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June 10, 2012

The Silence is Deafening

Yesterday there was an enormous gun battle that lasted most of the afternoon and throughout the night in Damascus. Any explanations? Any questions by the esteemed parliament that the president of this banana republic appointed? Has the parliament demanded an end to the Syrian army’s activities in Homs, Deraa, and the countless villages where it’s passed through like a Tatar horde? No, nothing. They stand there in their “Sunday best” – or should that be Friday? – and clap when asked to clap for the man who has treated this entire country and its people like a joke. When all the voices are silent in a great country like Syria, and the man in the suit gives you that patronising half-smile because he knows that he’s got it sorted, what can you feel but utter contempt?

Yet that’s nothing besides the renewed vigour of those fifth columnists who did well out of the dictatorship; those young and educated, suited and booted, who have now rallied as a representation of an illusive “internal” opposition which – shock and horror – wants to negotiate with the dictator, and wants him to stay, “just long enough to hand things over”, you understand? Pardon my ignorance, but I had thought that the real Syrian internal opposition was the one getting shot at and pounded with artillery on the streets of Syrian cities and towns.

I’ve read history, in fact I’m currently reading Philip Khoury’s history of Syria during the mandate years, and I’ve never come across anything as barbaric as what this regime is doing to the country today. I grew up with that heady mix of nationalism and intense pride at kicking out the French. Yet the Great Revolt of 1925 is like a picnic compared to what’s happening in the Syrian Revolution of 2011.


The Milgram Experiment in Syria

Howleh. picture by Kaveh Kazemi/ Getty Images

It has thrown students out of top-floor windows. It has shelled cities from the land and from the air. It has raped women and men and tortured children to death. Now with the massacres at Howleh and Qubair – in which Alawis from nearby villages, accompanied by the army, shelled, shot and stabbed entire families to death – the Syrian regime has escalated its strategy of sectarian provocation. Here Tony Badran explains very well the sick rationale behind these acts. To a certain extent the regime’s plan has already worked. Now it seems inevitable that sectarian revenge attacks will intensify. In general, sectarian identification is being fortified in the atmosphere of violence created by the regime and added to by the necessary armed response to the regime. Sectarian hatred will deepen so long as the regime survives to play this card.

The regime wants us to understand the conflict in purely sectarian terms. Many Syrians recognise this and are resisting it. At this impossibly difficult time it’s good to remember the Alawi revolutionaries, who are heroes, and crucial to the revolution, heroic in the way Jewish anti-Zionists are heroic. What do I mean by heroic? A disproportionate number of Alawis owe their livelihood to the regime. To fight for a post-regime future means to fight for a future in which their community will be, at best, less favoured than at present. This takes moral and political courage.

Many Alawis have grown up surrounded not, as most Syrians have, by anti-regime mutterings, but by the happy version. To break with this version requires a psychological transformation, something as big as growing up. More concretely, there are family pressures – and family is so important in Syria.

Very many Alawis are employed in the security forces. If your uncle is an officer in the mukhabarat, therefore, you don’t find it easy to publicly oppose the regime. It takes courage to do so, and the kind of confidence in your own judgment which will allow you to discount the arguments of your elders and authorities. Only a few people have such strength. (Of course it takes much more strength to live in a Sunni neighbourhood being beseiged and bombed, but this is a different kind of strength.) We should be humble when we consider the historical mistakes of others.

Most of us, whatever our background, would commit any barbarism if an authority we trusted assured us of the act’s legitimacy. This was the conclusion of the famous Milgram Experiment, whch Stanley Milgram sums up here: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.” The human propensity to follow even obscene orders, or to conform to the obscene perspectives of elders, does not excuse the actual torturers.

Every man’s responsibility for his own actions is a rule we must live by even if ultimately it isn’t true. Those who torture and kill must be considered guilty. I hope evidence is being stored so the killers may one day be tried under a fair justice system.

In the meantime, many are being killed, and not only Alawis. I know of a young Damascene Sunni who worked for the mukhabarat. The version I heard says he was only a driver, not a torturer. He was followed and shot thrice in the back of the head. I’ve heard about an informer, a Christian, who was killed in the western suburbs of Damascus.

The version I heard was that he wrote lists for the mukhabarat, and that the demonstrators he listed were arrested and tortured or killed. Men waited for him outside his house, kneecapped him, took him away in their van and later dumped his stabbed corpse. His mother called the local Christian families together and demanded an act of revenge. The men told her it wasn’t their business. And I’ve heard from a friend from the Qurdaha region that even there in the regime’s heartland army officers are being picked off by snipers while they drive the mountain roads.


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