By Ahmed Shihab-Eldin
Michelle Obama’s family is from Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States. The family of Asma Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is from Homs, Syria’s third largest city. One of their husbands has been bombarding his wife’s hometown with mortars, tanks and rockets, killing hundreds over the last month, forcing thousands more to flee.
The other husband, Barack Obama, despite all his critical and threatening rhetoric, has claimed his hands are tied. With an election fast approaching, and hot on the heels of a controversial, if somewhat effective, use of America’s military to eliminate Gaddafi in Libya, Obama is unlikely to mobilize the military.
“Unilateral action against Syria would be a mistake… the issue is more complicated than Libya,” he said in a conference on Tuesday.
But photographs and videos emerging online from inside Syria point to a horrifying reality: despite the fate of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi, Arab leaders remain convinced they can slaughter their people and get away with it. And, why wouldn’t they?
A strong precedent has been set by the generation of leaders before them. Specifically, the current Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who launched an assault on Hama in 1982, killing at least 20,000 civilians in just under a month. Today, the “massacre” in Homs (as it’s been described by Paul Conroy, the British photographer wounded in the rocket attack that recently killed war reporter Marie Colvin) eerily began on Feb 3, exactly 30 years after his father’s massacre in Hama 50 kilometers north of Homs.
While Assad’s brutal crackdown can be seen as the subpar sequel to his father’s massacre 30 years ago, given the context of revolt in the region and the fear factor having been shattered in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, its impact could soon destabilize both Syria and the wider region.
In 1982 there was no Internet, YouTube or Twitter. Today, whether it is a father weeping as he holds his dead son’s severed head in his hands (GRAPHIC VIDEO), or a boy sobbing at the bedside of his murdered father, photos, videos and real-time reports shot in Homs and shared online confirm that not only is the Syrian government at war against its people, but the consequences are also nothing short of horrific.
Twitter alone has changed the way we, as global citizens, communicate. It has also changed the way wars are covered, especially when governments bar journalists from entry to the country. Twitter ultimately becomes the wires.
In this democratized media environment, where the authoritative is drowned by the masses, and immediacy and transparency trump objectivity, videos documenting demolitions and disfigurements expose enough in real-time for us to grasp the reality based on the sheer volume even when what we are seeing has yet to be fully verified.
Even in the face of a death toll reported to be upwards of 10,000, the Syrian government officials and Assad supporters with whom I have spoken seem to echo one refrain: “Where is the proof?” I am asked.
Landmarks captured on film and widespread testimonials aside, it is impossible to refute the sheer number of citizen reports that undeniably point to Assad’s complicity in crimes against humanity.
Torture, rape and murder are among crimes found by a UN investigation into human rights violations by government troops, findings that are supported by the increasing number of army defectors who have been rising in frequency in recent weeks.
Abdo Hussameldin, Syria’s deputy oil minister, is seen announcing his defection in this video posted by activists on YouTube. If confirmed, he would be the highest ranking civilian official to abandon President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising erupted one year ago.
When Syria refuses to allow international journalists in to cover the story, where does the burden of truth rest? Does it rest with the activists who are documenting destruction and sharing it with the world or with the government, which is actively trying to shut the world out?
In Obama’s assessment, he is right about one thing, Assad is fighting a losing battle.
“Ultimately this dictator will fall,” Obama noted in a press conference Tuesday, “it is not a question of if, but when Assad would be forced out.”
But Obama, who shot down a proposal for the US to begin airstrikes on Assad’s forces, is merely stating the obvious. He is also right that there is no simple solution in Syria, just as there wasn’t one in Libya either. Even today, leaders in Eastern Libya have declared their region semi-autonomous.
But as videos allegedly show torture victims at a hospital, thousands of refugees fleeing to Lebanon, dozens of children crammed in a bunker with no access to food or water coupled with Assad’s refuses to allow the Red Crescent in to provide humanitarian relief, Obama’s inaction is a disappointment. Still, it is preferable to John McCain’s hawkish approach of arming the rebels and intervening militarily.
In the end, U.S. inaction coupled with Russia’s continued defiance of Arab League sanctions and support to Assad’s regime, perpetuates the carnage. Russia sold Syria nearly $1 billion worth of weapons in 2011 — a lifeline that assists in surviving despite the sanctions.
But there are steps the Obama should take, such as reconsidering entering into a $1 billion business contract with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms dealer supplying Syria with the weapons they use to kill civilians.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York has reminded us on several occasions this year, Syria has been using technology made by US companies, including Blue Coat Systems to censor and monitor Internet users. The U.S. could cut off this supply.
US Rep. Chris Smith introduced a bill in the House that would require American companies listed on the stock exchange to report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission on how they conduct due diligence on human rights issues. Obama should follow Smith’s lead.
The US has a long history of selling weapons and offering economic aid to Arab countries with a proven record of human rights abuses. But in this new epoch of empowered Arab populations willing to stand and fall for the fight for their rights, the US government should demonstrate its commitment to observing liberty and justice for all, but instead it allows Arab leaders to continue to shower protesters in US-made tear gas.
Last week, as images continued to stream online, on Syrian state TV Assad and his wife Asma were filmed gleefully casting their votes in the so-called constitutional referendum.
If Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is America’s embodiment of a completely detached politician, unable to connect with the problems and demands of his people, then what exactly can be said of Assad and his wife?
In this video filmed in Aleppo, Syria in March 2007, Asma al-Assad welcomed a gathering of members from Follow The Women, an international organization of 500 ordinary women from 40 different countries who support an end to violence in the Middle East.
She concluded her 9-minute address to the delegation by saying, “We all deserve the same thing,” she said. “We should all be able to live in peace, stability and with our dignities.”
But the residents of Homs have lived through war, chaos and are subjected to an undignified existence.
Even as millions and millions of Arabs across the region continue to take to the streets to demand, above all else, dignity, Asma’s husband and his counterparts rob their citizens of their dignity. Obama does not need to come to their aid, but he should certainly work to stop supporting those arming or supporting Assad.
Over the past year, Arab ‘tyrants’ led activists on Twitter to create a hashtag to draw attention to the absurdity of Arab autocracy — #ArabTyrantManual — a tribute to their malicious methods of maintaining power. Iyad El-Baghdadi began the trend.
Assad can pretend that the world isn’t watching, that tweeps aren’t re-tweeting, or that videos aren’t being uploaded and shared, exposing his violent crimes.
Obama can pretend that because foreign policy is unlikely to sway voters one way or another come November, that he will somehow not be judged by history.
Politicians are often infamous for their hypocrisy; some argue it is the very nature of the field. But since leaders, particularly in the Arab world, are known to rule by fear, Obama should instead lead by example and take a cue from Napolean Bonaparte who said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
In an election year beset by economic and geopolitical turmoil, it would serve Obama well to remind the world of the two very words that landed him in the White House. Restore “hope” and act boldly, and in doing so, bring about real “change” for those suffering in Syria.