, and people were led to believe that any Syrian who dare to challenge the regime is a traitor to the country and that any foreign body that criticises the regime is actually attacking the Syrian people and the Syrian pride.

Also, there was and still is, the very sensitive issue of the occupied territory of the Golan Heights, which meant that the Syrians were always sold the story that any internal or external pressure on the regime is in actual fact nothing but a part of a global plot to drift us away from the task of liberating our occupied land and facing our enemies.

The deteriorated life standards according to the regime were never its fault, nor were they the direct result of the corruption in the mafia-like state. The official line was always that the miserable life conditions for the majority of the Syrians is the price we have to pay as we resist the western conspiracy against the “great leader” who stand by his own as the “last protection shield” facing the “Zionist and imperialist plot” on Syria and the region.

This story was bought by the majority of the Syrians -including myself- during the reigns of both Assads, Hafez and then his son Bashar, and this was evident in many occasions, the latest of which was during the period of time between 2005 and 2007 when Bashar Al Assad was accused of assassinating the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri. The Syrian regime propaganda portrayed the accusation as an aggression on Syria and what the Syrian people stand for, and the Syrian people genuinely believed that the accusation is politically motivated and is aimed at them as a nation, not at Bashar Assad and his regime.

The same story is being resold in these very days as well to a considerable percentage of the Syrians who are still supporting Bashar Assad after all that happened in Syria lately. The “Global conspiracy” was named as the main force behind the uprising in Syria by the Assad himself in his 5 televised appearances since the start of the demonstrations, and that term was mentioned as early as March 30th 2011 in the Assad first speech after the start of demonstrations in Daraa that ignited the unrest.

One more factor for the Assads’ popularity (both father and son) up till 2011, was a direct result of four decades of the regime propaganda, which led people to genuinely believed that no one could lead the country but the “near-divine” Assads.

When the father died there was no ordinary Syrian “worthy” enough to replace him in the Syrian collective mindset, people were convinced they are inferiors, and saw all the rest of the Syrians as such. The son seemed an obvious choice to inherit the country. The well educated young ophthalmologist also appealed to the mostly-young population fed up with the old guards, and longing for the modernisation of the state. For those, the young Assad was the feasible option and the only person from within the regime to carry on this task.

In addition, one can argue that the Syrians have developed a form of traumatic bond with the regime overtime; a psychological phenomenon known as “Stockholm syndrome”. The regime has effectively taken the whole country as hostage for 42 years, and the hostages (in this case the people) start to identify with the oppressor and develop empathy and positive feeling towards it, sometimes to the point of defending it. This irrational behaviour is evident in such cases when a victim of a hostage situation mistakes a lack of abuse by their captures for an act of kindness. Even people who hated the Assad senior thought that no matter how bad the son might be he would not be as bad as the father was anyway.

My reasons to believe that the Arab spring would bypass Syria at the time

For me, it seemed that the Syrians were generally satisfied with the regime, and particularly with its head figure, Bashar, who according to many, was keeping Syria’s head held up high in the international field, and who was widely believed to be the guardian of the Syrian dignity and sovereignty.

Rarely was Bashar Assad blamed for the regime mistakes on the interior front. It was very common to hear people defending Bashar and accusing those around him of keeping him in the dark regarding the local domestic problems. The miserable state of the economy, and the huge corruption in the government were always blamed on the second and third tiers of officials, but never on Bashar Assad.

Hence, my initial position that the Arab spring and the revolutionary wave was going to miss Syria.

I looked at the countries in which the protests gained a momentum powerful enough to shake the foundations of the regimes, and I found that two conditions must be satisfied before a full scale unrest is possible in a country.

The whole Arab world is ruled by oligarchic and tyrannical regimes of one form or another; however these regimes can be put in three categories.

The first includes oil-rich kingdoms and principalities, where the regimes are viewed by the people as too “west friendly” at best, and often accused of compromising the national sovereignty through submissive political and economical relations with the west. However, these regimes provide high living standards for their citizens, enough to override any dissatisfaction with regime performance on international levels.

The second category includes autocratic republics such as Syria, Sudan, and Algeria where the levels of living standards are so low for the vast majority due to the regime failure in providing the people with the essentials for a decent life, as well as the failure in creating an environment where improvement of the living conditions can be possible. Countries in this category, however, are characterised by the regimes’ ability to rally the people under patriotic banners such as sovereignty and national dignity, by appearing to meet people’s aspirations to have regional and international importance, and summing up the general moods regarding things such as the Palestinian issue and the conflict in the Middle East. The regimes in this category sell their populations an official position in harmony with what the people want to hear, which could be enough to override any sense of dissatisfaction with the poor living standards.

