February 23, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 670

In Syria, Regime Squelches All Attempts at Protest

February 23, 2011 | By N. Mozes*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 670


The wave of protests sweeping through the Arab world has not passed Syria by, but has sparked some demonstrations and attempts to organize large-scale protests. However, in contrast to the regimes of other Arab countries, the Syrian regime has so far managed to suppress the protest, and has in fact used the Middle East crisis to strengthen its position both inside and outside the country. The regime's firm grip is maintained through a years-long policy of attacking and squelching any opposition forces, which has been tightened even further in the recent weeks; a nearly absolute control of the media and the maintaining of media obscurity regarding events in the country; widespread deployment of the security forces and the harnessing of popular forces; and recent measures aimed at easing economic distress through financial benefits that severely stretch the national budget.

This report will review the regime's response to the Egypt events and to the awakening of the Syrian opposition.

Syria: The Egyptian Uprising Was Motivated by the Regime's Foreign Policy; No Motivation for Protests in Syria

The popular uprising in Egypt afforded Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad an opportunity to sideswipe Hosni Mubarak, his chief rival for the leadership of the Arab world, and at the same time to demonstrate the stability of his own regime. The main thrust of Syria's response to the protests has been to downplay the importance of economic distress and the demand for freedom as motivations for the uprising – aspects that are just as relevant in Syria – and to highlight Mubarak's cooperation with Israel and the U.S. against the resistance camp. This was depicted as the main reason for the people's dissatisfaction, even though it was not, in fact, one of the issues in the Egyptian protests. The Syrian regime thus wishes to convey the message, to its people and to other countries, that despite Syria's economic problems, the Syrian people have no cause to rebel, because their regime – unlike the Mubarak regime – faithfully represents their views and aspirations.

In a January 31 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Assad expressed confidence in the stability of his regime, which, he said, represented the national stance of the people.[1] Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem took a similar tack when he described the events in Egypt as "a revolution of the youth that is not about hunger or unemployment, but about the demand that Egypt play its role in the Middle East without [relying on] foreign intervention that has gravely harmed Egypt and continues to harm it."[2]

The Syrian government and non-government press openly supported the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and did not hide its satisfaction over the ousting of presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali. The Al-Watan daily, which is close to the regime, followed its usual custom of spearheading the anti-Mubarak campaign.[3] Assad's political advisor, Buthayna Sha'ban, wrote in her weekly column in the government daily Teshreen: "The real reasons for the rage [of the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia] are complex, and cannot be reduced to [problems of] unemployment and livelihood. The Tunisian [citizen] Bu'aziz, who lit the fuse of the mass uprising in Tunisia, worked as a street vendor for years after completing his university studies, until [one day] the humiliation and indignity inflicted upon him by the forces of oppression drove him to despair and prompted him to set himself on fire... All the analyses and the official American responses focused on rising prices, poverty, unemployment and corruption. Not a single American official mentioned the connection [between the uprising] and the humiliating wars that have enraged the [Arab] masses over and over again...

"It is not difficult to identify [each of the] sensitive junctures at which the mounting rage of the Arabs rose by another notch, especially the sense of humiliation and helplessness felt by millions of young people at the incompetence and silence of their governments in the face of the disasters in Iraq, Palestine and Gaza. The decision makers in the U.S. and the West ignored these feelings, out of their desire to humiliate the Arabs, trusting the ability of the government apparatuses to suppress the voice of the masses demanding Arab solidarity."[4]

Former Lebanese MP Nasser Qandil, who is close to the Syrian regime, wrote in a similar vein. In an article titled "Only Arabism Can Protect [Us]," he stated: "A regime [like the Syrian regime], that coats itself in the armor of Arabism and places Palestine at the top of its agenda, is truly in tune with its public. It will not be surprised by events, and the peoples will not abandon it. The [Egyptian leaders] lost their wisdom – unlike the peoples – when they abandoned Palestine that served them as a shield, and renounced their Arabism, which is now renouncing them."[5]

