The people’s intifada in Syria, against the military regime and police state of the Assad family, took me by surprise. I was fearful at first that the regime would crush it almost instantly, given its legendary ferocity and repressiveness. Like other Syrian intellectuals, I felt total impotence before this devouring monster, which precluded any thought of an imminent, or even possible, collective “no.”
I was surprised by the revolution, but I should not have been. Daily experiences and recurrent observations foretold a crisis that many Syrians tried hard to deny. And deny we did. Let me explain.
After the violent suppression of the Damascus Spring in 2001–2002 and again after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, angst spread throughout Syria. I was working in Damascus, where the trepidation was especially pronounced. The country, it seemed, was teetering on the edge of an abyss.
But life flowed routinely on the surface. Talking about the situation publicly was out of the question. Even hinting at it was dangerous. When someone did speak up, others quickly changed the subject. A conspiracy of silence was the order of the day.
This period marked a palpable deterioration in relations among Syrians. Sectarian lines hardened, undermining long-standing friendships, harmony among colleagues, and the daily interactions of citizens. Even our way of joking changed.
Like many in Damascus, I found myself beginning, almost unconsciously, to weigh every word according to the religious affiliations of passing acquaintances and close friends alike. Social engagements lost spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated, and offense was taken more quickly than ever before. An unusual dose of suspicion seeped into the Syrian intelligentsia’s traditional solidarity against oppression.
By 2009–2010, it was impossible to go about the day without repeatedly hearing from working people expressions such as, “All it needs is a match to ignite,” “It needs a spark to flare up,” and “All it needs is a fire-cracker to explode.”
More educated Syrians, particularly intellectuals, had their own favorite metaphors. Mine was a pressure cooker, where the heat is mounting and the safety valves have been destroyed. Yasine Haj Saleh, a former political prisoner and the most prominent underground commentator and critic on behalf of the revolution, as well as a fine writer of prison literature, warned that if the people did not quickly find a way of letting their “Syrianness” prevail, the country would be in for the worst. The cartoonist Ali Ferzat said in a 2007 Newsweek interview, “Either reform or le deluge.” In 2011 Ferzat was assaulted by regime thugs and left for dead on the side of the road, but he survived.
A prominent colleague and friend in the philosophy department emphasized the inevitability of a civil war because the worst had already happened: the antagonistic Sunni-Alawi divide in Syrian society is a fait accompli, he told me. War was preordained.
Others maintained that one thing could be said for the regime: it alone was holding Syrians back from massacring each other.
Had you asked me what would happen if the tsunami that started in Tunisia reached Syria, I would have answered: the Sunni of Hama would sharpen their knives and pour out into the neighboring Alawi villages to take revenge for the rape and destruction of their city by Assad’s storm troopers in 1982.
But sectarian slaughter did not come to pass. Instead, the unthinkable happened: a people’s revolution against the regime.