A famous Samir Kassir slogan comes to mind when one analyzes the events in Syria, starting with the regime’s military deployment against Deraa and ending with its recent invasion of Aleppo University and its student quarters. “Soldiers against whom?” was the question coined by the professor and journalist, now deceased for almost seven years. 40 years of systematic militarization of Syrian society has failed to eliminate the civic spirit of its youth. This spirit was kept alive by students, who brought the revolution to Aleppo University with peaceful demonstrations in its squares. But the regime’s response to this incident was no less violent than that toward demonstrations in other cities.
Since December 2011, revolutionary demonstrations have taken place in Aleppo University. Several times now, state security personnel have entered the campus to “reprimand the students.” The military has also been harassing the students on a daily basis through arbitrary searches, insults and interference in matters that have nothing to do with maintaining security or protecting the regime.
However, what happened Thursday morning exceeded the previous level of repression and arrests. State security personnel and Shabiha gangs broke into the campus under the pretext of rooting out terrorists and members of the Free Syrian Army. Several students were killed or injured in the process, and the students were expelled from their housing quarters. Then, for the first time since 1980, all branches of Aleppo University were ordered to close.
One of the consequences of the arbitrary eviction of students from Aleppo University has been an unresolved student housing crisis in the city. To remedy this problem, the “Aleppo Youth” group published on Facebook the phone numbers of house owners who are ready to host expelled students. The university’s student housing was the largest in all of Syria, with approximately 10,000 students from all over the country.
The Facebook site was bombarded with angry comments. While some committed supporters of the regime chose not to comment, others have surprisingly expressed their opposition to the student eviction. There were also a few who insisted on blaming the students, saying "Didn't you want to protest?! Then why are you complaining about the decision?! Go ahead and protest all you want now!!" and "This is what should have happened since the demonstrations at the university started... Security first!"
As usual, conflicting reports have emerged over what happened. Some said that elements of the Free Syrian Army opened fire from within the campus. Others found that to be a mere pretext used by the security forces to storm the university. Regardless, witnesses are in near complete agreement that the security forces attacked students who had nothing to do with the demonstrations. Then, the Shabiha threw out the students’ belongings from the balconies of university housing units, and proceeded to barbarically expel them.
With this eviction, the Syrian regime and its media outlets have indescribably insulted the Syrian people’s intelligence. More than one impartial source reported that at least four students were killed during the security forces’ operation. One of those students was reportedly thrown off the fifth floor. Sources close to the regime also spoke of a student who tried to escape by jumping from the roof and another student who chose to commit suicide on the day of the operation.
The university’s closure prompted some young people who had been reluctant to support the revolution to reconsider their position. Those impartial students who call themselves “the third force” witnessed another mask fall from the regime’s face. There is no way to justify the violence against student demonstrators or their expulsion from university housing. This happened in a city that the regime claimed to be one of its strongholds, where it organized million-man marches in its support. The regime has once again revealed how worried it is about the revolution reaching civil society in Aleppo. They know that people there have long complained of intentional marginalization since the Baath party took power. Before that, Aleppo was an important regional center for industry and trade.
The regime’s supporters’ arguments are gradually becoming less convincing. With the continued bombings and lawlessness it has become pointless to brag about an “iron grip security.” After the regime suppressed the students and closed Aleppo University, the regime’s claim of being modern and secular in the face of ignorance and extremism has become a horrible joke.
After today, no one should trouble themselves with refuting the charges against the demonstrators in Syrian cities. The scene of hundreds of young university students on the street in front of Aleppo University’s student housing is enough to show that this regime is not fighting a war against armed gangs or Salafists, but rather a war against young people's hopes for a better tomorrow.