When Bashar al-Assad assumed power from his father in 2000, the Syrian people were filled with hope. To the Syrian people, Bashar was the western educated politician, expected to be far less of a tyrant than his father and older brother. In his inaugural address, Bashar spoke of “the desperate need for constructive criticism” and “creative thinking.”
This inspired what was to be known as the Damascus Spring, a time in which the Syrian people discussed political reform openly. However, this period was short-lived as Bashar quickly realized that giving people the power to choose after years of suppression could lead to chaos. In order to retain power, Bashar cracked down on his people and his reign of tyranny began.
From 2000-2010, Bashar al-Assad ruled as a tyrant. Although Bashar has frequently made promises for reform to the international press, no such reforms have ever been put in place. Instead, Bashar claims that economic reforms have been his main priority, putting political and social reforms on the backburner. Beginning in 2001, the regime passed sweeping reforms to restrict access to the internet and press.
Throughout his time in power, the Kurdish minority has been denied basic rights, such as the right to assembly or religious freedom. The regime has continually repressed political and social dissent, through arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions. Despite coming out of international isolation in 2007, decision-making by the Syrian regime remains largely opaque to its own people. Moreover, the country is better known as the ‘Kingdom of Silence,’ a place where criticism of the government and its practices are largely stifled.
The current conflict began after several teenage boys painted anti-regime propaganda in a public place in response to the infectious nature of the Arab Spring. The boys were detained, but as their families called out for public support in protest, the families were also punished by the regime.
This incident stirred a peaceful uprising, which was quickly shot down with violence from the regime. Since this time, al-Assad’s regime has been accused of crimes against humanity – including indiscriminate violence, chemical warfare, and arbitrary detention. Since the conflict’s inception, over 110,000 have died and at least 40,000 civilians have been killed. At the beginning of the conflict, the regime used live bullets, but the conflict quickly escalated as the regime started using tanks, helicopters, Scud missiles, mortars and aerial attacks on its own people.
In December of 2011, al-Assad said, “We don’t kill our people…No government in the world kills its own people unless it’s led by a crazy person.” However, the evidence is mounting against al-Assad’s regime and the international community has had a difficult time staying out of the conflict. In August of 2012, the Syrian rebels signed a ‘code of conduct,’ agreeing to respect the international norms for human rights. The rebels did this to credibly signal to the international community that they were committed to upholding international human rights norms.
The international community has repeatedly asked the Syrian government for permission to enter the country to investigate these claims, but Assad has continually denied them access. Many claim that if Assad had nothing to hide, he would allow such third-parties into the country to prove his innocence.
Since Assad has clearly violated international human rights norms, he has prevented these third parties as well as international journalists from investigating the conflict further. In February of 2012, the international community called for Assad to step down and condemned him for his regime’s flagrant human rights abuses. The resolution, which was supported 137 to 12, was intended to send a message to Assad, but Syria’s representative said that it only sent a message to rebels that sabotage was acceptable.
On August 21 of this year, more than 1,400 people were killed in chemical weapons attacks. While the government claims that its bioweapons program has been dormant since the 1980s, many in the international community believe that the government had the key ingredients necessary to conduct such an attack.
Videos from the attack and civilian recount that sarin gas was used, but sarin is the least of the concerns of the international community. Moreover, Syria is capable of using biological weapons far more powerful than sarin if it so chooses. The Syrian government has merely used chemical weapons in the conflict to break up stalemates in areas where it has struggled to gain the upperhand. If the government were to use chemical weapons indiscriminately, they could regain total control.
According to Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, “President al-Assad and those around him have to understand that their actions will have consequences, namely that if they gun down their own citizens the international community will hold them individually responsible before the ICC or national courts of states exercising universal jurisdiction.” While the human rights violations may be evident to the international community, it has been struggling to act because of the geo-political implications of such an attack.
These political ramifications could be lasting, for instance the Taliban and al-Qaeda may seek refuge in Syria if the regime falls, but the implications of these abuses on the current generation of Syrians is permanent. This generation of Syrians may always distrust the international community failing to act swiftly to protect them; the majority will likely never be able to return to the same Syria as the one they left.
These violations constitute more than just international injustice; they constitute a remarkable injustice to the Syrian people. The Syrian people no longer have hope; they have live filled with tyranny and fear.