Will Outrage at the Torture of a 13-Year-Old Help Syrians Overcome Their Fear of the Regime?

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An image taken from YouTube shows a man holding a picture of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib during the Syrian boy's funeral on May 25, 2011, in Dara'a

To the untrained ear, Syrian President Bashar Assad's Tuesday offer of amnesty for "all members of political movements" may sound resoundingly generous. But his opponents know that anything sugarcoated offered by the Syrian regime has had a violent and bitter follow-through. Indeed, a look at the fine print makes Assad's beneficence vanish. The new law does not pardon all political prisoners, it only reduces their sentences — replacing death with a life sentence of hard labor, for example. Furthermore, since the vast majority of the 10,000 or so protesters who have been arrested have not been convicted, the amnesty will not apply to them.

The Syrian government believes it knows better than to go soft. Its manipulation of fear and apathy has prevented the protests from gaining the momentum needed for a popular revolt. For every young person taking to the streets around the country, there are hundreds of men and women who stay home in trepidation. The threat of arrest, torture and death is tangible there, and the methodological use of violence propels horror stories to keep people at home.

"People who have been in prison say the guards make you feel like s--- but you can't do anything. They use bad words to break your honor and they beat you," says an activist, whose brother and friends have spent time in prison for attending protests. "They hurt your soul and your body," she says. "A friend of mine said that because he felt so helpless when he was in prison, when he was released he stayed at home for five days. He couldn't leave." She adds, "One of my friends was so badly beaten that his back looked like it was painted with strokes of a brush, black and blue." The prisoners say they are forced to chant proregime chants. One chant goes: "My soul, my blood, we give it to you, Bashar."

Over the past few days, a harrowing story of the alleged torture and killing spread among activists. The body of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who was arrested a month ago in the Dara'a region, was returned to his family last Wednesday. "A doctor who examined the body found that that before the boy had died, he had been beaten with sticks and shoes. He was shot many times and his face was unrecognizable from swelling," one activist said. "They cut off his penis before he died."

Such tales, as horrific as they seem, are not surprising to most Syrians. Men who have spent time in jail wonder why foreigners are interested in the methods used by the security forces; few understand how abhorrent and shocking it is to people out of the country. But could al-Khatib's story make the difference? A picture of the teen's body, his face swollen and a hole in his chest, was posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 page on Facebook. Activists are hoping the regime's fear strategy will finally backfire and that anger at stories like al-Khatib's will compel Syria's silent dissidents to take to the streets.

Overcoming fear will not be easy because the repression is ubiquitous. Human-rights groups there report that over 10,000 people have been detained across the country. Prisoners are often not held for more than a few days, but observers say there are "rolling detentions" whereby protesters are arrested, tortured and released before more suspected dissidents are arrested. "Beatings are normal in Syria. We expect it," says an activist who asked to be called Ahmed and is from a town on the Mediterranean coast. He says that security forces and plainclothes cops went to his suburb and rounded up all the males ages 15 to 75. They broke into houses and said they were "looking for guns," but stole "money, gold and jewelry. Even small things like cigarette lighters."

"[The security forces] took us to the main square and beat us with sticks. When they are beating you, you feel nothing. The only thing that is going through your mind is life or death," Ahmed says. He and his neighbors were told to lie on the floor. "The men walked over our bodies, telling us we are animals and making us praise the President." When asked if he complied, Ahmed laughs and says, "Of course. If you don't, you're dead." "They held us for hours there," he says. "Some older men fell into comas from the beatings," he adds, as his voice cracks and his eyes fill with tears.

The plainclothes mukhabarat are Syria's ubiquitous secret police. An omnipresent force, it's a disjointed group that has grown over four decades of Baathist rule — freelancers who often work only loosely with Syria's official security services. "If you get mistakenly arrested by the mukhabarat, it doesn't matter how important you are," a Syrian journalist says. "It'll take about three days for news of your arrest to get to officials and you won't enjoy those three days at all." Looking closely at YouTube videos of police beating protesters, they are the plainclothes men kicking the downed demonstrators and beating them with sticks.

Even if fear is overcome, the demonstrators still have to persuade people that life would be better without Assad. Many Syrians are choosing to ignore the unrest — in absolute terms, people there have become richer since Assad took power in 2000. Many there are frustrated with government brutality and corruption, but they have a reasonable standard of life and are willing to compromise on democratic rights. "I would say 20% of people here are with Bashar and 15% are against. The other 65% just don't want trouble or violence," a senior Western diplomat says. It is now accepted as fact, even among activists, that some antigovernment protesters are using guns to fight security forces. This plays in to the regime's argument that sectarian strife will boil over if Assad is overthrown. "If you don't allow people to protest peacefully, pushing them underground, they resort to violence. It's the fault of the regime," the diplomat says.

Equally, with 65% of all Syrians under the age of 26, there is a whole generation of people there who have grown up without any substantial political discourse — reading state newspapers and watching state TV. "The Assad family has ruled for 40 years. There is so much indoctrination in schools; a diet of regime propaganda that people take as a given. It's not North Korea, but it's up there," the diplomat says. Protests remain isolated and are dispersed quickly, so most Syrians have not seen the unrest firsthand.

Nevertheless, the protests, as disparate as they may be, are unrelenting and growing in number and frequency if not size. Disjointed smaller demonstrations are now occurring throughout the week — not just on Fridays after people gather for prayers — and disorder in the suburbs of Damascus is encroaching closer to the city center.

Observers say the government may be effective at stopping people taking to the streets, but it is only a short-term solution. "There may be order, but something has changed and Syria won't go back to how it was," a Syrian journalist says. "Because the government has now accepted that the country is in turmoil, people are able to speak about the unrest," he adds. Open criticism of the regime is taboo there, but now that anchors are speaking openly on state TV about a contingent of Syrians who want to depose Assad — albeit "criminals and terrorists" — it has opened up a debate. People can, at the very least, now talk about dissent. And by doing so, provide subtle hints about where their sympathies lie.