The Assad regime is reinventing the secret police, military and thugs as “the executors and guardians of its domestic experiment in constantly transforming reality into fiction”, writes Jasmine Roman.
Smell of fear in Damascus proves Assad’s illegitimacy
The ideology of totalitarianism, as explained by the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, is to find strategies to dominate from within without resorting to external factors. Totalitarian regimes often cling to their promises of stability, even though they themselves create constant instability. Arendt described the aim of totalitarian ideology as “the transformation of human nature itself”.
One of the tactics used by Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad has been to morph the features of the country as an indispensable element, to control the actions and ethos of the people within the totalitarian state.
After 18 months away, and with a sense of feverish homesickness and peculiar lack of belonging, I have again walked the streets of Damascus and hardly recognised it or its people. Damascus is not a city any more, it is merely a military barracks. It is a reminder of the distorted binary between “them” and “us”, a reminder of the destruction of the Syrian persona, and a reminder of how the representation of a dictatorship through symbols impacts on people’s well-being and their state of mind.
The Syrian-Assad flag dominates the public arena: the long fences surrounding the security and military locations; the schools and universities, cars and buses; the shop doors, including the fabulous wooden doors in the old town, and even the special glasses to drink mate, the Argentinian herb that is very popular in Syria. The regime’s tactic has been to dictate the subconscious of the people, leaving them no other choice and constantly reminding them that they are still under an iron grip. Those who even think about resistance find themselves compelled to obey in order to survive.
The oppression has a smell; the smell of fear, subjugation and terror. The more I walk in the city, the more I smell the dense oppression and the more I feel like I am walking over landmines. Checkpoints and inspections are becoming normal procedures in the name of security. The number of security and special forces, intelligence staff, popular committees and regime thugs – the “shabiha” – is limitless. This phenomenon is common in a police state: the reshaping of a city and its demographic and sectarian structure, with the ordinary people becoming less visible and more tyrannised.
The shabiha are boasting with their weapons, their huge, muscled bodies, long beards, tattoos, camouflage clothing and fierce attitude, realising that they have full authority in the country. They rove the city, driving cars with dark-tinted windows and no plates, knowing that they can conduct violations without being penalised. In some places, the distinction between the regime thugs and mainstream young Syrian men does not exist.
The Syrian regime has been holding on to its narrative of combating terrorism while terrifying the whole nation, mutating one stratum of society into mere tools to terrorise their fellow citizens. The mobile phone companies are sending messages to the people, telling them to hand over their arms and hand in terrorists. Yet, at the same time, weapons are being funnelled into the hands of the regime thugs. I was a few metres away when one of them started to shoot randomly because he wanted to stop a minibus.
The regime loyalists keep decrying the uprising and the existence of armed opposition factions, delegitimising the right of Syrian civilians to freedom and dignity. But they condone the weapons, tanks and armed thugs, and tolerate the foreign forces mobilised by the regime. They argue that the regime’s various forces and recruiters, despite their thuggery, looting and brutality, are defending the country and securing its stability.
Several governmental offices have turned to the security branches to further intimidate their employees. Civil servants have been forced to join the Baath party – a tactic designed to obligate them to vote for Mr Al Assad during the upcoming presidential elections. High-ranking employees have been arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs and their replacements chosen on a religious and sectarian basis.
Damascus is not a city any more; it is becoming a place of lawlessness and thuggery. It is a place of legalised prostitution, where teenagers are relentlessly recruited into the shabiha. The pedagogy of oppression is destroying the young generation; very young males and females wear camouflage clothes, bracelets, hats and other accessories with photographs of Mr Al Assad and his flag to demonstrate their loyalty and imitate the attitude and appearances of the thugs.
Songs glorifying Mr Al Assad and the Syrian army are heard everywhere in the streets, shops and restaurants, and are even played during weddings. Drivers change their manner of speaking to the coastal dialect when they approach checkpoints where people, including myself, are discriminated against according to their regional origins and ID cards.
These practices reveal how the regime has established its absolutism – applying different configurations to restructure and dominate both the public and private spheres – and how it has created a culture of obedience among the masses through the literature of one party and one leader. As Arendt described it, the Syrian regime is reinventing the secret police, military and thugs as “the executors and guardians of its domestic experiment in constantly transforming reality into fiction”.
The debate over the new image of Damascus takes different perspectives. On the one hand, some believe that the Syrian regime is becoming more powerful due to the impotence of the international community in response to its brutality. On the other hand, some believe that the changes in the capital are signs of the regime’s surrender and weakness. It is obvious that Mr Al Assad needs to legitimise his existence and authority among his own loyalists, and that merely determines his illegitimacy.
Jasmine Roman is a pseudonym for a Syrian writer
On Twitter: @JasmineRoman01