The footage of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death by security forces in the 2009 Iranian uprising drew huge international attention, not to mention outrage. She became the symbol of the Iranians struggling for freedom and revolting against the disputed election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. At the time, it prompted the international media to publish numerous stories, accounts and articles about her courage and the brutality of the Iranian regime.
Today, many Nedas are being killed the same way in Syria. Their deaths are also being broadcast by amateurs on the internet, but the international media is covering the uprising indecisively. Western governments are not being as clear with the Syrian president as they were with the Egyptian and the Libyan leaders, for example.
Although Syrians are calling for the same freedoms and reforms, why is the West looking at the Syrian uprising from a different angle?
Western media is still dealing with the Syrian uprising from a political perspective by trying to answer questions about a possible alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical Islamic factions that are taking part in the protests, and whether the US or Europe could pressure the regime to implement the reforms it promised to make.
However, unlike the coverage of the Iranian protests and other Arab uprisings, Western media is still incapable of looking at the Syrian uprising as a humanitarian and democratic issue. The Syrian people’s demands are still not seen as genuine, and the conspiracy theories presented by the regime were not brushed off completely. Writers and journalists are debating the protesters’ demands as if Assad might have a point.
Also, the killing of protesters is not regarded as a massacre. In an interview on CBS News last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US will not intervene in Syria as it did in Libya as long as Assad is not bombing the people with airplanes. So that means that Assad can murder as many people as he likes as long as it’s not from the air.
When asked about recent brutalities committed by the Syrian regime against civilians, Clinton suggested that "there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities, than police actions which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."
Though on Wednesday Clinton strongly condemned "ongoing violence" by the Syrian government against demonstrators, saying Damascus needed to launch a "serious political process" to end the deadly unrest, President Barak Obama has been silent so far.
Hence, Assad has been using all atrocious methods possible to stop the people from demonstrating. Even lifting the decades-long emergency law didn’t work because it did not come with a package of reforms that the protesters have been demanding from the beginning. This was a cosmetic procedure that did not fool the demonstrators.
The regime justifies its brutality by saying that the demonstrators are part of a conspiracy against the state carried out by its enemies in Lebanon and elsewhere. They also said that the protesters are Salafists who are trying to topple the regime.
If that is accurate, why are they arresting liberal intellectuals and political activists, such as Suhair Atassi and Fayez Sarah? These two have nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalist groups. And if it were a conspiracy and “unknown individuals” were killing protesters, why is the regime only arresting, torturing and killing the demonstrators, including many children.
The regime does not want any news reporter or agency to work in the field because they might actually find out the truth: that these people have valid demands and that they are from all sects and classes.
But the truth is leaking out via Youtube videos that show the peaceful demonstrators being shot or arrested by violent security forces dressed in civilian clothes and known in Syria as shabbiha, or “thugs.”
Youtube, as in the Iranian case, is the only platform that is being used to show the cruelty of the regime against the protesters. The facts presented by these amateur videos hold more truth than all analysis and theories that have been written about the uprising so far. The truth is that the protests are peaceful and that the regime is brutal.
The protesters’ two main slogans so far are “Peaceful, peaceful” and “All united for Syria,” which are plastered all over the Facebook groups calling for demonstrations and which show that the conspiracy theory created by the regime is not valid.
These protesters are not radical Muslims. They start their demonstrations at mosques because mosques are the only meeting points for people in Syria, as the regime has managed over the past 50 years to separate Syrian society from all outlets of activism and free expression.
Plus, the Muslim Brotherhood, which everyone is afraid of, has only a weak connection to Syrian society. The regime managed to imprison, banish or kill most of their leaders.
The true nature of the protests can be sensed with a quick look at the videos showing hundreds of women – veiled and unveiled – protesting alongside men, or the images of thousands of women and children blocking the main highway earlier this month in Banias, demanding the release of hundreds who were arrested during protests in that region. The latter demonstrators were ordinary, rural women who were only moved by the spirit of the revolution, nothing else. Sure, many of them were wearing veils, but only the traditional village head covering that many Muslims and Christians in the Middle East wear – not the niqab or the burqa.
Now the question the West is asking, following Israel’s concerns, is who might govern Syria after Assad leaves while guaranteeing the stability of the Golan Heights?
To tell the truth, there are no guarantees, but there are many options. Why would Assad, an eye doctor, be more qualified for the presidency than former deputy and political prisoner Riad Seif, or leading human rights activist Muntaha Sultan al-Atrash, or established economist Aref Dalilah or sociologist Burhan Ghalyoun, to name a few?
What is happening in Syria is very similar to what happened in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt. The only difference is that the world saw the protests in those countries as a plea for freedom and as a humanitarian matter, while Syria remains until today a political issue. The West cannot pick and choose.
Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon