These days I feel I can't write, I can't even think. Just when you think everything is crystal clear, that you are certain you know what is happening, something blindsides you and then you're back where you started. I look back at all I've blogged and written about in the past year, and almost all of it is to do with Syria. Pro-regime Syrians sneer at us, the exiles, the expatriates, and challenge us to come back to Syria to "see that it is all a conspiracy". In their twisted and illogical minds, only they care for the country, and their god is sacred and inviolable. Only by his grace, and under the majestic gaze of his calm blue eyes, could the country be saved. But saved from what? What is it about anybody who criticises their Baathist cult which makes them hate him so much?
A friend of mine told me a story about his family that took place in the early sixties. Back then, Syria was still relatively a comfortable country to live in. Politics was remote from the lives of the citizenry, in spite of the turbulent political conspiracies, coups and counter-coups. At that time, a young man had asked for his aunt's hand in marriage but the father had turned him down. He told the young man that, as a member of the Baath party, his life would be unstable, and that tomorrow another coup would make the man and his family exiles or worse. The young man smiled and told him that the Baath were different from other parties, and that he should not be worried. Both parties moved on, but I recall this tale often these days, because I try to understand how a political party that was as marginalised and suppressed as the Baath party was during the fifties, could so dominate a country with all its various and conflicting political, economic and intellectual elites.
One can draw analogies ad infinitum between Assad's Syria and Stalinist Russia, but a puzzling aspect remains. How do we explain the younger Assad's influence on the country? And on what basis does his popularity remain, albeit greatly diminished? From the time when he assumed power, I noticed a remarkable change in the political and propaganda machine and the way it portrayed the relationship between the regime and the people. In the old days the relationship was one of pure power and domination. There was no room for discussion, only blind obedience stripped of reason. The way the young Assad sought to portray his rule was definitely more paternal, more informal. A poster shows the smiling Leader holding up and kissing a pretty little girl. On the top of the poster we see that now famous phrase "We Love You", and at the bottom of the poster the slogan continues "and my Daddy Loves you too!". I remember reading that poster as I walked the streets of Damascus and smiling to myself, "I'll bet he loves you, he daren't". The new theme seemed to be that you will love us whether you like it or not, so why not just like it? And in a sense, why not? As the young Assad liberalised the economy, opened up Syria to foreign investment, and started opening private banks, Syrians found that they could live, through easily available credit, a far better lifestyle, and with the same consumer goods that they once envied their other Arab neighbours for.
Whilst it could afford to, Syria's regime could subsidise diesel, sugar, flour and other basics for the poor, but as the world economy started to place a burden on the state's coffers, already stretched due to the grotesque levels of corruption that are systemic to Assad's Syria, the state began to tighten the belt. Thinking that an anti-Western foreign policy could make him immune from the wave of unrest spreading out of Tunisia, Assad thought such austerity measures could pass lightly. But he whom the gods wish to destroy, they make complacent, and a population that, at best, was marginalised during the boom years was now no longer going to accept the rampant corruption and heavy handedness of the regime's security forces. Public sector pay rises, renewed subsidies, and the lifting of a temporary ban on all non-essential imports, were the panicked response of a regime that couldn't believe what it was seeing. After forty years of complete subservience, reinforced by the terror of 1982 and a massacre in the city of Hama, the Syrian people had broken the fear barrier.
Those people who today worry about the ruination of Syria are lamenting the loss of the vision of Syria that they experienced in the early years of the young Assad's rule. An unspoken pact seemed to govern: that as long as corruption and heavy handed oppression did not get too much out of hand, then the legitimacy of Assad could remain unquestioned. But those people who gave him their support, and might continue to do so, were not the same people who suffered economically under the wanton liberalisation of Syria's economy, and were not the people who suffered the most under the heavy handed security services, or the degradation which is called Syrian military service, where young men who are supposed to be serving their country, become unpaid serfs to their commanding officers during their period of service. The remnants of Assad's populism rests with these people, 'encouraged' by his diehard supporters who are now approaching mass hysteria as the net tightens around their precious regime. The intolerable stupidity that is portrayed by the regime's media outlets is directed to this segment of the population, and not to the international community, or to Syrians that have already seen the regime for what it is. The question remains how quickly more Syrians can be made to recognise this truth, now that the mask has been removed.