The Syrian uprising is one year old today. It shouldn’t be. What began as peaceful, legitimate protests in search of dignity and a better future need never have become the violent conflict that has seen Baba Amr become the latest symbol of the regime’s shameful disregard for human rights and human life.
When the relatives of 40 political detainees gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus on March 15th 2011, exactly a year ago, the regime had an opportunity to listen. It had a chance to consider their requests – even look at long promised reforms. But the actions of the security forces – the plain clothed mukhabarat – who bundled old men and women into buses and savagely beat them began to say otherwise.
By the time a crowd gathered in the clock square in Homs last April a pattern of repression had already emerged. To clear the square of a peaceful sit-in, regime forces machine-gunned the crowd, killing seventy people.
Even in mid July when some opposition members tried to participate in the regime’s hastily organised national dialogue – despite the ongoing suppression of weekly protests – Assad had a chance to choose a different path. Instead the state murdered twelve people who had gathered on the eve of talks to meet in a quiet Damascus suburb. For me that is the moment when the regime shut the door on participation by peaceful activists even in its own national dialogue except on terms that preserved its absolute control.
The consequences of the regime’s decision to opt for a security solution at the expense of a political one are painfully obvious today. Syria is a country on the brink of civil war.
I never doubted the regime’s capacity for violence or brutality. Syria under Hafez and Bashar Assad was never a free society before the uprising started. People were detained, disappeared and tortured. But – like Syrians of all walks of life and every denomination – I was surprised that the regime should in practice ignore opportunities to deal with legitimate grievances and instead chose repression on an industrial scale.
I can’t help thinking that if the regime’s initial response had been to acknowledge and to deal with these grievances, then the situation might have been resolved through peaceful reform, and the uprising would not have taken this bloody trajectory. Instead, whether through arrogance or incompetence, the regime’s decision to strike with an iron fist has resulted in over 7,500 deaths, and tens of thousands of people illegally detained or injured – in many cases under torture in the prisons.
So what begun twelve months ago, with a dozen school children from the southern Syrian town of Deraa arrested for spraying anti-regime graffiti on walls has become a prolonged crisis that casts a shadow across the whole world. These children who were returned to their parents bloodied, bruised, and abused became the catalyst for an uprising that has now engulfed the whole country.
It is no longer a question of whether Assad will go. It is a question of when. It is a doomed regime that is unable to turn away from violence. In parallel there is an economic clock ticking and the situation inside the country is getting progressively worse. The economy is fraying. There’s no investment, no trade and very little consumer confidence. People with money want to get it out of the country. Business men are looking at other options.
Since returning to London many people have asked for my response to the situation in Syria. For me it’s a mixture of anger and admiration. Anger at seeing a state whose function it should be to protect and nurture its citizens, turn its apparatus instead to killing, torture and fear-mongering. But I also feel a huge amount of admiration for the courage of ordinary Syrians. Admiration not only for the activists, but also for the courage of ordinary Syrian men and women who risk their lives on daily basis to seek what should be universal human rights. This courage to take a stand against such adversity is humbling. The Syrian people deserve better than what they’ve got. They deserve our continuing support as they press for change.