Earlier today, Syrian security forces arrested the brother of a Syrian opposition leader in exile, Radwan Ziadeh, who is now a George Washington University visiting scholar. Thirty-seven-year-old Yassin Ziadeh was at a demonstration after prayers (for the eid al-fitr holiday), Radwan told me on the phone. “The security forces attacked the demonstrators,” says Radwan. “[Yassin] was running away and got swept up by Syrian air force security”—which is historically one of the regime’s most active security branches, in large part because former president Hafez al-Assad, the current president Bashar’s father, was a career air force man who trusted his colleagues with his life and rule. “Many of the opposition members held by air force security over the last six months have been tortured,” says Radwan. He fears that his brother, a father of two teenage girls, may suffer especially bad treatment because of his work with the opposition. “He’s got nothing to do with politics,” says Radwan. “But because of my activities, he’s been banned since 2008 from traveling outside the country, along with other members of my family.”
Some critics of the Assad regime note that Syria’s diplomats abroad have been facilitating the work of its security services at home. “You have the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, under investigation by the FBI for orchestrating this pattern of intimidation and violence,” says David Schenker, director of the Program in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Syrian diplomats in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere have been tracking the work of opposition members in exile and promising to hurt their relatives back in Syria, often making good on their threats. “This is happening every day in Syria,” says Schenker. “How many family members of opposition figures have been rounded up, tortured, killed?”
Hopefully the White House will eventually turn its attention to Mustafa and his activities here on American soil. In the meantime, the Obama administration has added more sanctions against the Syrian regime. This round targets Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, and President Bashar al-Assad’s senior adviser Buthaina Shaaban, who also serves as an Assad spokesman and has close personal ties to the ruling clique. While teaching English at Damascus University, Shaaban befriended Bushra al-Assad, Bashar’s sister, Bushra, whom she introduced to her eventual husband, Assef Shawkat, now a key regime security official who was sanctioned by the Bush administration in 2006.
Sanctions, as I’ve argued before, may not be enough to accomplish the goal the Obama administration has now set for itself—for Assad to leave power. And yet it seems the Syrian opposition is more willing to entertain the possibility of armed assistance than the White House has let on. While demanding two weeks ago that Assad step down, Obama said: “The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.”
And yet today here’s a video of a protest rally in Homs suggesting otherwise. At around 50 seconds in, there’s a piece of paper that reads: “We demand international community to intervene for the protection of the Syrian people from genocide.”
In other words, the Syrian opposition has taken note of what worked for the Libyan rebels—how they got the international community on their side, and how that pushed Qaddafi to the brink. The White House says its commitment to Libya is an exception, not a model for regional strategy, but Bashar al-Assad is just about where Qaddafi was back in March, virtually friendless. Of course, in Syria’s case, it has one true ally in Iran, as well as Hezbollah, both of which would be stranded in the event of Assad’s downfall. Much more so than Qaddafi’s end, Assad’s is a vital U.S. interest, which the White House would do well to recognize in the coming months.