Before Mubarak's resignation, numerous Syrian articles encouraged the Egyptians to continue their uprising until he stepped down. For example, columnist Ziad Abu Shawish wrote: "...[Mubarak] extended Israel and the U.S. the greatest service, and, through oppression and dictatorship, forced his people to maintain excellent relations with them, [though] the majority of Egyptians are opposed to these relations. He was the meekest of Arab presidents in his obedience to the U.S. and its economic dictates. Egypt will not be able to restore its Arab, regional and international role, and the goals of the revolution will not be achieved, as long as Mubarak and his gang remain in power..."[6]

The Al-Watan daily called for a complete political overhaul in Egypt, urging to amend the constitutional articles dealing with presidential and parliamentary elections, grant freedom of speech, allow the establishment of political parties, revoke the emergency law, limit the president's term in office, abolish hereditary rule, and sever Egypt's ties to U.S. policy.[7] The daily ignored the fact that most of these demands are similar to the demands presented to the Syrian regime by its opposition.

Several days after the outbreak of the Egyptian protests, Al-Watan columnist 'Issa Al-Ayyoubi announced the dawning of the "post-Mubarak era": "Egypt is [already] living in the post-Mubarak era in terms of its popular, social and political [situation]... and also in regional and international terms... The calls of [Arab leaders] to maintain Egypt's security and stability do not necessarily mean that Hosni Mubarak is the guarantee for this security and stability... If he were, the events [we are witnessing] in Cairo and in [other Egyptian] cities would not be taking place... The statements of European officials and the U.S. administration should not be construed as continued support for Mubarak's rule, but as preparing the ground for the coming [era]..."[8]

The U.S. – An Ingrate and a Traitor

The Syrian press did not mince words in its criticism of the U.S. and the Western reaction to the events in Egypt. The main criticisms were that by abandoning Mubarak, its longstanding and most loyal ally, the U.S. had once again proven itself untrustworthy, and also that America's claim to be the defender of liberty and democracy was mere pretense, since it had supported Mubarak's dictatorship for 30 years.

'Issam Dari, columnist for the daily Al-Watan, wrote: "... [The U.S.'s threat to freeze economic aid to Egypt was an act of] ingratitude toward a regime that for 30 years had carried out its orders without hesitating, griping, or questioning their benefit... Would the Egyptian president not be justified in repeating the famous words of Rome's Julius Caesar, when his closest [friend] stabbed him in the back – 'Et tu Brute?'...

"Throughout last week's events in the Egyptian street, the American administration seemed to be sitting on the fence, waiting to see who would emerge victorious so it could declare its support for the victor and exploit him most effectively, as it has been doing in Egypt for the past three decades... The American administrations [have always] abandoned every ally, even those who were important to them, when their time ran out, and immediately began to court the next candidate for head of state, in order to turn him into an ally to carry out their wishes... The U.S. does not defend its allies in their hour of need and during the 'days of rage' [held by] the people. All it does [at such times] is look for another ally..."[9]

Teshreen columnist 'Izz Al-Din Darwish warned the readers not to be fooled by U.S. President Barack Obama's calls for Mubarak's resignation, since the U.S. "is surreptitiously and openly, from all directions and by every means, trying to contain the events [in Egypt]... It must be taken into consideration that what the Americans, including President Obama, are saying about Egypt and the popular uprising [there] is not the same as what they are thinking, or what they doing clandestinely to immediately achieve [their aims]..."[10]

Writing in the daily Al-Watan, columnist 'Issa Al-Ayyoubi wrote: "The West's concern does not stem from its awareness of the [situation in Egypt] – the oppression, the [lack of] social justice, the corruption and the lack of democracy. They have [long] been aware of the deteriorating situation, and have absorbed millions of Egyptians who fled the poverty in their own country. The [West's] main concern, as indicated by its statements, is for Israel's security... They are not concerned over the extremists rising to power [either], since they know that involving religious leaders in politics was Mubarak's own strategy, aimed at consolidating his regime... All the manifestations of religious extremism [in Egypt] are the product of this policy of corruption, oppression, and cronyism, and of exploiting the religious institutions for the regime's benefit... The problem that worries the West is not just that Israel has lost its most effective security barrier [i.e., Mubarak's Egypt]... but [the fact that] this development heralds the [imminent] fall of other leaders who guaranteed Israel's military, political, and economic security. [Now this country] will once again be besieged from all directions other than the Mediterranean sea..."

