By Isida Tushe
Syria’s riots have turned into war. The country’s civil conflict, however, comes with a sinister twist. Unlike in previous wars the world had witnessed, such as World War I, which saw soldiers making up 90 percent of the casualties, Syria’s ongoing bloodletting has seen civilians accounting for 90 percent of the war’s casualties.
History has taught us time and again how and when a nation chooses to change its government and its leaders. It is up to the leaders to listen. The people of Syria did exactly just that; they spoke in peaceful protests, hoping that President Bashir al-Assad would listen. Riots and protests erupted on March 15, 2011, prompting the authorities to lift a 48-year state of emergency. Since then, institutions that have wielded power behind the façade of a civilian presidency have refused to cave in. They have not come under pressure from the international community either; instead, President Bashar al-Assad continues to reign over his empire, one he believes is rightfully earned, even though his own people want him gone.
Syrians retain painful memories of the fighting that erupted between the regime and its opponents back in the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad eliminated everybody that could potentially become political adversaries and began grabbing control of the Syrian society. In the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad caused the Hama Massacre and began repressing the opposition in order to control the presidency for years to come — 30 years to be exact. The Syrian Human Rights Committee puts the number at 40,000 Syrian citizens killed, 15,000 missing till this day, and 100,000 expelled (1). This is known as the “single deadliest acts by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”(2) The Syrian people witnessed indiscriminate human rights abuses. Despite these brutal acts that Hafez al-Assad committed, he remained his country’s president until 2000 when he passed away. His son, Bashar al-Assad, who for the past 12 years has made no efforts to make amends for the crimes that his father committed, succeeded him. Instead, he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps. He chose to suppress his people and for the past 17 months since the protests began to oust him from the presidency, he has displayed a steely determination to never loosen his grip.
The international community stood by and watched Hafez al-Assad commit human rights atrocities, and it now continues being a mere spectator when the people of Syria need support the most. The UN Security Council, with China, Russia, and the U.S. at the head of the table, cannot agree on what approach to take and which envoy to send to Syria to fix this mess.
The unrest in Syria began with a group of people protesting against the Ba’ath regime, more accurately, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. These people are poor, semirural, and young. Pro-democracy, similar to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria’s protests arose from the economic, social, and political iniquities — high unemployment, lack of education systems, drought, declining oil revenues, major income inequality, and monopolies — that have made life almost unbearable for the Syrian people.
These are at the heart of the Syrian riots and protests. Syria’s troubles should not be confused with ethnic tensions between religious groups. The distance between villages became short figuratively, as people came together and began protesting to get rid of an unwanted dictator. Ethnic tensions exist because of inequality and because the disadvantaged ethnic group will always rise to improve their lot. These people are fighting for the chance to have a say in their and their children’s future. This is not a war between the Kurdish, the Sunni, or the Alawite. It is between the Syrian people and a government they do not want and trust anymore.
Internally Syria’s economy is dying. The unemployment rate among the youth has reached 30%. Seeing no opportunities upon which they could build a future, the youth are the driving force behind these protests, as with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Another factor mentioned was drought. Drought has led to a decline in the agricultural sector, which provides for 20% of the country’s GDP and employment for 20% of its labor force. This has led to people leaving their villages and migrating to the cities. In the cities, however, the jobs that do exist come with low pay and offer no social protection. Furthermore, the private companies are connected to the regime and small businesses have no choice but to join the informal sector in order to escape red tape and other administrative barriers. A World Bank report in 2010, ranked Syria as the second-to-the-last country in the list of 183 countries in terms of access to credit (3). The current regime has created monopolies in order to balance the budget and the economy. The government has cut social services in order to balance the budget, and this has affected the poor the worst. The government financed social services with oil revenues, but as the revenues fell due to depleting reserves, the government had to cut social spending. But it isn’t just these factors that created these tensions and riots between the Syrian government and its people. The most critical factor is the country’s politics and government structure. In a country where human rights and freedoms exist, people drive out a ruling party by voting it out of power. In Syria, however, President Bashir al-Assad has taken precautions, keeping these democratic approaches from ever existing. Like his father, he has eliminated all political opposition. President Bashir al-Assad didn’t just inherit a palace and the presidency; he also inherited his father’s cruel and unjust ways of ruling.
Months into the protests, it weren’t just Kurds or Sunni or Alawite that were protesting, they were joined by army defectors. These groups were fighting under one name as the Free Syrian Army, and later started calling themselves as the Syrian Liberation Army.
