text by Mariel Navarro / image by Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press, via canada.com
Following its independence from France in 1946, Syria suffered from a period of instability due to its religious and ethnic plurality. In 1970 the former defence minister Hafez al-Assad overthrew president al-Atasi to consolidate a regime that would last thirty years. Remarkably, al-Assad himself is a member of a religious minority, the Alawites, who constitute only around 11% of the Syrian Muslim population.
In order to preserve his position, Hafez al-Assad defeated and repressed several uprisings, most notably the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt, which ended the political activities of the group until 2001. These policies created a politically hostile environment that suppressed most of the opposition and managed to guarantee al-Assad’s succession by his son, Bashar. When Bashar al-Assad took power in the year 2000, the country’s political and social environment was temporarily liberated; around 600 political prisoners were freed and approximately 12% of the members of the parliament were women.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime, however, still faced some of his father’s opposition, namely several Islamist and secular groups. Just as it seemed that Bashar’s government would depart from his father’s hard policy line, the 2004 violent clash with the Kurdish minority in the north region proved that Bashar would also rely on repressive practices when facing dissenters. The suppression of rights and freedoms was reinstalled in Syrian political life. Under the influence of the Arab Spring of 2011, opposition groups started demonstrating against al-Assad’s government in March 2011. At first, these groups were created to defend their own demonstrations; however, faced with the government’s actions, they evolved to fight al-Assad’s military forces.
As the conflict continued, the dissenting forces started to separate into two different categories: on the one hand, the Free Syrian Army and on the other one radical Islamists. Three years into the conflict, a radical Islamist organization’s leader, Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the formation of a new caliphate under an Islamic State (IS). It is then that the ethnic Kurdish minority joined forces with the Free Syrian Army to defeat the IS supporters. The war, consequently, demonstrates the existence of several dissenting groups in Syria, rooted, as previously mentioned, in religious and ethnic differences. Moreover, it is a source of instability for most of the Middle East due to the displacement of families to neighbouring countries and territorial spread of certain militants.
Lama Akkad is a first-year student who left her homeland, Syria, to study in the Netherlands. Her hometown, Damascus, has been shook by the civil war in spite of being Al-Assad’s main headquarters. She agreed to be briefly interviewed by the Boomerang to elaborate on her perspective of the Syrian conflict and on everyday life in Damascus.
According to Lama, Damascus has suffered the consequences of war to a lesser extent than most other areas in Syria. However, military checkpoints are located almost every two or three blocks, and moving around in the city is very hard sometimes. “There is still nightlife and everyday life activities going on around the city”, says Lama, “but we do need to be very careful of where we are going and who we are going with.” Being associated with sympathizers of the rebel or the Islamic movements is extremely dangerous, as the regime is able to imprison the supporters and deny them any sort of political freedom or guarantee. The practice of “lifting” people has even affected universities, Lama recalls. In Damascus, there was great commotion over the disappearance of a rebel-sympathizing student in a university campus. The bombing of university campuses and other youth centres is very present in Damascus everyday life. Parents and students try to keep in constant communication as much as possible.
According to Lama, this has also been a determining factor in the involvement of Damascus students in the conflict. Given that al-Assad’s forces outnumber the dissenters in the city, it is easier for the government to control student life and repress several student-based movements. She further mentions that the conflict is not openly discussed in many situations due to the fear of suppressive actions from the government. National media are also very careful in addressing the topic, creating what she senses as an information vacuum in Syria. In her personal experience at an international school, Lama emphasizes there is greater discussion of the conflict due to the availability of information from abroad.
Moreover, she elaborated on the living conditions in Damascus, “it is the people who earn less money [who are] the ones who suffer the most, since their living areas have been the most affected by the fighting and the government cuts.” It is not rare to have running water for only two or three hours in the morning, and to have scarce access to electricity. “You become used to it”, Lama says, “and you organize your days knowing accordingly.”
When asked about the different factions in the civil war, Lama stressed that, as a consequence of the government control of the media, it is very likely that there are distorted ideas of the combatants in the civil war. However, from her knowledge, Damascus remains a divided city between al-Assad and Free Syrian Army supporters. She comments that in spite of Damascus Islamic religiosity, the IS has not gained many supporters due to its hard line approach to Islam. “Many people in Damascus do not trust the Islamist approach of the IS, so they prefer to preserve al-Assad’s regime or to thrive for a more liberal Syria, and favour the Free Syrian Army.”
She finally expressed how she felt while moving to Holland and seeing the conflict from afar. “Even if not many people are aware of what’s happening, many of them ask and are interested in knowing my opinion”, she declares. The contrast between life in Holland and life is Syria, for her, is immense, but she has felt welcomed and appreciated in spite of the hard situation her entire nation is going through.