Government forces act to shut down communications. Peaceful protesters are beaten by uniformed and plainclothes police, including at least two women. Regime thugs are dispatched to intimidate dissidents. Foreign journalists are monitored, and some are apparently barred from entering the country.
This isn’t happening in Libya, but rather in Syria, whose dictator Bashar al-Assad has ruled for eleven years, taking over after 30 years of maximum leadership from his father. After nervously watching the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Assad has been acting to crush his own dissident movement early. He can get a lot of crushing done while the attention of the world is focused on the final days of Moammar Qaddafi.
Assad is a far more cunning monster than the exhausted Mubarak or deranged Qaddafi. He hangs on to power with a number of clever techniques, such as the political influence of the fascist Baath Party. Mubarak’s power base was a dwindling number of super-rich cronies, who found themselves living in a sea of desperately poor citizens, protected by an army that valued its own prestige above loyalty to the regime. Assad, like Saddam Hussein, uses the Baath Party to get a larger percentage of the populace plugged into his power structure, giving them far more latitude to oppress the dickens out of everyone who doesn’t belong. Dictatorship is much easier when a sizable minority of the country signs up to be your friend on Facebook.
Like most successful dictators, the Syrian tyrant understands the concept of a “preference cascade.” In order to maintain conformity, it’s essential to make dissidents feel isolated and paranoid, even if their numbers are actually vast. The Baath regime is very good at this. Syrian dissidents had a “Day of Rage” back on February 5, but it turned into a “Day of Secret Police Asking For Your Papers.” Government agents swarmed every gathering, literally kicking ass and taking names. Internet access was sabotaged, and dissidents were made aware that their computer use was being carefully monitored.
Syria is careful to keep foreign TV cameras from capturing any exciting scenes of oppression. Assad is good at saying the things international agencies, especially the United Nations, want to hear. He occasionally makes “reforms” with great fanfare, such as lifting a ban on Facebook and YouTube earlier this month… now that everyone is afraid to use them.
The conditions for revolution are all present in Syria, which actually looks a lot like the final stage of Mubarak’s Egypt. According to a report by David Rosenberg in The Media Line, unemployment has reached Egyptian levels among young people, even as GDP grew at Egyptian rates. Individual poverty is not as grinding as it was on the streets of Cairo, but drought and mismanaged water resources have caused “a flood of immigrants into Syria’s cities over the last few years, creating unprecedented numbers of urban poor.” Assad’s inner circle is every bit as corrupt as the Friends of Hosni were, but since all industry is state-owned and information is tightly controlled, most Syrians aren’t as keenly aware of the corruption as the Egyptians were.
The UK Guardian reports that civil rights activists have told it “initimidation tactics have escalated to include visits from agents of the Mukhabarat – intelligence services – as well as close monitoring of internet and telephone conversations. Some activists have been warned not to leave the country.” The people of Syria may hunger for freedom, but as long as they’re convinced they suffer alone, they will suffer in silence.