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An apology to the Syrian people

January 25, 2014 at 4:34 am

We owe the Syrian people an apology for every day that they were slaughtered before our eyes during the past eleven months. The Arab people have let them down and have watched on from the side-lines as if the “the heart of Arabism” has become surrounded by Arabs with no hearts.

From Friday 3rd to Friday 10th February, 755 Syrians were killed, and since the beginning of the legendary intifada in the middle of March last year, the Assad regime has killed 8,000 people. 10,000 others have disappeared and Syria’s prisons are filled with countless numbers. The only crime these people have committed is to demand dignity and freedom in their country, after nearly 45 years of tyranny and oppression.

During the past few months, we have seen nothing of Syria but a country steeped in the blood of its people. Its streets overflow with the funeral processions of victims, and its cities are threatened with devastation and destruction at the sound of voices demanding freedom. The only thing to be heard is the humming of missiles and bombers; the distress of those trapped demanding that the massacres stop, the shouts of those insisting on overthrowing the regime, and the advocates for any Arab or international intervention that would rein in the new Tartar (Huns) attacks.
This crime, which has been on-going for the past eleven months, has hardly moved anyone in the Arab world where the majority think it is enough to merely follow the events on television, just as they do with any Turkish soap opera!
Ironically, the Arab and Muslim world shook with anger when Salman Rushdie published the “Satanic Verses”, and similarly when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him], but care little about the on-going massacre against the Syrian people.
And while I understand the legitimacy of expressing rage when a violation is committed against the holy sanctities, I am surprised at the failure to do so in defence of the dignity of Muslims. This, in part, shows the extent of the imbalance in the prevailing concepts which separate between a person’s doctrine and dignity. It confines jealousy and protection to the first but do not extend it to the second. This, while knowing that the doctrines are protected by God, while violation of the sanctity of people and their dignity represents an attack on one of God’s rights which requires vigilance, condemnation and calls to rally round and punish the oppressor.
If someone were to say that the Arab League had undertaken initiatives, sent monitors and gone to the Security Council in order to gain some leverage in the face of the Damascus regime, I would not disagree. However, the Arab League represents governments and not the people. Observers did go to Syria, and came back without having done anything that could change the equation. Instead, the Assad regime capitalised on their mission to gain time in order to finish its suppression of the demonstrations.
With regard to the Security Council, this approach was aborted by the Russian and Chinese using their veto. There are no longer any initiatives capable of resolving this issue internationally except for the conference of Friends of Syria called for by France, and a parallel conference called for by Turkey. The most important official developments that have taken place on the Arab level have been the withdrawal of the Observer Mission, the expulsion of the Syrian ambassadors from Tunisia and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Libya’s recognition of the National Council representing the Syrian revolution.
In the case of Libya, it was clear that the fall of Gaddafi occurred because of NATO intervention. This has been repeated in Yemen since the launch of the Gulf Initiative with clear Western support, and where President Ali Abdullah Saleh had no choice but to leave in the end. In the case of Syria, things are more complex in light of the impossibility of international intervention, the impossibility of reconciliation between the people and the regime after all the blood that has been shed, the intractability of internal military action, and the fragility of Arab pressure. This means three things; firstly, that the Syrian regime is still relatively coherent and can go on unless there is an unexpected surprise. Secondly, that in the current Arab and international climate, it seems that the Syrian people are destined to fight their own battle alone. And thirdly, that this battle will be extended, that the suffering of the people will continue and with that, the toll of sacrifices and pain will increase.
Gathering strength through internal factors as well as through regional and international support, the Syrian regime is comfortable in dealing with the Syrian people in the way it wants, and is unwilling to take a step back. Therefore, all its slogans of change and talk about national dialogue and political reform are meaningless, and are no longer taken seriously. It has become clear to everyone that they are excuses used to buy time.
Internally, the Syrian regime depends on its strong security grip, and the support of a wide segment of the Alawite minority which the regime uses as a scarecrow not only to scare people about the likelihood of a civil war, but also to scare Syria’s neighbour, Turkey, which has more than ten million Alawite citizens. The Syrian regime uses the ethnic and religious minority card not only to scare others of its alternatives, but also to challenge and intimidate its neighbours.
In the face of Turkish pressure, for example, it waves both the Alawite and the Kurdish cards. Although Syria’s Kurds number 200,000, mostly in the province of Qamishli, in the north of Turkey, there are more than 12 million Kurds and their conflict with Ankara has a long history.

