Syrians are a people of a long, illustrious, sage and vibrant heritage. Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, and Syria is a nation that completes the eastern crescent of the Mediterranean, and, though Syria itself was only formed after the First World War, its territory sits atop a junction of ancient Empires and Kingdoms, most notably the Eblan civilisation of around 3000BC. Cattle breeding and simple agriculture hail from the classical Syrian region above Egypt and Arabia and the nation has historically been seen as one of relative wealth and stability.
However, since the formation of modern Syria in April of 1946, and its subsequent independence from the short-lived United Arab Republic in 1961, Syria has been ruled by two men from the same family. Haffez al-Assad ruled Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000, and his regime was a brutal one for the Syrian. The authoritarian nature of al-Assad Senior’s rule ruthlessly stamped out the vast majority of all protest against the monopoly of his government, and, save for a relatively minor uprising in the late 1970s from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, Haffez al-Assad’s rule was one of ensured, introvert peace and pragmatically oppressive government. However, the violence currently seen in Syria was unheard of during al-Assad senior’s regime.
In the subsequent decade, Haffez’ son Bashar has continued the political dominance of the al-Assad family, and since mid-2011, Syria has seen some of the Arab Spring’s most brutal and sustained violence. The UN and other humanitarian organisations estimate that nearly six thousand Syrians have perished at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and ruthless ‘security forces’, and the Syrian National Council, an organisation established in August of last year to front and organise the revolution, holds estimates nearer ten thousand than six. The world has looked on in increasing horror recently, as stories of the systematic destruction of the city of Homs have made their blood-soaked way to our front pages and news websites. Marie Colvin, one of the world’s most respected and longest-serving war reporters, was killed at a makeshift media centre alongside French journalist Remi Ochlik in an attack condemned as ‘intentional and utterly unacceptable’ by the Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The Syrian people are fighting not just for their lives, but for their livelihoods, their homes, their cities, their honour, their dignity and their national identity. This morning brought news that the last bastion of resistance in the city of Homs, the besieged Baba Amr district, has fallen to the forces of the despotic Assad regime, and eyewitnesses have reported frequent sightings of summary executions carried out by government forces. The photographer Paul Conroy, who was trapped in Baba Amr for days with serious injuries, said in an interview to Sky News on sunday that he “has worked in many war zones. I have never seen or been in shelling like this. They’re systematically moving through neighbourhoods with munitions that are used for battlefields. It’s unfathomable, the sustained barrage.” Indeed, I recently read an article which made the point that, if Western nations do not reach an agreement over a potential direct military intervention or no fly zone similar to that seen in Libya, we will look back in twenty years and view Homs in the same category as Srebrenica and Rwanda, both examples of massacres on an unimaginable scale which could very easily have been prevented had Western nations simply stopped bickering and wised up to the gravity of the situation. The situation is dire, and every day that Russia and China maintain their despicable stance against intervention in Syria, hundreds of Syrians die.
