Double Blow for Syrian Regime
Intellectuals give impetus to uprising as regime's policy of mass arrests fails to deter protesters.
By Zoe Holman - The Arab Spring
Arab Spring Issue 23,
20 Jul 11
The arrest of leading public figures at a demonstration in Damascus last week has bolstered the opposition by challenging the regime claim that protests are the work of Islamists and thugs, a leading Syrian human rights activist has said.
The unprecedented arrests of artists and intellectuals comes as commentators speak of the ineffectiveness of the regime's "revolving door" policy of detaining people en masse for short periods of time as a means of scaring them off further protest.
One analyst told IWPR that people are more willing to come out onto thestreets because they calculate that the risk of being killed is relatively small while if they're arrested they may only spend a few days in prison before being released to make way for another protester.
In the largest mass action seen during the uprising to date, a million people reportedly took part in nationwide protests on July 15. Human rights groups reported that 32 people were killed, most of them in the capital.
It followed a crackdown on a group of artists, intellectuals and 7,000 activists who turned out on July 13 in Damascus to express their opposition to the regime - believed to be the first time significant numbers of notable public figures have taken part in protests.
The streets of the capital have hitherto remained relatively quiet and the decision by leading lights in Syrian society to join demonstrators appears to be a major blow to the credibility of the regime.
"This is a huge challenge to the regime's argument that the uprising is all thugs and Islamists," Radwan Ziadeh, an exiled opposition member and head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, said, speaking from an opposition conference in Turkey.
"The situation on the ground is moving quickly and these public figures realised that their silence was buying the regime more time, so they decided to risk their lives by joining the protests."
Amongst those who participated in the demonstration by artists and intellectuals was the acclaimed actress Mai Skaf who is reported to have yelled "I am more Syrian than all of you", as she was dragged away by police.
"When you have an actress facing live ammunition to struggle for freedom and dignity, it does a lot to restore public trust in the opposition and gives ordinary people courage to come out," Ziadeh said.
Meanwhile, Syrian opposition members meeting in Turkey on July 16 urged activists in Syria to step up their campaign of civil disobedience to force President Bashar al-Assad from power.
And despite its violent attempts to deter protesters, the regime appears to be coming under strain by the increased momentum of the uprising.
A jailed activist who was freed earlier this month told IWPR that inmates were being released on bail due to a lack of space in the country's prisons.
"They are trying to make room for new political prisoners," explained the activist, who asked to remain anonymous. "They are arresting everyone and there are new prisoners every day. They are just trying to frighten us but we are more defiant."
Malath Aumran, a human rights activist who fled to Lebanon after being detained earlier this year, says a so-called revolving door policy of arresting people en masse has been in place now for several months.
"The prisoners are randomly arrested and stay in there for a few days or months before they are released again in exchange for more people," Aumran said.
"This is the same strategy they used in Iran. The regime wants to intimidate us by arresting or torturing people and then sending them into the community to scare people with a message about what they are willing to do."
Human rights groups estimate that this policy has seen around 60,000 Syrians detained since the uprisings began, but events suggest that the tactic is doing little to deter opposition.
"It is clear that it is absolutely not working," Aumran said. "After four months of [the uprising], this [ploy] will not stop further protest - and even with heavy security in places like Hama, people have continued to come out."
Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says people are beginning to lose their fear of the regime.
"The president.appears to be hesitating, torn between a bloody crackdown and hoping the protests will run themselves out and he can stay in power," he said.
"People can smell his fear and are making calculations that the likelihood of getting killed amongst tens of thousands of protesters is far smaller. Bashar does not want to be his father[the former president Hafez al-Assad], and your average young Syrian man will be emboldened if he thinks he might just get thrown in jail for a few days. The numbers game has changed."
Zoe Holman is a regular IWPR contributor.