The Assad regime specializes in torture. After every demonstration, security forces round up hundreds of protesters, suspects, and random passers-by. In some areas, they go from house to house, dragging out every young man they find. Once detained, these people can look forward to savage beatings, restraint in stress positions, filth, humiliation, rape, mutilation, or worse. Although they brave bullets every time they go out on the streets to protest, many are more afraid of being detained than shot.
And the reach of the Syrian government is long. Those the regime cannot get at directly, it targets indirectly via threats or actual violence against friends and family in Syria. This is likely the reason for the strange events surrounding the aborted defection of the Syrian ambassador to France in June. The regime continues to intimidate Syrians abroad, aided in part by its ambassador to the U.S., who spies on his countrymen in America. Just last week, a Syrian-American pianist performed a song he had composed during a rally against the Assad regime in Washington. Shortly thereafter, his elderly parents were beaten in their home by Syrian security forces, who dragged his 70-year-old mother out of bed and broke her teeth.
Beneath the glamorous, glossy photos in Vogue magazine is a brutal regime adept at finding the place that will hurt the most, and kicking it till it bleeds. In the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Bashar al-Assad has “lost all sense of humanity.”
The city of Hama right now is reliving its worst nightmare. A protester my age would have been two years old when the Syrian army sealed off the city in 1982, sent the army in at dawn, and massacred between 10,000 and 20,000 people (no one knows for sure, and the dead still lie in mass graves). Although the incident took weeks to leak out to the foreign media and mention of it was strictly forbidden in Syria, the inhabitants of Hama have lived for thirty years with their secret grief and terror.
On Sunday, history began to repeat itself, as tanks rolled into Hama to crush opposition protesters there. 150 people have been killed in the past four days. Hama’s electricity, water, and communications were cut before the attack, and the city has been under constant heavy shelling, with no sign of a let-up. Thousands are attempting to flee the city, although the road toward Turkey and safety has been blocked, and snipers are posted on rooftops, shooting at anything that moves.
In the context of all this, I was flabbergasted to read that the British oil firm Gulfsands Petroleum is planning to continue business as usual with the Syrian regime. They apparently don’t care that “business as usual” for this government is code for torture, murder and oppression. The company spokesman’s only further comment was that Gulfsands Petroleum “should be entitled to be confident that [its] existing contractual arrangements will be respected by any incoming government in the event the current Assad-led government is displaced or not re-elected.”
I feel compelled to say that those who continue to do “business as usual” with a ruthless tyrant while simultaneously feeling entitled to keep making just as much money after he leaves, have also “lost all sense of humanity.”
On other fronts, complicity is reduced to mere apathy. A grand total of one Senator attended the confirmation hearing for Robert Ford, our ambassador to Syria, to hear his firsthand testimony about events on the ground in Syria. The Syrian Ambassador in Washington still roams where he pleases, although Mr. Ford has been confined by the Syrian government to Damascus, due to his dramatic show of solidarity with Hama earlier this month.
Although Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton have condemned the regime’s actions with varying (and sometimes backsliding) degrees of severity, the U.S. administration has yet to call outright for President Assad to step down (as it did relatively quickly for both Mubarak and Qaddafi, neither of whom had yet been half this brutal to their people). Yesterday’s “presidential statement” from the U.N. is an important gesture, but only underscores the relative toothlessness of the international community when it comes to stemming the continuing violence against the people of Syria.
The Assad government is doing everything it can to encourage sectarian violence, without much success so far. I only hope that the opposition protesters will have the strength to continue to cling to their high ideals despite their desperate situation. Change is possible. Evil can be overcome. And truth, freedom, and human dignity are eternally worth fighting for.