reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
As the Arab spring has rattled the Middle east, with the fall of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan governments, the world has waited with anticipation as uprisings in Syria have challenged the Assad regime. But while hopes of democracy and political reform have arisen other parts of the Arab world, Syria remains entrenched in a violent police state, mired by severe human rights abuses. Even the international community appears to be impotent in putting an end to violence and the use of torture in Syria by the Assad government. The differences in the Syrian uprising from those in other Arab nations is painfully apparent, perhaps more than anything, in the source of the Syrian protests.
The Syrian protests gained momentum in March 2011, after the police in the southern town of Daraa arrested 15 school boys, aged 10-15, for painting a graffiti slogan from the Arab revolution, “As-Shaab Yoreed Eskaat el nizam!” (The people want to topple the regime!), on a wall, copying what they had seen on television news. The children happened to belong to the parents of some very well-established families in Syria, organized to demand that the Syrian police release their children. In the following conflict, security personnel and police fired on crowds demanding release of the children, killing three on March 18, after which the central government of Syria became involved.
When the children were finally released after spending two weeks in jail, their bodies bore marks of torture, and they apparently had been beaten by the guards, burned with electronic devices and some had their fingernails torn out. This fueled the conflict with further rage, and days later the Syrian police state cracked down on the growing protests by storming a Mosque that had become a center of the resistance movement, killing five.
Two months later, the body of a 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khateeb was returned to his family. As reported by Al Jazeera, “The child had spent nearly a month in the custody of Syrian security, and when they finally returned his corpse it bore the scars of brutal torture: Lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face and knees, consistent with the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cable, both techniques of torture documented by Human Rights Watch as being used in Syrian prisons during the bloody three-month crackdown on protestors. Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.”
Soon thereafter, the body of another boy, Thamer al-Sahri, who is believed to have been with Hamza when he disappeared, was released to his parents. Like Hamza’s, Thamer’s body bore the signs of brutal and prolonged torture. According to the Telegraph, ”his body was riddled with bullets and was missing an eye, several teeth and a large chunk of flesh in his lower face.”
After the discovery of this brutal torture in Syria against children, the Syrian uprising turned violent. Crowds began arming themselves, and Syria’s police state responded with brutal force, arresting thousands of citizens and torturing prisoners with regular frequency. Based on interviews by Human Rights Watch, “detainees were subjected to other forms of torture, including electro-shock devices, cables, and whips. Most also said they were held in overcrowded cells, and many were deprived of sleep, food, and water – in some cases, for several days. Some said they were blindfolded and handcuffed the entire time.” According to one detainee, “They stripped us down to our underwear and poured cold water on us, beat us with cables, and shocked us with electric batons – those were cylindrical sticks that looked like a torch, they pressed them toward our arms and stomachs, each time for three to four seconds. The low-ranking soldiers did the beatings, and higher officers used the electro-shock devices.” Despite the international outcry at the rampant use of torture in Syria, the Assad government’s brutal campaign appears to be working.
The United States and Europe find themselves in a Cold-War era type deadlock with Russia and China over the Syrian regime, with little recourse beyond sanctions to punish Syria’s leaders for war crimes. Perhaps the most grievous war criminal among President Assad’s inner circle is his brother, Maher al-Assad, head of the elite Republican Guard. According to locals, the men who stormed the Daraa mosque were Syrian special forces, with unconfirmed reports that they were under Maher’s command.
Maher al-Assad is reputed to be a classic psychopath, and allegedly shot and wounded his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, who is deputy chief of staff of the Syrian armed forces. In recent months, alleged video has surfaced of Maher shooting into an unarmed crowd of protesters in Damascus and surveying and taking pictures of wreckage and dismembered corpses after a military attack on civilians.
Some believe that the Assad regime has deliberately exploited the relationship between Bashar and Maher al-Assad in order to keep Bashar at a respectable distance from violence and maintain his image as a reformer, while his brother Maher, who revels in bloodshed, looks like a loose cannon. The dynamic is purportedly modelled on the relationship Bashar’s father and former President Hafez al-Assad had with his brother Rifaat. Rifaat al-Assad was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of much of the town of Hama during the Hama massacre, after an uprising of Sunni Muslims began in 1982.
Syria has a large majority of Sunni Muslims–about 75%, while 10% are Shia Alawites, the sect to which the Assads belong. The Assad family has ruled Syria for 40 years now (including from 1970 to 2000 under Hafez al-Assad), during which time they have cultivated a cliquish inner circle surrounded by Alawites and largely commanded by family members. It is no wonder then that this tightly knit inner circle has no hesitation in using violence to quell a popular rebellion. The nepotistic makeup of the Syrian military command is in one of the reasons why the Syrian military has not splintered into factions to the same degree that Libya’s military did during the fall of Gaddafi, and why armed opposition in Syria has been so ineffectual.
The Assad family is peculiarly situated both domestically and internationally. Domestically, they derive from a minority Shia sect in a predominantly Sunni country, but have concentrated military power and are willing to use it with devastating brutality in order to prop up their own power. This concentration of military power, combined with the use torture in Syria against civilians, has insulated the Assad’s from domestic dissent. Internationally, Syria sits along a decades-old Cold War divide, with support from Russia and China, both of whom are fully capable of stonewalling the United States and Europe from using the United Nations to punish Syria’s leaders for war crimes. The support for the Syrian regime is therefore like a hollow tent with two sturdy poles. The key will be understanding which one is most vulnerable to attack, and breaking it down. Domestically, the opposition to Assad does not seem to stand much of a chance. But internationally, Russian support will eventually buckle.