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Hundreds of Syrians have already fled their country and human rights groups say more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in the Syrian conflict since mid-March. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a press conference last week: “It’s very clear to us that unless the Syrian forces immediately end their attacks and their provocations that are not only affecting their own citizens but endangering the potential of border clashes then we’re going to see an escalation of conflict in the area.” At last Friday’s prayers, at least 20 civilians were shot by security forces and hundreds were arrested in the gathered protests. The government have express willingness to reform, but will the people accept the compromise?
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, a journalist and Master graduate in Middle East Politics with a specialty in the levant region. We spoke about his stay in the Syrian town of Aleppo between January and April 18, 2011, which collided with the outbreak of the conflict. He gave us his analysis of the situation.
How was the daily situation for you during your stay?
When I say we (from the CET Academic Program) were being monitored and watched, it wasn’t very overt but we knew that being Americans, especially being foreigners in Syria, was gonna come par with the program so we were just aware of it. But there was really no problem, I had numerous friends who were interested in human rights and they went freely back and forth to the Palestinian refugee camps [...] so for the first six to eight weeks, there were really no problems.
How do you keep up to date with the situation in the country now?
It’s certainly been difficult. Before I left, as the situation was getting worse, I spoke with a little number of my friends and we all exchanged emails, phone numbers everything [...] they all were very upset because we left very abruptly. Friendship in Syria is a very deep thing [...] so the fact that we had to leave so quickly was really hard on them but [...] I keep up to date with them, they email me, they let me know what’s going on. It’s getting more and more tricky, I have a number of friends who do participate in protests and they have right now ten different sim cards for their mobile phones, they change them a lot. Sometimes they don’t feel confident that they can send email without being tracked so, it’s become more difficult.
How would you define the initial motivation behind the protest?
It’s an interesting question, I think in many ways without the incident that occurred in Daraa, many of these things may or may no have come to light. Hindsight of course is 20/20 but the incident in Daraa that sparked all of this was a group of kids, very young people, who had written some graffiti – slogans they had heard and picked up from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. [...] You know, family is important and the fact that the security services arrested those people I think was extremely culturally tone-deaf, and I think it really sparked for a lot of people – it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There’s been a lot of other incidence, arbitrary arrest, like I discussed in an op-ed piece in the Guardian [...] These kinds of things do happen, they’re not as common as they were under Hafez al-Assad, things did get better under his son but the pressure had been building. To give you another example, me and some friend would be sitting in a cafe and a friend would look to me and say ‘we need to leave and move somewhere else’ and I’d say ‘why?’ and he’s like ‘there’s security services watching us and I’m worried about us having an open conversation without problems’ so we would move – little things like that, and just living in that kind of atmosphere, I think, takes a toll after a while.
In your opinion, what keeps Assad in position?
I think it’s interesting to note a few things, one is that when Bashar al-Assad came to power, he’d promised numerous reforms and he had promised to do away with a lot of the old guard that had supported Hafez al-Assad, his father. And he did change a lot of those positions, [...] but the family dynamic of the al-Assad family is very complicated. For example, there are reports of the fact that for one, his older brother is in charge of the fourth mechanized devision which has been the division of the army they’ve been using to suppress the protest in Daraa especially and to occupy several cities and his brother-in-law, I believe, is in charge of the internal security service. I don’t have [all the] information, I’m not sure what kind of conversation they’re having but I certainly feel that it’s no longer just Bashar’s decision in terms of how to deal with the protests.
Do you think it will come to an intervention?
It’s a good question, I believe that intervention would be a very difficult prospect because of Syria’s position in the middle east, it’s relationship with Iran, it’s relationship with Lebanon and of course the negotiations that need to occur between Israel and Syria to have a sustainable peace between those two countries. Intervention of the kind we see in Libya; I don’t know if that’s possible or not and I’m not sure it would be in anyone’s interest to do that. I think the international community would prefer the Syrians to do this themselves. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both made statements saying that they condemn the killing, [...] that the Syrian government should allow for protest to occur and that significant reforms need to occur. The issue of reform has interestingly enough been echoed by the prime minister of Turkey and Turkey does have a good relationship with Syrian government so that was significant [but] I don’t know if anyone’s going be willing to intervene in the way that we’ve seen so far in Libya.
In the greater Middle East, what does it mean for the future structure of the region that Arab Spring is sweeping through former authoritarian states?
I think it’s clear that autocratic rule in the Middle East failed in numerous ways and in places like Syria, for the longest time they would use Israel as a foil to say ‘we have these issues and these problems internally but we have this greater enemy of Israel that’s always there so we need to put aside our wants and wished domestically to deal with the threat of Israel’. But I think, at a certain point, that sort of discussion loses weight and domestically speaking, especially in places like Syria, there’s so many other concerns, so many other issues that need to be addressed and it’s all just coming out. I think it’s the same thing in Egypt and Tunisia and in Yemen that there’s a certain amount of corruption, there’s a lot of people – they work day and night and barely get by and that combined with the kind of repressive tactics these autocrats use to stay in power, I think it’s just too much. Tunisia was very symbolic in the sense that they showed the rest of the Arab world ‘this is possible, you can do this, if we can do this you can do this’. And I think, for many people that was very striking and I think, all over the Middle East and North Africa [people] really want reform and change and I think it’s a good thing. I’m really excited that this is a movement that’s come from within, it’s not external, these are movements being done by people there and it’s from them and I think, because it is from them that, I think there’s hope, definitely hope.
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