Tragedy in Syria

It has been a month since I last wrote about Syria, but I have thought about my favorite Middle Eastern country every single day, and watched the news anxiously, hoping for some miraculous happy-ever-after. Since then, any illusions that President Bashar al-Assad might not be quite as bad as his infamous father have been washed away in rivers of blood. Over 500 civilians have died at the hands of the Syrian military during the past six weeks, with 62 killed just yesterday in protests that brought 15,000 Syrians to the streets of Damascus alone. The southern city of Daraa, where the protests began, is surrounded by a tank blockade that has cut off its citizens from water, electricity, medical support, and even milk for children. For Syrians, this  blockade recalls dark memories of the city of Hama, which in 1982 was surrounded and besieged by the Syrian army before being completely wiped out in a massacre that killed tens of thousands of people. Many Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, although the Syrian government sealed the Jordanian border last week.

Hundreds of members of the Syrian Parliament and other officials have resigned to protest the killings. Their resignation from a sham parliament does little to affect the real leadership of the country, but is a hopeful sign that there may be some cracks in the hitherto seemingly iron-clad dictatorship.  Scattered soldiers have refused orders to fire on civilians and been speedily executed themselves. However, rumors of large-scale military defections appear to be unfounded. The international response has been slow. On Thursday, The British government did issue a last-minute “uninvitation” for the Syrian ambassador to attend the royal wedding. And yesterday the United States froze the assets of President Assad’s brother, although not of the President himself. The gesture is largely symbolic, since Syrian political figures don’t tend to keep their money in the U.S. The EU also held an emergency meeting in Brussels last night to discuss sanctions, which may take weeks to implement.

Helping along any kind of meaningful change in Syria seems a mammoth task. It was hard enough to begin an international intervention in Libya, where a single, isolated madman ran a sparsely-populated country in Africa. Syria’s Bashar is a British-educated doctor with a glamorous wife and three cute kids. His regime has been courted by the U.S. to prevent closer ties to Iran, is paradoxically an important pillar of security for Israel, contributes to a fragile stability in volatile Lebanon, and borders troubled Iraq. Syria’s military is loyal, and its central circle of leadership appears undivided. The Syrian people are finally heroically standing up to decades-long repression, and the rest of the world appears powerless to prevent the resultant bloodbath. It seems that all there is left to do is to hope and pray.

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