However, Al-Ayyoubi stressed that the ouster of Mubarak "does not mean that the [West's] interests will be endangered, but [only] that it will have to forge a new worldview. The West and its intelligentsia have enough time to thoroughly assess [the situation, and to understand]... that the peoples of the region are not hostile. The imposing of rulers upon them – that is what provokes their hostility..."[11]

The Egyptian Revolution – A Victory for the Resistance Camp that Should Worry the West

The success of the Egyptian people in ousting president Mubarak following 18 days of mass demonstrations was depicted in the Syrian press as a victory for the resistance camp. Samira Al-Masalma, editor of the government daily Teshreen, wrote: "Yesterday was the greatest turning point in the life of the [Arab] nation, not just in Egypt, but in the Arab homeland as a whole... The new Egyptian revolution proved that no one can change the pan-Arab identity and the Arab character of Egypt... which was taken from us and held hostage for 35 years... No one, no matter how powerful, can place Egypt in the ranks of those who are opposed to Arabness, to resistance, and to the national and pan-Arab values..."[12]

In the same daily, Nasser Qandil wrote, "At the very least, the [Egyptian] revolution has managed to turn Egypt, formerly a cause of concern for the forces of resistance, into a factor that should worry the true axis of evil in the region – [namely the axis] run by Israel, and behind it the U.S."[13]

Columnist Ziad Abu Shawish did not hide his joy over the ouster of Mubarak, and wrote: "It is only fair that a despotic regime like the one run by Mubarak for 30 years should end this way... From now on, the Arab citizen will be proud to belong to the [Arab] nation that created revolutions like those in Egypt and Tunisia... The celebrations of the Arab citizens from the Mediterranean Sea to the [Persian] Gulf prove just how much our Arab nation has been yearning for the revival of some of our dreams, which have been abandoned by the rulers of humiliation and subjugation..."[14]

In addition to joy over the fall of Mubarak's regime, writers in the Syrian press voiced concern that the ramifications of his ouster would only affect Egypt's domestic policy and not its foreign policy. After the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, which assumed control of the country after Mubaraks' resignation, issued its fourth statement, according to which Egypt would continue to honor its international agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel, Al-Watan editor Waddah 'Abd Rabbo wrote: "[This statement aims to] hint to the world that what has happened in Egypt is not a revolution, but an intifada that reflects the people's anger over its regime's economic and social policy... The military has yet to act on the demands of the people, and it was unjustifiably quick in assuring Tel Aviv, Washington, and everyone [else] who expressed concern for Israel's security and safety." 'Abd Rabbo called on the Egyptian people to remain in Al-Tahrir Square "until all demands are met, not only [the demand] to replace Mubarak, but [the demand to replace] the entire [Mubarak] regime, which is committed to foreign [powers] and is incapable of realizing the economic and political aspirations of the people... We must be wary of those lying in wait for the revolution who aim to hijack it in hopes of turning it into a short-lived intifada..."[15]

Calls for Syrian "Day of Rage" Go Unanswered

The Tunisia and Egypt uprisings, and the wave of protest that has swept through the Arab world, pumped new blood into the veins of Syria's opposition movement. The outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood called on the Syrian people to take a stand against the oppression and poverty they were suffering at the hands of the regime.[16] The Syrian Democratic League called for a general strike and for civil disobedience against the authorities.[17] Forty Syrian academics and activists, including Michel Kilo, a key figure in the opposition organization Damascus Declaration, published a statement supporting the "Tunisian revolution" and the "Egyptian intifada" and calling to participate in a rally outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus on January 29 in solidarity with those injured and killed in the course of the Egyptian uprising.[18] In Damascus, several dozen people demonstrated in support of the Egyptian protesters and against the Syrian regime.[19] Calls also appeared on the social networks calling for a "day of rage" against the Syrian regime to be held February 5 inside Syria and outside Syrian embassies worldwide.[20] Additionally, in a rare show of spontaneous protest, an unplanned demonstration broke in central Damascus on February 17, following an incident of police brutality against a Syrian youth.[21]

