Umar ibn al-Khattab, a chief adviser and successor to the Prophet Muhammad, was the last truly just ruler in the Arab world, and he died 1,400 years ago. Khattab was called “al-Farooq” — the one who distinguishes between right and wrong. He also uttered one of the most beautiful phrases in Arab history: “How can you turn people into slaves when their mothers gave birth to them as free human beings?”
Khattab extended the Islamic empire as far as Persia and was renowned for establishing evenhanded governance throughout the conquered lands, including in what is now Syria.
Damascus is a pivot point for understanding history and its movements. Conquered countless times, the city has always managed to remain steadfastly itself when its occupiers change.
During the last century, Damascus established many of the essentials of democracy: elections, a parliament, political parties, anti-government protests, freedom of the press.
Then came the Baath Party coup in 1963. Hafez al-Assad snatched freedom and instituted a paranoid regime. In 2000 his son Bashar succeeded him, and promised — at first — to redeem Syria. But the reform movement stalled.
In March 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, protesters took to the streets of Damascus, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Security forces opened fire — and a revolution began, gradually convulsing all of Syria.
The Syrian tragedy came to dominate screens worldwide. And the question for Arab nations was clear: Do you understand the fate of those who demand freedom and democracy?
In a video from that time, President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers trampled a group of young protesters shackled in chains on the ground: You want freedom, you animals? Tell me: What is freedom? That was the question. And the Assad regime responded decisively.
Meanwhile, in an area of Syria seized by Al Qaeda, a video camera documented how foreign fighters from Chechnya, France, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia were terrorizing the young people of the Syrian revolution, tearing down their flag. Then Al Qaeda posted signs on the roads under its control: “Democracy Is Blasphemy.”
The Syrian tragedy came to dominate screens worldwide. And the question for Arab nations was clear: Do you understand the fate of those who demand freedom and democracy? This question, which was answered with Syrian blood, confirmed that this dreadful Arab Spring must end in Damascus.
America and the West confined their intervention mainly to words, as if statements alone would counter the Assad regime’s brutality and the hatefulness of the imported terrorists. In our time, terrorism has emerged as an effective prescription for treating all diseases — a postmodern sorcery that has opened Syria’s doors to thousands of jihadis from around the world.
Once in Syria, these bearded men drove tanks and fired machine guns, applying what they had learned from playing video games. Fantasy blended with fact so that the two were hard to separate.
As terrorists streamed in and Syria erupted, the free world kept a safe distance. In 2014, President Barack Obama, defending the West’s lack of significant military intervention, questioned whether the “moderate opposition” in Syria — which included “farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters” — could ever prevail against “a battle-hardened regime, with support from external actors who have a lot at stake.”
But if a Syrian dentist says to the world, in effect, “You have bad breath,” what’s wrong with that?
We know how the United States has helped sustain brutal regimes in the Middle East and around the world, how it has overthrown democratically elected governments in Latin America and elsewhere. We know that Syria’s oil reserves don’t compare with Iraq’s and that we’re not vital enough to American interests for the United States to intervene on our behalf.
We know what happened in Abu Ghraib prison. And we know what happens to people who find themselves at the wrong place when a drone strike hits. This is the power that America and the West can wield. But such power is immoral if it doesn’t assert the values of freedom and democracy for the world’s poor and dispossessed.
We Syrians asked for help to end the massacres, to provide safe havens for civilians and to prosecute war criminals. Those pleas were futile. Syrian deaths became a moral scandal for the entire world.
The nation’s most courageous men and women were killed while they danced and sang for freedom, dignity and democracy. There is no nobler death than this. Take a moment to view the faces of those who died in the streets and inside detention camps. You can find online the thousands of photos of the dead in government custody leaked by the Syrian defector code-named Caesar.
The democratic world failed Syria. I don’t mean the West’s politicians, foreign ministers and generals. I mean its cultural elites, civil societies and human rights organizations. Those are the people who failed us.
For us in the Middle East, democracy has brought misery — at relatively little cost to the West, which always protects its own interests first. Policy is tailored to business concerns. The focus of Western decision makers today is “jobs, jobs, jobs …”
The Sept. 11 attacks shattered a barrier. The West immediately took revenge on the poor of Afghanistan, and applied democracy there like a handkerchief on a hemorrhage. The supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction provided a pretext for Iraq’s annihilation, which allowed Iran to vandalize an enormous Arab nation. A democracy was created in Baghdad’s Green Zone, an area of just a few kilometers.
Mr. Assad ridiculed Mr. Obama’s porous red lines. The former president claims that he owes a patch of his gray hair to the debates about what the United States should do in Syria. He won the Nobel Peace Prize — which he can’t talk about without being haunted by a photo of a child asphyxiated by sarin gas in Syria.
Can democracy be achieved through the use of military force? The answer is yes. If the West had intervened in support of the Syrian revolution, democracy would have had a chance. Instead, the Syrian people have been left with democracy’s slogans and lies — and more destruction and extremism. The world’s free men and women have been tied up and forced to the ground by the leaders of the new era: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Assad himself. Each of them applauding while he tramples our backs and yells: You want freedom, you animals? Tell me: What is freedom?
© 2018 Fadi Azzam. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate