Saturday, August 13, 2011

People To Define Syria's Future

With the coming of Arab Spring, repressive governments in the region can no longer ravage their people at will
By Fawaz Turki
When the clueless Louis XVI, the French king who ruled over a system of absolute monarchy, received news of the assault on the Bastille in July 1789, he turned to Duke Francois de la Rochefoucault and asked, perhaps dismissively : "It's a revolt, is it not?" (C'est donc une revolte.)
Rochefoucault, a well-known Parisian salonniere and author of popular maxims, replied: "No, Sir, it's a revolution". (Non, Sire, c'est une revolution.)
There is no record of a rejoinder by the royal, but it is doubtful that King Louis would have conceived of the absurd notion that the sans-culottes, the urban lower classes ill-clad in their cheap pyjama pantalons, unable to afford the fashionable "culottes" (silk-knee breeches) worn by the French bourgeoisie, would represent a threat to his power, riff-raff destined to launch a revolution that celebrated freedom for the common man and that changed forever the face of European history.
As it was with King Louis then, so it is today with President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, who has convinced himself that the hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across the country — ordinary men and women, folks often overlooked in traditional accounts of revolution — are not Syrian men and women experiencing an exhilarating surge of empowerment, but ‘armed gangs' on whom his soldiers and security forces should crack down mercilessly.
By all counts, more than 2,000 have been killed in the crackdown. Countless others have been incarcerated and tortured. Many have either ‘disappeared' or had their bodies dumped in the streets. And this includes the body of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian oncologist who had recently attended a medical conference in the US, where he also visited his brother, a naturalised American citizen and an opponent of the regime. Hallak disappeared upon return to his homeland. His mutilated body was later dumped in a village about 19km from Aleppo, the city in northern Syria where he had lived.
Had not Robert P. Casey Jr., Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Near Eastern Affairs, taken up his cause, Hallak would have been another statistic, another nameless, faceless victim of the ongoing attempt by the Syrian regime to crush dissent.
The bloodshed has, happily though belatedly, drawn the ire of several nations in the Middle East, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both power brokers in the region, and the chastisement of the Arab League, a pan-Arab institution that many American political commentators in recent weeks have taken to identifying as "cowardly", for hitherto not standing up to be seen, or speaking up to be heard.
Civilised discourse
The downfall of the Syrian regime may not be imminent, but it is certain. In any case, a return to the status quo ante is now no longer an option. Lesson learnt? Al Assad and his cohorts were mistaken in their belief that they could rule indefinitely over their people through the sustained exercise of coercion, terror and violence.
Syria's future, its future role in the Arab world and, in the wider world, its place in the global dialogue of cultures, should be defined by the Syrian people themselves, not by a clique, a handful of men seemingly answerable to no one.
The right of men and women to revolt against the denial of their human rights, including the right to the fruit of their labour and the right to freedom of expression and assembly, is sacrosanct in civilised discourse, civilised communities. Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, said it best. "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it", he asserted. "Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it".
If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, in the innocence of its teleological spirit, it is this: Gone forever are the days when repressive governments in the region could ravage their people without a peep from anyone.
In 1982, for example, President Hafez Al Assad, the incumbent's father, sent his soldiers, mounting tanks, to the city of Hama where they slaughtered well over 10,000 people — perhaps twice that many — then afterwards went about his normal business in the presidential palace in Damascus, as if all he had done was to spray the kitchen, ridding himself of a colony of roaches under the sink. And in June 1996, Muammar Gaddafi, in like manner, ordered his security forces to shoot and kill, over a period of three hours, roughly 1,100 recalcitrant inmates at the Abu Salem prison. This mass killing, like the one in Hama, was launched without either leader throwing a fitful glance over his shoulder. Without remorse. Without regret. Without even second thoughts about the action's inherent evil.
What kind of regime is it in Syria that sends its military and security forces to kill its own people, its very own people, in the streets of their very own cities? The image is unbearable, for it cuts deep into the grammar of our human perception of what is moral and what is not. It speaks of diminishing reserves of feeling and human response in the social order.
Street idiom aside, what goes around, in the end, comes around -- to bite you in the back, just as you yourself had once bitten. And, yes, since you asked, Louis XVI, symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Regime, found his neck, in 1793, at the other end of a descending guillotine blade. His beheading was preceded by a drum roll.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 13/08/2011
-Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile

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