In anticipation of the "day of rage," Ahmad Hana, who identified himself as "a Syrian citizen," wrote an open letter to President Assad that appeared on a number of opposition websites and in several Arab newspapers, including the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi. In the letter, he harshly criticized the Syrian regime's oppression of the people, stating: "...In your inauguration speech, you admitted that there were many problems, said you had no magic wand, and promised to respect the opinions of others. Then came the crisis of Al-Hariri's assassination, and the intelligence [apparatus] bared its teeth: activists were arrested, journalists were summoned by the security apparatuses to sign renunciations and [commitments] to keep silent...

"I do not understand the reason for the arrest of high school student Tal Al-Mallouhi.[22] If she conspired against the Syrian nation, then prosecute her openly. The Syrian people is patriotic and does not forgive treason, and I myself will cast the first stone at her [if she is proven guilty]. I [also] do not understand how Haitham Al-Maleh, the eldest of Syria's jurists, could possibly [be guilty of] weakening 'the spirit of the nation'.[23] Mr. President, is our nation so weak that expressing one's opinion on television can harm it, or does the intelligence [apparatus simply] desire a nation of mute slaves?!

"Mr. President, what is the definition of a traitor? Is it [only] someone who conspires with foreign [elements], or should treason be defined more broadly to include... forging elections and humiliating people, as if they were [living] under occupation?... Mr. President, I do not know how much money was spent on the referendum [you held], in which you won by a percentage only Allah could achieve, and which your press claims was a clean process... [The referendum] was held during middle school exams, and our children suffered from our joy over your victory over yourself...

"Mr. President, I have no aspirations for party laws and modern media laws to be legislated, for political prisoners to be released, or for the families of missing persons to be allowed to bury their dead. All I am asking for is one day in which we will be allowed to call for 'liberty, rights, and justice' in the streets of Syria...

"Mr. President, your position is usually described as pan-Arab, and perhaps it is, but I saw the aid ships to Gaza set sail from Istanbul, not from Syria. [By the way,] are we allowed to volunteer for these ships, or do we need a special permit?..."[24]

Rami Qassab, a doctoral student studying in Paris who described himself as a supporter of Assad, rejected the Syrian regime's claim that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings had been motivated by the regimes' foreign policy, and called on Assad to loosen his grip on the Syrian people if he wanted to remain in power: "...The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were both social in character. [The people] were protesting against [their] dire material situation... or [against the lack] of liberties and the absence of true opportunities for freedom of expression... [They] did not focus in particular on the Tunisian regime's collaboration [with the West] and on its positions that were hostile to the [Arab] nation, or on President Hosni Mubarak's unlimited collaboration [with the West]... It is entirely clear that the protestors in Al-Tahrir Square are talking about livelihood, the emergency law, the suppression of liberties, the forged parliamentary [elections], the political arrests, the cost of living, and the iron fist of the security apparatuses...

"A refusal to collaborate [with the West], an admirable pan-Arab stance, and support for the resistance – are they a guarantee against a popular uprising?... The situation [in Syria] is not as good as they tell you, nor is it as bad as the enemies of the country want our youth to believe... [In any case,] liberties must be granted, whatever the cost. Indeed, we are all wary of the plots of the Zionists and their agents... but that is no justification [to deny the people liberty]... [Mr. President,] allow the Syrian youth that is educated and [politically] aware to present its [requests]. Allow media that is patriotic but free. Allow there to be [multiple] parties with equal standing. Abolish the emergency law, loosen the [grip] of the security apparatuses on your people, and direct [those apparatuses] toward the corrupt [officials] and the terrorists."[25]

However, as of this writing, the protest in Syria has not gained momentum. The online activity was limited compared to Egypt or Tunisia, and some of the Internet activists live outside Syria. Participation in the rallies in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising was thin, and the rally intended to be held outside the Egyptian Embassy failed to materialize, after the security apparatuses barred some 60 protestors from the area. The attempt to organize a "day of rage" on February 4-5, culminating in a demonstration outside the parliament building in Damascus, failed utterly, with a negligible response both within Syria and abroad, according to reports.

