Today (Thursday) President Obama intends to give a speech on US foreign policy in the Middle East. It's believed that he will outline a vision of the new US policy in the wake of the Arab Spring.
In the meantime, people are dead and dying in the streets of Syrian cities. The situation there is getting a depressingly small amount of coverage, although it appears that Syria will - to some extent - be addressed in Obama's speech. It's about time. I'm not Syrian or Arab or even any kind of expert on the topic. But I do have Syrian friends, who are all shaken and worried over what's going on. I'd like to just share some of their thoughts (since none of them are bloggers here), my own, and just try to raise awareness.
Just to give some background on Syria, it's a story not unlike what happened in neighboring Iraq. In 1963, the nominally Arab Socialist and secular Baath party took over the country. After an intra-party coup 40 years ago, Hafez al-Assad made himself dictator of the country.
There's sadly been no shortage of Middle-Eastern dictatorships, but Syria's has one of the most brutal of them all. Likely rivaled only by that of Saddam Hussein (a fellow Baathist, as it were) in neighboring Iraq in their intolerance of dissent or threats to their power. In 1982, Assad's army killed tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood protesters and innocents in what's now known as the Hama massacre. Thousands more have disappeared for interrogation, torture and execution over their 40-year reign. In 2000, Hafez passed the torch to his son, Bashar - who has proved no less brutal.
In the league of dictatorships, Syria is playing in the highest division, together with the likes of Saddam's Iraq, Libya and North Korea. Back in January, I recall discussing the uprising in Tunisia with my Syrian friend Farooq. As many pointed out, the surprise of the Tunisian revolution was precisely that it occurred in Tunisia, such an ostensibly 'stable' country, rather than in, say, Egypt which "could go off at any moment". -Indeed, it soon did! But Syria? No. "I think we'll see an uprising in North Korea before we see one in Syria", Farooq said at the time. He'd know; he has friend who was tortured by the regime, for being a communist.
Syria is not Egypt or Tunisia. Protests are not tolerated, it wasn't a question of whether the military would act - they already had a bloody history of having done so. Egypt and Tunisia had some semblance of freedom of speech. They still had semi-independent journalists, and foreign journalists and foreigners in general were plentiful. Syria tolerates no such freedom of information, illustrated well by their recent arrest and subsequent expulsion of Dorothy Parvaz. Her foreign citizenship(s) may be the only reason she is alive today.
There are strong differences between Tunisia and Egypt on one hand, and Syria on the other. The former countries had a separation of their security apparatus and their military which does not exist in Syria. An important factor here is that the Al-Assad family are Alawites (also known as Alawis; 'followers of Ali'), a Shia sect who constitute a minority in Syria, once subject to persecution by the Sunni majority.
So the state security apparatus and upper military ranks are heavily populated by Alawis, strongly loyal to the regime for fear of losing their privileged status, but also fear of persecution under majority rule. The latter fear has also been wielded and promoted by the regime to keep the sizable (~10%) Christian minority in check. In the past weeks, a fear strong enough that I've seen expat Syrian Christian leaders say they want gradual change, not a revolution, for fear of oppression.
Another friend of mine, David, a Christian Syrian (they tend to prefer the term Assyrian) friend of mine scoffed at that suggestion, saying they'd bought into the regime's fear-mongering, and pointed out: "All the Syrian Christians living abroad left during the Baathist's rule! We were getting along fine before they took over.". But the prospect of an islamist takeover must at least be considered. It's something which definitely scares the United States as well, viewing the region through it's oil-and-Israel tinted glasses.
I'm not sure reform is possible with a system so thoroughly corrupt. Farooq once told me of his cousin, who'd been offered a job as a minister. "He couldn't afford it, though." Asking what he meant, he explained that every job from cabinet minister down to school teachers has its price - one which must be paid up-front, even if you're later expected to recoup that cost later - from the bribes you receive. Government jobs have all been granted on the basis of allegiance to the regime, followed by the ability to bribe, with actual merits being a distant third.
What can we do?
Despite Farooq's dire prediction, it turns out that even Syria was not immune to the tides of the Arab Spring. In January and February, protests were announced, but few had yet the courage to show up. Things have since escalated - and as the sadly predictable military response.
