Why this leopard won’t change its spots
The pictures coming out of Syria tell part of the story: Thousands of children, women and old people are senselessly massacred almost daily. War crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings are committed with abandon. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons are fleeing the carnage. The devastation of homes, neighborhoods and whole towns is almost of biblical proportions.
What you may not see in those pictures but is being consistently reported is rape, forced disappearances, torture, and indefinite detention without trial.
In sum, it is the deliberate annihilation of a whole nation.
This nihilistic destruction seems to have one purpose: To keep the regime in power.
Contrary to some views, this is not a civil war; it is a one-sided war waged by a government, gone berserk, against its own defenseless citizens.
The UN Human Rights Council and its Independent Commission of Inquiry, as well as international human rights organization, are compiling reports, cataloguing abuses and voicing righteous indignation, but the senseless killings go on.
As the Russian veto has succeeded in paralyzing the UN Security Council, the world appears to be merely waiting for Kofi Annan’s six-point plan to produce a miracle. Despite the fact that the government has all but ignored it, some are still hopeful that at some point it would see the light and stop on its own. At best, such hopes are a product of naivety about the nature of this regime and at worst represent underhanded complicity in its aims.
Having followed the Syrian condition for decades, I doubt that this old leopard is about to change its spots any time soon. The regime has shown, time and again, that violence, not politics, is the only tool it is capable of using. Its guiding ideology is that of the Baath Party, an outdated organization that was modeled at after European fascist parties. If that was not bad enough, it later evolved into a family fiefdom buttressed by military and security forces under its thumb. As a result, politics, in any real sense, does not exist in the country.
When I was asked 20 years ago, to prepare a comprehensive report about human rights abuses in Syria, I was shocked at the results, which were not much different from today’s conditions, albeit on a smaller scale. You may remember that in 1992, the Syrian government was trying to get out of its decades-long isolation and get accepted by the international community. One of the main impediments then was its dismal human rights record.
One reason I was asked to handle the Syria file, I gathered, was that I had not formed any firm opinions about the Syrian government. I started with a clean slate, even somewhat skeptical about hostile information about the government then disseminated by opposition and human rights groups. To prepare that report, we assembled a team of researchers and analysts, who were also neutral. To gather information, we interviewed hundreds of Syrian exiles, former victims and their families. We found them all over the world, but mainly living in neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq), in Europe (especially Germany and France), the United States and Canada. Although the Syrian government refused to grant our team entry into the country, we were able to conduct research within the country and compile information that had never been collected before.
Our team was not prepared for the shock when the true picture of Syria’s human rights situation came into focus as the results of the team’s research were catalogued and analyzed. We were able to put together a database of thousands of prisoners and that of people who disappeared without trace; their existence was denied by the authorities, let alone their whereabouts. While they were mostly Syrians, other nationalities were also among them.
Hundreds were executed without trial, especially after prison disturbances. Others were paraded before special security courts where the outcome was pre-determined.
In one excerpt from our 1992 report I found this statement: “Political detainees in Syria have the distinction of being some of the most isolated in the world. Most have no contact whatsoever with their families; security services seldom acknowledge having them in their custody. Cramped in windowless underground cells, or in giant communal cell blocks with open-mesh roofs, thousands of individuals whose “crime” was affiliation with banned political organizations have remained in detention without trial for years and, in a handful of cases, for more than two decades.” The report goes on after that to document the scale of the killing, torture and degradation that was almost unparalleled, except probably in Israel.
Very little changed from then until the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. That fact probably explained why our 1992 report is still in print; it is still relevant. After the uprising, the scale of killing and destruction went up, but the nature of the regime remained the same.
What was striking in 1992 was the smug attitude of Syrian officials, as it is now. Not only did they deny any wrongdoing, but they claimed that conditions in Syria were much better than in other countries and that they were being singled out for censure because they were the best, or else because they were the only ones standing up to Israel and the United States. In fact “resistance” was used frequently to justify all sorts of human rights violations, as if you needed to kill your own people to resist the enemy.
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