In Syria, the torture and murder of 13 year-old Hamza Al- Khateeb spawned a “We are all Hamza Khateeb” movement. Since Saturday, the Arabic page has attracted 60,000 followers, and 6,300 have joined the English one. Syrians young and old view Hamza a martyr and his death has reinvigorated the opposition.
WARNING: these videos and descriptions are extremely graphic.
“The boy’s head was swollen, purple and disfigured. His body was a mess of welts, cigarette burns and wounds from bullets fired to injure, not kill. His kneecaps had been smashed, his neck broken, his jaw shattered and his penis cut off.
What finally killed him was not clear, but it appeared painfully, shockingly clear that he had suffered terribly during the month he spent in Syrian custody.”
Aside from being deeply disturbing, Hamza’s death changed the balance of power in Syria. Before this tragedy occurred, Assad clearly held the tactical advantage and the opposition was counting on the international community to step in. After Hamza’s story became public, there were more anti-regime demonstrators than ever.
Here is a video of children marching in solidarity with Hamza:
Now that demonstrators are coming out in larger numbers, the challenge will be for them to remain peaceful. It will be tempting to use the increased manpower to fight back, but that would only serve to turn the opposition into rebels. If both sides are armed, the violence will escalate quickly, maybe even to the point of civil war.
Taking up arms would actually shift the balance of power back to Assad. The Syrian rebels would not be nearly as well armed as Assad’s military and, unless the international community stepped in, the firefight would be one sided. More importantly, if open fighting broke out Assad would no longer have to hide his crimes, and could use self-defense as an excuse for widening the assault. Ultimately, it is in the protestors’ best interest to remain peaceful.
Unfortunately, there has been a report of citizens taking up arms, but it seems to be an exception rather than the norm:
Activists said residents of the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan, which have been under attack since Sunday in central Homs province, decided to fight back with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and at least four civilians were killed.
If the opposition remains peaceful (which I think it will), the question is whether the recent momentum will be enough to topple the regime. My hunch is that, on its own, Hamza’s death cannot create the critical mass that we saw in Egypt. There must also be defections from the army, and in particular from Maher Assad’s forces. The combination of a martyr and an increased sense of security could be extremely powerful. But even that might not be enough.
Take Yemen as an example (recent tribal violence aside): a top general (Ali Mushin) defected and there were hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, but the country still ended up locked in a stalemate. Unfortunately, I see Syria headed down this path, with a few notable exceptions.
First, Assad will oppress the opposition more thoroughly than Saleh has. There are already a higher number of casualties and arrests in Syria compared to Yemen. Second, there probably won’t be enough protestors to take over key squares, like they have done in Sana’a. Third, if we see mass army defections, it won’t be from either the Republic Guard or the fourth division. If Saleh’s forces haven’t defected yet, I don’t see why Assad’s would either (at least for now). Last, if widespread violence breaks out in Syria, tribal feuds and other internal divisions are unlikely to be the initial spark, as they were in Yemen last week. This does not mean that problems won’t surface along those lines at a later date, but that is a completely different, and hotly contested issue.
In the end, it is always hard to predict what might happen in Syria, but this upcoming weekend (Friday-Saturday) will certainly be telling. On Friday we will see how many people use afternoon prayers as a rallying point, and by Sunday the meeting of opposition leaders in Turkey will have concluded. If the movement peacefully reaches a critical mass and leaders lay out a clear alternative to Assad, the possibilities are endless.
The opposition has a golden opportunity to ride the momentum that Hamza Al-Khateeb’s tragic death created. People around the world are extremely sympathetic to the Syrian cause, and those feelings could motivate both Syrians and the international community to increase pressure on Assad. If the response is big enoough, the rapidly thinning ice on which the regime is standing might finally break.
Written by Tik Root a junior at Middlebury College