There is an old Syrian proverb: “A little spark can kindle a great fire.”
On Jan. 26, 2011, that is exactly what happened in Damascus when Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in an act of self-immolation similar to what Mohamed Bouazizi did in Tunis on Dec. 17, 2010. In both cases, the result was the same: revolution.
Kindled by the hopes and dreams of an entire region, a spark caught fire in Syria that day — and it spread like wildfire. It was fueled by the past transgressions of that country’s brutal leadership and now, despite nearly three years of murder, Bashar al-Assad has yet to contain that flame. For he has failed to understand that every Syrian father, mother and child he kills is fuel for the revolution’s persistence. After nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule, the idea that the country is not his – that the government exists to serve the people, rather than the other way around – means nothing to Assad. And so the revolution rages on.
Yet even the most stubborn protestors must succumb to force eventually. Even the loudest rally is no match for bullets. Two years ago, when I watched the videos of peaceful crowds being mowed down by Syrian soldiers and government thugs, my heart sank. Without help, I knew, these people were destined to fail; the flawed doctrine of “might makes right” would prevail. And though much of the world claimed to champion freedom and therefore to empathize with these activists at a time when their sole demand was democracy, the international community then as now met the protestors’ demands with little more than empty actions and silence.
It was a silence of hypocrites.
This shameful dithering has had two horrible consequences: First, Assad now believes — rightly so — that he can commit atrocities without facing consequences. Lacking a moral compass, he has little reason to stay his hand; we witnessed this when he used chemical weapons of the worst kind against his own people. Second, an opposition that began as a peaceful movement has become radicalized and infiltrated by elements that are nearly as loathsome as the Assad regime, if not more loathsome. A fight one used to be able to characterize with a straight face as something approximating good versus evil has transformed into a situation where the moral lines are thoroughly blurred.
Take a moment to consider the situation. When all this started, people were dying for the simple reason that they yearned for democracy, yet the West – despite intervening in Libya on behalf of armed rebels when fewer had died – did little but watch as Assad murdered unarmed protestors. How can we call ourselves champions of democracy when we did nothing?
Despite the increased radicalization of the rebels, some type of meaningful action could save lives, and as such I still believe that strong action on the side of the rebels is warranted. The Syrian uprising is now a fire, a flame, but unless the rebels receive a boost from the world now, it could inevitably dwindle to just a flicker. This dwindling, when and if it happens, will entail massive amounts of bloodshed. We need only remember the tragedy that occurred during the Hama protests in 1982, when Bashar’s father Hafez used tanks and aircraft to slaughter 20,000 of his own people. If the West remains silent, who knows how high the death toll — which has surpassed 100,000 — could climb? If Assad believes he faces no consequences for his actions, nothing will stop him. The world must act soon if it is to stave off another Hama.
Yes, we have interests in Syria; yes, those interests could be helped or harmed by intervening. But simple humanity calls on us to do something. We don’t even need to send in missiles; no, sending words would do. But the words we send must be much more potent than what has already been said; we — as humans — must demand rights for the Syrian people, must demand that Iran cease its intervention, and must demand that Assad step down. We must set firm limits on the types of conduct either side can engage in, and when one side breaches that conduct–for instance, when one side murders hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons — there must be concrete consequences. Only then can we bolster a people who have been treaded on for so long. Only then can we bring our actions in line with our rhetoric.
The Syrian rebels are a ragtag group demanding freedom from oppression. Their situation is not unlike that of the American rebels of the eighteenth century — poorly equipped citizens fighting for freedom from a vastly more powerful force that refuses to represent them. Yet even our ancestors had help in attaining liberty.
All that Syrians are asking of us now is to know we care, to know that the world cares. Even if democracy wins out in Syria, I fear that later our inaction will bear heavily on the minds of those who have shed blood to attain liberty. As Dr. King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” True, not all Syrians consider us friends, but Assad has never been our friend. And now we have this one chance to show the people who could replace him that our defining ideology – freedom – is not only an ideal but a reality, too – and a reality that extends to all people, regardless of race or religion.
Eventually, Assad or his sons must renounce power; history teaches that no repressive regime lasts forever. But how long until this family falls? How long until “might makes right” is replaced by morality, until the pen and law and human decency triumph over the sword? How much longer can the world stand by and do nothing while young, decent people are tortured, their bodies mangled beyond recognition?
Silence is murder. As of today, the entire world is silent. By sheer complacency alone, the world has allied with a murderer, and in doing so it has transformed what started out as a group of peaceful protesters into something that is much more troublesome. It is the Syrian rebels versus the world.
They don’t stand a chance.