Syria's hopeless democracy dream


The conflicting stories surrounding the case of Syrian teenager Zainab al-Hosni epitomise the confusion inherent in that country's six-month-old uprising. Seemingly certain at times to topple the Assad regime, and at others, to strengthen it, the situation has reached a point where it is almost impossible to predict the outcome 

Believed to have been tortured and beheaded by the government, the teenager made a surprising appearance on Syrian television late last week. Family confirmed it was indeed al-Hosni although they expressed doubts as to whether the images where captured before or after her alleged killing.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald, have 'sought to score a propaganda coup' with her appearance, where she claimed to have run away from home because of physical abuse at the hands of her brothers. 

Who is telling the truth? Even for those of us with family in Syria, it is virtually impossible to determine what is actually happening. Talking to those inside by telephone can be dangerous, with even Assad supporters conceding phone tapping is widespread and endemic. With travel restricted by roadblocks and safety fears, many turn to state television for news. 

Authorities, aided by a compliant media, have local residents claiming anti-government protestors are 'troublemakers and terrorists' bent on bringing chaos and Islamism to the secular state. Rumours of weapons smuggled in from Salafists groups in Saudi Arabia are rife. Meanwhile, opposition groups accuse authorities of detaining and torturing family members of activists operating from abroad. 

The protests, which two months ago were spread across the country, have largely flagged. However, that's not to say the uprising is quashed, yet. 

Recently, The New York Times reported that the flashpoint city of Homs, in the country's southwest, had descended into a civil war-like state with both sides carrying out 'targeted killings' and 'rival security checkpoints' resulting in a 'hardening of sectarian sentiments'. For Syrians themselves, the prospect of a full-blown civil war comes as no surprise, particularly one starting in Homs.

Homs, in the country's south, is a microcosm of the nation. A Sunni majority town, it is also home to several minority groups including Christians and Alawites.

The latter is the Shia offshoot sect to which Assad and most of his cabinet belong. The animosity between Sunnis and Alawites goes back centuries and has only been exacerbated by the strong-armed rule of the Assad family, beginning in 1970 with Bashar's father, Hafez.

So despised were the Alawites that many Sunnis refused to accept them as true Muslims. With the Syrian constitution mandating that only a Muslim could be president, it took religious decrees by prominent clerics, declaring Alawites part of the Shia creed, to allow the elder Assad to take power. 

Unlike the largely homgoneous populations of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syria is, like Iraq, fiercely sectarian. Under the stifling Assad regime, which allowed no room for dissent, they have managed to live together, perhaps artificially, more or less at peace.

There have been occasional outbreaks of dissent such as the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. The elder Assad's ruthless response left more than 20,000 dead. 

The current regime's increasingly violent response to the protests is fuelling resentment towards the Alawites, who fear reprisals on an unprecedented scale should the revolution succeed. As Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, remarked, they are a 'reviled minority ... and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts'.

Homs is now the scene of midnight gun battles, armed revolutionaries and assassinations, reinforcing fears that a post Assad Syria is more likely to sink into civil war rather than sail into democracy. 

A few months ago, Assad looked to be all but gone. That brought mixed feelings to those of us who dare to dream of a free Middle East, and who had feverently hoped Assad would make good on his promises of reform. 

Those who desire (and are willing to die for) democracy surely deserve democracy. But in a country as sectarian as Syria, the reality may not match the dream. Like neighbouring Iraq which continues to suffer tit for tat attacks, the foreseeable future of Syria, with or without Assad, looks grim.

Ruby TomatoRuby Hamad's family belong to the same Alawite religious minority as the Assad regime, although they are not connected to it in any way. She is a Sydney based freelancer who holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. She is developing several feature film scripts. 

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Syria, Democracy, Zainab al-Hosni


submit a comment

Existing comments

It was interesting to read Ruby's article and get a much more layered view of what is going on in Syria. I taught in Damascus at the British Council for two years and wrote an article for Eureka Street at the time. I've returned several times since, and my last visit was in April this year. Then I heard about the killings of soldiers and security personnel that just haven't been reported with any seriousness in our media, but they are terribly troubling for Syria and Syrians. The brother-in-law of a friend was killed, perhaps because he was an army officer, or maybe because he was Alawi, but he was killed in his car along with his two teenage sons and a nephew. This happened in April in Homs,and unfortunately many similar killings have occurred since then. Today, members of Australians for Syria held a rally outside Amnesty's office in Collingwood. We wanted to get the message to Amnesty that to take sides in this conflict is very dangerous, especially when your sources are often dubious. One point I would like to challenge in Rudy's article is that most of the president's cabinet is Alawi. My sources who follow Syrian politics very closely would contradict that. Most are Sunni. But this talk of 'Sunni' or 'Alawi' or 'Christian' etc. is what is being used to help tear the country apart. As for the comment about Alawis being 'a reviled minority', I don't think that is helpful. It is like saying in the 1950s or 1960s in Australia, the Catholics are a reviled minority or the Protestants never give the Catholics a chance. It sows sectarian tensions. Plus assuming there was some truth to it, it is less and less true; the Syrian people have good cause to be proud of the secular society they have worked very hard to create. As we learned in Australia, it doesn't happen overnight. There are some excellent articles coming out about Syria now, but unfortunately, not in the mainstream press. Chief among these are articles by Alastair Crooke and Jeremy Salt. Their examination of the situation in Syria is excellent, and although Crooke is well-qualified to write on the ME, as is Salt, a respected Australian academic, neither are likely to be published in the mainstream media tomorrow. (I would be happy to provide links to these and other articles which are fair, considered and well-informed.
Susan Dirgham | 14 October 2011

