Despite History of Stability, Turmoil Reaches Syria

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Despite History of Stability, Turmoil Reaches Syria


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


DAMASCUS, SYRIA * Up until a few weeks ago, it seemed as if the turmoil going on in other parts of the Arab world might pass Syria by. When I arrived for a weeklong visit, Syria was still quiet. When I asked Syrians what they thought of the upheaval occurring in other countries in the region and whether it might come to Syria, people shook their heads and said no. "The situation is different in Syria," they told me.

And then, in a matter of days, things changed.

Arrests of teenagers scribbling antigovernment graffiti on a wall in Daraa sparked a protest movement that began drawing hundreds, even thousands, of demonstrators in several Syrian cities.

"He should get rid of all of his family," a storekeeper said of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad. "Because the people love him but not his family, who have been stealing from this country."

Damascus is a city that works late. People still throng the souks of Old Damascus at 8 or 8:30 at night. On my last evening in Damascus, a storekeeper was watching scenes of protest from the southern Syrian city of Daraa on television when I walked in from the dark street outside.

"It's like the fashion in the Arab world now, so we should have a taste of it too," he said when I asked him about the clashes shown on TV. "This is something new for us here. Syria has been quiet for 41 years."

In 1970, Hafez al-Assad came to power, ushering in a period of stability despite, or maybe because of, his repressive rule and Syria's volatile mix of religions and ethnicities. "Every fifth Syrian is a schismatic," Martha Neff Kessler, an analyst for the CIA for 30 years and the author of Syria: Fragile Mosaic of Power, said half-jokingly of the religious diversity found in Syria.

About 74 percent Sunni Muslim, the population also includes Shiites, Alawites, Druze and Christians. The latter constitutes about 10 percent of Syria's 21 million people and ranges from Greek and Syrian Orthodox to Maronites, Greek Catholics, Melkites, Armenian Catholics, Syrian Catholics, members of the Armenian Apostolic church and the Assyrian church, and others. Most Syrians are Arabs, but Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians, Armenians and, since the war in Iraq, more than 1 million Iraqi refugees also live in Syria.

The refugees are a walking lesson in what could happen if Syria, like Iraq, were to fracture along sectarian lines.

"The question of civil war weighs on the Syrian mind far more than it does on those in Egypt and Tunisia," said Murhaf Jouejati, a native of Syria and a professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He contrasted the homogenous societies of Egypt and Tunisia with the heterogeneous nature of Syrian society.

"They've had to develop policies to knit these groups together, and I think they've done a pretty good job of it," Kessler said of the Syrian government. "It all goes back to Baathism. Baathism has a terrible reputation in this country, but if you read the Syrian constitution it sounds much like our own. ... The government has used Baathism to encourage people to move out of their tribal, ethnic and religious identities."

Despite inevitable tensions, Syrians seem proud of the religious pluralism and tolerance of their society. "The church ringing the bells as the imam is calling the Muslims to prayer--that is Syria," one man said to me. A French religious who has lived in Damascus for 16 years said Syria is the best place for Christians to live in the Middle East.

Bashar al-Assad took over the presidency from his father after Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000. Trained as an ophthalmologist, Bashar was not expected to succeed his father, but after his brother Basil's death in a car accident in 1994, he became the new heir apparent. For 30 years, Hafez al-Assad ruled the country with an iron grip. The secular government he presided over relied for support on an alliance of religious minorities, the Alawites and the Christians, backed by a prosperous Sunni merchant class. …

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