Years from now, when the Arab Spring is long behind us and the Syrians join the ranks of free nations; many will wonder why so much innocent blood was spilled to sustain a despotic regime that was destined to collapse. In terms of lethality, the struggle to free Syria from the grips of Assad’s clan has already inflicted twice as many casualties as the Egyptian uprising. When you take into account that Syria has a population of only twenty million, you realize that the price of liberty in Syria is likely to be exorbitant.
The Syrian rebels are facing a diabolical regime that not only has a monopoly on violence but has forty years of experience in making liberal use of its exclusive franchise to torment its people. And if that isn’t enough of a deterrent against joining the uprising, a Syrian rebel also has to confront the reality that most of the regional players are more than willing to place their bets on the butcher of Damascus.
Arab regimes are like Mafia families and as a general rule they know the boundaries of their turf. Assad’s gang is in good standing with the Godfathers of the House of Saud, enjoys excellent relationships with the theocrats in Tehran and has secured an unofficial détente with Israel. Damascus can always depend on Hezbollah to do its bidding in Lebanon and Maliki of Iraq has expressed his support for ‘stability’ in Syria. Nabil Al-Arabi, the foreign minister of Egypt and the newly appointed secretary general of the Arab League, has also taken his place on the ‘stability’ wagon although he did take the extraordinary measure of recommending unspecified ‘reforms’ in Syria.
Even the Palestinians will look the other way for fear of incurring the wrath of Damascus. If the slaughter in Hama still resonates with the Syrians, the Palestinians have not forgotten Hafez El Assad’s role in the Tel El Zaatar massacre.
The Assad clan has always had a talent for attracting the strangest of bedfellows. Last week, Walid Jumblatt, the uncrowned prince of the Lebanese Druze, showed up in Damascus to consult with the Syrian godfather on the formation of a Lebanese cabinet. Just for the record, the Jumblatt and Assad clans have a relationship that goes way back to when Kamal Jumblatt, Walid’s Father, was assassinated by none other than Hafez El Assad, Bashar’s daddy. It was nothing personal – just the banal business of a brutish dictatorship.
Even Turkey has to make allowances for Syria’s Machiavellian genius. It wasn’t so long ago that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) had a safe haven in Syria. Perhaps that’s why Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, took three months to distance himself from Assad and condemn the ‘savage atrocities’ of his regime.
Three months into the Syrian revolt and not a single Syrian diplomat has resigned to protest the carnage. That alone should tell you something about the Stalinist rigor used to vet State apparatchiks. Although there are credible accounts of a mutiny in Gisr Jisr al-Shughour, Syrian army officers remain loyal to the regime. Much of the slaughter is apparently the handiwork of the infamous Shabiha, a shadow militia of Baath Party goons that is a bit like Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes but operates with the discipline and ruthlessness of the East German Stasi.
As for the “international community,” they might work themselves into enough of a frenzy to pass some sort of Security Council resolution. But economic sanctions won’t deter the regime and there’s a very remote possibility of any kind of outside military intervention. Should Bashar suffer the fate of Sudan’s Bashir and earn himself a well-deserved indictment from the International Criminal Court, he might find a jail cell in The Hague a welcome back-up destination compared to the prospects of facing a lynch mob in Damascus. As for economic sanctions, the Syrian regime has already developed the requisite know-how for handling economic hardships – they will just pass off the burden to the Syrian people.
Not a word of this will come as any revelation to any of the unarmed Syrian rebels bearing their chests to the guns of a despotic regime. Three months into the uprising, they know that the outside world has abandoned them and that they will have to finish this fight on their own. That takes raw courage – the unique madness that is born of utter desperation.
If we can’t join them in the fight, we can at least send them a little advice. This struggle will be won by the side that can endure the most pain for the longest period of time. While it’s true that the Syrian rebels have already succeeded in mauling the regime’s legitimacy, the Assad clan didn’t enter this battle with any legitimacy worth quibbling about. Assad and his clan will not abandon power out of embarrassment.
That said, none of this means that the rebels don’t have a few aces up their sleeves. Assad has only so many armed thugs and the rebels own a powder keg of twenty million disgruntled but unarmed citizens. So far, the regime has been able to mow down protesters in Deraa on Friday and then relocate them to Jisr al-Shughour a few days later. Their strategy is to make examples of the most rebellious towns. That also helps to explain why they detain demonstrators, torture them and release them to spread the message that Assad’s goons are demented psychos capable of all sorts of depravity.
The regime is circling the wagons and Assad has demonstrated his willingness to resort to deadly force. The tactics used by the Tunisians and Egyptians have already failed because the Syrian army has broken ranks with the people.
One of the unique aspects of the Syrian uprising is that the battle has been joined in the countryside but has yet to gain strength in Damascus and Aleppo where state security forces have always had an iron grip. In Cairo, the demonstrators managed to occupy Tahrir Square for eighteen days. Not to be outdone, Yemeni demonstrators have camped out for four months straight. The Syrian regime will allow none of that. So maybe it’s time to take out a page from the Serb struggle against Milosovic and start turning out the lights every Thursday night at 9 pm and banging pots and pans till midnight. Once you get a critical mass of participation, horde some pita bread, cheese and olives and start a one week strike. Don’t leave your homes. Don’t go to work. Close your shops and keep your kids out of schools. And, whatever you do, don’t go to mosques or church services. Leave your places of worship empty and make your homes citadels of liberty.
Then take to the streets and see if Doctor Bashar still has any ammunition to confront the courage of a Syrian rebel.