When the ground is ready to burn, a small spark might be enough to start a fire.
Dominoes, the game presented to Chinese emperor Hui Tsung in the 12th century, traveled slowly before it finally reached the Middle East. These days, however, it appears to be the game of the hour – starting in Tunisia and Egypt, cascading through Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, and now in Syria.
The Middle East’s reality, however, is not a game, but a struggle for survival. Like the old emperors of China, the remaining old guards – the voices of the past – are desperately fighting against their own people, who seek a different future. And the voices of the past appear clearly aligned. It was Syrian Air Force pilots who were flying some of the MiG fighter jets ordered to attack rebel-held towns in Libya. An official Syrian funeral for one of them, killed fulfilling his “duty,” took place in Damascus against the backdrop of the anti-Syrian demonstration there. Turkey recently stopped two Iranian planes for “routine inspection,” only to find rocket launchers, mortars and automatic rifles intended to rearm Assad’s security forces and his Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Assad, according to opposition sources, has approved the deployment of hundreds of fighters to Libya, as well as air and anti-tank munitions to Gaddafi. There were reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been seen working alongside the Syrian military to curtail the demonstrations. The Iranian assistance might have contributed to the increasing brutality of the Syrian security forces who managed to kill 50 more demonstrators this last weekend. But it did not stop the masses, about 500,000 of whom marched in about nine Syrian cities this past weekend.
Over 200 people were killed and dozens wounded in a wave of demonstrations that began in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. Although Assad was quick to blame “foreign conspiracy,” it appears that his real enemies are loyal Syrians, including women and children like Mundhir Masalmi, an 11-year-old child who died in Deraa as a result of gas poisoning, or Moaamin Massalmeh, 14, who was shot there. Pictures and cellphone videos show brutal use of force that includes snipers and gas. One film shows a demonstrator shot in the leg, captured and later beaten by some 50 security guards. Another shows bodies on the floor with no medical help in sight. Syrian security forces did not even spare mosques in their pursuit of demonstrators.
Although Deraa was the focal point, other cities in Syria have recently joined the fracas, including Aleppo, Homs, Jassem, Latakia and Banias, where demonstrators shouted, “Down with Bashar.”
In Duma, a suburb of Damascus, police fired on about 20,000 people gathered in a major square chanting “freedom.” Demonstrators also gathered opposite the Interior Ministry building, demanding the release of political prisoners. Thousands of such prisoners are held in Syria, and more have been added during these latest demonstrations. Tal Mallohi might be the youngest one, arrested at 7 for blogging on human equality.
Hoping to ease tensions, Assad dismissed his government and indicated his readiness to lift the state of emergency that has been in place since 1963. But to the Syrian opposition, it will not be enough. “Deraa is Syria,” chanted protesters next to the Omayyed Mosque in the center of Damascus.
As in other places in the region, this was another affirmation that when the ground is ready to burn, a small spark might be enough to start a fire.
“It is not about dominoes,” Bassam Bitar, a former Syrian official who has been active in the opposition for over a decade, told me last week. The opposition planted the seeds for this moment and dreamt for years about this chance. Speaking from Damascus, Yassir tells me about tribal and civic society leaders who have mobilized to act. “Please tell our story,” he asks, knowing that some Western attention will help put some wind in the sails of hope of those who face an uneasy struggle against the gunships of gas and fear.
While Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Assad continue to cling to the past, Libyans, Iranians and Syrians are among those willing to risk their lives in the hope of a different future. Following years in which brutal violations of human rights received little more than Western lip service, the expulsion of Libya from the UN’s Human Rights Council and the intervention in Ivory Coast serves as an important precedent. Human rights may yet be taken seriously – but not if world leaders choose to remain silent as they have, starting with President Barack Obama, in the case of Syria. We should not underestimate the importance of words that carry the potential to add some wind to the sails of hope of those marching in Tehran, Sanaa, Manama, Tripoli and Damascus. Many have already lost their lives because dictators were given a free pass to brazenly disregard the rights and lives of citizens. The world should stand with the people of Syria and support their calls for freedom – and the US should be the first to speak out.
Dominoes sometimes need a push.
The writer is the co-founder of CyberDissidents.org.