By: Tom Gross
Of all the uprisings sweeping the Arab world this year, the most surprising so far is the one in Syria. Surprising because, with Saddam Hussein now gone, Syria is the Arab world’s most ruthless and brutal dictatorship. You have to be very brave indeed to stand up to the regime. (It is also one of the world’s most racist, denying millions of Syrian Kurds citizenship). Only if a serious uprising among Sunni Muslims were to break out in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, would that prove an even greater surprise.
Following mass protests in over a dozen other Arab countries in the last three months, the fear factor in Syria has finally been broken too, with thousands of ordinary Syrians taking to the streets in recent weeks calling for democratic elections and an end to Syria’s emergency law which has now been in place for 48 dark years.
Last Friday at least another 10 Syrian civilians were killed by regime snipers taking aim at them from rooftops. And, according to the BBC, other Syrian civilians were beaten to death by security forces in two mosques that same day. This follows other protestors who had sought refuge in a mosque in another part of Syria being killed there two weeks earlier.
Al Jazeera and other media report that in the past month hundreds of Syrian civilians have now been shot dead in cold blood. And an Arabic-language page on Facebook titled “Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad” has well over 120,000 supporters.
With the situation deteriorating there by the day, and with the West showing a new resolve against another Arab dictator they had cozied up to in recent years — Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi — one might have expected a dose of realism from Western leaders.
So it was amazing — and depressing — to hear Hillary Clinton last week again describe President Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer”. A “murderer” would be a more appropriate description.
Secretary Clinton might want to take a look at the findings of her own state department’s most recent (2009) report on Syria. It says the Syrian government and security forces “committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened.” It speaks of “arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life” and “enforced disappearances” and the vanishing of “an estimated 17,000 persons.”
The State Department report describes the methods of torture inflicted on those unfortunate to find themselves in Syria’s prisons. Among them: “electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim was suspended from the ceiling; other times on the soles of the feet.”
In defending Assad, Hillary Clinton has put herself in the same camp as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who last week called Assad his “brother” and a “humanist.” (Chavez has also come to the defense of Gaddafi.)
The media have hardly been any better. Last week on CNN I heard Assad being described as “attractive”. This morning on BBC World Service radio, in a panel discussion of three people, all suggested that Assad wasn’t that bad. Last month’s Vogue profile about Assad’s wife was titled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert”. Previously the Huffington Post ran a spread on “Our favorite Asma looks.”
Of course, praising the Syrian dictator and his family is nothing new. Three years ago, at a lunch I attended in London, William Hague, who is now Britain’s Foreign Secretary (foreign minister), went out of his way to praise Assad. (This is the same Britain that Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, a tireless campaigner for a two state solution, can’t visit for fear of being arrested on trumped-up “war crimes” charges.)
A year earlier Hague had criticized Israel for using “disproportionate force” as rockets were raining down on Israel from Lebanon. But in the past month, I haven’t heard Hague say “much about disproportionate force” in Syria.
Indeed this might be a good time for the British government to acknowledge Israeli restraint. In recent weeks Israel has been the victim of a series of attacks, including bombings, stabbings and dozens of rockets fired at towns and villages throughout southern Israel. In the face of this onslaught, however, the Israeli government has shown considerable restraint, keen to avoid damaging peace prospects. Perhaps it is time for the British and other governments to show Israel a measure of sympathy, rather than stick up for the Syrian regime.
Were the Assad regime to be replaced by a more responsible one, this would be a big gain for the West, for ordinary Syrians and for the whole Arab world. Syria is the Iranian regime’s most important Arab ally. It has also been a key force in destabilizing neighbouring Lebanon as well as promoting the Hamas dictatorship in Gaza.
And unlike Libya of recent years, Syria has been actively working against Western interests. So why the reluctance to unambiguously denounce Assad by Western leaders? It’s time we had an answer.
Tom Gross is the former Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph.