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Change is possible in Syria despite Arab leaders normalising Assad’s genocide

Image of Syrian President Bashar Assad on 14 April 2017 [Inform the world/Twitter]
Syrian President Bashar Assad on 14 April 2017 [Inform the world/Twitter]

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must be buoyed by the support that he has these days across the Arab world. Such support includes the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), the Palestinian Authority’s official news channel, opening a new bureau in Damascus. The campaign to rehabilitate Assad’s brutal regime continues more or less unchallenged.

There seems to be very little political will within the international community, let alone the Arab world, to stand up and question the Syrian dictator’s continued leadership, despite him presiding over one of the most devastating wars and humanitarian disasters on the planet. Nor does there seem to be much appetite at the UN to view Assad as one of the key obstacles to a peaceful solution in the brutal Syrian civil war which began in March 2011.

This war has cost the lives of between 500,000 and one million people (we will probably never know for certain); displaced more than half of the country’s 22 million population; and involved countless atrocities and crimes against humanity. Shocking images smuggled out of Syria in 2014 provided clear evidence of the genocidal intent of the regime in Damascus, but they are conveniently ignored, or even forgotten.

Moreover, while Qatar is adamant that it will not reopen its embassy in Damascus, both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain opened theirs last month, claiming that they are seeking to counter Iranian influence. Such claims are largely dismissed by Middle East analysts.

Even as the repeated cries of “Never Again” from last month’s Holocaust Memorial Day events still echo around the world, the Assad regime rolls on relentlessly like an out-of-control juggernaut targeting its own people. I am still haunted by the Syrian women who told me of their horrific experiences as prisoners of the regime in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and other cities. I despair at the lack of will and moral backbone of presidents and prime ministers from East to West to make real efforts to end this war, not least because of the alarming signs that the main effort at the moment is to bring Assad back into the fold and normalise his behaviour. This will include, we are told, a visit by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas very soon. This is appalling news; if any nation knows the pain of brutality and violence at the hands of a repressive regime, it’s the Palestinians. What is Abbas playing at?

The Syrian war is complex and far harder to explain than a simple conflict between two opposing forces. Despite what conspiracy theorists will have you believe, the democratic uprising against the Assad regime began over the arrest, detention and torture of a group of schoolboys in Daraa, as MEMO revealed back in 2014. It did not begin with CIA interference, nor an influx of foreign fighters, Al-Qaida, rebranded weapons from the West, NATO or a global call across the Muslim world for jihad. This was a reluctant revolution which was forced upon the people by the murderous response of an evil, malevolent regime to their call for justice and reform.

Mercifully, while politicians with very short attention spans and an eye on the poll ratings have grown weary at the very mention of Syria, ordinary people are standing up to and taking action against the Assad regime. For this very reason, there is concern among the privileged elite surrounding the Syrian President. While state leaders and the UN seem powerless to do anything constructive, extraordinary individual efforts fuelled by exceptional determination can possibly bring about change.

I have seen two examples of these in the past 48 hours, herculean efforts which could force a change in direction of the Syrian war if only the international community will show similar courage and leadership to bring an end to Assad’s brutal rule and the sectarian strife which has ripped the region apart.

The first was when a US court ruled that American journalist Marie Colvin was murdered by the Assad regime during an artillery attack on Homs in 2012. She was not just another random casualty of war; following an exhaustive inquiry, Judge Amy Jackson ruled that she was targeted deliberately as part of the regime’s policy of violence against independent journalists, whom it considers to be “enemies of the state”. The court in Washington was told that this violence is ongoing.

“Officials at the highest level of the Syrian government,” explained Judge Jackson, “carefully planned and executed the artillery assault on the Baba Amr media centre [in Homs] for the specific purpose of killing the journalists inside.” Colvin and a French photojournalist, Rémi Ochlik, who was also killed, were “specifically targeted” in order to silence their reporting of the growing opposition to Assad’s dictatorship and atrocities committed by regime forces.

While it is unlikely that Colvin’s family will ever benefit from the court’s award of $302 million in punitive damages against Assad, his brother Maher Al-Assad and their associates, the verdict opens the way for the seizure of some or all of an estimated $1 billion in Assad family assets salted away around the world, some of which have already been identified and frozen. The premeditated murder of Colvin should now also form a part of the ongoing UN-led criminal investigation of Assad, which seems to have stalled of late.

Make no mistake, though, this has only come about through the determination of Colvin’s family to get justice for this incredibly brave journalist who in death may just yet achieve as much for the innocents of war as she did in her amazing life. Colvin was a former colleague of mine at the Sunday Times and she was fearless in her determination to get to the truth; her defence of vulnerable people in conflict zones was breathtaking.

As the verdict was returned in the US court, another group of equally courageous and determined individuals held a press conference in Idlib, in rebel-held Syria. This seemingly inauspicious occasion looks set to be a thorn in the side of the Assad regime with the unveiling of a civil society initiative called the Unity Project.

Around 350 “ex-pats” from the West have come together in Idlib to help Syrians rebuild and develop their country. Using a variety of professional skills — including medical, education, engineering, science and media — the group has networked extensively with Syrians on the ground, charities back home and each other to rebuild and open schools, hospitals, playgrounds and community hubs to help widows and orphans.

Most of the ex-pats — or foreigners as the Syrians call them — arrived in the war-torn country more than five years ago “for humanitarian purposes”. Their decision to stay has cost some of them their British citizenship because of the simple but toxic narrative that anyone leaving Britain to go to Syria can only be fighters or Daesh brides.

I met some of the founders of the Unity Project during my visit to Idlib last month and was told by one that there are no fighters in the group: “Our only motivation is to help Syrian people rebuild their own country.” Sadly, rather than being applauded for their work which has convinced many Syrians to stay in their country, some individuals have been punished by the British government, which has cancelled their passports.

Undeterred, and arguably more determined than ever, the ex-pats came together on Thursday and unveiled the project. Far from seeing Idlib as “the last stand”, this group sees the tide turning in the fortunes of the Assad regime despite its powerful Russian and Iranian allies which are counting on the West’s growing fatigue and general political malaise with regard to Syria.

To this end, it is worth remembering the poignant words of the late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking, who said about human beings and our place in the universe, “We are very, very small, but we are profoundly capable of very, very big things.”

Perhaps self-serving politicians who are growing tired of Syria would do well to remember this and the millions of ordinary Syrians holding out in the rebel territories. With that eye on the poll ratings and public opinion, do they really want to be remembered as the lawmakers who allowed genocide, torture, suffering and abuse to become the accepted norm in the world? Surely not.

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

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