The Syrian general opened an envelope and upended its contents on his desk.
Out spilled his army’s messages to the people of Damascus and Hama and Aleppo and Homs and Deraa. “We have a special department with analysts who write these,” he told us. “We give every chance to the people.” And so the generals do, if you trust these little flyers, rectangular sheets of paper – some illustrated with smiling children, others with grim faced gunmen — dropped by helicopter over the streets of Syria. The general smiled at us. “Do you see how much trouble we take?” I had heard before of these little strips of paper – how they had cascaded down on the Palestinian Yarmouk camp in Damascus and on Homs and Aleppo – but I had never seen them, least of all in such profusion. Each was signed ‘the Administration of the Security Forces.”
They ranged from the banal – “Brother citizen, help us get rid of the criminal gangs by cooperating with the security forces” – to the sophisticated. This, for example, is the Syrian army’s message to all armed men: “The security forces have the will to restore security and stability to all the regions of our precious homeland and will not permit the wasting of innocent citizens’ blood. Time is vanishing, so take advantage of this chance: drop your weapons – as many have already done – and remember that the government is as merciful as a mother is to her children.”
If this evocation of maternal care does not appeal to President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, Islam might — though the word ‘Islam’ does not appear in the texts we were shown. “Think with your mind, religion is love – religion is tolerance. Religion does not call for killing…Let’s work together according to religious instructions, not at the call of criminals.”
And if you are approaching Syrian troops, here’s a little note you might like to have to hand, a ‘safe passage’ paper that can save your life. “When approaching a checkpoint, make sure you are not holding any kind of weapon. While doing so, approach slowly and make sure your chest is not obscured by anything suspicious. Hold this bulletin in one hand while putting the other on top of your head.” ‘Anything suspicious’ is clearly a reference to a bomb strapped to the chest of a suicide bomber. Yet other papers suggest that armed opponents of the regime “take advantage of the special treatment granted to you by the authorities.”
The problem — and Syria’s army is wise enough to understand this – is that the violence of the present was planted long ago, and there are many in Syria who remember with great bitterness just what kind of ‘special treatment’ has been granted to their relatives over the past years. Indeed, the day after meeting the general, I sat down to tea with a middle-aged Syrian who wanted to tell me why he hated the regime. He was a mildly-spoken person who met me in a down-town Damascus café, his voice almost drowned out by the screech of birds from an aviary attached to the wall.
“My brother was part of the (Muslim Brotherhood) revolution of 1980 and even my family didn’t know this,” he said. “Then one day the ‘mukhabarat’ intelligence men came in three cars to arrest him. Nobody knows where they took him – not even till now, 32 years later. Official documents said my brother was alive, but in 1996 we got some news from ex-prisoners who said they had seen my brother, and that he had been hanged or shot in Tadmor (Palmyra) prison. For me, the revolution started a long time ago, when my brother was arrested. Now my revolution is getting bigger.”
Without shooting, without arms – this man’s revolution, he told me, would be non-violent. “There is nobody in Syria who likes violence. What happened is that if you have a balloon and keep putting a lot of air in it, it will explode. When the people started to protest last year, the government used force to stop them and arrests — and drip, drip, drip – there was an explosion.” The people, this man said, “got outside of silence” – in itself a remarkable expression – and “started to use a little bit of violence against the government.” Now these people would never return to their homes, he said, “because if they go home, they will die at home, one by one. That’s why they know this is the end. They have taken the decision never to return back.”
But would he accept a truly democratic parliament with real elections even if Bashar stayed, I asked? “We have known this government for 40 years. You cannot trust them to give you the correct temperature during the day. Democracy and violence don’t meet together. My reply to you is this: No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” Even the army leaflets don’t repeat themselves this much. But his words were as adamant as any leaflet.