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Professor reflects on conflict in Syria

Tori Roeck | Friday, April 29, 2011

Conflict in Syria continues to intensify as peaceful protesters campaigning for freedom face excessive violence from president Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime, said Emad Shahin, professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute.

“These peaceful demonstrators were met by a crackdown on the part of Assad’s regime,” Shahin said. “The police applied very oppressive and brutal measures against them ranging from detentions, arrests, torture and of course firing live ammunition and bullets against them in order to quell them.”

Shahin said Syrian dissenters have similar goals as those of revolutionaries from neighboring countries, especially achieving freedom of expression through the media and freedom of assembly through political party formation.

“Their demands are very universal in essence and very similar in a large extent to the demands that were raised by the Tunisian protestors, the Egyptian protesters, the Bahraini protesters,” Shahin said.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed since uprisings began over a month ago, and the government continues to employ inhumane methods of suppressing demonstrations, Shahin said.

“Some of the video clips that were taken by cell phones and so on show, of course, a very savage treatment of the protesters, even after they have been pacified and arrested,” Shahin said. “[There are] shots of militia jumping over dead bodies and kicking them in the face and hitting them with the butt of machine guns.”

Shahin said the purpose of the Syrian government’s brutal response to recent uprisings is to maintain the strength of the regime in light of the recent defeats of ruling parties in similar countries.

“The government realizes, given the example of Tunisia and Egypt and so on, that … responding to the demands of the protesters will weaken the grip of the government over power,” Shahin said. “If they give freedom of expression and so on and so forth, that will expose the government and increase its vulnerability.”

Sectarian conflict between the Alawites, Syria’s ruling minority, and the majority Sunni Muslims has caused problems in Syria in the past, he said.

“This is a major cleavage in society,” Shahin said.

But Shahin said this religious tension is not an issue for the protesters.

“In essence, it’s about democracy and freedom,” Shahin said. “It’s not about sects.”

Shahin said Assad’s government has no plans to heed protesters’ demands.

“There isn’t much in terms of reform that this regime can offer because it is ideologically bankrupt,” Shahin said. “They will cling to power until the last breath.”

Despite continued acts of violence on the part of Assad’s regime, Shain said dissenters should remain peaceful.

“Of course my hope is that this conflict remains nonviolent, at least on the part of the protestors and demonstrators,” Shahin said. “I know the state and the regime have been very violent and have been very brutal, but this should not be met by a counter violence from the protestors.”

Shahin said nonviolent demonstration will advance the cause of the protesters further than violence would.

“This will increase the legitimacy of their demands,” Shahin said. “This will also increase … international support for the movement, and will finally delegitimize the regime.”

Shahin said the conflict in Syria will be resolved as long as protesters rely on peaceful measures to achieve their goals.

“The cost, of course, will be very high … because the regime is brutal,” Shahin said. “But in the long run … the peaceful protesters will win the day.”