President Bashir al-Assad calls them “armed terrorist groups,” and he has unleashed his army upon them. Most media reports, however, refer to them as rebels. The fighting has now spread to Turkey, which currently hosts more than 78,000 Syrian refugees(4). Jordan, Lebanon, and even Iraq are also hosting many Syrians seeking refuge from the violence. What will happen next is likely to be similar to what happened to Kosovo and its people in the 1990s. These riots will spread to the host countries. Then a war of religion and ethnicity will begin.
President al-Assad remains in power, even after his cabinet stepped down. Government forces are pummeling the populated cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Southern Syria with their artillery, mortar fire, and air strikes, and killing unjustly. They are killing children; the one generation that has no blood on their hands. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting of bodies shot execution style — bodies of children. President al-Assad is committing human rights violations. But this didn’t just start now; incidents like these have been on record since 2010, when Human Rights Watch produced a report stating that the president had failed to improve human rights conditions in the country. This gruesome 81-page report, details over 200 interviews conducted since the anti-government demonstrations began in Syria. It includes accounts of detention facilities, video accounts from former detainees, and even sketches of torture techniques made by people who witnessed or experienced these tortures. Syria’s intelligence agencies, such as the Department of Military Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, are committing these tortures and other human rights violations. The people interviewed were men, women, children, and the elderly (5). This is more than just testimonies; these are clear and concise examples of how human rights are being abused. There are enough incidents of torture documented to oust a dictator like President Bashir al-Assad.
Human rights become meaningful only when they gain political significance, when the rights of every man, woman, and child are guaranteed and protected. These human rights must exist vis-à-vis each other. They are and must be guaranteed in the secular political world and these rights require active participation from those who hold them. President Bashir al-Assad is committing atrocities against his own people, and as the world watches, the future of Syria is theirs to define. The international body, however, must act to stop the Syrian government from committing further atrocities. The international community, represented by the UN, has the power and authority to indict cruel and unjust leaders. UN’s greatest achievement was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The UN Human Rights General Assembly stands as the voice for the covenants of this great document to be put to practice. The pillars of this international body are clearly acknowledged as that of peace and security, development, and human rights. Sadly, it failed Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda and it is now failing Syria. What good are treaties and laws and declarations if not put to practice? What purpose does a signed document serve if not to hold parties accountable for their transgressions?
It appears that Syria’s people are at the mercy of China and Russia. The United States has refrained from intervening militarily and intends to as long as chemical weapons aren’t used. Russia insists that the weapons it sells to Syria will not be used against peaceful civilians. What about the bombs, artillery, and guns that Russia has been selling to Syria? Weapons kill. They should never be traded as a tool for gaining profit. China, a country that for years has been on the watch list for human rights violations, seems to have a weighing hand in this conflict since it is part of the UN council. By controlling the country’s newspapers, China’s government has managed to accuse Western countries of suppressing the Syrian government. They insinuate that President Bashir al-Assad isn’t the one committing these crimes. China is siding with their best ally, Russia, while simultaneously protecting its financial assets in Syria. Furthermore, China is a country similar in political structure to Syria. If the country decides to support efforts to oust President Bashir al-Assad, the Chinese government puts itself in a situation that can progress into a revolution in the long run. Both Russia and China remain steadfast in their refusal to back UN resolutions that would condemn President Bashar al-Assad. The UN has 193 member states, and if they all had a vote in this crisis, not just China and Russia, the future of Syria would be so much clearer.
Syria’s problems began internally and its people will keep on fighting. In history, there has always been opposition against the just, and the unjust have almost always gotten off easy. The oppressed are always stronger than the police, the army, and even a dictator in a palace surrounded by soldiers. The ideals of the oppressed are stronger and clearer. They fight stronger than what dictators try to protect. They are willing to die for what they believe in. They should not be labeled rebels but heroes for having the courage to fight for their rights. In 2000, when President Bashir al-Assad inherited Syria’s presidency, the Syrian people tried to put their past behind and see a leader in a man of little stature. They tried to make peace with the devil. But for 12 years, this man of little stature didn’t do even so much as lift a finger to right the wrongs his father had committed. The condemnation and death of these civilians will lead to their own redemption, but it is time for the UN community to prosecute President Bashir al-Assad and his government because he is committing human rights atrocities that are in direct violation of the principles of the UN body.
It is time the structure of the UN was based on what this world needs, and not just by who has the strongest economy. Conflicts in the world exist in weak nations. It is time they had a say and a vote as equal members of the UN. A vote is a vote, and it weights the same whether coming from a beggar or a prince. It is time that the UN stopped leaving the world’s problems on America’s shoulders, but rather acted as an international body when world conflicts arise.
Isida Tushe is a guest scholar.
1. The Middle East Media Research Institute (2000)
2. Wright 2008: 243-244
5. Human Rights Watch, 2010
The views expressed are the author’s own.