This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on March 11, 2014.
By Wendy Pearlman
Given the appalling violence in Syria -- leaving at least 130,000 dead, some 9 million displaced, and 9.3 million in need of humanitarian aid -- it is urgent for the international community to take action to save lives and relieve suffering.
No less, it is important to remember what this struggle is about. This week marks the third anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising. When unarmed protestors first went out into the streets, they had a goal larger than not being killed. They raised their voices against a regime that denied them voice. Governments searching for an end to the war must honor those aspirations for freedom and dignity.
I have interviewed more than 150 Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan for a book on the Syrian revolution. They explain how, for four decades under Hafez and then Bashar al-Assad, Syria was a security state that quashed dissent. The regime ruled through corruption, co-optation and repression. It used surveillance to cause fear within citizens, and undercover informants to cultivate distrust among them. Parents warned children not even to speak about politics.
"The walls have ears," they would say.
To dream of change seemed foolish -- to fight for it, reckless. And then in February 2011, against the backdrop of other Middle East uprisings, small numbers of Syrians dared to
protest. That March demonstrations surged and tens of thousands poured into the streets.
People's eyes water when they tell me how they personally broke through the barrier of fear. One woman's words exemplify those of a generation. A 30-something from a religious minority largely supportive of the regime, she explains how she became an activist against it:
"I was in a demonstration ... I started to whisper, freedom. Then I started to hear myself repeating, freedom, freedom, freedom. And then I started shouting freedom! I thought: This is the first time I have ever heard my own voice. I wanted to feel this freedom forever. And I told myself that I would never let anyone steal my voice again."
The Assad regime responded with bullets. Nonviolent demonstrations gave rise to funerals, which gave rise to larger demonstrations and more funerals. Across the country, millions sang that they would rather die than continue a life of everyday degradations.
For six months, protests remained overwhelmingly peaceful, even as unarmed protestors were killed, tortured or disappeared. Civilians and army defectors eventually took up arms to guard demonstrations, and then to attack military installations. The regime escalated to tank shelling and bombing from the skies.
Foreign powers took different approaches. On one side, Iran, Russia and Lebanon's Hezbollah reinforced Assad with weapons, fighters, money and political cover. On the other, Western governments denounced Assad, yet did not take meaningful action either to end his rule or to protect civilians.
Competing patrons, mainly from the Gulf, funneled money to disparate rebel battalions. Al Qaeda linked fighters, many of them non-Syrians, entered and seized control in many towns. Some Syrians succumbed out of terror, exhaustion or hunger. Others, breaking the barrier of fear yet again, protested what they viewed as a new form of oppression.
Syrian refugees I interview live in freezing apartments or dusty tents. They mourn family members who have been killed and hometowns turned to rubble. Their ears echo with the sounds of missiles and their bodies keep scars of torture. They wake each day praying for information about loved ones who were arrested. Months or years have passed, and they do not know if they are dead or alive.
Inside Syria, the horrors are even more immense. Every day, the regime continues to bomb from above and blockade communities from the ground. Thousands eat grass to survive. Dozens have starved to death.
When nonviolent protests began three years ago, pro-regime militias touted the slogan, "Assad or we'll burn down the country." Those who defied that threat did not expect that the world would abandon them to a fate of both.
Western powers praise those who fight for freedom. In Syria, they have stood back as they are brutalized. The United States refused to arm rebels on the grounds that weapons might "wind up in the wrong hands." In consequence, nationalist forces were left weak relative to extremists that, money and arms already in their hands, grew from virtual non-existence to a major force.
Then President Obama proposed and withdrew the threat of military strikes. Instead of a red line against chemical weapons, he endorsed an agreement that gave Assad a green light to kill in any other way.
At every step, the White House has chosen that of least involvement. That choice has contributed to the tragedy by which peaceful demonstrations morphed into the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.
Leadership from the international community is overdue. Stronger support for the Syrian opposition is needed to tilt the balance of power against Assad. Otherwise, he has no incentive to engage in a real political process, stop bombing civilians, or even allow food and medicine to enter neighborhoods where civilians have been denied both for months.
The Syrian people risked everything to reclaim their voices. It is not too late to listen.
- Wendy Pearlman is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.