Sunday, March 19, 2006

Anti-US Demonstration Turns Anti-Regime

This report of a demonstration in down town Damascus was sent to me by a friend, who didn't want his name used. He included good photos, but I cannot upload them, alas.

A Glimpse Beneath the Surface:
An Anti-US Gathering Displays an Anti-Regime Flavor

A peaceful anti-American protest organized by the Syrian Communist Party turned messy on Saturday, February 18, as the crowd turned against government forces and shouted against the Bath Party. Some 200 day laborers and farmers from the city as well as the country’s interior, school-aged children, and even Muslim women gathered at 3:00 PM in front of the Communist headquarters near the upscale Shahbandar Square neighborhood in central Damascus, repeating slogans aimed at the US occupation of Iraq and displaying signs in support of the “glorious” Iraqi insurgency. A heavy uniformed police and plainclothes secret police presence watched quietly and approvingly along the sidelines for some two hours of protesting.

At 5:00, the situation changed abruptly with the lightning quick arrest of a small group of participants, who were shoved into the back of the Syrian intelligence forces' trademark white Peugeots. Immediately, some older women (perhaps relatives of the arrested) began weeping and confronted the uniformed policemen, shouting at them. Minutes later, more Peugeots rushed onto the scene as plainclothes men with machine guns rushed out to try and disperse the angry crowd. Some time between the two waves of car arrivals, police fired a round into the air and some of the assembled screamed in shock.

The situation quickly escalated as two separate groups of young- and middle-aged men and women began fist-fighting with policemen. Perhaps most shockingly for those accustomed to the carefully-choreographed nature of political protest in Damascus, the crowd then began jumping and shouting in unison for 10 minutes until they were physically stopped: “It’s our party [the Communists]! It’s our party! We want jobs! We dare you to stop us!” Within moments, neighborhood onlookers and protest participants were text messaging others on their cellular phones; nervous plainclothes agents confiscated some phones and took this narrator's digital camera memory card.

By 5:20 the city block was sealed off by dozens of red transit police cars and even more police and intelligence officers who would not let anybody in or out of the neighborhood. By coincidence or design, electricity for the block went off for a half an hour henceforth. Until approximately 10:00 that evening there remained scores of heavily armed plainclothes forces crawling around the residential neighborhood – behind bushes, in apartment complex stairwells, and in the middle of the street. By 10:30 things were back to normal and the only sign that a struggle had occurred was a solitary damaged storefront.

The incident sheds light on the regime’s ability to rapidly capture key “troublemakers,” calm the scene (although perhaps with mixed success on this occasion), and, most importantly, contain the situation from spreading. People as close as a block away would not have been able to know what occurred – all they would have been able to see was a cordon of police vehicles, not an uncommon sight in the city. The incident will never be reported in the media outlets from which ordinary Syrians receive their news. The stealth of the government's response to a small-scale expression of outrage at arbitrary arrests will likely have a severe chilling effect on the word-of-mouth that might normally help spread news of such an occurrence.

Gatherings with an anti-regime flavor are not unheard of in the interior regions of the country, especially the restive, Kurdish-dominated northeast, and the Iraqi-leaning eastern border, where most of the Syrian contribution to the Iraqi insurgency are reputed to have hailed from. Such overt acts of resistance in the face of regime forces are far rarer in the ritzy heart of the capital. The only political activity the neighborhood had witnessed in the past six months was a carefully-managed anti-US/UN rally in October and the recent burning of the Danish embassy not far away. The Communist Party, originally founded by a Kurd, is one of a handful of parties that are allowed to exist in a system that is constitutionally-dominated by the Ba’th Party. Because it draws most of its support from the workers and farmers, the presence of dozens of covered Muslim women active in the crowd was surprising.


At 3/21/2006 11:39:00 PM, Blogger annie said...

Dear Josh,
You could upload using piscasa2 and hello.

At 3/22/2006 12:51:00 PM, Blogger RCC said...

I happened to witness this same demonstration, but saw things somewhat differently than the narrator.

The protest before the arrest was rather sedate. One young shabb on another's shoulders was shouting out call-and-response cheers. The most common was "Down Down USA". The crowd carried mostly syrian and some communist flags. I would have called the police presence "light" not "heavy". There were perhaps 4 cars on the 3 streets around the intersection where the protest took place.

The protest was over, people were beginning to disperse, and the many syrian and communist flags were already being gathered back into the party's headquarters when the arrests happened. From the side, I heard a number of people shouting from within a crowd -- and from that crowd of young and old protesters burst out the white peugot with the 2 apprehended shebaab. (This was the number quoted me by one of the party members afterwards.) On their way away from the protest, 2 peugots almost ran over a few of the young party members concerned for their friends. The big action after this was a big crowd of young guys (probably the majority of the youthful protesters) who ran after the cars to try and stop them. That plan was given up rather soon, the shebaab returned, and there were some arguments between the protesters (I mostly saw the middle-aged ones participating in this) and the remaining police. Although voices were raised and tembers high in this exchange, I saw no "fist-fighting".

Somewhere around this time more Peugeots did arrive, but there were no armed men "rushing out to try and disperse the angry crowd." I felt the mood of the authorities throughout was extremely calm. I also can report that I heard no rounds fired into the air.

After the shabaab returned from the attempt at chasing after the cars, a few began to sit down on the street, as if in protest -- this effort was momentary, however, and their friends encouraged them to get up. What was described as "jumping and shouting in unison" was actually a group of no more than 20 young people dancing the Dabke and singing their communist party song. Although certainly a response to the arrests, this was not a spontaneous invention as suggested by the narrator. The same youths had been dancing and singing the same song before the arrests as well. The chorus of the song (as I understood it) was "Hazbna saliim, Hazbna saliim!" "Our party is healthy, our party is healthy!" While the singing and dancing were no doubt a reaction to the arrests and an expression of the youths' frustration, they were not addressed at the police or the authorities. Rather it seemed more of an internal expression of solidarity in the face of this arbitrary action against them. I can only imagine the fear of not knowing where your friends have been taken, what will be done to them, and when they return.

After the dancing, party members or representatives from the office called in the other members for a meeting in the office. That left the rest of us -- some who had come to see what all the hullabaloo was about, and some I suppose who had participated in the protest -- standing around, without too much left to see on the surface.

As far as I could tell, that was pretty much the end of things. There were more police cars than had been there before, but at least one private car was able to pass through after the arrests, so the area wasn't "sealed off." I don't doubt that there were scores of plainclothesers about, but I wouldn't have called what I saw "a struggle". I left soon after the party retreated to their HQ, seeing things to be over. I'm not sure about the exact times of all these events.

I would confirm the narrator's comments that the protest was very much "contained", both before and after the arrests, and the authorities' response "stealthy". The intersection where the protest took place is very small and out of the way. I barely even noteced the protest while walking by initially.

That's how I saw things. As with all events like this, when things happen fast and violently, everyone sees things in a different way. So that's my version to add to the picture.

At 3/22/2006 11:37:00 PM, Blogger annie said...

When I read the first report I had my doubts and the second one only confirms them. Thank you rcc.


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