Last Sunday the Arab League imposed a battery of sanctions against the Syrian regime. Two weeks ago, the Arab League suspended Syria from its ranks-the first such suspension of a member nation since the League suspended Egypt after Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Viewed by some as a sign that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s days are numbered, this development is certainly an indicator that the “Arab Spring” that brought down governments in Egypt and Tunisia continues to transform the middle east. Will Syria’s dictatorship be the next to fall?
Supporters of human rights and democracy who value the security and rights of innocent people around the world, including in the U.S. and Israel, can’t help but wonder if this rare stand on the part of the Arab League – and the likely possibility that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad’s days in power are numbered – are positive, or whether one is safer taking a cautious or even pessimistic view.
This week I sat down with Ahmad, a 37-year-old restaurateur who grew up in Syria, and whose family of origin remains there. Ahmad and I last spoke in May after Assad’s government forces had killed about 1,000 Syrians. At the time, Ahmad predicted Assad would continue to “crack down” harshly on pro-democracy demonstrators “despite all th[e regime has] said” – a reference to the pledge, in March, by Assad to reform his government and to lift the state of martial law that has existed in Syria since 1963.
Subsequent events proved Ahmad right: since last spring, Assad’s government has escalated its tactics against the largely peaceful protestors, killing so many civilians in an action last summer in the town of Hama some dubbed it the “Ramadan massacre.” Reports also surfaced of the Syrian government’s allegedly murdering prominent dissidents, such as songwriter Ibrahim Qashoush, dubbed the “nightingale of the revolution,” who was discovered with his throat cut out. Reports also surfaced of Assad’s forces detaining, torturing, mutilating and killing even children who attended protests.
At present, 3500 Syrians are estimated to have died at the hands of the government. Given his prescience last spring, I thought now would be a good time to get in touch with Ahmad and get his take on how these events might affect not only Syria but the Gulf States, Israel, and the world.
Ahmad emigrated from Syria in 1999 and became an American citizen shortly thereafter. His mother, brother, and other relatives remained in Syria, and he visits them about once a year. He is owner of a terrific restaurant in a midsized Eastern seaboard city. With his friendly, warm, and uncommonly sunny personality, as well as his restaurant’s significant Jewish clientele (including this journalist), Ahmad has a gift for getting along with people of all backgrounds.
Ahmad monitors the situation in Syria closely through Arab web sites and the Syrian Revolution Facebook page. A Christian, Ahmad says that he didn’t experience prejudice from Muslims when he was growing up in Syria. He attended the same grade school in Damascus that Bashar Assad had attended some years earlier and says that in his experience, most Syrian Muslims are moderate and do not want extremist Muslim rule. He says he understands the anxiety of Israel and others of Syria’s neighbors, adding, “[the Arab League and the West] gave Assad chance after chance because no one wants to see Syria de-stabilized because it could spill over.”
Yet, his sympathy is with the demonstrators, who he believes to be nonviolent pro-democracy advocates. “I am an optimist,” he told me, adding that he believes that, should Assad’s dictatorship fall, Syria could eventually become a moderate Muslim democracy that protects minority rights, “something like Turkey.”
Yet, he acknowledges that many Syrian Christians, including his family in Damascus, still support Assad’s government. He says it is not because they like Assad but due to fear that whoever may replace him could be worse for Christians. But Ahmad says he does not share their fear, believing instead that, based on his experiences with mostly moderate Syrian Muslims growing up, “I can’t imagine a radical oppressive regime arising and holding power in Syria after this … no one will want to live with that.”
Perhaps the most salient piece of information Ahmad shared with me, and something I have not seen reported in Western media, is that, as reported by al Jazeera, the elite members of Syria’s military – Assad’s Revolutionary Guard – stand behind the regular soldiers and tell them that if they don’t shoot civilians on command “they will be shot in the back.”
Regarding the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions and to kick Syria out, Ahmad thinks it signals the beginning of the end for Assad. That, he believes, is because the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., have made their wishes known.
“Usually, when the Saudis put their weight behind” something, “it has leverage, because of the money,” he said. “The regime is falling.”
The frightening thing from an immediate and human rights perspective, Ahmad believes, is “how much damage [Assad] is willing to do before he goes down. It will get uglier and uglier. He’s cornered, and he might just go crazy.”
Regarding Israel, Ahmad says that attitudes among some of the younger generation in Syria, including the demonstrators, are less hostile–and more cynical toward the anti-Israel government line.
“[Historically], the easiest thing for a Syrian leader has been to rally people around the Israeli subject,” he said. “The government uses the subject of Israel to manipulate the people … to give [the government] legitimacy … They call themselves heroes because they are the last ones in the Arab world still opposing Israel.”
At present, however, some younger people in Syria view their leaders’ urging them to hate and fight against Israel with skepticism, according to Ahmad.
“Younger people are more accepting of others. It used to be, you are born and you die and it is your mission in life to be effective in this [Arab/Israeli] conflict,” Ahmad said. “You don’t have a job, your kids can’t eat, it doesn’t matter, you need to give yourself to this great cause. Then after 40, 50, 60 years of conflict, nothing changed.
“The young people started to realize they are way behind, and all the ideology was bull—-. It was a way the dictators used to control the people and get rich. The [Syrian] people saw that, finally. The internet opened up their eyes. Now people care about other things, the environment, music, whatever. People, from left to right, are talking about issues.”