Justice for Syrians

By Dr. Hasan Zillur Rahim

8 August 2011

Self-restraint and God-consciousness are the essence of fasting for Muslims in Ramadan, a month in which thirst and hunger can become a source of salvation for the believer. As one of the five pillars of Islam, fasting is mandatory for the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the ruler and the ruled.

Given this, Muslims and indeed, people of conscience everywhere, are trying to fathom the brutality and the bloodshed occurring in Syria now, in which a regime is waging an all-out war against its own people.

On the eve of Ramadan this year, tanks and troops of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad besieged the city of Hama, killing more than 200 people. The son seems determined to repeat what the father – Hafez al-Assad – did in 1982 when his military killed at least 10,000 people in that city in crushing a revolt.

The anti-government uprising began on March 18 when Syrians, emboldened by the Arab Spring, took to the streets to denounce the four decades of autocratic rule by the Assad dynasty. The Damascus regime first tried to blame foreign conspirators. When that didn’t work, it began fanning the flames of religious and ethnic conflicts. The sectarian plot fizzled as well when it became clear that members of all religious, ethnic groups and clans – Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Shias – were united in ousting Assad and his cronies. Protesters calling for national unity held up banners that read, “We are all Syrians and together we demand the ousting of the regime.”

Zagloul, a Syrian-American and a Silicon Valley executive, has just returned from a two-month trip to Damascus. I asked him about the mix of protesters in Syria. “I saw no sectarian divide,” he confirmed. “People from all walks of life and every ethnic background are participating.” He is hopeful that by the end of Ramadan, some dramatic changes for the better will occur in Syria. But he also knows that the situation is dire and the future uncertain.

Dictators resorting to “business as usual” have been helpless against the onrushing tsunami of Internet activism. Live videos and descriptions of the violence in Syria can be found on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media outlets.

Yet the truth is that the forces of Bashar Assad, led primarily by his two ruthless brothers, Maher and Rifaat, are killing with impunity Syrians in Hama, Homs, Deir al-Zour, Damascus and other cities. They are apparently convinced that international outrage against their atrocities will be no more than lip service. Protesters in the flashpoint city of Hama carried poignant banners that read “Your silence is killing us!”

But activity is beginning to replace passivity. Gulf Arab States – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – have called for stronger sanctions against the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors from Syria. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has demanded that Bashar Assad “stop the killing machine and end the bloodshed.”

One can argue that the Gulf States are not paragons of freedom themselves and so their call for reform in Syria smacks of hypocrisy. But that would be the wrong stand to take at this juncture when Syrians are dying by the thousands. We must not give in to political or ideological considerations and support any step to stop Assad’s killing machine.

Feras is a marketing consultant in Silicon Valley. He is following the ominous developments in the country of his birth with mounting anxiety. “I have an 85-year-old aunt in Hama,” he told me. “She has never stepped out of her home in the last ten years. But she was forced to flee with her two daughters to a border town when troops began their indiscriminate shelling. On hundred and forty-five of them were packed into a single bus.”

Although Feras has known of Assad’s campaign of terror, the “Ramadan Massacre” has shocked him. “All he cares about is power and his preference for bullets over basic rights.” But Feras is convinced that Syrians have reached a point of no return. “They have nothing to lose. They will win their freedom or they will die. Let’s pray it is the former.”

Feras fervently hopes that the United States, Europe and Middle-Eastern countries will freeze Syria’s assets, just as they did Libya’s. “But the situation is much more complicated in Syria, so NATO-led bombing, as in Libya, is not an option at this time. What will work is international pressure and isolation of the Assad regime.” He is in contact with sources inside Syria. “Every Friday after the Jumah prayers, and after the nightly Ramadan prayers, people gather to plan and organize protests. It is spreading all over, to Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other cities.”

“Is there a unified opposition party?”

“Syrians have not known freedom for several decades. In Egypt, in spite of the authoritarian regimes, people had well-formed opposition groups with a history of organized protests. Not so in Syria, and so the logistics and the coordination will take some time. But it will happen.”

Human rights groups calculate that over 2,000 Syrians have been killed so far since the pro-democracy demonstrations began in March, not including those who have been tortured but somehow managed to survive. The United Nations Security Council has issued a toothless statement condemning the use of force against civilians but without any threat of sanctions. It also urges “all sides to act with restraint,” as if the protesters are equally to blame for the deaths.

The Council must impose tough sanctions against Syria and lay the groundwork for a war crimes investigation on Assad and his goons for the International Criminal Court in Hague. Likewise, the United States, the European Union, Turkey and the countries that consume Syrian oil – Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands – must step up pressure on Assad. He has lost all legitimacy and he must go. As Feras put it, “Nothing less will be acceptable to Syrians, particularly after the Ramadan Massacre.”