The reign of fear of al-Assad family haunts Syrians, even those who left the country

Hafez and Bashar al-Assad (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Hafez and Bashar al-Assad (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi- Hussam al-Mahmoud

The Syrian regime, under the rule of the al-Assad family—first the father Hafez, and now his son Bashar—contributed to rooting the feelings of fear in the hearts of Syrians. This fear continues to haunt even those who left home and sought asylum in different countries worldwide. 

Fear still holds because it is the Syrians’ image of the security grip imposed on them at home. This sentiment has turned into a semi-hard-weird policing agent; Syrians keep tabs on themselves and on fellow citizens. This quasi-built-in surveillance manifests in security reports that citizens file against citizens to authorities, which are sufficient to send their subjects missing for long periods of time in detention facilities.

The recent presidential elections the regime held, on 26 May, in the Syrian territories it controls, and in some of its still functioning embassies around the world, witnessed the workings of this fear, that turned cross-border, driving some Syrians abroad to cast vote, particularly in countries where the regime is capable of practicing its security hegemony through its allies, such as in Lebanon.

During elections, Syrians abroad had to battle with two fears. The first is that participating in the elections might incite tension with regime opponents, who continue to be overwhelmed by the horrifying memories of detention or shelling, and the citizens in countries of refuge that do not maintain good relations with the regime.

The second is that they might fall victims to the regime’s and its advocates’ oppression, often appearing in violations of their own property rights or, when abroad, of close relatives should they not participate in the elections. Worse yet, by refusing to vote, they might be risking detention should they ever return home.

In Syria, over the last days of May and the few early days of June, pro-regime media reported tireless celebrations of the so-called “presidential election.” Doubts peaked over these celebratory scenes, with followers discussing whether the security services had coerced people to rejoice over the new win, or not. Voluntary or coercive, these celebrations were a space for extreme polarities among Syrians and are worth addressing.

Extreme polarity gives rise to fear

Syrian social researcher Safwan Moushli attributed the intense polarization around the future of the Syrian regime— particularly over the course of the elections— to several reasons, notably the globalization of democracy as the only system that guarantees a minimum of human dignity, and as a pointer to the respect of the legitimacy of human rights, the violation of which is a transgression of the values of the age.

Thus, the rejection of the election on one side of the electoral rift arises from many considering the regime as an order of hypocrisy and that calls for reestablishing its power is banishing Syrians from civilization and denying them the chance to catch up with modernity.

Researcher Moushli added that that the opposition considers the re-legitimization of the regime a crime, not only because it would engulf in silence atrocities documented internationally, but also because they are terrified that these atrocities would be repeated. By decrying the elections, harmed Syrians are stating that they would not forgive or tolerate any party, regardless of what interests they share with the regime, unless the causes of terror and oppression are eliminated, represented by removing the head of the regime and permanently denying him access to political action.

He added that the Syrians’ wounds caused by the regime have not healed yet, especially as the regime continues, with and through its allies, to commit more crimes, including killing, imprisonment, torture, forcibly disappearing and starving those who could not escape the violent crackdown on the early peaceful protests that demanded reform.

These reasons together had made Syrians highly resentful of leniency that might help the killer escape punishment. However, this resentment is not vengeful. It is rather a call for ending the ongoing crimes. Therefore, the rejection of elections and activities, such as the celebrations, that boost the regime’s political presence is a civilized form of Syrians’ cooperation with local communities and international law in bringing the criminal regime’s advocates into justice.

Pertaining to the reports that Syrian refugees are filing against other Syrians who they identify as perpetrators of atrocities, the reporting methods refugees are adopting in host countries, as well as standing witnesses in courts, researcher Moushli said that this behavior is civility at its best because Syrians have chosen not to take it into their own hands to punish those who they believe are accomplices in crimes and advocates of the propaganda calling for committing further crimes against Syrians.

Syrians who participated in the elections, some of whom were motivated by fear of the regime, attracted huge criticism outside Syria, especially in Lebanon, where opponents of the Syrian regime attacked a group of regime advocates, injuring several of them.

Social hysteria

On the other side of the divide, the exaggerated responsiveness from pro-regime Syrians, induced at times, to events held by the regime has fallen to some sort of social hysteria. Amid such frenzy, individuals are unconsciously affected and tend to embrace behaviors and feelings that do not necessarily match their own real mental or emotional states.

