The brave Syrians arrayed against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad doubtless had a premonition of what was to come. They gave their Friday protest on July 29 a name: “Your Silence Is Killing Us.” It was said that they had in mind Aleppo and Damascus, which had stood largely aloof from the rebellion while the cities of Homs and Hama paid dearly for their defiance. But the protesters made no secret that they had the Arab League in mind as well; at home and in Cairo, the domicile of the Arab League, they had carried coffins with the name of the league scribbled on them. And they would have been right to include powers beyond the Arab world, for the regime in Damascus has killed with abandon, without incurring a heavy price.
On the Sunday after, the regime struck. This was the day before the holy month of Ramadan, and the cruel rulers were preparing for a month of agitation. Scores were killed across the country. The Syrian League for Human Rights estimates at least 120 people were killed, the bloodiest day since the uprising began five months earlier. In an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come, in the early hours of dawn the Army and the security forces entered Hama, and the dispatches from that rebellious city reported bodies scattered in the streets. For several weeks it had been thought that the city was off limits because of the burden of the bloody history between Hama and the regime. It was there in 1982 that Hafez Assad, father of Bashar, marked his regime with its defining cruelty—and sectarianism. Hailing from the minority Alawi community, he was merciless in a war against a predominantly Sunni city, the principal home of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had dragged this city of artisans and shopkeepers into a struggle it could not win. The insurgents made their stand in the warrens of the Old City, and no mercy was shown them. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 perished, and thousands disappeared. Practically every family in Hama has a vendetta of its own against the dictatorship.
When the defiance now upon us first erupted in March, Hama took its time and sat out the protests, which started in Deraa, a forlorn town on the border with Jordan. For Bashar, Hama summoned the ghost of his father and the stigma of being at one with him. Bashar owes it all to his father. The reign that came his way back in the year 2000, at the age of 34, was his father’s gift to him. His father had done it the hard way—guile and terror side by side. But Bashar aspired to something new, the mantle of reform, the promise of changing this drab dictatorship. But trouble came to Hama, as it was bound to. On a Friday—April 22, a good long month into these troubles—the city had its first major protest. On June 3, the security forces clashed with protesters who had taken to the streets there, and 70 people were killed. The regime tested Hama’s resolve and then suddenly pulled back, as though spooked by bloodshed in that city, by its very symbolism. The government pulled off a veritable disappearing act. Hama was left to administer its own affairs; neighborhood councils rushed to fill the void; the city savored the taste of independence; checkpoints and barriers were erected in preparation for another showdown with the government. On July 8, Hama held the largest protests to date in this Syrian upheaval, and gave U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who braved his way there, a rousing reception. Flowers and olive branches greeted Ford, who had come with the French ambassador, to signal something of an American break with the Assad regime.
The uneasy peace between the rebellious city and the rulers was not to last. The preceding month had witnessed bloody battles in Homs, the other big city in the central plains. Now the “immunity” granted Hama was set aside, as the regime was bent on retrieving the ground it had lost. Hama was too big to cede to the rebellion. The initial assault was followed by three days of shelling, and then the military rolled into the central square, and Hama’s death toll rose to more than 200. Tanks and snipers on rooftops were dispatched to subdue the defiant city. The assault betrayed the regime’s eagerness to preempt the disobedience that Ramadan promised to bring with it. The religious impasse between the Alawi regime and a (largely) Sunni opposition has stalked this rebellion. The rituals of Ramadan, the evening prayers after the breaking of the fast, the gatherings in mosques at night after the heat of the summer days, could only mean greater troubles. Fiercely secular if only because the Alawis are schismatics and heterodox, beyond the pale for mainstream Sunnis, the regime now sought Islamic -cover. A new religious television channel, Noor al-Sham, was launched, propagating the regime’s message of politico--religious obedience and avoidance of political matters.
The quiescent religious establishment that answered to the regime was called upon to preach the virtues of obedience. The minister of religious endowments, Muhammad Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed, announced that Ramadan was sure to mark the “beginning of the end” for the protests, and that the “crisis had already passed, never to return.” The country’s senior cleric, an old apolitical figure, Muhammad Said al-Buti, based in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus—Syria’s most storied mosque—was handed what must have been a bitter assignment: to give religious sanction to the regime’s repression. The protests, this cleric opined, were “the work of people who aim to cripple Syria. Those who want to bring down the regime want to bring down Islam.” He had seen “documents and reports” that prove beyond doubt that “our enemies do not wish us well; they don’t want our Islamic civilization to flourish; they seek to destroy our Islamic culture.”
