Thursday, September 15, 2011

Western Action Urgently Needed as the Slaughter Continues in Syria

Unfortunately the Assad regime’s slaughter of the Syrian people continues with no apparent end in sight. Estimates indicate that 3,500 peaceful protestors have been murdered by the Assad regime. At Mazzeh Military Airport near Damascus, on one day alone (September 9th), some 400 defecting soldiers and non-violent protest leaders were murdered. Reports indicate that unknown but apparently significant numbers of regime opponents are being regularly slaughtered here. The utter lack of international outrage about this ongoing slaughter is morally appalling.

Also the capture of Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, the face of the military opposition to the Assad regime, is a depressing and demoralizing blow for the Syrian freedom struggle. The circumstance of his capture are not entirely clear. It is possible he was captured during an Assad regime raid on his home village of Ibleen that killed 11 defectors and also Harmoush’s 74 year old brother. .But the fact of his capture represents an important propaganda victory for the Assad regime.

However, thankfully his capture is unlikely to affect the day-to-day functioning of the military opposition groups because they are decentralized enough to survive the loss of one of their key leaders. Even after Harmoush disappeared, a high-ranking officer from the Syrian Air Force announced his defection from the regime. Lt. Col. Abdurrazzaq Rashid Al-Rahmoun announced that he’s moving from the side of tyranny to the side of freedom, the Free Syrian Army.

Thus, recently Colonel Riyad al Assad, head of the Free Syrian Army, announced that two new divisions of defectors will be operating in Damascus and the rural suburbs. The FSA reminds the world that they operate according to the opposing moral code of the Assad regime. FSA is determined to protect Syrians of all religious or political affiliations, not only Allawite allies of the Assads. If true this announcement could signal that the FSA is starting to expand to Damascus and its suburbs. At the same time the Free Office Movement is apparently operating in Idlib and Homs. Thus the military defectors have some sort of operations in Idlib, Homs, and possibly Damascus and its suburbs. The military defectors have apparently no significant presence in two key areas: Aleppo where the Sunni merchants remain allied with Assad and Hama where the regime seems to have forcibly crushed the resistance through sheer ruthlessness. The extent of their presence in Damascus is also very unclear.

The first signs of support for the regime appearing to crack in Aleppo were demonstrated at the funeral of the late Grand Mufti of Aleppo, Ibrahim Salkini. Salkini was widely respected as a Sufi religious figure and an Islamic scholar, and the week before he died, he signed a statement by Syrian clerics in Aleppo condemning the Assad regime. During his funeral, thousands of mourners shouted many anti-regime slogans like “The People Want to Topple the Regime” and “death is better than humiliation”.

Hama’s defecting Attorney General, Adnan Bakkour, is still believed to be hiding inside Syria, and he demanded international protection for the unarmed civilians. The mere fact that he is apparently able to continue broadcasting inside Syria is a significant morale boost for the demoralized opposition.

Two additional signs of hope should be noted. First, three Alawite clerics in Homs have issued a statement condemning the Assad regimes. The names of these three brave clerics are Muheeb Nisafi, Moussa Mansour, Yassin Hussain. The fact that these clerics have distanced themselves from the regime is significant because it represents the first sign that Alawite leaders are beginning to pull away from the regime. These clerics must have calculated that they think the regime is likely to fall, or they would have been unlikely to have made such a bold statement openly condemning the regime. I hope that their calculation and assessment is correct.

Farid Ghadry’s Reform Party of Syria (RPS) is urgently demanding international military intervention to halt the systematic ongoing slaughter in Syria and promote revolution to remove the Assad regime from power. I strongly support the revolutionary goal of overthrowing the evil totalitarian regime in Syria and replacing it with a secular democracy that respects citizens of all religions and ethnicities equally. The problem is that as Stephen Schwartz has pointed out, a Western air bombing campaign in Syria along the lines of the NATO operation in Libya is unlikely to produce the desired outcome of revolution inside Syria. Why? Because as long as the Alawites continue to stick together, they will likely be able to withstand even a Western air bombing operation. Professor Bernard Lewis also believes that given the confused and unclear situation inside Syria, the results of a Western air bombing intervention against Assad are unclear as well.

The other problem is that the West does not appear to be serious about pursuing revolutionary change in Syria. President Obama and the Europeans are finally talking about the necessity for Assad to resign. But they are not backing up their tough words with any concrete actions that would actually help to undermine this regime and hasten its demise. As a result, Syrians inside Syria continue to believe rightly that the international community has abandoned them and does not care about their fate. And the Assad regime continues to murder the Syrian people with impunity by the thousands secure in the knowledge that it faces no negative consequences for its barbaric brutality.

