It all started with some intermediate school students’ play in Daraa; they just repeated what they had been hearing on the news; “The people want to knock down the regime”; a slogan that had been used in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. They innocently painted it on their school’s wall without any knowledge of the brutality of the regime and that their little game will start a wide range of protests all over Syria.
Daraa is the southern gate to Syria, with the most generous and kind people in the country who are still driven by their tribal traditions. It had an influential role throughout history. With Daraa’s own Philip the Arab becoming a Roman Emperor and Lawrence of Arabia starting the Arab Revolution against the Ottoman Empire with the help of its people and many other remarked roles in history, Daraa is known to most Syrians to be the land of the courageous. Their courage never resulted in any kind of clashes with others as they are peaceful people, yet they become fierce when insulted as “dignity and pride” are their trade mark characters.
It was a nice spring day turned into hell for those children after their school principal detained them and called a security agency which arrested and tortured them. Later, the fathers went to claim the release of their children. The police officer in command said to them: “If you want your kids, bring me your wives”. Enraged by this insult, people of Daraa gathered to protest against the imprisonment of their children. The security agents, who are not familiar with any definition of freedom started shooting at them, killing and wounding many and causing a wider range of protests. Later the security forces continued dealing with this “sudden surprise” more brutally; the word was out: “Daraa started the Syrian revolution”. Three weeks later, the protests are taking place in every city except for Aleppo and Damascus, yet there were protests in some remote areas in Damascus like Douma, Kafr Sousseh, Kesswah and Qaboun.
The initial official response adopted the “conspiracy theory”, the same mistake Tunisian, Egyptian, & Libyan officials made. They even went further suggesting that the protests will result in a sectarian conflict and a threat to minorities in Syria; a claim refuted by Lattakia’s protests which is known to be the most diverse city in the country with Sunni, Alawi, Shiite, and Christian population. Later, the authorities tried to spread panic in the cities where protests started to take a more solid form, they “dispatched” snipers and mercenaries of different nationalities in every city in a desperate attempt to prove their claimed “conspiracy”, using terms like “gangs” and “infiltrators” to describe them, but as all Syrian have witnessed, those “gangs” only appear when protesters are gathering, killing civilians from the roofs of guarded government buildings. Two days before Mr. Bashar al-Assad speech, a pro-government rally was “spontaneously organised" without any security threat to the participants who were dragged out of their governmental jobs forcibly to show their love and loyalty to their leader, or others just paid to "protest".
Mr. Bashar al-Assad speech was scheduled to be held last Tuesday, and then was delayed two times before he showed up with a triumphant look talking, as usual, about everything that does not matter to the Syrian people. To many, the speech was nothing but a huge disappointment; it asserted the previous official response of “a conspiracy threatening the unity of the nation”. Many of his “believers” who thought that he was a reformer as that the image he likes to portray of himself were shocked that his “historical” speech was nothing but yet another story coming from an early 20th century history book. He never stated a certain and solid future plan for the claimed reforms. Moreover, he eloquently declared that “people in the middle” have no place in the country under the current events. Therefore, according to him, Syrians are limited to two choices; either with or against Assad. Despite the fact that all Syrians know about presidency being a family business for Assads and their relatives, people still believed that Mr. Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, but in 11 years, we have not witnessed any kind of reform. Contrary to his late father’s era, corruption can now be seen at every level and be taken pride of by many of his relatives who, as most people claim, have the greater power in Syria. “Decisions are to be taken one time, and they were taken in 2005”, Mr. Assad said, “People around me are for reforms even more than I am”… OK then, let’s have one of them as a president since you’re the corrupt one.
