A tiny window of opportunity in Syria
Even if you somehow rationalize the mindboggling cost of years of indiscriminate aerial bombings and direct military engagement in terms of human lives as part of modern warfare, what is most incredible and absurd is the systematic, industrial scale extermination of defenseless Jews, Gypsies and other minorities.
The world watched in helpless, morbid wonder as Hitler coolly went about his mission of purifying the Aryan race and gassing human beings as if they were. Of course, the United States eventually intervened and the Allies managed to halt the onward march of fascism after it had nearly gobbled up the whole of Europe, but not long before millions and millions of lives were consumed by the zeal of one insecure, inadequate man.
Hitler was not superhuman nor did his armies came from a different planet. What made him invincible was the moral cowardice of the opposition. Instead of confronting the Nazis, Britain, the waning global power, chose to appease and humor them. Hitler killed and killed and killed because the world stood and stared, rather than act to stop him.
Just as the world stands and stares today while Syria’s Assad kills. Millions of precious lives could have been saved in Europe if the world had acted in time. It failed to do so, just as it has failed in Syria’s case. Some collaborated with Hitler directly or indirectly for their own, narrow selfish goals--just as Russia and others have indulged Assad.
The latest report about the “industrial scale” killing of detainees in Syria shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Syria has had a long history of casual contempt for human life and its own people. And it has repeatedly demonstrated it — from the Hama massacre in 1982 to the horror of Homs carnage under his son. There is a method in the madness. And it goes way back.
If anyone still had any doubts about the diabolic nature of this regime and what its continuation mean for the besieged Syrians, this should open their eyes.
Three eminent lawyers, who worked as prosecutors for war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of Syrian security forces from March 2011 to August 2013. The evidence includes as many as 55,000 photographs and has been produced by a regime defector. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.
The Syrian defector claims that the victims all died in captivity before being taken to a military hospital to be photographed. There would be he said as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which required 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse.
The purpose of the photos was firstly to be able to issue death certificates, claiming the victims had died in hospital. The bodies would then be buried in rural areas. The authors of the report say they found the informant and his evidence to be credible after subjecting them to “rigorous scrutiny” and have made their findings available to the UN, governments and human rights groups.
They suggest there’s now a strong case for prosecuting Assad and his men: “This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of.” One of the report’s authors, Sir Desmond de Silva, said the photographs reminded him of the images of the Nazi concentration camps liberated in 1945.
More important, aid agencies and human rights groups argue that the latest evidence in Syria’s jails may only be the tip of the iceberg as these large-scale killings of detainees represent numbers from just one part of the country.
Thousands of Syrians have been held in detention centers and prisons across the country where they are tortured, denied food and sleep and are left to die a slow and painful death. Thousands more remain unaccounted for; no one knows how many are out there, waiting for their quiet, painful end in anonymity.
Syria is the worst example of a police state in a region crawling with such Orwellian structures. There are as many as 15 security and intelligence agencies in Syria besides the vast network of Baath Party faithful who act as eyes and ears of the regime.
The question is, what is the world going to do about it? Would the latest disclosures that came a day before the Geneva II talks help end the world community’s criminal indifference and stupor? Would it lead to any meaningful steps to end the nightmare that Syrians have been living for the past three years — and long before that?
Assad thrives on the apathy of a world that recoils at the talk of international intervention. Thanks to the grand deception that spawned the West’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mayhem they have unleashed, the world has lost all appetite for all such adventures.
Having extricated the US from two of its most disastrous wars, Obama is understandably reluctant to get involved all over again. But then what is the way out for Syria?
The UN or the so-called world community that it represents doesn’t have the will or wherewithal to stop the carnage. Perhaps the Syrians might have dealt with Assad on their own, as fellow Arabs elsewhere have, if it were not for Russia. Moscow’s help — arms and diplomatic support — is the vital, single-most important factor that has helped Assad survive this long.
On the other hand, those who supported the Syrian uprising have been fighting among themselves. The presence of some Al-Qaeda groups and their savagery matching the brutality of the regime only adds to the complexity of the problem.
This conflict perhaps wouldn’t have dragged on so long if it hadn’t been cast in binary terms of a Shia-Sunni or an Arab-Iran tug of war — Sunni Arabs and Turkey on opposition’s side and Iran, Hezbollah and to some extent Iraq with the regime. It was a classic divide-and-rule stroke of genius.
But what is sectarian about this conflict? A typical Middle Eastern tyrant killing his way to survival and turning the whole country a living hell in the process — what is Shia-Sunni about that? How different is Assad’s brutality from that of Saddam or Qaddafi?
Where does Syria go from here? Notwithstanding all the hype about Geneva II talks, expect no stunning surprises in the company of celestial Swiss Alps. This may be a step forward in that it for the first time brings the opposition and regime under one roof. But with Assad sticking to his guns, there’s little hope of a change of scene in Damascus anytime soon.
Things could change only if there’s a change of perception in Moscow and Tehran, whose support has been the lifeblood for this regime. While Russia’s support for Assad is purely mercenary as the regime is critically dependent on Russian arms and experts, it is really unfortunate that Tehran continues to back Assad ignoring his appalling crimes against humanity.
Syria may be an old and trusted ally in a region where Iran finds itself largely isolated. But what about the cause of justice, freedom and Islamic solidarity that Tehran claims to champion? Whether it is Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or the distant Myanmar, Iran has been quick to spring up in defense of the oppressed.
It also supported popular democratic yearnings across the region, from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt. Why Syria is then an exception? Or is it just that like everyone else, the ideals of the Islamic republic are expendable at the altar of national interest?
An unprecedented, appalling humanitarian catastrophe is ravaging Syria. And this urgently demands Iran and Arabs and everyone else concerned to come together to end the slaughter in Syria. For humanity’s sake, if for nothing else, they must set aside their regional, sectarian agendas to save Syria.
If regional powers do not come together to empower the real representatives of Syrian people, they will soon have to deal with Al-Qaeda fringe whose presence is growing in the region, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. A scenario that should be alarming to Washington and Moscow as well as regional powers. The situation is so serious that Saudi Arabia this week exhorted all foreign fighters, many of them from the Kingdom, to leave Syria. On the other hand, the change of US-Iran equation after the nuclear thaw also opens a window of opportunity. So there’s a ray of hope however faint there, I suppose.
- Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs and Editor of ‘Caravan’ online newspaper.
Email: [email protected]
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view