The Syrian government is engaged in a systematic attempt to wipe out the nonviolent dissenters to its regime who have been engaged in demonstrations in major cities for the past six months. The Syrian people, like people all over the world, seek democracy, basic human rights, and an end to the constant terror, brutalization and torture that they face from the dictatorial government of the Bashar al- Assad regime.
The Syrian army has used tanks and heavy artillery against its citizens, but more frequently the typical tools of an occupying force: 1. "targeted assassinations" 2. torture and terror 3. random arrests of citizens suspected of opposing the regime and identified as "activists" or "militants" 4. the representation of the popular opposition as "fundamentalist extremists" or as "terrorists" 5. blocking the communication systems of those who are being attacked 6.using the national media to report the "disturbances" as the work of outside agitators or traitors (in the case of Syria, that usually means claiming that the demonstrators are Zionists or allies of American imperialism).
Not that the Syrian regime has no support–because it does. The regime is built on the needs of the Alawite minority which had suffered previously under the oppression of the Sunni majority. The Alawites are a different Islamic sect, and their popular folk religion incorporated many of the conflicting trends of the various cultural and political forces that had occupied or dominated Syria in the past several thousand years. So, for example, when they first emerged as a split-off group from the Shia Muslims, they began to embrace prophets from the Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Socrates, Plato, and many Persian religious leaders as well.
When the French conquered Syria, they used the standard technique of colonialists, embracing and elevating the Alawite minority into positions of cooperation with the French occupation, as they had used Jews in Morocco and Algeria, or as England had used a variety of minorities in India. This accelerated tensions between them and the Sunni majority, and set the stage for the French-trained Syrian army to be filled with Alawites in leadership positions who would support the dictatorship that consolidated power under the regime of Bashar’s father Hafaz al-Assad.
When his younger and Western educated son Bashar took power in 2000, there was much hope that he would bring a new commitment to peace and human rights to Syrie. Increasingly it has become clear that either Bashar is merely a figure head for the Army, or that his actual instincts have led him to support ruthless repression of the democratic forces, likely reenforced by many other Alawites who fear that the democratic movement will bring to power a majority Islamic fundamentalist society that will take revenge on the Alawite minority. I wish I could say that their fear is unjustified, but what is certain is that their use of the technology of repression makes it much more likely that their fears will be realized when the current repressive regime is overthrown. There are some in the Alwawite community who would like to see a new regime in power that did not use violence and repression as the main way to retain "order."
For those of us who believe in non-violence, it’s not easy to know how to help those who seek to overthrow the Syrian regime and create a democratic and human rights-respecting Syria. The more the repression of these forces, the more the most extreme and violence-friendly forces are likely to gain more power inside the Syrian opposition, and so a transition to their rule could be quite bloody. But so is the status quo under dictator Assad.
Americans have very slight leverage in Syria, largely because the US has consistently sided with Israel in disputes with Syria in the past. Unlike Israel, to which American taxpayers send their hard-earned money to the tune of $3 bilion a year, Syria does not benefit from aid from the US so we are not able to threaten to cut it off! An economic and political blockade might have some impact, but with Syrian ties to Russia and Iraq rather strong, such a blockade would likely have very limited impact on the regime, more on the protestors and the majority population they represent. Steps to indict and arrest individual members of the secret police, the Syrian army, and others who work with al-Assad and bring them to justice at an International Court might have some impact and should be tried, as well as economic measures that do not hurt the majority of Syrian citizens.
Boycotts are more effective when there is a functioning democracy in a given state; but when people have no recourse but demonstrations in the streets, the best we can do is to provide assistance to the demonstrators in any way we can, while simultaneously urging them to provide assurances to the Alawite minority that the regime they seek to set up in place of the current dictator will be one which respects minority rights (a message that the Kurds of northeastern Syria must already believe, else why would they risk their lives, as they have, to join the anti-Assad demonstrations). If Alawites could be assured that the democratic regime aspired to by the protestors would in fact be safe for minorities, they’d be more willing to abandon the dictatorial rule they support in part out of fear of the alternatives.
So the best we can do is to ask the countries of the world to do all they can to support the overthrow of the Syrian regime and to help in supporting the democratic and human-rights-supporting elements in the Muslim world!