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Assad, Butcher Of Daraa – OpEd

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Bashir Assad is living up the reputation enjoyed by his father, who killed 10,000 in 1981 in the city of Hama when the Muslim Brotherhood rose up in protest against him.  Now the heart of the protest has moved to another town, Daraa, where hundreds have been killed and injured.  An estimated 500 have been killed nationally by security forces since the unrest began, which earns the younger Assad the privilege of being a butcher in his own right.  Henceforth, he shall be called the Butcher of Daraa.

It is stirring to see thousands mass on the outskirts of the town attempting to break the iron siege imposed by security forces.  They presented olive branches to the army, according to the Times’ Anthony Shadid.  In return they received a fusilade of bullets and 12 died:

Residents and activists painted a wrenching portrait of the scene in Dara’a, a poor town in southern Syria near the Jordanian border where protests last month helped galvanize nationwide demonstrations.

The military had stormed the town on Monday, effectively occupying it, but the ensuing hardships — shortages of food, water and even baby formula, in addition to dozens of reported deaths — have become a rallying cry of the revolt, unleashing solidarity protests in other towns and neighboring countries.

Inside the town, residents said people were too afraid to go into the streets, or even to attend Friday Prayer. Instead, they shouted “God is great!” from within their homes, the chants growing louder as residents in building after building took up the cry.

As they did, residents said, soldiers fired into the air.

“We are living in complete isolation,” a resident said.

In the afternoon, residents said, hundreds tried to march to the town, either to break the siege or to bring food and medicine. As they approached, reportedly carrying olive branches and white sheets to signal their peacefulness, security forces opened fire.

“There was a lot of screaming,” Mr. Tarif said by telephone, citing the accounts of residents there. “It was a massacre. It was another bloody massacre.”

Syria President Bashar Assad
Syria President Bashar Assad

While I wish the protesters in Syria a speedy end to the carnage and suffering and the overthrow of the minority Alawite regime which has stifled them for 40 years or more, I wanted to talk about what might come after, if the Assad regime goes.  My guess is that it will be a regime somewhat like the transitional one now ruling Egypt.  A new government might include some members of the old order less tarnished by affilation with the Mukhabarat or cronyism of the Old Guard.  It might include some Islamists, since the Muslim Brotherhood has just officially thrown its support to the protest movement.  It might include political independents and reformers and leaders of the current revolt.  If the movement is to succeed it will have to be a moderate, pragmatic one.  Like Tahrir Square it will have to be based on reconcilation and not revenge.  All this remains to be seen.  Can a people sorely tested by butchers not rise up and slaughter their tormentors en masse?  For their sake, I hope cooler heads can prevail.

But where we really should look to the Egyptian model is in Syria’s relations with its neighbors, notably Israel and Lebanon.  My guess is that an independent government in Syria will pose very grave challenges for the current rejectionist Israeli government.  It will probably be a pragmatic political movement seeking to improve the nation’s domestic agenda and less concerned with projecting Syrian influence outside its borders.  Any new governing power will probably not want to make radical changes in policy, but I’m guessing that Hezbollah will be gravely disappointed by developments if the Old Order falls in Damascus.  Indeed, many observers have speculated that Hamas’ new flexbility which allowed an agreement on a unity government announced this week, was motivated by its Damascus-based leadership’s judgment that it may not find as warm a welcome in a new Syria.

I see Syria focussed more on matters at home and less outside.  I see the country less interested in making alliances with groups like Hezbollah and propping up its prerogatives inside Lebanon.  Possibly, the new Syria would actually find more in common with the Lebanese democracy movement than with its former Hezbollah allies.

A free Syria will be infinitely more adaptable than the old one.  Just see what the Egyptians accomplished in bringing together Hamas and Fatah in a new unity government.  This is what a new order can do.  It can break through old stereotypes, breathe new life into ideas and policies given up for lost.  This does not bode well for Israel, whose policies are just as sclerotic as those of all the old Arab tyrants whether they be Mubarak or Assad.  The new Syria might just run rings around the old Israel as the new Egypt has been doing.

Regarding Israel, Syria will still demand the return of the Golan as the price for peace.  So in that sense, little will change since Israel will not be prepared to return it barring major international or U.S. pressure to do so.  But what will change is that a new Syria will have enormous credibility and sympathy from the world.  When it puts forth its claims, the world will react much more supportively than it does when Bashar Assad tells the world he’s willing to negotiate peace with Israel.

In short, the world will side with the forces of democracy and freedom in the Arab world.  It will turn away from the forces of oppression and Occupation whether they’re in Tripoli or Tel Aviv.  Israelis will have to decide which side they are on, in the words of the old labor-hymn.  Will they try to adapt to the new order or will they resist and go down with the ship clinging steadfastly to their old prerogatives?

As for the rest of the world, they too will have to decide which side they are on.  So far, the UN Security Council has reacted timidly and shamefully due to Russian intransigence.  There will be no criticism coming from that body.  The EU and UN Human Rights Council have denounced the crackdown.  The U.S. is moving slowly and deliberately.  It has frozen the assets of key figures in the Assad junta.  But is that enough?  Not nearly.  More is called for.

It’s not surprising that a bunch of Russian oligarchs would attempt to preserve their friends in Damascus.  But soon enough they will have to decide whether to support the old order or the new.

All that being said, it’s possible that Assad and his cronies are willing to envelop the entire nation in a bloodbath and that the security forces will stand with them in this barbarism.  But one hopes that there will be a few key generals who might side with the reformers and begin a process of turning the old regime like a rusty old freighter away from its path of self-destruction.  God and the people willing.

This article first appeared at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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