While the third category includes country such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and (for the last five or ten years) even Libya, where the living standards are pretty poor, and the regimes’ official political positions on regional and international issues are not in line with their general public opinion.

Thus it seemed to me that a full scale uprising needed an environment where regimes are failing to provide good living standards, as well as failing to reflect the general mood of their populations on the international stage.

Given the above analysis I thought that the conditions for an uprising in Syria are not satisfied, and up to a certain point that was right

Factual evidences that supported my initial prediction

In February 2011 there have been attempts to rally the Syrians into rising against the regime; most notably was the call for the “Day of Rage” on the social media networks. These calls were coming from the traditional opposition groups outside Syria that had no real influence on the ground and very little support in Syria. These groups were mostly made up of the members of Muslim brotherhood in exile or former figures in the regime who are known and hated by the Syrians for their previous roles, such as Rifat Assad, Bashar’s uncle and the infamous brother of Hafez Assad who led the deadly crackdown on the Syrian city of Hamaa in the 80s, and Abdul Halim Khadam, the former vice-president who was an icon for corruption in his days in power. These attempts have failed and the Syrians were not interested at all in the calls for toppling the regime.

Inside Syria there were some shy efforts to use the effect of the Arab spring and get the demonstrations to spread into Syria, however these too have failed to gain momentum or generate any interest what so ever, and it seemed as though Syria was immune to change.

The Turning Point That Sparked the Syrian Uprising

On March the 6th 2011, the security forces in the province of Daraa (a small poor rural city in southern Syria) arrested at least 15 elementary school pupils aged 10 and 11 years old for writing the slogan “the people want to topple the regime” as graffiti on the walls of their school. These kids did not mean the Syrian regime but were merely influenced by the scenes of the televised revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia, and their small age did not stop the security forces from detaining them for the next ten days.

The parents of these kids sought the help of the city dignitaries and the local religious leaders in releasing the children, they went to the political security branch where the kids were being detained, only to be told by the head of the political security branch, Atef Najeeb who is also a direct cousin of Bashar Assad, to forget about the kids. He was quoted telling the parents (Ar.) “Forget about the children” and “If you do not know how to make new children, bring your wives to us and we’ll impregnate them for you” which is a huge insult in that tribal rural community where family loyalty and family honour are extremely relevant to the people.

As a result the prominent families of Daraa called for a “Dignity Day”, and a huge demonstration took place on March 18th after the Friday prayer demanding the prosecution of Atef Najeeb and the resignation of the Governor. The demonstration was faced by a bloody response from the police and security. Six people were shot dead, and that sparked the uprising throughout Syria.
The kids were eventually released beaten and blooded with their fingers broken, fingernails pulled out, and faces swollen of torture.

The Shocking Speech in the House of parliament

During the first two weeks of protests, the regime’s strictly controlled Syrian media dismissed the reports by foreign media about the situation in Syria as lies, and accused channels like Aljazeera, Alarabiya, France24, and BBC of fabricating stories, and that was the official stand until the 29th of March 2011 when it was announced that Bashar Assad was going to address the nation through the parliament on March the 30th 2011, two weeks after the start of protests.

Of course no one was expecting a dramatic move such as a resignation. In actual fact not many at that point demanded that either, as there was still a general sense that what happened was not approved by the Assad. That said, people’s expectations were high, they assumed that the Assad will take the initiative and step in to calm down the situation, and take some measured steps to reassure the people that those who killed and tortured the civilians will be punished by law. In addition, it was expected that he would lift off the state of emergency which have been imposed on the Syrians since 1963, and set out the movement for political and economical reform. Such measures seemed to have been enough to help defuse the crisis at the time.

Mr Assad, however, had a different idea

Instead of meeting the people expectations, he reintroduced the notion of the “global plot” against Syria, he said “Syria is a target of a big plot from outside”, claiming that people who took on to the streets were “duped” and that the protests were the products of this plot executed by the enemy’s agents within the country, calling those who led out demonstrations “Intruders/infiltrators”, and failing to apologise for the killing of the innocent civilians.

The Assad speech was not only disappointing, but actually shocking. The whole scene seemed more of a circus than a parliament; it showed a man in a case of denial, taking on the centre stage, surrounded by what seemed to be a bunch of clowns rather than the people representatives.

They interrupted him several times with their individual pledges of support (video Ar.) and applauded him 44 times during the 90 minutes speech, while he was laughing madly.

In one occasion, one of the MPs shouted (video Ar. text Eng.) “The Arab world is too small for you, dear leader, you should rule the world!”

and that speech, in mho, started it all!

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