Now, traditional Sunni Islam counsels obedience to the rulers, the avoidance of fitna (sedition). It preaches a limited, hemmed-in role for the ulama, the religious class, restricting them to “commanding right and forbidding evil.” But this measure of supplication before a presumably godless regime must have been difficult to offer. Sheik Buti and his peers in the religious establishment were in no position to cap the volcano. The protesters dubbed these ulama for what they are, Ulama al-Nizam, clerics of the regime. Buti may have been old and learned, but the rebels had identified him as a tool.
Hama put up the resistance it could. Its young people answered the regime’s tanks with sticks and iron bars, the burning of tires, and with chants of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”). In a “normal” society, the chants would express a measure of defiance and solace. In a country with so deep a religious schism between the regime and a popular opposition, however, the invocation had a power and poignancy all its own.
“Yalla Bashar, irhall” (“Come on, Bashar, leave”), the crowds have taken to chanting. More poignantly, in Hama, the young people carried placards that read, “Like Father, Like Son.” With a trail of bloodshed, it is hard to recall that he was once viewed favorably by the Syrians. When he had come into power, he made a good first impression, if only because he was different from his intimidating father. He was gangly, spoke with a lisp, an eye doctor with a stint in London behind him. His father had been a peasant boy, born in the Alawi mountains, married into his own community; he had come to the coastal city of Latakia and plotted his way to the summit. So many of his peers and rivals had fallen to assassins’ bullets, or perished in Syria’s cruel prisons, dispatched there by Assad himself. In -contrast, Bashar had been the entitled prince, schooled in the best academies in Damascus. He had known no hardship. In the manner of a society eager for deliverance, it was hoped that he would open up the big prison that Syria had become under his father.
Outsiders prophesied good tidings for Bashar. Madeleine Albright, who had gone to the Old Man’s funeral, came back with a favorable report: Bashar was a “reformer,” she said. Then–French president Jacques Chirac took it upon himself to induct the young ruler into the respectable order of nations. Bashar’s marriage was his first olive branch to his country: his wife is a Sunni, London-born, the daughter of a cardiologist who lived in self-imposed exile in Britain and spoke discreetly of the sins of the old regime. There was talk of a “Damascus Spring” in the first years of Bashar’s reign. (The optimism hooked people beyond Syria: Vogue magazine made its way to Damascus, dubbed the ruler’s wife, Asma, a “rose in the desert,” and in a fawning article that would in time be removed from the magazine’s website praised her effort to create a “beacon of culture and secularism in a powder-keg region.”)
Small gestures mattered: Bashar made his way to restaurants now and then, without heavy security. He was head of the Syria Computer Society, and promised openness in a country where the ownership of fax machines was restricted. He released political prisoners. Very few Syrians had access to him, and his people could be forgiven the classic hope that if only the “good tsar” knew, the realm would be repaired and oppression lifted. But the realm was what it was: power had made a seamless transition. The young man who was said to thrill to the music of Phil Collins was cut from the old cloth.
Syrians puzzled over Bashar’s true nature. But there came a time when the guesswork subsided. A trail of brutal killings in Syria’s Lebanese protectorate—most notably the murder of the Sunni leader and former prime minister Rafik Hariri—told them that their ordeal had not come to an end. When the body of a boy of 13, Hamza al-Khateeb, from the town of Deraa, was returned to his family last April, mutilated beyond imagination, his genitals cut off, Syrians had all the knowledge of this ruler they needed. Then came another signal murder: the body of a mason who had dared sing a lyric hostile to Bashar was picked up in Hama from the Orontes River, his vocal cords torn out. The people gave up on the regime and its master.
An irresistible force has clashed with an immovable object. The regime cannot frighten the population, and the people cannot dispatch the regime, the most fearsome national-security state in the Arab east. Patrick Seale, arguably Syria’s leading political historian—he had unusual access to Hafez Assad, and wrote his biography in 1988—has given an unsentimental reading of this grim struggle. Damascus has not rebelled, the Army has not defected, the economy has not collapsed, the regime is weak, and the opposition weaker: in other words, the classic ingredients of a civil war, with a sectarian war within it. Syrians who brave it all do not want to be ruled by Bashar’s children in the way they have been ruled by Bashar, and their parents were by Bashar’s father.
The Syrians have a stark reading of their condition: they fight alone. No NATO planes (not that these planes have performed brilliantly in Libya) are coming to the rescue, and no Arab cavalry. In the Western democracies, there is embarrassed frustration with Bashar, but a resigned admission that no help is forthcoming for this embattled population. If Bashar has wondered about the risks his terrible slaughter might incur, the “international community” has told him there is nothing to fear. But the story does not end with the heavy odds faced by the Syrian people. There is the rebellion, with all its dignity and fearlessness. And this surely will matter for the kind of Syria that will emerge from the struggle.
Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and co-chair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.