Free Syrian Army fighters take cover moments after shelling a rocket on government forces in Kafr Nboudah village, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo)
Forty-five days after Mohamed Bouazizi’s fateful self-immolation in the sleepy Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, as more than 250,000 gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the fall of the Mubarak regime, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat down for a rare interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Is there any concern that what is happening in Egypt could infect Syria?” he was asked. Assad was confident it could not.
Less than two months after this smug, if not deluded, assessment, a group of Syrian children in the southern town of Dara’a, inspired by an unprecedented political awakening in the region, decided to express their solidarity by painting the mantra of the Arab Spring on their school wall: Al sha’ab yureed isqat al nitham—“The people demand the fall of the regime.” From Libya and Egypt to Yemen and Tunisia, this chant rocked the seemingly immovable foundations of decades-old autocracies. Now it was Assad’s turn. Within days, these children were rounded up and tortured. When their parents protested their detention to the local authorities, the police chief, who happened to be none other than Assad’s cousin, told them to forget about their kids and “make other ones.” If this was not satisfactory, he had a suggestion: “Bring us your wives, and we will make children for you.” This humiliation sparked the first wave of protests, which Assad’s security forces were instructed to put down with live ammunition. As the death toll steadily rose from dozens to hundreds to thousands, the demonstrations spread across the country, from town to town, city to city. Week after week, month after month, unarmed protesters peacefully faced down Assad’s murderous, sectarian thugs. “Selmia, selmia”…“peaceful, peaceful” they can be heard chanting in dozens of still accessible but forgotten YouTube videos, just before their cries are drowned out by a barrage of bullets.
As the international community, led by Russia and the United States, continues to debate how to enforce an international norm against chemical weapons without becoming entangled in a sectarian civil war, it is worth looking back to those more innocent days. It seems the world has forgotten that before it was sectarian, it was about equality for all. Before there was Jabhat al-Nusra, there were defectors who refused to fire on innocent civilians. Before 100,000 people died, 500,000 gathered in Hama’s al-Assi Square for a nonviolent protest. Before there was a civil war and before Syria became the world’s chessboard, there was a peaceful uprising for freedom and dignity. It was Assad who chose to torture, murder and carpet-bomb his way to the sectarian abyss in which Syria now finds itself. It was Assad who knowingly stoked historical tensions to cement the perception that dictatorship was the only way to defend Syria from medieval radicals who will drive out the country’s vulnerable minorities. For two and a half years, the world huffed and puffed, but did little else, as Assad’s barbarism created the perfect storm for Al Qaeda’s resurgence. For two and a half years, helpless Syrians waited for the intransigent UN Security Council to finally do its job. That moment never arrived.