Syria: “Death has become something ordinary”

Inevitably, yesterday’s massive protests across Syria were countered by lethal violence from armed minions of the regime.  At least 88 people are said to have died in the onslaught.  Protesters traded their blood and their lives in a bid to catch the world’s attention, previously fixed on Libya alone.  They seem to have succeeded.  BBC and Al Jazeera headlined the violence in the streets of Syria, and the New York Times has sent its best Middle East correspondent, Anthony Shadid, to cover events there.  The quote in the title of this post comes from an earlier version of Shadid’s story.

In unusually harsh language, President Obama has condemned the killings, blamed the Syrian government, and warned against interference by Iran.  This too is a triumph for the protesters.

The revolt of the Syrian public appears surprisingly well organized.  Something called “Local Coordinating Committees,” claiming to represent groups across Syria, introduced itself to the world 48 hours ago by making a set of demands available to foreign news media.  The demands included investigation of government-inflicted violence and abolition of the repressive apparatus.  According to BBC, the Committees “spontaneously organized,” and are composed largely of “secular, intellectual liberals” adept at manipulating new media to their own ends.  I am skeptical on both counts, though I have no better information to offer.  Good organization is rarely spontaneous, however, and the assessment of liberal secularism is cited to Ammar Abdulhammid – a brilliant liberal secular intellectual, who at present happens to live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC.  Some mirror imaging may be suspected.

YouTube and Twitter have been flooded with video of yesterday’s confrontations:  disconnected moments from a well-organized uprising.  To watch any number of these videos is to be overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy:  by horror and pity.  The chanting multitudes represent an elemental threat to a regime clearly shaken by its loss of control over events.  Repression is reflexive, and physical violence is the only form of repression the Syrian authorities understand.  Once the shooting starts, it never seems to end.  At the end of the day, nearly 100 people are dead, and the regime is weaker and more panicked than before.

No doubt this tragic cycle will be repeated until the uprising achieves consummation in one form or another.

As they appear on video, the crowds of protesters impress by their sheer numbers and the roar of their chanted slogans.  They carry well-made signs, clearly not the product of spontaneous organization.  On the other hand – and unfortunately for regime claims of an armed Salafist insurrection – the young men who make up most of the crowd don’t look like bearded Islamic crazies, but mostly are clean-shaven and in Western attire.  Whatever the reality, superficially they do an excellent job of impersonating the secular liberals proclaimed by Abdulhammid.

The video below is of the large demonstration in the city of Douma.  On the margins of the throng, men who appear to be from the security forces follow discreetly.

In fact, the videos I have watched from Syria rarely show the security forces.  We never see the shooters.  This is markedly different from Egypt, where the authorities – both uniformed police and plain-clothed goons – were present and accounted for in the footage, and so became the visible antagonists to the hero of the story, the Tahrir Square crowd.  In Syria, the crowd becomes a sacrificial animal, staring down death in a hail of bullets.

Here is a rare sighting of the Syrian military in the city of Daraa:  infantry led by tanks into the turmoil.  No violence occurs, but the video is remarkable because in their uncertain movements the soldiers betray the nervousness and confusion of the established order in Damascus.

Then the shooting starts.  In this horrific video, also from Daraa, we hear the rattle of gunfire then the camera turns upside down amid the cries of the stricken:  a disconcerting effect.  Slowly our vision revolves back to the usual plane, to reveal an upside-down reality of young men writhing and moaning in puddles of their own blood.

I include one last video, from Homs, which shows that blood on the streets is no metaphor in Syria.

Other images are far more gruesome.  In one video, a doctor pokes into the smashed skull of a young child.  In another, we see a man whose face has been shot away, yet seems to still be alive.  In yet another, a dead child, eyes still open and staring, is carried by a shrieking crowd.  I won’t link to these because they will disturb the peace of mind of any viewer endowed with the slightest sense of humanity.  For precisely this reason, however, the images are not just gruesome but powerfully persuasive.  They have brought attention to the political conflict in Syria, in way not likely to benefit the perpetrators.  I find it noteworthy that American sites, which normally treat the dead as taboo, have disseminated the more graphic videos.

It is a consequence of a transparent world that we who live without concern for our safety can watch the death of children in violent lands.  This is a human dilemma with a political effect.  For 40 years, the ruling group in Syria committed atrocities on a grand scale yet benefited from the indifference of the world.  President Obama’s reaction to yesterday’s events is an indication that this has changed.  Now, quite literally, the world is watching.  In the struggle to influence the opinion of this global public, the Bashar Assad regime has performed miserably.  The last recourse will be its reflexive first choice:  brute force, the effects of which will be recorded in video images and played out, in gruesome detail, before our eyes.

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