On February 7, I published a piece in the Guardian that answered the question, Will Syria be next? That is, would Syria be the next Arab country to witness a popular uprising after Tunisia and Egypt? My answer was, no. The ground was not ready due to the complexity of the Syrian situation, I argued, though Syria was ripe for serious preparations to take place in order to ensure that it would have its turn down the road.
Since then, in the last month, a variety of Facebook pages and groups emerged, established by in-country activists, and serious conversations regarding messaging and tactics began taking place. March 15 was eventually agreed on to be the date for the start of the revolution. And this time it happened. Simultaneous demonstrations took place in Aleppo, Hama, Deraa, Qamishly, Hassakeh Deir Al-Zor, and other Syrian cities. Although, the major demonstrations, with thousands of protesters taking part, resulting in clashes with local authorities, seem to have taken place in these cities, it was the small demonstration in Damascus, the bastion of the Assads, that got most of the attention and had the greatest symbolic value. Over 1,000 security officers took part in breaking the morning's demonstration in Damascus of around 200 activists. The security officers’ tactic? They started by begging the protesters to stop, because the protesters were making the world “gloat.” Indeed, the mere insistence on chanting, “We sacrifice our blood and soul for you Syria,” rather than chants in praise of “Bashar,” came as a major shock to the system.
Syrian officials were not exactly unaware of what was being planned, since a massive text-messaging campaign took place the day before yesterday’s protests. The semi-official newspaper Al-Watan claimed that the Israeli army was behind the campaign, in a laughable attempt to delegitimize the protests. More importantly, there are now rumors that Syrian authorities are contacting media offices in the country and asking them to refrain from publishing anything on the developments for at least 6 hours, perhaps in the hope of containing the situation by this time.
But with reports that an even larger demonstration is planned for today, with an open sit-in near the Ministry of Interior, and with reports pouring from Deraa, Aleppo and Deir Al-Zor of clashes with security officers that are forcing communications to be shut down and trying to impose a curfew, events seem to be moving too fast and to be far bigger than to be contained quickly, or ever. Syrian officials will be counting on the willful blindness of some quarters to buy time to contain the situation. People who care about freedom should do their best to keep light shed on the current situation. The fact that an anti-western regime is now the target of popular unrest, just like the so-called moderate ones, serves to emphasize the fact that the current turmoil is primarily about freedom, accountability, and living standards. Should the Assad regime fall, as small as Syria is, this would be a momentous event, due to its centrality in the region, and the space it has in the consciousness of so many Arabs.
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian opposition figure in exile.