I’ve been British Ambassador in Syria since 2008. But I first visited the country more that 30 years ago. Syria, I know well and like very much. That makes what has happened since March last year all the more horrifying and sad for me personally.
The UN says over 5,400 people have died in the last ten months, some of them under torture in prison. Other groups – particularly those opposed to President Assad and his regime – claim the figure is much higher. The Syrian regime tells us that these claims are exaggerated and that the world should look instead at the deaths of soldiers and regime forces.
Who’s right? People say that it’s no longer possible to hide the truth. Anyone can post a video on YouTube or a link on Twitter for the world to see. But sometimes this abundance of information can lead to confusion over detail, instead of informed debate and rational arguments over the facts.
Sometimes we focus too much on the abstract and not enough on what we see with our own eyes.
Over the long period of time that I have known Syria, I have seen the regime of Hafez Assad and his son Bashar in action. The Assad dynasty was never a pleasant one to its people. I have seen the wounds of people released from prison. I have spoken to the families whose relatives have simply disappeared. I have heard from those who got a knock at 2am from the Mukhabarat (intelligence services) and were taken away for a still unknown affront to the Syrian authorities.
But even having witnessed Syria’s dark side, the violence and brutality I have witnessed over the last ten months shocks me.
From the very start of this unrest, the regime’s tactics were laid bare. On 15 March 2011 we watched as 40 Syrians lined up outside the Ministry of Interior on Merjeh Square in central Damascus to protest silently the arbitrary detention of their friends and family. They made no provocative chants and advocated no violence. They simply held up pictures of their friends and family members that had been held in detention for months or years without trial. It was a scene of dignified and peaceful protest.
After 10 minutes, the regime had had enough. Plain clothed security forces moved in en masse. We stood and watched as they beat innocent civilians with sticks and batons. No care was taken for the elderly, for women, for the young children. All were treated with equal brutality.
This scene has been repeated time and again. In the main Umayad Mosque in central Damascus, I witnessed a small group of Syrians chant for their freedom – only to be beaten by regime thugs.
I have seen myself what this regime can do – and is doing relentlessly, and on a daily basis.
I tell the Syrian opposition at every opportunity to avoid the path of an armed resistance. But the sad truth is that violence begets violence. That is why it is important that all sides refrain from violence and that the regime allows a political transition instead of repeating its hollow promises of reform.
Without context, it can be hard to make sense of YouTube images shot on a mobile phone. It can be hard to understand why a man with a family in a town in Syria would decide to take up arms against his government. It can be hard to believe that over 5,000 people have been killed in ten months, or that torture is a regular occurrence in prisons, children brutalised and tanks and mortars used by the army against its own citizens. If I hadn’t seen for myself what the Syrian regime has done I would be asking these questions too.
But I have. And it is too shocking to ignore. That is why I am so appalled by the vetoing of the draft resolution, tabled by Morocco, which supported the Arab League efforts to resolve the crisis. The resolution did not impose any sanctions. It did not authorise military action. And at every stage we worked to accommodate the concerns of others. There was nothing in the draft to warrant opposition. Those opposed to it will have to account to the Syrian people for their actions and the horror of the unfolding tragedy.
It is time for the world to speak with one voice to condemn the violations of the Assad regime and support the Arab League’s efforts to bring a peaceful, Syrian-led solution to the terrible crisis that is unfolding before us.