[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
“Allah, Syria, Freedom – nothing else!” That is the slogan peaceful protestors are chanting on the streets of Syria these days, challenging the classical pro-regime slogan “God, Syria, Bashar – nothing else!” Yet the “security forces” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are brutally crushing this most justified yearning for liberty. It is reported that the thugs of the regime have killed at least 850 people in the past few weeks, whose only crime was to ask for the end of the Baath dictatorship that has ruled the country for more than four decades. Thousand have been reported to be arrested, and tortured, while troops supported by tanks are raiding towns and homes. The regime of Mr. Assad is simply killings its own people.
The Baath Bloodshed
Here in Turkey, we are watching all this with great concern – and great contempt. It is true that some among us are fooled by the Baathist propaganda – that this is all the work of “terrorists” and evil outsiders who support them. It is also true that our government has been trying to go a bit easy on Syria, which has been the beacon of Ankara’s successful “zero problem with neighbors” policy. Yet still the Turkish government is raising the tone of its criticism against the Syrian regime day by day, while many here want even stronger condemnations of the regime’s crimes against its own people. We just cannot sit down and watch a massacre on our borders, on the very people that are our friends, relatives and brothers.
In fact, the Baath regime in Syria, like its bygone counterpart in Iraq, has always been brutal. The massacre of at least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, in Hama in 1982, was an act of evil we always mourned and never forgot. The culprits were Hafez al-Assad and Rifaat al-Assad, the father and the uncle of the younger Assad who is ruling Syria now. Since the latter came to power in 2000, with a more smiling face and more reasonable rhetoric, we believed that the dark days of Hama are gone and a new era is at hand in Syria. But those hopes are being shattered these days, as Bashar al-Assad is proving not much different from his bloody predecessors.
There is discussion here in Turkey on whether Mr. Assad is happily ordering the ongoing massacres, or whether he is manipulated by an evil establishment who knows nothing other than killing, torturing, or spreading fear. Personally, I don’t know the answer. But I don’t also care. The only person whom we can appeal to is the one whose posters hang on almost every official wall in Syria: Bashar al-Assad. If he is good-willed but weak, then he should show some guts, take matter at hands, and stop the onslaught against peaceful protestors. If he is strong and ruthless, then he should tremble before God, or, at least, see that his regime’s brutality is terribly wrong even for Machiavellian reasons.
So, as a fellow Muslim, and a concerned citizen from friendly country, here is my call to Mr. Assad: Just stop killing your people. Order your troops not to fire a single bullet at peaceful protestors. Let your people say what they want to say, and ask for the democracy they deserve.
Tear Down This Wall
Ultimately, Mr. Assad, just tear down this wall of tyranny, and open up your regime. Human beings have something called dignity, and hence you can’t expect them to bow down to the dictates of tyrants. In the past, maybe they looked as if they did, but that was because there was no way for them to raise their voices. But now we live in a different world, a much open and transparent one, and the aspiration for freedom cannot be crushed as it was done in the past. If you insist doing so, then you will be on not just the wrong but also the losing side of history.
So, Mr. Assad, just go out and promise democracy for Syria, giving a clear roadmap for political participation, including free and fair elections. That will be much better than telling us childish stories about how the West or Israel are working against you behind-the-scenes. I, too, have my strong opinions about Israel’s 44-year-long occupation of Arab lands. But I am also sick of seeing Arab dictators using Zionism as a straw man to frighten their populations and as a conspiracy theory icon to justify their faults and crimes.
And finally, to those noble Syrians, who, despite all the state terror unleashed on them, keep on changing, “Allah, Syria, Freedom!” Please know that there are millions in the world, who honor your cause, respect your courage, and pray for your success. Here in Turkey, too, we worry about your lives, pray for your well being, and hope for the democracy you deserve. May Allah be with you, indeed.