Middle East

Syria protests: The forgotten decades of dissent

Syrians protest in Damascus on 25 March
Image caption Demonstrations have been held in Damascus and at least five other cities this month

It has been decades since mass demonstrations have been seen in Syria, but the country has a rich history of revolt - and of repression.

It is 41 years since the Corrective Revolution put Hafez al-Assad - father of current President Bashar al-Assad - firmly in control of Syria.

In that time, the Baathist regime has faced few challenges to its authority in the form of popular protests.

Fierce repression, combined with promises of change, has largely kept Syrian dissent safely contained to intellectual discussion groups, and more recently on the internet.

Syrian politics was not always like this however.

From the 1940s to the early 1960s the Syrian political landscape was shaped by a lively array of competing forces.

The army played a crucial role in events: there were three military coups in 1949 alone, followed by another in 1954, in addition to the Baathist-led coups of 1963 and 1966.

However, popular politics was just as important, with street demonstrations and strikes common forms of protest.

Regime toppled

The army in fact became increasingly politicised, as young officers became influenced by the communists and the Baathists calling for radical change: Soviet-style socialism on the one hand, or an Arab version on the other.

The events of 1953-4 which culminated in the overthrow the military regime of President Adib Shishakli underline how discontent in the provinces can work its way back to the political centre with disastrous consequences for a repressive regime.

In response to the circulation of anti-government leaflets, Gen Shishakli ordered the army into the Jabal Druze area of southern Syria and arrested Druze leaders.

Protesters were killed by the troops, sparking further demonstrations.

Meanwhile student strikes and demonstrations in Aleppo and other northern and central cities were also met with repression.

A clampdown at the end of January 1954 appeared successful, only for Gen Shishakli to be overthrown a month later in a mutiny which began in Aleppo.

Unusually for Syria, the leaders of the coup handed back power to civilians, allowing free elections to be held a few months later.

Hama massacre

The last sustained period of civil unrest against the Assad regime in the 1970s had a much bloodier outcome.

Syria's intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 against leftist and Palestinian factions was followed by a period of widespread protests and agitation for democratic reforms and the rule of law led by secular activists.

Image caption The late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad used brutal force to crush dissent

Meanwhile underground Islamist opposition groups were involved in violent attacks on regime officials and supporters and a bombing campaign.

The final showdown came in 1982, with an uprising in the town of Hama which was brutally crushed by the army leaving probably more than 10,000 dead and much of the town in ruins.

The memories of Hama, coupled with the repression of liberal and leftist opposition networks, meant that it was nearly 20 years before widespread dissent became public again.

'Damascus Spring'

In 2000, following the death of Hafez al-Assad, intellectual critics of the regime led a resurgence of opposition activity known as the Damascus Spring.

Although this was a flowering of intellectual discussion, rather than a protest movement, it led to a rebirth of political activism among a layer of intellectuals and professionals, some of whom have continued to press for political reform until today.

One such figure is Suhair al-Atassi, who founded the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a discussion group named after her father, a politician and long-time critic of the government.

The forum was closed down by the authorities in 2005, but Ms Atassi recently relaunched it as an internet-based discussion group.

She was also very active in the online campaign in support of Tal al-Mallouhi, a young woman blogger currently in prison.

The uprisings in Egypt and Libya prompted Ms Atassi and fellow human rights activists to attempt to organise small scale public protests.

"All they were doing was holding candles in front of the embassy," says Mounir Atassi, a family friend.

The activists were attacked by the police and then on 16 March, Suhair al-Atassi was arrested during a demonstration called by the relatives of political prisoners.

Within days of her arrest, events in Deraa had ignited further protests and started a cycle of repression and revolt which has the potential to radicalise wide layers of Syrians.

Mounir Atassi stresses that Suhair and other human rights activists have been calling for reform, not revolution for years.

But the killing of protesters by the authorities is making people start to question the regime directly, he says.

"Now there are more and more sounds of people calling for complete change and no-one can estimate how far these demands will go.

He says mere talk of reforms by government officials is not enough to placate the Syrian people.

"What they hear in the media is completely different to what they see on the ground. That is why they don't believe the promises of the government that it will reform itself."

Anne Alexander is a Buckley Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge.

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