The psychological state of the masses is not a product of prior planning, but rather an inexplicable reaction, which possesses masses in illogical manners. In his book The Revolution from the Perspective of Political Psychology, Majdi Ishaq argues that mass hysteria usually reflects the psychological charge associated with tension and the dominance of the emotional mind.

Individuals’ involvement, as part of a crowd, in a state of social hysteria that is at odds with their reality and true principles, which is the case with some Syrians who were forced to engage in the electoral festivities, conform to Gustave Le Bon’s theory of crowd psychology.

Le Bon posits that the individuals tend to behave less individually within crowds because plurality absolves them of responsibility since they view the self as dissolving into the crowd. He says that “during submergence, the individuals in the crowd lose their sense of individual self and personal responsibility.”

He further argues that “crowd members become susceptible to any passing idea or emotion,” and contagiously  they “follow the predominant ideas and emotions of the crowd.”

Fatal psychological consequences

The educational psychologist, Amer al-Ghadban, said that Syrians are not grappling with fear as an emotion, but as a concept.  Namely, they are struggling with a culture and a system of value based on fear. Accordingly, it is fear against which people tend to draw a vision of life, priorities, needs, and interests. This culture is deeply rooted.

Al-Ghadban told Enab Baladi that for humans priority is to protect themselves from threats. And the regime has pressed Syrians to that point where they started thinking of the means to protect themselves. This is the chief motive why many have cast the vote. It is to claim themselves innocent under the eyes of authorities, that they have done their part and thus cannot be persecuted.

Enab Baladi documented several attacks against refugees in Lebanon before the elections, which aimed to coerce them into voting. The attacks included threats of deportation, abductions, and IDPs camp fires.

Dictatorships, according to al-Ghadban, contribute to changing the supreme values by which a person seeks to achieve immediate, temporary and direct goals, adding that political psychology proposes that the authoritarian state tends to give rein to the politics of interest.

He added that the emotion of fear, based on a person’s feeling of being trapped, helpless, and unable to escape, can cause a fatal shock, or a deep shock in the brain, stimulating certain areas that put an individual in a direct confrontation with his/her emotions that is some cases can lead to their death.

On the social clashes that arise from the division of societies and peoples into a normal group and a group who prioritize their interests,  al-Ghadban said that fanatic trends are governed by cognitive, behavioral and emotional components, the combination of which contributes to the formation of a tendency to a certain behavior, such as alienation from a specific human group, especially in the case of predisposed persons.

Such divergent behaviors surface only under a real test. Without the elections, we would have not learned the actual size of the group that favors their interests.

Al-Ghadban warned that this conflict and polarization threaten to create a social rift that will widen further and need a long time to witness rapprochement between the two societies and reconciliation between the two parties, after a segment of the people announced their position or what seemed to be their position on a subject that touches on the sensitivities of a large segment of Syrians, with the need to differentiate between forced and selective behaviors when it comes to groups.

Fear continues

The most prominent reasons for the continued fear of the Syrian regime, researcher Mosheli says, is that the regime constitutes an extension of the previous regime, which practiced the most severe forms of repression, and denied the people the most basic human rights for decades without any practical protest against its practices from a free democratic society.

A large segment of Syrians today believes that the Syrian regime, despite the efforts of civil society and human rights organizations, and international investigations, about the atrocities it committed, is still left out the frameworks of accountability or prosecution as it was before and perhaps as it shall continue in the future, amid the international community’s disregard for its crimes.

Syrians are afraid that immigrants and torture escapees will be extradited and returned to prison cells, according to Mosheli, as the Danish government has recently declared their intention to deport over 100 Syrian refugees to Damascus, on the pretext that Syria is safe, contrary to the actual conditions on the ground and the findings of some other EU countries.

The majority of Syrian refugees worldwide, who have not yet obtained permanent residence permits, are living with the fear of being forcibly returned to the regime from which and because of which they fled, through a political deal, which could cost them their lives.

Simultaneously, Syrians in regime-controlled areas have developed the feeling that they are left alone to oppression and that there is no alternative to identifying with the authorities, as a psychological defense mechanism and their desire to live while fearing that the security services might doubt their loyalty.

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