Numerous pro-regime Syrian celebrities and media figures have recently voiced discontent with worsening living conditions in areas held by the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Cold winter weather, coupled with shortages in the availability of services like electricity, and basic goods like fuel, natural gas, milk, and bread, appear to have motivated some to speak up, particularly on social media.
Actor Shukran Murtaja started the trend by addressing a letter to the Syrian President, which has since gone viral, through her Facebook page. Murtaja complained about fuel shortages and high milk prices, and blamed what she described as “merchants of war” for these problems. She said President Assad is the only person able to “hear the voices of his people and answer their calls”.
Other renowned media personalities soon followed suit, including famous actors Bashar Ismail and Ayman Zaydan, news anchor Majda Zanbaka and journalist Maher Mounes, all of whom published similar requests for help from President Assad.
Many in the opposition raised questions around the phenomenon, particularly because the viral complaints came from vehemently pro-regime figures.
Opposition activists like journalist Ziad al-Rayis pointed to the hypocritical nature of the complaints, given that those making them are privileged celebrities with strong ties to the government, who have supported the regime in its systematic deprivation of opposition-held areas during the conflict.
“It’s obvious that the positions of those artists and intellectuals are being dictated [by the regime], and don’t come from a humanitarian or patriotic place”, said al-Rayis
If the complaints are in fact genuine, they speak of a wide state of dissatisfaction with government policies among the regime’s firmest supporters. However, al-Rayis and fellow observers have an alternative theory: The regime could be pushing celebrities to voice manufactured concerns, in order to buy time, and relieve actual pressure mounting against it from average Syrians.
Some in the opposition are hoping for pressure on the regime to increase in areas under its control. However, people like journalist Mohammad Bitar remain sceptical. Bitar points out that, despite the regime’s current economic quagmire brought upon by massive debt and economic sanctions, it still maintains tight restrictions over freedom of speech in its areas.
“Everyone knows that there’s a limit for free expression,” said Bitar. “Normal citizens might find themselves arrested and tried for terrorism [for voicing complaints]. Average Syrians are between a rock and a hard place, unable to gain basic rights, nor complain for fear of retaliation.”
Governmental corruption seems to be a recurring issue in the viral social media posts, with which the authors seek the help of Assad personally. Many in the opposition have pointed out, however, that this does not address corruption in high echelons of the regime, including that of Assad himself.
Indeed, the viral complaints seem to absolve Assad from responsibility and any wrongdoing. According to opposition activists, this may pave the way for a policy of ‘governmental recycling’, i.e. introducing limited and ineffective changes in the guise of fighting corruption, while maintaining the structure of the regime, including Assad’s place on top, intact.