Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded swiftly and with more repression than was expected. Protesters were tortured and shot dead in the streets, with approximately 3000 Syrians dead. With the depth and the intensity of the repression, it is difficult to explain the lack of international response and involvement, especially so soon after the intervention of Libya.
The Syrian government has recently expanded its threats to Syrians abroad who have spoken out against the regime.
Malek Jandali is a 38-year-old pianist from Atlanta, Georgia, whose family has been targeted in Syria after his performance at a pro-reform demonstration in front of the White House in July 2011. In a statement, Jandali explained that his parents were beaten in their Syrian home before being locked in the bathroom while their home was raided. A note was left behind, stating that the attack was a direct result of their son’s mockery of the Syrian government. Since the incident, Jandali’s parents have left the country.
Alaa Basathneh, a 19-year-old student living in Chicago, organized the Syria Day of Rage. One of her friends was arrested and forced to divulge information about her. A few days later, she received a Facebook message threatening her safety upon her arrival at a Syrian airport.
Naima Darwish, a 30-year-old fashion designer from Chile, was threatened by Syrian embassy officials in Chile, after she created a Facebook page denouncing Syrian violence and calling for a protest in front of the embassy. Embassy officials arranged a meeting with Darwish, during which they discouraged her attempts and verbally insulted her.
Rabee al-Hayek, a 35-year-old engineer from France, protested at Place du Chatelet with several other Syrians. They were attacked by a group of pro-Bashar supporters, who the police could not arrest due to their diplomatic immunity.
These are simply a few examples of Syria’s repression of freedom of speech that extends far beyond its borders. More than 30 individuals in eight countries (including Canada, France, Germany, Chile and Spain) have been victims of death threats, oral intimidation and physical attacks, and many have had relatives in Syria threatened or attacked. These cases are recorded in a report issued by Amnesty International.
The Syrian government’s tactics exemplify the relentless efforts by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to hang onto power. Dissent, even if peaceful, will not be tolerated if it threatens the regime. The repression of Syrians is now facing increasing international pressure. This pressure—largely through denouncement—instead of forcing the government to relax its policies and allow more democratic freedoms, has lead to increased repression.
With the lack of international intervention in Syria, it would not have been surprising to see the international community idly stand by as Syria increasingly targets its citizens abroad.
Surprisingly, US authorities have acted: They have arrested Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a man accused of spying on Syrian activists in the United States. He has been charged with six offenses including making false statements and serving as a foreign agent without registering.
Soueid reportedly met with Syrian President Assad in Damascus in June, outlining the importance repression of Syrians abroad holds for the regime. The Syrian embassy quickly spoke out against the charges stating that no civilian is serving the government and that Soueid’s arrest was made as part of a global campaign to distort the international perspective on the Syrian government.
The repression of activists forces several governments to take actions by turning this issue into an international one. In the same vein, France has warned that it will crack down on Syria’s actions. The government has promised increased police protection for Syrian activists along with continued investigations into the matter. The French government has made it clear that they will protect the rights of their citizens as well as prevent foreign acts of violence in their territory.
Though the regime remains in power, Syrians both at home and abroad persist in their attempts to defend their rights and freedoms. The government’s crackdown on activists abroad does indeed lend international legitimacy to the popular movement in Syria. Whether protesters will achieve a revolution, however, remains to be seen.