How the Regime Quenched the Protest

Notwithstanding its professed confidence in its stability, the Syrian regime did take certain steps indicative of concern for its future, adopting a carrot and stick approach in combining economic benefits with firm suppression of all signs of protest.

Immediately following the events in Tunisia, the regime took action to ease the situation of Syrian citizens: a social relief fund was established with an annual budget of 10-12 billion Syrian liras, electric subsidies for state workers were increased,[26] a university graduate employment program was approved, and taxes on staple foods were reduced.[27]

At the same time, demonstrations in solidarity with those killed and injured during the Egyptian protests were forcibly dispersed. Suheir Al-Atassi, a prominent Syrian opposition activist who participated in one of the demonstrations, reported that security personnel in civilian clothing burst onto the scene and began attacking the protestors. She herself was beaten during a police interrogation.[28] This policy is apparently aimed at clarifying to Syrian dissidents that the regime will not tolerate any activity that might develop into a wave of protest, including activity that is in line with the regime's own positions. To this end, the regime deployed security units, both undercover and in uniform, throughout Damascus and other key cities, increased the operations of its agents and informants,[29] and carried out preventive arrests of opposition activists. The regime recently allowed some 150 protestors to demonstrate against Libyan leader Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi outside the Libyan embassy in Damascus, under the supervision of hundreds of security personnel, who documented the event.[30]

According to reports, there have been clashes, perhaps even a massacre, in Sidnaya Prison in Damascus, where many political prisoners are incarcerated;[31] also, hundreds of Kurds have been arrested in the Damascus area, and over 180 thousand pro-regime activists have been recruited to assist the security apparatuses in the case of riots.[32] According to an opposition website, high school students in the Al-Mezze neighborhood in Damascus were required to register their email addresses with the security apparatuses.[33]

The regime's concern over a wave of protest against it was also manifest in its handling of the February 17 demonstration in Damascus that broke out over police brutality against a young man. During the demonstration, slogans were heard denouncing the police and the degradation of the Syrian people.[34] In an attempt to suppress the demonstration and prevent it from escalating, as had happened in Tunisia, police officers, as well as the interior minister, rushed to the scene hoping to calm the situation.[35] They promised that the officers responsible for the incident would be prosecuted, and that the authorities would remain loyal to the motto "The Police in the Service of the People."[36] Opposition websites reported that the regime had taken preventative measures at the Damascus University campus, for example by preventing public gatherings on campus, such as public screenings of soccer games.[37]

The regime also used the opposition's main methods of protest and recruitment against it. The daily Al-Watan reported that many Syrians were outraged by the calls for destruction and civil war circulating on Facebook, and had launched Facebook groups of their own in support of the regime. It was further reported that members of these groups had investigated the protest pages to discover that Israeli, Lebanese, or expatriate Syrian elements were behind them. A Syrian and a Lebanese website, both close to the Syrian regime, claimed that anti-Assad activists in Lebanon's March 14 Forces, in collaboration with Syrian oppositionists and the U.S. administration, were responsible for the calls to protest against the regime.[38] The regime, "under pressure from the public," even unblocked websites such as Facebook and YouTube to allow pro-regime Syrians to respond to anti-regime sentiment,[39] while various opposition websites were shut down by regime supporters.

The regime also harnessed the cellular network. According to reports, a mass text message sent out on the network owned by President Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, said, "The peoples are setting themselves on fire to replace their leaders. We will set the world, ourselves, and our children on fire so that President Assad will stay." Also, young people reportedly drove through the streets of Damascus with Syrian flags and pictures of President Assad displayed on their cars.[40]

In addition to accusing the opposition of subversion and collaboration with hostile elements, rallies were held in support of President Assad. On February 15, 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians – according to another report, 300,000 – held a pro-Assad rally outside the Umayyad Mosque, where the regime leaders, headed by President Assad, had attended prayers marking the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. The daily Al-Watan described the event as "a festival of love," in which Syrians had "stressed their love for the president, who did not hesitate to return their love... These pictures [see below] show the real Syria and the real Syrians, and [demonstrate the truth of] what we have been saying for years: that we in Syria are one family that cannot be divided..." The daily asked what other Arab leader, apart from President Assad, dared to venture out into the streets these days.[41]

