I know: today was meant to be installment number two in Diamond’s Origins of Jihad series. But I can never resist a fashion update. This article, which focuses on Syrian traffic police and their new uniforms, comes from the UK’s Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Changing uniforms isn’t on the same level as changing policy. But clothing is more important than many people imagine – and breaking the connection between ‘police’ and ‘military’ that seems to plague so many Middle Eastern countries is an important step.
(And who doesn’t love seeing men in crisp white shirts?)
In an attempt to make some of Syria’s police look less like soldiers, the government has decided to change traffic policemen’s uniforms from military olive green to more civilian white and grey shades.
However, many critics of the authorities have dismissed the move as cosmetic, with some asserting that it comes amid growing state repression.
[I do think that the state is and has been cracking down - but that doesn't mean that the decision to change these uniforms was meant to either make up for that or distract people from increasingly repressive measures in other spheres.]
The decision on the change of uniforms was implemented in Damascus in September, with the rest of the country due to follow later. It included also the uniforms of customs officers at Damascus international airport and on the borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
[Oh, the border officials. I'm not sure that uniforms are enough here, but surely anything that might improve their attitudes is worth a go.]
The new outfits are composed of grey pants, a white shirt with yellow shoulder patches and black belt and shoes.
[Vogue agrees: yellow is in this season! Good choice, Syria.]
It is the latest in a series of moves in recent years to shake off the image of Syria’s socialist, militarised society.
Four years ago, the authorities substituted military green school uniforms with other colours like grey, dark blue and off-white depending on the pupils’ grades.
Mandatory military service was reduced to one and a half years from two years in another move in the same direction.
[I would say that these are two very important changes. Children and adults both take cues from their uniforms, and primary school should not feel like basic training. And reducing the mandatory military service might be a way to start gently downsizing the overweight Syrian military. Might be, says the optimist, but even so.]
The government appears to be conveying an image that it is moving away from the militarisation of society, said a lawyer living in Damascus who also requested anonymity.
In schools, officials have toned down the practice of conditioning pupils not to be concerned with personal issues but to focus on broader regional topics like the liberation of Palestine and the struggle for Arab unity, which were slogans that students had to repeat every day, he said.
In a way, students are now treated less like soldiers and more like just students, he added.
An Arabic language schoolteacher from Damascus who also asked to remain anonymous said that since the new school uniforms took effect, students’ behaviour had improved, especially that of high school students. They had become “more polite”, he said.
[Hugely important - not the politeness, but the evolving attitudes toward students and what they should be learning.]
Similarly, the move to modify the uniforms of policemen and customs officers comes as part of a government plan to change the way people view civil servants.
Mona al-Ahmad, a journalist who works for a Syrian website and usually reports on social issues, said the decision was made by the new interior minister, Said Samour, in an effort to separate officials in charge of maintaining security from those tasked with serving the Syrian people.
The authorities have retrained officials in charge of traffic by instructing them on how to address citizens and deal with them in an appropriate way, she said.
[The idea of service - as in, civil service, civil servant, serving the nation, serving at the pleasure of the people, etc., etc. - would be GREAT. And once Syria gets it down, could they please send a delegation to Lebanon?]
Several websites hailed the decision. The pro-government website Damas Post said the new uniform “resembles that of French traffic police”.
[Oh for heaven's sake.]
But many critics remain sceptical that changing the appearance of some police officers would solve core problems.
Some anonymous web commentators said that it was more important to stop traffic policemen from seeking and taking bribes.
Others said that the focus should not be on fashion but on the creation of a state where officials respect institutions and laws.
[Yes, but I would suggest that the two go hand in hand. Fashion that emphasizes service rather than state power might be a real help in this process.]
It is a far-fetched dream to expect Syria to become a really civilian-oriented country, said a Damascus-based civil rights activist, who preferred not to be named.
He argued that the tight security grip on political dissent along with the intimidation and imprisonment of intellectuals and journalists was increasing.
[Ouch. Clearly, the state is treating dissidents more harshly. But describing Syria's capacity for change as a "far-fetched dream" sounds like this man has written off his fellow citizens entirely.]