A day before Tunisia’s first free national elections, members of the Syrian community in Montreal gathered in force to support the authoritarian president of their homeland, Bashar al-Assad, and to denounce protesters whom the Syrian army has killed by the thousands this year.
Beginning in the late afternoon, and continuing until nearly eight in the evening, around two hundred people met on the west side of Parc Jeanne-Mance, chanting “We support Bashar al-Assad” in Arabic and carrying placards sporting pro-Assad slogans, like “We trust our president.”
The Montreal rally came a few days after a government-organized rally, attended by tens of thousands of Assad loyalists, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
Assad succeeded his father as Syrian president in 2000. Since March, Assad has been sending armed troops, tanks, and snipers into Syrian cities in response to largely peaceful protests calling for democratic reforms and, more recently, for Assad’s ouster. The UN estimates that over 3,000 people have been killed in the government crackdown, including nearly 200 children. Opposition groups maintain the number of dead is over 5,000.
Some of the protestors on Saturday denied the existence of large-scale unrest in Syria. “Thanks to God, everything is perfect,” said one man, who did not give his name. “Everything in Syria is positive. There is nothing negative. And all of Syria, they support Bashar [al-]Assad.”
Asked why there were protestors in the streets of Syrian cities – tens of thousands have participated in protests nationwide – the man replied, “The people of Syria are 23 million. If you see a few – five, ten, twenty – that doesn’t change.”
Those that did acknowledge the protests in Syria were quick to label them the product of foreign interference. The countries named by demonstrators ranged from Turkey and Saudi Arabia to France and the United States.
One man called for “the Americans and the French to leave Syria alone. We can fix our own problems. Our president is working on it.”
U.S. President Barack Obama called for Assad to “step aside” in August, the same day the U.S. imposed energy sanctions on Syria.
Several demonstrators suggested that Israel was bankrolling the protests as retribution for Assad’s hard-line stance towards the Jewish state.
Assad is “the only one right now in the whole world who’s standing up against the West and the Israelis,” said a man who gave his name as Reffat A.
Reffat went on to say that Turkey and Lebanon were assisting the Syrian opposition because “they want to give a good face to the Israeli lobby, the Jewish lobby.”
There was a widespread feeling amongst demonstrators that the international media is inflating the scope of the Syrian uprising, and distorting its true nature.
“I think all the media have no respect…for the reality and for the truth,” said one man, who asked not to be named.
“It’s a media war,” said Rami Kaplo, a Montreal lawyer.
“A lot of people just despise the Western media because of the lies,” he continued. “The Western media is not even admitting there are armed gangs” among protestors in Syria.
He pointed to the BBC, CNN, and France 24 as examples.
A number of demonstrators echoed the claim that the Syrian uprising is made up of criminals. The Syrian government frequently defends its use of force against protestors by saying that “armed gangs” have killed hundreds of soldiers and police. Despite recent reports of sporadic violence by members of the anti-Assad opposition, including the assassination of a pro-regime cleric, the vast majority of people killed since March have been unarmed protestors, according to embassies and human rights groups in Syria. Foreign journalists have largely been barred from the country.
Many of Saturday’s demonstrators were also alarmed by the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the uprising, saying Islamists threatened to shatter the Syria’s delicate balance of religious and sectarian groups currently held together by a rigidly secular state.
Rex Brynen, professor of political science at McGill, acknowledged that many Syrians who are not part of the majority Sunni sect of Islam are worried about encroaching Islamism.
But, he noted in an email to The Daily, “a great many of the protesters opposing the current regime in Syria are themselves avowed secularists.”
“In any case, the objection rather misses the point. Syrians should be free to decide on the nature of their political system, whether secular or non-secular, through free and fair elections. Rather than offering his people this most basic of human rights, however, Bashar al-Assad instead offers only bloody repression in an increasingly desperate attempt to cling to political power,” he continued.
One man, watching the rally with friends visiting from Syria, called those participating “kind of ignorant.”
“In Syria right now people are dying. So watching people supporting him, [playing] music while you have people dying, is kind of sad,” he said.
A march in protest of human rights abuses in Syria is scheduled for this Saturday, starting at noon in Norman Bethune Square.
Kaplo offered a cautious defence of the actions of the current regime. “Maybe they could have dealt with it differently,” he said of the crackdown. “If you’re talking about human rights, it might be wrong. But we’re talking about politics.”