The government daily Al-Ba'th proclaimed that "while [other] regimes have placed their faith in foreign [powers] and have subjugated themselves [to them], Syria's masses have rushed to confirm the popular legitimacy [of the regime]. While [other] countries suffer from a lack of stability, Syria unites as one..."[42]

SANA (Syria), February 16, 2011

In conclusion, the weak Syrian opposition, which for years has been facing oppression, restriction, and the arrest of its activists, was no match for the powerful regime and the shows of support for it. The opposition organizations, most of which operate from outside the country, have so far failed to rally the support of the masses, possibly as a result of the citizens' fear of openly opposing the regime, in light of the harsh treatment suffered by dissidents in the past.

Thus, though various opposition organizations, headed by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, continue to call for replacing the regime through peaceful means, it would seem that President Assad has succeeded, for now, in suppressing the protest and ensuring the future of his rule.

Najib Al-Ghabban, a Syrian academic and oppositionist living abroad, lamented: "The virtual Syrian rage appeared on Facebook, YouTube, and the other [media] which are forbidden in Assad's Syria... but only once the fear [of the regime] is overcome will the virtual rage become a revolution..."[43]

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], January 31, 2011.

[2] Al-Watan (Syria), February 10, 2011.

[3] See MEMRI Special Dispatch 3117, "Syrian Daily: The Syria-Egypt Media Ceasefire Is Over," July 23, 2010,
Syrian Daily: The Syria-Egypt Media Ceasefire Is Over; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3402, "Syria and Egypt Again Join Battle in Media War," November 29, 2010, Syria and Egypt Again Join Battle in Media War.

[4] Teshreen (Syria), January 31, 2011.

[5] Teshreen (Syria), January 30, 2011.

[6] Al-Watan (Syria), February 6, 2011.

[7] Al-Watan (Syria), January 30, 2011.

[8] Al-Watan (Syria), February 1, 2011.

[9] Teshreen (Syria), February 1, 2011.

[10] Teshreen (Syria), February 8, 2011.

[11] Al-Watan (Syria), February 2, 2011.

[12] Teshreen (Syria), February 12, 2011.

[13] Teshreen (Syria), February 13, 2011.

[14] Al-Watan (Syria), February 13, 2011.

[15] Al-Watan (Syria), February 13, 2011.

[16], January 31, 2011.

[17], February 6, 2011.

[18], January 29, 2011.

[19], January 30, 2011.

[20] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.661, "The Middle East Crisis Part III - Syrian Facebook Pages Calling for Demonstrations on Saturday, February 5, 2011," January 31, 2011, The Middle East Crisis Part III - Syrian Facebook Pages Calling for Demonstrations on Saturday, February 5, 2011.

[21], February 17, 2011.

[22] Tal Al-Mallouhi, a Syrian blogger, was arrested in late 2009 while still in high school, on charges of divulging information to a foreign country. She was recently tried behind closed doors and sentenced to five years' imprisonment.

[23] Haitham Al-Maleh (aged 80), who co-founded Syria's Human Rights Association and served as its head, has been imprisoned since 2009, presumably for appearing on a television channel run by Syrian opposition activists.

[24], February 4, 2011.

[25], February 7, 2011.

[26], January 16, 2011.

[27] Al-Watan (Syria), February 15, 2011, Al-Thawra (Syria), February 16, 2011.

[28], February 8, 2011.

[29] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 7, 2011.

[30], February 22, 2011.

[31], February 22, 2011.

[32], February 21, 2011.

[33], February 21, 2011.

[34] For video footage of the demonstration, see

[35], February 17, 2011.

[36] Al-Watan (Syria), February 20, 2011.

[37], February 18, 2011.

[38] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London),, February 7, 2011.

[39] Al-Watan (Syria), February 3, 2011.

[40] Al-Watan (Syria), February 3, 2011.

[41] Al-Watan (Syria), February 16, 2011.

[42] Al-Ba'th (Syria), February 16, 2011.

[43], February 6, 2011.

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