Syria sits at the historical, geographical, and political strategic crossroads of civilization. That definition is etched into every Syrian child's mind from grade school through university. We are taught to believe we occupy the center of the universe and that our land matters on a global scale.
The last 10 months of the Syrian uprising have placed our blood-soaked country at another critical crossroads: with more than 5,000 dead, tens of thousands imprisoned, a brutal family dictatorship fighting for survival, a fragmented opposition, and a suffering people. There is no end in sight to the violence that escalates by the day and no clear vision of Syria's future.
In December, after months of stalling and facing enforced sanctions, the Syrian regime finally seemed to buckle under pressure from the Arab League and agreed to sign a "protocol" ostensibly aimed at quelling the uprising. The agreement called for the regime to remove heavy artillery from urban areas, halt the use of force against civilians, release all political prisoners, and allow independent media into the country. Late last month, an advance team of 15 Arab League observers arrived in Syria on a one-month mission to monitor the regime's compliance with the protocol. They have since increased to 153 observers; that number still falls far below the 500 observers that was part of the original agreement.
"Observe" is a banal word sucked of accountability, responsibility, action -- a fitting way to describe an Arab League mission. Monitoring abuses of power is a function one would not expect from the Arab League, which, let's face it, represents mostly dictatorships and absolute monarchies that have less-than-stellar human rights records. But observing Syria is an activity we have all become complicit in -- observing the meetings, agreements, conferences, opposition groups forming and reforming, while Syrians are killed every day. We debate the conspiracies, the Western/Israeli/American/Saudi/Sunni alliance versus the Eastern/Russian/Iranian/Shiite one, with Palestine strung taut in between. These discussions, devoid of action, build a cruel barrier between ruthless international power games and innocent people who are being played. This is why the Syrian people suspiciously view the Arab League as a protector of the regime and by extension its brutality.
On a personal level, we have taken to consuming our country in tweets, video clips, and Facebook pages -- observing from a distance. Until a brief Skype call sharply pushes you out of the virtual, the political, the abstract, into grounded reality.
His voice is heavy with sleep -- it's the middle of the night in Syria. He is an activist in the southern city of Deraa. He speaks of his city before the observers arrived, how life had been difficult but had become predictable, how the protesters and the shabbiha -- the armed thugs the regime uses to attack and intimidate the opposition -- had come to know each other, understanding and perfecting the game of cat and mouse, where and when to be and not to be.
The observers' arrival changed the rules of the game. The regime sends spies to take pictures of the protesters who dare speak to the observers. Before every excursion, the streets are secured in any way necessary, by bullets or arrests (for the safety of the observers or to preserve what's left of the regime's tarnished image?). The streets of Deraa have to be scrubbed clean of its people, silencing their voices and erasing any sign of dissent, to present an image of control, safely guarded by snipers lurking on rooftops.