The doctor in the besieged Syrian city of Homs stands at the grave of Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times correspondent who was killed on February 22, and asks the camera, “How can the United States, with all its might, fail to stop the shelling of my city and unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?” He can only conclude that the US must in fact be “in alliance with Bashar al-Assad.” For how else can the young man who has dealt with so much death rationalize the daily mayhem and murder that has made Homs, and the neighborhood of Baba Amr in particular, the Sarajevo of our time?
Similar disbelief was expressed by Colvin’s colleague, the photographer Paul Conroy, as he lay recovering in a UK hospital after his daring escape from Syria into Lebanon, during which 13 of those guiding him to safety were allegedly killed. “There are actually no military targets within Baba Amr,” said Conroy, who has witnessed some of the most appalling conflicts in recent memory. “All of the intense shelling is in fact directed at the civilian population. It would be wrong to call this a war. This is a medieval siege and slaughter.”
The “siege and slaughter” of a “civilian population.” It is as unambiguous an assessment you could ask for, and yet many Lebanese and Syrians – people who would no doubt call themselves decent and humane – still argue the case for the Assad regime. They make the case that it is better to side with the devil they know rather than live under the Islamist regime that they are certain will surely follow should the Assads fall.
But there is no evidence that, should the insurrection prevail, Syria will suddenly become a medieval caliphate, a Wahhabi state run by sinister men with square beards. The Arab mindset has a history of being programmed by certainties that are far from being certain: “If Hezbollah disarms, Israeli armor will be in Beirut within hours” is the mantra we preach to avoid taking a hard decision. And yet there is no evidence that this will happen. (Indeed, it is Hezbollah’s belligerent posture and apocalyptic rhetoric that makes war a very real scenario.)
But let’s humor the Basharniks for a second. So where are the Islamists in the battle for modern Syria? From what we can tell, the vast majority of the opposition to the regime is made up of ordinary civilians, not just men, but women and children. Those who have weapons are, by and large, army defectors, or those men who have taken up arms in outrage against the regime’s brutality.
What many forget is that Syria has a young population, one of the youngest in the Arab world, and it is part of the wider awakening that cannot understand why generations of their compatriots put up with an authoritarianism that appeared to gain its legitimacy by the mere presence of the state of Israel and the apparent threat that it posed. This new generation has looked beyond the narrow confines of the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict, and they have courageously decided that they don’t want it.
But we digress. Because to even suggest that any Islamist involvement the Syrian revolt can justify the level of slaughter is as disgusting as those who are perpetrating the cull. Those Syrians who have reconciled their support for the regime with their conscience are as guilty as the regime itself. For let us assume that what will follow the downfall of the Assads is not to the palate of the merchant classes and others who have thrived under the Assad family’s patronage. Does this justify the slaughter of innocent civilians? The bloodletting has nothing to do with protecting the Syrian economy, nor with the interests of the private sector. It cannot be condoned because of a fear of the unknown. This is not about regional stability. This is about maintaining power at any cost. It is about giving a master class in dealing with national impertinence. And yet there are those who still back the regime, who want things to return to normal so they can live in what they see as stability.
But events have become so monstrous, there is nowhere left to hide, and surely, if only because it falls within the compass that is human compassion, those Syrians who have remained on the fence will now break off from the mother lode of Baathist kryptonite that has sustained the regime for so long. The crumbling must begin.