The brutal pace of events in Syria has been hard to follow, let alone to comprehend and to critique. Large-scale nonviolent protests against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad began over a year ago, in March 2011, after 14 schoolchildren were arrested and tortured in the city of Deraa. Their crime was to have written a popular Arab Spring slogan on a wall: ‘The people want the downfall of the regime’. The shooting of demonstrators spread the protests around the country. The regime besieged Deraa and other cities, and called in the army to suppress the uprising, most notably in Homs. Armed rebel groups have sprung up, including defectors from the army calling themselves the ‘Free Syrian Army’.
One problem is to determine the best policy or action of our own government. There are strong voices for military intervention of some kind, if only in providing military equipment and training for rebel forces. The second problem is to try to work out the best possible policy or action of the peace movement in relation to local people struggling for justice and peace.
In relation to the first question, many people have pointed out the similarities between the brutal siege of Homs and the very similar operations against the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004. The Red Cross estimated that at least 800 civilians were killed during the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004.
This is not a justification for the massacres carried out by the Assad regime, but it is a cautionary parallel for those advocating western military involvement. Those who glory in the victory over ‘armed terrorists’ in Fallujah are in no moral position to condemn the Assad regime’s crackdown against ‘armed terrorists’ in Syria.
The peace plan put forward by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, for all its faults, is a genuine attempt to avoid the perils of a disastrous civil war in Syria.
As PN goes to press, the Annan plan looked extremely shaky, for much the same reasons that the African Union peace proposals for Libya last year foundered (see PN 2533). The regime relies on force and will not desist without rebel concessions, and rebel fighters are stiffened in their violent resolve by the offers of western military aid and assistance. Thus the promise of military aid, or even invasion, helps drive the people of Syria towards a larger bloodbath.
As for what western movements can do, well, it may be we should look to the massive internet-based group Avaaz, which has channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of satellite phones and other communications equipment into Syria, and helped smuggle millions of dollars worth of medical equipment into the country. We’re not aware of any other group that has been of as much assistance to the nonviolent protest movements in Syria.