After more than 8,000 deaths and the displacement of thousands of people from their country, amid horrifying reports of systematic torture and massacre that have sent many others into hiding, it seems hard to believe now that virtually nobody predicted the Syrian uprising – nor the astonishing extent of the brutal crackdown by Bashar al-Assad – before it began one year ago.
In fact, even as Egypt and Tunisia were celebrating the toppling of their dictators and the United Nations was giving Nato the go-ahead to bomb Libya, Syria was still being marketed as an up-and-coming tourist destination. As late as 5 March last year, one article in the Independent lauded it as an unspoilt nation “packed with attractions that will dazzle anyone who visits”. At the time, there seemed little reason not to celebrate the historical wonders – and despite being little known in the west, they really are wonders – of Palmyra, Crak des Chevalliers and Apamea.
That was how I myself naively came to be flying out there for a fortnight’s holiday on, as fate would have it, the very day that the first protestors were shot dead in the southern town of Deraa – unintentionally becoming what Christopher Hitchens might have called a revolutionary tourist, and unwittingly securing a rare but tragic glimpse inside a beautiful country just as it was beginning to be ripped apart.
That first day of violence, Friday 18 March 2011, saw at least three civilians killed, leading Joshua Landis to write: “This is a turning point – to what, one cannot say.”
Indeed, even with the benefit of two weeks touring through Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus, watching ordinary Syrians react to the increasingly disturbing footage leaking out of Deraa of civilians being shot by snipers, none of what has since happened – neither the proliferation of protests, nor the explosion of state violence – appeared inevitable. The rest of the country was largely going about its business as normal, on the surface at least, save for occasional mass demonstrations which in fact were in favour of the regime. But in hindsight, perhaps we should have predicted the horrors from the start.
The Syria I saw was undoubtedly a totalitarian state – complete with, as I have discussed elsewhere, a sickening cult of the personality surrounding Bashar al-Assad. The first night I spent in Hama – when what at first appeared to be a dead body floating in the Orontes river thankfully turned out to merely be an effigy, presumably from a recent protest – the state TV channel in the restaurant we were dining in began showing film of the violence in Deraa. The waiters stopped and watched, standing coldly still until the end of the report, when the channel began playing patriotic music and embarked on a stupefying 15-minute montage of footage showing Assad waving to crowds of thousands and kissing babies.
Clearly many of us in the west had been conned by the propaganda, swallowing line that Bashar – a man who not so long ago met Tony Blair and the Queen in London – was not the same as his father, Hafez. Yet the people of Hama, where between 10,000 and 20,000 are thought to have been massacred in the 1982 siege, surely had not. What seems chilling now is the realisation that, as those waiters in that restaurant were watching that footage, they may well have been able to forsee the horrors of Homs would not be too far away. After all, how often does a totalitarian regime, even one with a new modern face at its helm, really change its ways?
When we arrived in Damascus, Bashar finally appeared before the Syrian Parliament. Even after many people had been killed in Deraa, it was still interpreted as a real chance to make big reforms, to turn the situation around. Instead, as the labyrinthine souks deserted for once as Syrians huddled around TVs and radios to watch and listen, he chose to blame foreigners and terrorists, promising reforms but offering little to no detail. At the time it was unclear even among experts whether his speech was a case of supreme confidence or extreme recklessness. But perhaps now we can say this was the date that bloodshed on a far wider scale was sealed into fate. More was needed from Assad, and all Syria his country has got is more violence. He always was his father’s son after all.
The day I left Syria for Jordan, a letter appeared on the pinboard of the hostel I was staying in, addressed to the guests and written by the owner. “The minority led a few small protests that numbered hundreds,” it told us. “They have no grounds to stand on and their attempts have failed.”
It seemed so ridiculous even at the time that I took a photograph of it. Reading the last section a year on from the start of the violence, however, it now looks even more like a sick paraody of party propaganda. “I can say with total confidence that there is no revolution,” it said. “I feel relieved that the tense situation has ended peacefully unlike Egypt or Tunisia. The country is in firm hands of the current regime under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. I fully understand the situation at the moment and it is absolutely safe.”
Safe? One thing safe to say is that few tourists will have passed through that or any hostel since Assad’s speech.
Rob Hastings is a reporter for the Independent.