Finally, the ghastly murder of the pacifist activist Ghiyath Matar, who was brutally beaten to death in detention, seems to illustrate the futility of a peaceful campaign for a democratic revolution against the Assad regime. Why? Because the Assad regime, like the Islamist regime in Iran, is not bound by democratic principles such as respect for the sanctity of human life. This regime has repeatedly demonstrated its total contempt for all human life and its willingness to use seemingly endless amounts of overwhelming force and ruthlessness in order to stay in power. Peaceful marchers against such a savage and barbaric regime will only end up getting slaughtered without promoting revolution or seriously undermining the regime.

The West needs to immediately and forcefully demand that the Iraqi regime stop siding with Assad against the Syrian democratic opposition. The West should declare an oil embargo on Iraqi oil and cease purchasing Iraqi oil within 30 days if the Iraqis do not open their borders to Syrian refugees fleeing Assad and cease their trade relations and diplomatic visits in support of the Assad regime.

Perhaps a Western air bombing intervention against the Assad regime should be tailored to target the key institutions of the Assad regime, such as Maher Assad’s Fourth Division. But a Western air bombing intervention should also backed up by arming, training, and strengthening the existing alternative Syrian military organizations inside Syria such as the Free Syrian Army and the Free Officers Movement. So far these groups have shown an admirable dedication to ethical goals such as democracy, protection of civilians, and respect for all religions and ethnicities amid impossibly brutal conditions. They have also managed to put a small dent in the regime’s capacities to brutalize civilians.

The goal of arming the Syrian defectors is to allow them to expand their operations into Damascus and Aleppo and to protect Syrian defectors inside Syria. Right now the regime is systematically hunting down and murdering Syrian defectors, both conscripts and officers, inside Syria. Strengthening the Syrian military opposition will hopefully allow it to protect defectors inside Syria. Hundreds of Syrian conscripts and some officers have already given their lives in refusing to fire on civilians. As defecting soldiers and officers see that they can survive even after abandoning the Assad regime, defections should increase at the officer level hopefully.

In the event that these two steps alone are not sufficient to remove Assad from power, then the West should consider the ultimate military operation against the Assad regime: a ground invasion. The U.S. should begin threatening Assad with this outcome in order to undermine the regime and encourage an increased flow of military defectors to turn against the regime. The risks of an Operation Syrian Freedom along the lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom are enormous and need to be weighed carefully. American soldiers would be sent to their deaths in ghastly fighting conditions in urban areas. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the succeeding regime would operate along Western-style democratic lines. The Iraqi regime’s sickening decision to side with Assad against the Syrian democratic opposition shows that Western democratic principles have yet to meaningfully take root in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Mr. Ghadry and other Syrian democratic opposition leaders would probably argue that the Syrian people have demonstrated their commitment to democratic values and respect for citizens of all ethnicities and slogans. Indeed the Syrian democrats have been very consistent in their commitment to a peaceful struggle against the Assad regime until it became clear that peaceful protests alone are not sufficient to topple this regime. In addition, the fact that the mostly Sunni protestors are consistently shouting slogans in support of religious and ethnic coexistence is a very positive sign. Arabs have marched alongside Kurds, and Christians and Sunni Muslims have marched alongside Alawites in mixed areas.

These facts lead me to believe that the gains from removing the Assad regime would significantly outweigh the risks. If the Assad regime is removed from power, then Syria will have the chance to take its rightful place among the family of nations. Syrians will have the opportunity to develop a democratic culture based upon mutual respect and equality for all religions and ethnicities, a place where Kurds and Arabs can co-exist alongside Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians. Syrian soldiers and officers will no longer face the impossible choice of murdering civilians or being shot themselves. Peaceful protestors can chant in the streets of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Damascus all day and all night without being slaughtered. Women can take their rightful place alongside men in greater equality in a new Syria. Syrians will see an end to being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for simply seeking basic dignity and freedom as human beings.

In addition, the fall of the Assad regime in Syria would have immensely positive consequences for the whole region. The Iranian Islamist regime is joined at the hip with the Assad regime in Syria by a common commitment to internal totalitarian cruelty and external war against the West and the Jews. The collapse of the Assad regime in Syria would give enormous hope to the beleaguered Iranian secular democrats in Tehran who have been beaten and terrorized into submission and silence. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would substantially raise the possibility of a peaceful democratic revolution inside Iran which would put an end to the Islamist tyranny which is choking the Iranian people and threatening the West and the Jews. Given the long history of friendship between Persians and Jews, it seems likely that a secular democratic Iran would end the current regime’s war on the Jews and replace it with a peace treaty or at least informal diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel.

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