Hundreds if not thousands are dead and dying in the streets of Syrian cities. My Syrian friends are distressed wrecks; Worried for their families, angry at the regime, and perhaps above all frustrated at their inability to do anything, other than voice their rage and frustrations online (over the objections of relatives in Syria, frightened the regime may find out)
Yet the media remains silent. Or at least relatively silent, compared to the coverage of the other uprisings. The reason, I believe, is that the regime's media blackout is so effective. Modern media needs pictures, interviews, video. It needs the intrepid reporter-celebrities reporting from the scene (mainstream media's priorities are clear; it's not like CNN sent out Anderson Cooper because of any special expertise on the region). And as media attention has waned, so has the attention here on DKos. The reasons we've heard of the protests and massacres in Deraa isn't necessarily because Deraa has had the largest protests, but because it's a border town, with access to the outside world through the Jordanian mobile network. (Or so I'm told)
There is not (yet, at least) any 'rebel movement', or window of opportunity to provide military support of the kind we're doing in Libya. And plenty of reasons to wonder whether that would be politically feasible or desirable, even if the opportunity came. (As a parenthesis on that note, I fully support the NATO action in Libya, and so do my Arab friends. Farooq said: "The people of this region should bow down and kiss the feet of the USA." - not something I think he'd have said last year!)
But at the minimum, what we can do.. No, obligated to do, is to stand up and condemn this tyranny in the harshest possible terms. On a positive note, some details leaked to the AP indicate that Obama may be prepared to do just that. Yesterday, the government announced sanctions against members of the Assad family and inner circle.
Realistically, this is not likely to do much. Syria, an ally Iran and fellow "Axis of Evil" member, is one of nations in the world where the US likely has the least ability to influence and effect change. But that should, at the very least, mean that we have nothing to lose for standing up for what's right here. We can't escape all of our gross hypocrisies in the Middle East, such as the relative silence on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But the time has come to stop being silent about crimes against humanity and human rights. To recognize that brutal dictators are brutal dictators, and that if we can't unseat them, we should at least not accept them.
There needs to be an attitude change - not just towards the Middle East, but towards human rights in general. It's time we recognized that people do want democracy and freedom, and that it is not "naive" to believe as much. The cynics are the ones who are naive, believing as they do that we can support dictators in the name of "stability" or economic development, without it coming back to bite us in the ass. (I'm leaving out Israel relations here, since at least nobody is naive enough to suggest that doesn't create enmity)
We need to change the attitude that lead to the NY Times calling Seif al-Islam Qaddafi the "Western-friendly face of Libya". It's certainly true he was trying to invent himself as such a "reformer", and the Times bought it, hook line and sinker. I don't view that as the result of naiveté, but of willful ignorance. There is not, and never has been, a question of the fact that the Qaddafi regime did not allow the slightest bit of freedom, or that they tortured and murdered dissidents. Believing Qaddafi Jr's reformist act was perhaps naive. But believing that such a regime could be reformed with the Qaddafi family still in power, is beyond that.
Yet, that's nothing compared to the blatantly sycophantic article in Vogue, published only three months ago (with the Arab uprisings in full swing) by Joan Juliet Buck, on the wife of Bashar al-Assad's wife Asma. Titled "A rose in the desert" (partially reproduced here), the article showed idyllic pictures of the dictator playing with his children, declaring Syria the "safest country in the Middle East", with only oblique references to the security apparatus and total lack of freedom. It was harshly criticized (and rightly so!) in a number of places - yet Vogue's editors doubled-down and defended their coverage. Until a few weeks ago, as the body count rose, the article mysteriously disappeared off Vogue's web page, no explanations or apologies given.
The readership and journalists of Vogue may not have the greatest political acumen around, but still! It's easy to poke fun at the bad timing, ("Middle-Eastern dictators are sooo last year!"), but the real issue is of course that it was published at all.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but the fact is that it did not take any particular insight at the time to realize that Qaddafi Jr. and Assad Jr. were not going to be the reformers the billed themselves as. Even if you allow for the possibility that they themselves may have wanted reform, the mistake may not have been believing their sincerity, but in believing such reform was possible. The people of Libya and Syria were not going to forgive and forget a regime that murdered and tortured them! And here's the point: Neither should we. (And on that note, isn't it time we started looking for a new home for the Fifth Fleet? Here's an idea: Norfolk.)
These guys know what we want to hear. Even now, al-Assad is trying to claim the security forces have made 'mistakes', and empty promises to end the emergency rule that is the cornerstone of their dictatorial powers, while they enact new "anti-terror" laws which will surely guarantee their continued power. (I don't think anyone's falling for their attempted 'castling move' though, it's a bit rich coming from a country that's supported Hezbollah and Hamas.)
We may not be able to do a lot, but we can not afford to stay silent in the face of the brutal crimes of the Syrian regime. Talk does matter. If it had not been for media and communications, the Arab Spring would not have happened in the first place. Hopefully, some journalists have now learned not to pander to the western-friendly facades these regimes may put up. But if we ignore what's going on due to the lack of information, images and so forth so forth, we are only validating their suppression of free speech, journalism and communications. Don't ignore the darkened room, turn a light on it!