Syria's revolution, a year on

A year of violent repression and suffering leaves Syria's people as far as ever from achieving the freedom millions of them demand. Ayman Ayoub looks back and forward.

A year of violent repression and suffering leaves Syria's people as far as ever from achieving the freedom millions of them have demanded. Ayman Ayoub looks back and forward.

On 15 March 2011 a group of children leaving school in the Syrian city of Deraa wrote the first slogans on street walls calling for democracy and a change of the authoritarian regime in Syria. It was a symbolic, peaceful and civilised act by very young citizens that echoed the astonishing events in Egypt and Tunisia over the previous three months. The security forces reacted immediately through the only way they are used to under an oppressive rule: arresting the children and subjecting them to brutal torture. As a result of this disproportionate response, the name of Deraa as became famous around the region and the world.

It was not long before the Syrian people, completely aware of what was going on around them in the region and having suffered decades of ruthless oppression, decided to take to the streets. In making clear they could not support such cruelty anymore, they peacefully voiced the common demand of the Arab spring: "down with the regime". In a matter of days, protests spread across the country and among all segments of Syria's social fabric.

Over the following weeks and months, the security apparatus of the Syrian regime went completely senseless in applying indescribable violence against unarmed civilians in almost every corner of Syria. Soon the world started to watch in astonishment (mainly via mobile-phone recordings and other impromptu mechansims) scenes of severe crackdown and inhumane repression of people of both genders and all ages.

The use of heavy military force and collective-punishment tactics led to a dangerous deterioration of humanitarian conditions which in some cases reached a point of real starvation. In the meantime, thousands of civilians found themselves homeless and obliged to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Within Syria too, there are undetermined numbers of internally displaced persons.

Under these extreme conditions, increasing numbers of military officials started to defect and some came together in the "Free Syrian Army". Its members, lightly armed with individual weapons, have the principal aim of providing an elemental level of protection for civilians.

In addition, existing and emerging opposition groups started to gather their forces in an effort to organise and lead the popular protests and provide a credible alternative to the existing regime. After many and protracted consultations, the Syrian National Council was formed, though it was unable to bring together all opposition groups from inside and outside the country under a opposition platform.

A year on, despite huge sufferings and incommensurate sacrifices, these opposition groups have still failed to unite. The unfortunate result is to send contradictory message both to the Syrian public and the international community at large.

An international failure

The international community, in contrast to its determined response in the Libyan conflict, continues to fail in meeting its humanitarian universal obligations towards the Syrian people. There is overwhelming international basic agreement on the urgent need to halt bloodshed and to rescue victims in such cases, yet the United Nations Security Council has been unable to take concrete and effective measures. Russia and China's repeated and shameful use of their veto right should at least force a serious reconsideration of an unfair arrangement that prevents the actual enforcement of international laws and universal values even in the face of scandalous and appalling crimes against humanity.

Beyond this there have been only verbal condemnations, mild expressions of support for the protesers, and dubiously effective restrictions or penalties on the regime. Measures such as the withdrawal of ambassadors or even the cutting of diplomatic relations altogether may be symbolically important, but are small gestures only in the face of great sorrow.

The regime in Syria, encouraged by this weak and shocking international attitude, persists in its inhumane handling of the situation. It refuses to listen to the many calls made by the Arab League and the United Nations, as well as a large number of individual states.

In this situation, the international community needs to move beyond chewing over the argument that it cannot interfere in a country's internal affairs. When state authorities respond with such violence to peaceful demands for freedom, dignity and democracy, the universal obligation is to find a solution and stop the suffering - including of those who are far from open supporters of the revolution.

The way ahead

In the year that passed since the start of the Syrian revolution, more than 8,500 persons have been killed according to officially recognised counts (unconfirmed sources suggest the total is over 12,000). Tens of thousands have been injured, detained or are simply missing, many of whom are believed to have been secretly killed by the regime. Many more have become refugees or displaced. This is a tragedy of great magnitude.

The only way ahead is an immediate, determined, principled - and effective - reaction to rescue the Syrian people. An initiative like the one jointly launched by the League of Arab States and the United Nations, through the mission led by Kofi Annan, needs to be supported and facilitated with all the necessary resources and means. Regardless of initial doubts, such initiatives need to be advanced in order to staunch the blood of the Syrian people and allow their legitimate cries for dignity and freedom to be heard.

About the author

Ayman Ayoub is regional director of the west Asia and north Africa programme at International IDEA. He is lawyer by training whose work has primarily focused on the provision of specialised assistance services for elections and democratisation processes in transitional and post-conflict countries

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Ayman Ayoub is regional director of the west Asia and north Africa programme at International IDEA. He is lawyer by training whose work has primarily focused on the provision of specialised assistance services for elections and democratisation processes in transitional and post-conflict countries

This article is also published on the website of International IDEA