Lee Smith observes that the powers-that-be in Damascus have moved against the opposition under what is essentially a media blackout created by the successful operation against bin Laden. As the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat reports:
Security forces launched a new campaign of arrests in the city of Dera’a, which has been besieged for nearly a week, and comes a day after renewed calls by the opposition for demonstrations around the country in order to “break the siege” of the city. Human rights activist Abdullah Abu Zaid said that the forces had begun moving from one neighborhood to another early Sunday morning, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, entering houses and arresting one or two people each time… He added that “the humanitarian situation is in shambles, there is no water, no food, and no electricity.”
You starve a population by denying it food and water, but to cut off its electricity is, in today’s media climate, effectively a death sentence. Without the ability to recharge the cell-phone cameras that have documented the Syrian uprising from its outset, demonstrators will be consigned to a silent death.
Bashar al-Assad’s security forces had already run up a total of some 400 dead before last weekend in what is the most repressive response to any of the Arab uprisings to date. Keep in mind that Europe and the United States intervened against Qaddafi after he threatened to chase his armed opponents, from house to house, alley to alley–the path that Syrian security forces have already taken against unarmed civilians.
Nonetheless, even without international support, and in the face of what is de facto support for the Syrian regime, the opposition kept going to the street–in spite of the fact that they knew the regime’s capacity for violence, not just rumored or threatened, but documented in a steady stream of YouTube videos. But it is this public record that provides the Syrian opposition with the little bit of security it enjoys. Once they leave the streets, and once the cell-phone cameras go dark, they are in a black hole to be rounded up by security forces who will deal with them as they please, long prison terms, torture, murder with burial in mass graves or otherwise disappeared.
Anti-regime activists across the region have learned various media techniques to pressure their rulers and get people on the street–via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube among others–but the regimes have learned just as quickly how to thwart their opponents.
Smith takes a look back:
After 9/11, Washington policymakers were determined to stamp out extremism, bin Ladenism, Hama rules, the strong horse method. They articulated their support for Arab and Muslim moderates–even as they allowed extremists to thrive. Under Bush’s tenure, the Damascus regime put Syrian dissidents in prison and killed Lebanese politicians, journalists, and civil society activists. It cooperated with bin Laden’s associates in Iraq, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and helped kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Iraqis, too. And then there are the Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis killed at the hands of Damascus’s foreign assets, Hezbollah and Hamas. Under Obama’s tenure, Washington has sought comity with these same murderers.
The same people that conceived of Hama and executed tens of thousands 30 years ago never stopped; they just adjusted their methods to fit the changing times, as they are doing even now. And so the afterglow in the wake of bin Laden’s long-sought end will fade fast. Bin Laden is dead; bin Ladenism lives on, embodied now by the rulers in Damascus.
A bit over a week ago — before the new blackout created by the killing of bin Laden — an American diplomat stationed in Damascus was detained and roughed up by masked Syrian security forces. Michael Rubin notes: “It took the State Department days to react, and when they did, they merely filed a formal protest with the Syrian Ambassador to the United States.”
Acting deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner — what a great name for a public relations guy! — was asked about the administration’s view of Assad’s “legitimacy” yesterday. Hilarity ensued:
QUESTION: All right. And speaking of legitimate leaders who lose or don’t lose their legitimacy, has Assad yet gone too far in your eyes, or is he still okay? (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: I’m still trying to graph your question. I mean, obviously, we’re very disturbed about recent reports, credible reports that – of a Syrian military operation in Daraa that includes the use of tanks. We’ve also seen reports that the Syrian Government is conducting a widespread campaign of arbitrary arrests of – that target young men in Daraa. It’s our – also our understanding that electricity, communications, and other services – public service has been cut off now for several days and that the humanitarian situation there is quite grave. These are, quite frankly, barbaric measures and they amount to the collective punishment of innocent civilians.
QUESTION: But he’s still – and that’s still not enough for you to question his legitimacy as a leader?
MR. TONER: Again, we’ve – his – he needs to cease all violence. His government needs to cease all violence against innocent protestors. We need to – or he needs to answer the legitimate aspirations of his people. He needs to address their concerns and to seek ways to answer their aspirations. Violence is not the answer.
QUESTION: Well, yeah, but – well, you just accused him of barbarism.
MR. TONER: Yes. His —
QUESTION: Which on the – that spinning wheel of State Department condemnation is pretty strong. (Laughter.) It’s reserved for people like Qadhafi and Robert Mugabe, maybe.
MR. TONER: And we’ve taken steps last week. We instituted sanctions against key members of his regime who have been carrying out some of these actions. We’ve also raised the issue of human rights abuses in Syria at the Human Rights Council, which then, in turn, authorized a fact-finding mission to investigate these human rights abuses with the goal that Syria — that Assad will be held accountable for his actions.
The problem, as Lee Smith observes in this context, is that no one seems to be paying attention. Our silence in the face of these outrages is something of a disgrace.