Saturday, March 17, 2012

Syria: and thus it begins

This week marked a major milestone in the nation of Syria. It has been exactly one year since the popular protests began, as part of the Arab Spring, and the government began its bloody crackdown. According to various news reports, Syrian military and paramilitary groups, acting under the direction of president Bashar Assad, have killed over 8,000 people since the protests began.

(Other reports say 9,000 and 10,000. Once you get into four figures, the accuracy of the numbers hardly matters anymore. By the way, is anyone keeping track of the names of the dead?)

The protests started as peaceful demonstrations in the streets. From the very beginning, they were met with clubs and bullets, with snipers and machine guns and torture and executions. Assad and his government thought that taking violent repressive (or was that supressive? opressive?) action at the beginning would silence the protests while they were still small, and frighten the people into obedience.

Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Bashar Assad. You have been using 20th-century weapons against a people armed with smartphones, satellite communications, and so on. Your guns and bombs won't work anymore. All they will do is make a bloody mess out of innocent people, and bring about your own violent downfall.

As the world has watched in silent and not-so-silent anger and frustration, the government has continued its campaign of bloody repression. And Syrians rose up in anger. The protesters turned into armed rebels. Hundreds of members of the Syrian military refused the orders to fire on their countrymen, instead taking their weapons with them and crossing over to join the rebels. So far the government has had the upper hand, and it has continued to use that upper hand to crush the opposition

But all that changed yesterday.

At the beginning, the protesters were just calling for reform. They weren't interested in toppling the government, just changing some things they didn't like. After enough innocent people got killed, and bombed out of their homes, their calls changed from "reform" to "revolution." However, the rebels have always been outgunned and out-brutalized.

The rebels aren't the ones who laid seige to a town, bombarded it into rubble, then went in and tortured, raped, and killed the survivors. The rebels haven't chased anybody across the border, into refugee camps in neighboring states like Turkey. Nor have the rebels engaged in the use of land mines to kill innocent women and children trying to escape the terror. Again, the Assad government did all this, and just because the people had the gall to speak their minds.

Yesterday, the violence was laid at the government's doorstep.

Two suicide bombs, car bombs actually, exploded in the capital city of Damascus, only 30 minutes and a few miles apart. One struck the air force intelligence building, and one the criminal security building. According to reports, 27 civilians were killed in the twin blasts.

The government quickly blamed the rebels, calling them "terrorists" as it has in the past. The rebels responded with a quick "You're crazy," claiming that they don't have the resources it would take to assemble an attack as sophisticated as that, pointing out that killing civilians has never been part of their strategy, and suggesting that the government did it themselves and tried to blame the rebels.

(For what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe the rebels. They are armed, it's true, but only with handheld weapons and whatever the rebellious Syrian troops brought with them. Despite the rebels' pleas for outside assistance, they have gotten nothing from other nations. And besides, the rebels have literally, honestly, gone out of their way to protect civilians and foreigners from getting hurt.)

Somebody this week stole and published more than 3000 email messages exchanged by president Assad, his wife, and other top government officials. These messages reveal the depth of contempt that Assad has for  his people. He would just as soon kill all of them in order to shut them up, as swat an annoying fly. He laughed about his promised reforms, saying that he only announced them to shut the people up, and had no intention of following through with them. At first, the authenticity of these messages was (rightfully) doubted. But they have been verified by the (non-Syrian) senders and recipients of some of the messages.

The U.S. claims, based on its own intelligence-gathering networks, that the terrorist organization al-Qaida in Iraq is behind these attacks. They claim that al-Qaida have seized on the opportunity afforded by the government crackdown and the resulting confusion, to infiltrate Syria. I'm not as trusting of U.S. intelligence agencies as I used to be, but this claim has some merit. Al-Qaida don't care who they kill. And al-Qaida aren't opposed to killing their brother Muslims, in order to further their aims. And if al-Qaida can destabilize the Syrian government, then when the government falls they can rush in and exert control over Syria to whatever degree they want. To them, 27 civilians is a small price to pay. Pocket change, even.

And Israel is right next door to Syria.

So the battle has now reached the streets of Damascus, although it's unclear who's doing the fighting. In less than a year, the Assad government will fall. As in Iraq, his generals and bureaucrats will do their best to disappear into the landscape. As in Libya, his soldiers - the ones doing the killing and committing all the other atrocities - will shed their uniforms and try to blend into the surrounding crowd. It's not clear yet what will happen to Assad.

Will he seek asylum with one of his neighbors, as Idi Amin did?

Will he be arrested and tried by his own people, as Pervez Musharraf was? And executed, as Saddam Hussein was?

Will he be captured in the streets (fleeing the country, like a coward) and killed by an angry mob, as Muammar Gaddafi was?

It would have been so much different if Assad had seen the writing on the wall when the protests first began, if he had taken a lesson from what was happening in the other Arab states, paid attention to what the protesters were saying, and made some changes - for the better - in his nation. Had he done so, 8,000 innocent people would still be alive, there would be peace in the streets of Homs and Damascus, and Assad's days would not be numbered, as they now are.

He has lost his country, and he has forfeited his life. It's only a matter of time, and he has only himself to blame.

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