There are plenty of geopolitical justifications on offer for the West's reluctance to confront Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who has so far killed an estimated 1,100 people and detained and tortured 10,000 more. Assad may still prove to be a "reformer"—after he's done massacring his people. A London-trained ophthalmologist whose snipers shoot little girls through the eye is somehow still thought to be the sole peacemaker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Besides, the country has an economy the size of Pittsburgh's.
Shifting from delusion to realpolitik, another reason for the reluctance to confront Assad's barbarism is ignorance about the people opposed to him. Now that the brooms of Tahrir Square in Egypt have been replaced with burned churches and destroyed Sufi shrines, Washington is understandably wary of demanding that another Middle Eastern tyrant step aside before verifying who stands to take his place. What are the politics of the Syrian opposition? Are they secular or Islamist? Do they have a plan of action, assuming we offered to help?
The Henry Jackson Society, the London-based foreign-policy think tank where I work, has spent the last several weeks investigating the Syrian opposition and talking to key figures in six major cities in upheaval. The evidence suggests that this revolution is the most liberal and Western-friendly of any of the Arab Spring uprisings. That it's also the least supported by the West is a tragedy.
The Syrian protests began March 15, when about 40 people, galvanized by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in Damascus' old city and chanted, "God, Syria, Freedom—that's enough." Initially, the protesters just wanted reforms. But Assad responded to the first spontaneous civic demonstration in 30 years by unleashing hell. (He predictably blamed everyone from Israel's Mossad to "Salafists" for engineering the rebellion and, like all rattled tyrants, he has offered meaningless "reforms"). The demonstrations then swelled to tens of thousands in major cities such as Deraa, Homs, Baniyas, and Lattakia. The agents of repression were, and are, the mukhabarat and a ragtag militia of regime loyalists known as shabbiha who have conducted the kind of house-to-house raids that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi only threatened.
Ambulances carrying wounded civilians have been stopped on their way to hospitals, patients have been dragged from stretchers and further tortured and then locked up. On June 1, Human Rights Watch released a new report titled "We've Never Seen Such Horror." It documents the Grand Guignol nature of Baathist repression: "prolonged beatings with sticks, twisted wires, and other devices; electric shocks administered with tasers and electric batons; use of improvised metal and wooden 'racks,' " as well as male rape with a baton.
Last week, a new and powerful symbol emerged for the revolution in the "child martyr" Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who was abducted on April 29 at a demonstration in Jiza, a village near Deraa. He had been burned, skinned, shot, and his penis was cut off. Hamza's corpse was returned to his parents on the condition that they keep quiet about what had happened to him. They didn't. Hamza's father was subsequently arrested after he went public with a gruesome post-mortem video of his boy, but the popular outcry has been so fierce, it's even gotten Assad nervous.
Protesters have had to operate without Internet or phone access for the last several weeks, thanks to a state-implemented ban on communications. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable level of coordination and shared sense of purpose among the protesters. "If I give you names of who the West can back," a Damascus-based oppositionist told us in late May, "then I have to give you all the Syrian people's names, because this is a people's revolution." It also remains relatively spontaneous; a spokesman in Douma said that the only centralized decision is who will be responsible for filming and uploading video of demonstrations. "We have people who also work for the biggest IT companies who also provide us with ideas and solutions on how to bypass security measures by the regime."
Such grass-roots efforts are fast evolving into a coherent platform. The first signs of this became visible after the "Great Friday" massacre of April 22, when 112 people were killed in the space of a few hours. So-called "local coordinating committees" formed in major cities and towns and released a statement of demands following the crackdown.
These demands were:
- An end to torture, violence, and extrajudicial killings
- A free and transparent media to replace the state-controlled system
- State assumption of responsibility for violence
- The release of all political prisoners
- Free and fair elections to both national parliament (the People's Assembly) and municipal councils
- An independent judiciary
- Compensation for political exiles
- Amendments to the Syrian constitution that would refashion the country into a "multi-national, multi-ethnic, and religiously tolerant society"