Opinion: Hamza Khateeb Changes Balance of Power in Syria

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In Egypt, a 28 year-old blogger named Khalid Said became the face of the revolution. Khalid was beaten to death by Alexandrian police forces, and was memorialized in the webpage turned social movement, “We are all Khalid Said.”

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

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5 Responses to Opinion: Hamza Khateeb Changes Balance of Power in Syria

  1. mary gold says:

    I think there is some exaggertion in the story, thanks to some paid arab media.
    Maybe if we ask any forensic examiner about the marks of the body after a month death, he will tell that this is not torture. His cousins who took him with them to the protest in front of the Officers’ compound in Dara have confissed that he was with them and that they saw him shot. They also knew that there will violence as there were armed people among them and there was intention to caputre the children and women of the security officers living in that compound, one guard was killed at that time and that was reported a long time ago. So you can’t fake this too, who killed him??. The question anyone should ask to reach a logical answer are:
    1. Why didn’t his family ask about him for a month while he was dead for a month and no identification was with him?. If they were afraid, that means they knew about his cousins’ involvment in the armed violence and they already know that he was dead and not arrested.
    2. I do think that such a boy’s place was not in a protest but after a school desk, and here the responsibility is borne on agains his family. Children are not part to armed conflict, and people should not use the as ahuman shield as they did with Hamza.
    3. You know at the beginning of events we also watched the killing of the three children of Al-Tilawi. He was picking them up from a study center as they were preparing for elementary certificate exams and to avoid the protests at the center of the city he took a shortcut where some aremed gang killed him, his two sons and his nephew ( alomst aged 11 and 14) only because the car’s plate number shows has an army plate written, they were brutally dismembered, one of the kids had received six stabs. How much GRUDGE was there in the hearts of these people, words can never express!! The official State channels did not show much of it as not to ignite the sectarian split among the peole of Homs. The targic pictures are released in the net. SO THE BIG QUESTION IS WHY HAMZA AND NOT THESE CHILDREN? If that’s an indication of something, it is how much Arab media are focussed on trading with the stories of these children to play with innocent protesters’ feeling and unfortunately us, you and western media.

    I think its enough trading with children in this media war, we have to stop being part of it, I guess.

    • Freedom Appealer says:

      First of all I’ll answer the first question: This little boy got out with his countrymen thinking that he is living in paradise not in a jungle and as an honest citizen he wanted to suport the kids-who you pretended that they should be on their desks- who are besieged in Daraa city and to convey a message to the barbaric brutal security forces who are still destroying killing and torturing kids there in Daraa!Don’t hold the blame over the parents and forgets who should be blamed and arrested, the ones who shot hi and of course the savage barbaric security forces of Al Asaad and their militiamen.
      Secondly, how do you know if his family asked about him or not! The whole world knows that mass media organisations are prevented to cover what is happening there in Syria and to ask whom! The killers, the kidnappers who kidnapped him and tortured him and returned him to his family on the condition that they shouldn’t publish that or they will be punished! They executed their threat and arrested his father immediately after publishing the video! Of course you will say this is untrue! I’ll reply you in advance, it is true for you to convey your lies to the whole world but when want to tell the truth we will be accused by cospiracy and armed groups!
      Thirdly, if there are armed groups as you are pretending all the time to cover your brutal killer machine by killing peaceful armless demonstraters, why not 13 branches of intelligence forces didn’t arrest these armed groups!!And the whole world know who the Syrian Intelligence are! Another point, why these armed groups apppeared suddenly when people tried to call for reforms at the begining and later for changing the regime!!Why did the appear only at this moment! I’ll reply you: They appear suddenly as the Syrian Security Forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah are themselves these gangs who kill people there and stray Syrian families outside the country to stop these callings for freedom and democracy in lovely afflicted Syria.
      N.B.: Till today the number of martyrs who were killed during the day when Hamza was arrested still coming to their families and we can approve that by videos which you in your turn say that they are fake! Allow mass media to get in to Syria, than we will see who is lying!
      Stop trading by the blood of innocent people and children in lovely Syria and be afraid of God as you will lose one of your beloved sons or brothers because of your position in defending this brutal criminal regime in Syria!!!

      • This is one of the demonstraters who were arrested by the Syrian Securty forces on 29th April 2011.Then they returned him back today safe and sound as you will see in the video and this guy was armless and peaceful and anyone says against that they are justifying this killing machine there in Syria! and there are much more videos which appear the peaceful demonstraters who were arrested alive and they brought back dead and tortured!

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