When 18 school children sprayed graffiti on a wall in Daraa three years ago, nobody could have imagined the sequence of events this small act of defiance would trigger. Many Syrians, inspired by similar chants in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Sanaa and other cities in the Arab world, were ready to demand that very slogan Daraa’s children had dared to write: “the people want the downfall of the regime” – especially a regime which had, in all impunity, jailed and tortured these young boys, refusing to release them to their pleading parents.
40 years of the Assad regime’s rule of absolute tyranny and repression of all personal, civil and civic freedoms had taken its toll. Filled with innocent hope that their peaceful cries would resonate even beyond Syria, young men and women from all ethnic and religious backgrounds took to the streets in towns all over the country, in solidarity with Daraa, loudly and proudly chanting “the Syrian people are one.”
Still, even as the uprising turned into a popular revolution, and even as the brutality of the Assad regime increased exponentially, the Syrian people remained peaceful, waiting for the world to take action, for responsibility to protect to be applied by the international community. Syrians organized themselves into local committees, they established solidarity and aid networks, and they documented Assad’s savage repression by uploading thousands of documented films and photos on the Internet, waiting for help to come. But it never came.
It was inevitable that Syrians would reluctantly be pushed into self-defense months later, joining thousands of heroic Syrian soldiers who had defected rather than obey Assad’s shoot-to-kill orders. Even though their light weapons were never going to protect them against Assad’s tanks, helicopters, jets and even ballistic missiles, all aimed repeatedly at civilians populations all over Syria, the Free Syrian Army valiantly tried to protect their compatriots and to defeat this bloodthirsty regime.
Nothing could save them from Assad’s missiles and barrel bombs. Nothing could save them from barbaric torture until death in his dungeons. And nothing could save them from being gassed to death in their sleep when Assad unleashed his chemical weapons on them.
We know that over 150,000 Syrians have been killed, that many more have disappeared in the regime’s jails, that millions have become refugees and millions more have become displaced in their own country. The humanitarian catastrophe Assad has unleashed on the people of Syria cannot be estimated.
We know that Assad has his allies’ full military and political support, that Iran is openly sending armed militias from neighboring countries (including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, designated internationally as a terrorist organization) as it pushes its sectarian agenda, and we know that the international community has so far been reluctant – if not unwilling – to stop the slaughter of Syrians and to save what Assad hasn’t yet destroyed.
We know that this vacuum, as we warned repeatedly, has attracted religious extremists from around the world, fighting for a goal which is alien to the Syrian people. In addition to fighting Assad’s full military, the Free Syrian Army now battles these Al Qaeda groups which the regime never targets.
Three years ago, we never thought we would be where we are today, and we never thought Assad would be allowed to cross every red line and to get away with mass murder.
We even went to Geneva to try to reach a political solution to end the violence and embark on the transition which the international community and the United Nations support. We tried to negotiate and offered our plan for an inclusive scenario in which all segments of Syrian society and state institutions would work together to rebuild the country, after the removal of the top echelons of this barbaric regime. In response, the Assad regime intensified its barrel bombing campaign, proving once again that the only language it understands is that of force.
Yet, despite everything, Assad has failed to crush the revolution, and he never will. Having risen up for dignity, the Syrian people will never accept falling back into submission; there is no stopping the tide.
There is no doubt that the Syrian people’s struggle will go on. The sooner the Assad regime is neutralized and removed from power, the sooner we can turn the page and start over again. Even if the international community didn’t have a moral obligation to help the Syrian people, it must act to contain the catastrophe now seeping across every one of Syria’s borders, if only for its own interests and those of the region.
Jarba is president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.