The regime also gets strength through the extensive Iranian support which is accompanied by Iraqi support and support from Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is well-known that there is a strategic alliance between Syria and Iran where Tehran relies on the Assad regime, and not on the Syrian people, and that the coalition protects the two countries, to one degree or another, in the face of Israeli threats. Even so, also Iran has its own religious motives. It would strengthen the position of the Alawite sect closest to the Shiites in Syria, and strengthen the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Regime change in Damascus does not only turn this equation in favour of Sunnis in Syria; it also threatens to change the situation in Iraq, as it strengthens Sunnis there in the face of the dominant Shiite parties loyal to Iran.

The conclusion is that the Syrian regime, in its resistance to any political change, derives strength from several cards it holds in its hand and warns against altering the regional balance of forces. The message the Assad regime wishes to send to everyone is that if it is bad, then whatever may come following its demise would be much worse.
As for the international arena, the Syrian regime is banking on the support of Russia and China, as was seen in the veto used by the two countries in the Security Council. What pushes the two countries to take such a stance is that they are against the increase of American influence in the region. They have stated explicitly that Western countries “deceived” them when they decided not to oppose the imposition of the air embargo on Libya. There, NATO became engaged in military operations, and Russia and China were ignored – a scenario they do not want to see repeated. In addition, Russia has special relations with Damascus as it has a marine service base at Tartus port, and all Syrian weapons are purchased from Moscow. As for China, it is sensitive to supporting any democratic change through the Security Council and does not want the Security Council interfering in the internal affairs of any country as this could backfire on Beijing and open a number of internal files, causing embarrassment.

What has thus far remained absent from the scene is the pressure of the Arab peoples, especially from a country like Egypt, which is supposed to take the lead and which everyone treats like a ‘big sister’. The question is; why hasn’t all this bloodshed in Syria caused any reaction on the Arab street in general, and particularly in Egypt? There are several factors that contributed to this absence, including the following: 
Since Egypt has signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1979, it practically abdicated its leadership role, and fell into a long term coma that continues to persist. During this trance, it has not only kept to itself, but also joined the camp of the so-called ‘moderates’ which practically revolves in the orbit of American policies. One can only imagine the echo throughout the Arab world brought on by ‘big sister’s’ actions.
The atmosphere of the Arab Spring has overwhelmed several countries and kept them busy with their internal affairs. The toppling of regimes requires great effort given that new ones must be established which diverts attention from other important events taking place in the Arab arena.
Some of the elites still remember the Syrian regime’s stance in support of the Palestinian resistance. They regard this positive stance as one that absolves error, and are suspicious of members of the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian file is more complicated than many perceive it to be. There is no disagreement that the regime in Damascus is dominated by a handful of bad guys, but that the external forces that seek to overthrow it are also driven by a long line of bad guys as well – a matter which puzzles many who are now weighing preferences between the devil they know and the one they don’t.
The internationalization of the issue has become suspicious after the experience of NATO in Libya. The situation we are dealing with now is more difficult, because Libya only has oil wealth, while Syria is linked to a new map of the east, and perhaps the whole Middle East if we take into account the impact of the fall of the Syrian regime on Iran and Turkey.

What to do then? My answer is that we should shout loudly saying no to the continuation of the massacres, and no to the intervention of NATO. In this regard, we have no choice but to realize that the collapse of the Assad regime stands between us and expecting an Arab solution that can apply pressure to stop the massacres and deliver authority to the Syrian people.
It seems there is no other choice before us but to rely on the Arab peoples, who have finally woken up and raised their voices which were for so long overshadowed by authoritarian regimes. We have recently heard the voices of those peoples in demonstrations in Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. Until we hear the voice of the rest of the Arab peoples, particularly the people of Egypt, we must offer an apology to the Syrian people for letting them down and failing to declare solidarity with them. If they do not forgive us or accept our apologies, then they are excused. I am not authorized to offer an apology, but I offer it on behalf of myself feeling a high degree of sadness and shame.

*The author is an Egyptian writer. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared on al Jazeera net on 14/2/2012

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.