The response to the protests was/is brutal; hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested. Last Friday, a 23 year-old girl was killed on her balcony in Homs because the sniper suspected that she was filming the protests. Last Sunday, the police opened fire on a funeral in Saqba, a village near Douma, killing at least five young men. When anyone tries to merely condemn the killings they become the target of a vicious media attack if not arrested. Mr. Abu Romiyeh, a parliament member from Daraa, gave a detailed description of what happened in Daraa one day before Mr. Assad’s speech. He was edited out of the recordings, but a video of him in the parliament was leaked. He is now under a vicious character attack by the Syrian official TV. Many say that Mr. Assad is controlled by his family or/and relatives, yet he had the choice of becoming a national hero, but he chose to follow the advices, or orders, of his relatives, which makes him responsible for the brutal response against protesters whether he gave the direct order or not.
Everyone knows that Syria is the country of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it is “the cradle of civilization” as Syrians and many others like to describe it. For those who like to measure the present’s dangers with history’s ones, Syria is not under a sectarian conflict threat of any kind for it never was the place of any such conflicts before.
For us here, we can’t deny that we had concerns about sectarian issues in the country when we were following the news of Tunisia and Egypt, but Lattakia’s protests proved that Syrians are driven by their patriotism, citizenship, and love of freedom. The only concern that some people have is that the protests start out at mosques, but this is understandable because the authorities cannot ban people from going to mosques. Many of the protestors do not know even how to pray, but they gather at mosques to launch their demonstrations.
Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood have very little influence in Syria; they are not a threat under the current situation or in the near future. The fear of a sectarian issue is a lame excuse used by the Syrian government to supress the demonstrations, and by other governments that are concerned about the Baath party’s collapse.
The status quo in Syria for about 40 years now is what the West wants, i.e. an unsigned peace agreement with Israel, or as they call it in both countries "a truce". Most people know that Syrians will not accept any kind of peace negotiations that do not include Jerusalem, al Aqsa, and the Palestinian refugees’ rights. This is not a Baath party initiated ideology or demand; it is a Syrian national demand. Baath party is only using this knowledge for its own benefit, thus most countries prefer that Baath and Assad remain in power, and for the Assads to remain in power, oppression has to continue. Lifting the emergency law of 1963 means more freedom that will lead to people tackling all issues considered as “taboos” under the current situation. That will result in reforms eventually, and after Mr Assad’s speech, we all gave up any hope of reform.
Syria, like all Arab countries, is a country of social traditions. Homosexuality is still a sin to all Syrians and it is punishable by law. LGBT people are the subject of people’s hatred and mockery. This makes most of them live with a guilt complex and a great fear of being “exposed”. As this fear was becoming less in the past few years, it grew to a panic in 2010 after a vicious campaign by the authorities against LGBT people, arresting and beating many. Years of fearing the law and the society can be witnessed in the LGBT people illiteracy of the laws and possibilities. Driven by their fear and guilt complex, they have always managed to be as LGBT-Rights-illiterate as they can be. Most of them do not know that a free country means more rights to everyone.
As many Syrians, LGBT people think that the alternatives are limited, and they are in fear of Islamists. That is why they are unknowingly participating more towards worsening their situation. Only a few are active and aware of the situation of LGBT rights in the country.
In the immediate future, we will suffer more no matter what happens. If Assad remained in power, he will try to reassure Islamists who think LGBT people must be killed, (Assad has started doing that by issuing an order to start “Al-Sham Higher Institute of Islamic Studies and Research”). If Assad’s regime collapsed, the country will be unstable for an unknown period, people’s hatred towards homosexuals, which is a social issue more than a religious one, might put all LGBT people in danger.
If any of that happened, LGBT people have nowhere to turn to, and this is why I and others are working on setting up an organisation as fast as we can which will aim to address the needs and concerns of Syrian LGBT people.
The Syrians’ rage against corruption and security agencies, “secret police” as the West calls them, has not yet taken the shape of a revolution. Grave massacres might happen, yet if they don’t, we might be able to find a solution. As a Syrian, I always think of what happened in Iraq when I think of what people in the West and outside Syria can do to help. The west has an infamous reputation of making everything worse for people. What we hope for is more media coverage about the events in Syria and some serious pressure from the west towards freedom and reform, but this is politics, and each country weighs its gains and losses, therefore, like many Syrians, I am not very optimistic about any help the west can offer.