It took the death of one of our own to finally shake the British media into a Syrian frenzy, and this conflict is one that cannot last forever. If UN leaders fail to reach an agreement within, at most, a month or two, the lives of ten thousand plus Syrians will rest squarely on their shoulders. Stories of massacres frequent our front pages, summary executions are commonplace and Syria’s Third City of Homs has been systematically destroyed, neighbourhoods shelled one after the other. A war zone, then. Yet there is one deafeningly silent absence from the Syrian conflict. There is no enemy. There is no impostor, no great evil threatening the Syrian nation. And yet, through decades of unchallenged, despotic and monopolised government, the great evil of Syria has become its government, fighting for its life on the streets of its own cities, against its own people. Internal conflicts such as the Syrian and Libyan civil wars lack a uniting force, because they are fought over politics, not land or sovereignty or territory. There will always be support for dictators, however small, and as long as people align themselves according to their ideology, blood will be shed. It has happened right the way through history, and the world was nearly laid to nuclear waste as a result of complete ideological difference. But the Syrian civil war is different. It is about the Syrian on the streets of some of the Middle East’s most historic and beautiful cities, and what independence, freedom and other basic rights mean to him. It is about the men fighting on the street without enough ammunition to go round, moving from cover to cover in the name of survival, life’s most basic instinct. It is not about the politics or volatility of the region, Lebanon and Syria have had their fair share of military engagement in recent times, but for the moment, the Syrian government is focussing on how best to put down a revolution that gathers support and momentum every day that Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
Indeed, the Arab Spring, or perhaps more appropriately the collective Arab Revolutions, have shown the world that the long-standing, corrupt and heavy-handed dictators of the Middle East and Northern Africa are no longer the impregnable fortresses of power and oppression that they once were. Revolution in Egypt occurred largely without bloodshed, but Libya and Syria have showed us that, should the time and need for political change come and pass, desperate dictators can be removed, given strong and lasting opposition. All it needs is the will of enough people to make the decades-old dreams of a generation to become the reality for these young, modern nations full of potential with an outward, progressive look on the world that is crucially mixed with a gritty realism that can only come from years of living under political oppression. Syria is hardly a land of excess, aside from the upper realms of power, and they are a humble, uncomplicated people in terms of material requirements.
Where the Libyan and Syrian revolutions differ is in the depth and breadth of governmental military might. Colonel Gaddafi’s force consisted of a fleet of 20-year-old Russian MIG jets, some old RPGs and a few thousand well-trained militiamen loyal until the fall of Tripoli to Gaddafi himself. The Libyan rebels, though they faced organisational issues early in their campaign and were in fact almost obliterated at Misrata and Benghazi on a number of occasions, had a much easier job – by simple virtue of the ancient nature of Gaddafi’s military – of overthrowing their dictator than their Syrian counterparts. Granted, Libyan rebels did have NATO air support for almost seven straight months – an immeasurable advantage, but the fact is the Syrian men and women fighting on the streets of Homs and Aleppo and other cities right across the country need some kind of external assistance if they are to have a hope of overcoming the might of the Syrian Red Crescent Army, led by President Assad’s brother, Maher.
Saudi Arabia has recently spoken about the possibility of supplying Syrian fighters with weapons, and if it weren’t for Russia and China’s mutual obstinacy, I doubt very much President Assad would still be in power; Western intervention would be simply too large an obstacle for his regime to overcome. I shan’t delve into the politics behind their objection to the UNSC’s proposed resolution; I know next to nothing of Russian or Chinese politics, but it is telling that America and the UK have not pushed the two objectors harder to resolve the Syrian crisis. Syria just does not have the same resources or materials that Libya does and, slimy though it is to say, Oil is the lubricant for global politics – at least it is when America is involved.
So: Syria slips further into a bloody civil war every day, particularly now that the cameras are gone; Russia and China stubbornly refuse to agree to any UN resolution for reasons unknown and Saudi Arabia keeps talking about arming the Syrian fighters but is yet to actually make any move at all. Part of me agrees with the realist view that to intervene in Syria would be to break the sovereignty of a great country, but if we are to claim any kind of conscience or collective humanity, we must intervene, for the sake of the Syrian fighting and dying every day on the streets of Homs.
The situation is dire in Syria. If we don’t act now, Assad will move from city to city throughout Syria, systematically exterminating any and all resistance his tanks come across. Summary executions, mass rape and the murder of innocent women and children will continue, and yet the West will be unable to do anything save sit and watch as the deaths of thousands more Syrians pile squarely on their shoulders.
It is high time we, as the leaders of the globalised world, took the initiative and began saving Syrian lives. Streets are literally running with blood, rivers flowing red and district after district fall under President Assad’s ruthless barrage of shelling. If we don’t, it shall be too late, and we shall have another mass killing on a scale similar to Rwanda and Srebrenica.
Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao: enough lives have been lost as a consequence of your politics and stubbornness. It is a travesty to play games with the life of another human being, let alone 10 000 of them. For your own consciences as much as the Syrian people, it is time you allowed the UN a clear path to a resolution. We face decades of guilt and bitter regret if you don’t.