Susan please provide those links. As an avowed democrat convinced that the sectarian path is the way forwards but aware that it takes time and that democracy rarely enjoys an easy birth or growing period ( who does?) I am keen to read balanced views of the position in Syria. Till then long live democracy everywhere! Itss the best thing we've got, the best check on corruption. The Arab uprising was needed because fearful old men refused to cede power. It happens elsewhere as well, esp further south.
peter roebuck | 14 October 2011

Hi Susan,

Thanks very much for your comments. It's nice to hear the perspective of someone who knows Syria. I believe you are quite correct about the makeup of the Syrian cabinet and my reference to it should have read 'much' rather than 'most'. My apologies for that oversight. As to the quote about Alawites being 'reviled', I used that to stress the very real fear that many Alawites have that the downfall of the current regime would spell their demise. My error, my concede, is that I didn't emphasis that many in the Sunni majority harbour no ill feeling towards the Alawites, and indeed towards the other minorities (Christian, Druze and Shia).

There is, however, according to people inside Syria, and many watching from the outside, enough resentment from some sections of the population to ensure that any overthrow of the regime would result in a resurgence of sectarian violence. My aim was not to stir these tensions but to make clear that many minorities in Syria are, in the words of my own aunt who lives there, "terrified" of what a sudden transfer of power would mean.
Ruby Hamad | 15 October 2011

Dear Peter and Ruby,
I value your responses to my comments. I'm happy to provide links to articles which I think give a balanced and informed picture of what is happening in Syria.

1. Jeremy Salt's recent article, "Truth and falsehood in Syria"

2. "Targetting Syria - the bad news for The Guardian" on the Media Lens site

3. There are two articles by Alastair Crooke worth reading.

The Arab Awakening and Syrian Exceptionism

Unfolding the Syrian Paradox

There are others I could recommend, for example an expose on Al-Jazeera and where it has been heading in the last few years. And it is worth checking out the views of the Patriarch of the Maronite Church. He is quite outspoken.

My views are pretty well set out on the Foreign Correspondent facebook page in response to the BBC Panorama documentary they aired last week. I must have added at least 20 comments.

Hope this helps. I am so grateful to see the issue being presented by Eureka Street. Thank you Ruby for going there. BTW, would anyone from Eureka Street like to travel with me on a fact-finding trip to Syria for an updated article? I have been thinking about returning for some months now?

Susan Dirgham | 17 October 2011

Hi Susan, I had actually planned to visit Syria this past June but the situation was so volatile at that time, I decided it was best not to, particularly given my occupation as a writer. I have mixed feelings about my decision now and I would love to go and see firsthand what is happening but fear the regime is more wary than ever of outsiders.
Ruby Hamad | 17 October 2011

Dear Ruby, It's a pity you didn't take the opportunity to travel to Syria in June. I know Syrian Australians who are there now, and some who have very recently returned. I understand the situation is tense and volatile in certain areas, for example Homs, and also it is wise not to travel too much between cities. But things are pretty normal in most places, though I guess that the security that existed before the problems (and which women valued) can no longer be relied upon. It would not be the government I would worry about. It would be the people who are stirring up the civil war through violence that would be my concern. I have met Dr Bouthaina Shaaban a couple of times. You must have heard of her - she is the main government spokesperson, at least to the foreign media. I have a great deal of respect for her. Of course nasty brutal things have happened in Syria, but the situation deserves very careful study. At the moment it seems as though we are at war with the Syrian government, and in war the thinking is that 'you are either with us or against us', the thinking George Bush presented to the world. And if the US is against Syria, Australia automatically is. I am not a Christian but I have had a Christian upbringing, so stories from the Bible still resonate with me. One which comes to mind now is when Jesus told Peter that Peter and the other disciples would forsake him (have I got it right?). Anyway, I think it helps explain to me why so many 'experts' and commentators present lies or half-truths about Syria. It takes a brave person in the public eye or who has a career to consider to cross that line George Bush drew in the sand. Even Amnesty, the ABC, the BBC are on the same side as the neo-cons on this one. Another great article I neglected to mention was from Syria Comment, a blog I stopped going to when it highlighted articles that seem to encourage sectarian tensions. But it is under new management, so I'm hoping it becomes more balanced and reasonable. This article is "The Arab Spring and the decay of the secular state in Syria." I would be very happy to introduce you to Syrian Australians recently arrived from Syria if you like?
Susan Dirgham | 18 October 2011

Yes, I do wish I had been a bit braver. Although it would have been impossible for me to do what I had originally planned and that was to travel around Syria by road. And actually, yes, I plan on writing some more about Syria and would love to get in touch with some people who have been there in recent months. Thanks Susan.
Ruby Hamad | 18 October 2011

Hi Ruby,
I would be happy to put you in touch with people who have recently returned. I hope their stories can be told.
Susan Dirgham | 27 October 2011

Similar Articles

'Perverted' Sharia slaps artistic freedom

  • Ellena Savage
  • 14 October 2011

Marzieh Vafamehr, the Iranian actor awaiting corporal punishment in Iran for acting in a subversive Australian film, is the victim of a legal system that has abandoned any pretence to public interest. I'm drawn to this case as I, too, am a young woman forging my own way in the arts.


Bolt case a win for free speech

  • Dilan Thampapillai
  • 14 October 2011

Paradoxically, the Andrew Bolt case has advanced each of the three rationales that typically support free speech. A democracy cannot flourish when some members of the community are free to say what they want while others are forced to speak from the margins of society.