You have to go to the source of where the Arab Spring began and flourished. As a group of Syrians, both at home and in exile, smuggle out video and send information for posting on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, the picture comes together for those of us watching from the outside: These are some of the bravest people we've ever seen.
Like with the rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi, there is no going back once you decide to take on a ruthless dictator like Bashar Assad. They may try to lure opponents back with the promise of reform, but no one doubts that mass arrests, torture, executions, or simply disappearances would follow. Dictators don't survive on the enduring love of their people, but on the control that they exert.
And for years, those who have dared to dissent in Syria have not been treated kindly. The country has been under oppressive "emergency rule" since 1963, websites are censored and bloggers detained, political opponents and human-rights activists have been arrested, and there are no elections or political parties. Human-rights advocates have characterized the country's human-rights situation as one of the worst in the world.
Despite this daunting track record, and a brutal crackdown on this year's pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters keep pouring into the streets demanding a better life. When the military lowers the hammer on one region, other pockets across the country pop up in protest of the government's heavy handed actions. It isn't easy to see a post-Assad Syria through the smoke of the vicious government assaults, but the Syrian people have not given up.
To understand why today's protesters are so determined, you have to understand what they have been facing.
In the city of Hama, circa 1982, a Sunni Islamic revolt began against the regime of Assad's father, Hafez. The elder Assad ordered a massacre in Hama, bombing by air, shelling and storming it with tanks, going door to door and killing survivors, lighting gasoline in the old city's tunnels and killing whomever was hiding and tried to flee the flames. The death toll ranged from anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 civilians. The massacre was par for the course for Hafez's regime, which was notorious for brutal repression and killing of political opponents.
Human Rights Watch investigated the 2011 Syrian uprising, which began in March, and issued its horrifying findings on June 1 in a 54-page report charging the regime with no less than crimes against humanity. The report focused on Daraa, where protests began after 15 children were arrested and tortured for allegedly painting anti-government graffiti. In stemming the protests, Syrian security forces have opened fire on the peaceful demonstrations without warning the participants to disperse first. Government snipers have been picking off civilians who have dared to venture outside their homes. When people from neighboring towns tried to bring food and water to the blockaded city, where electricity and communications were cut off, in marches carrying olive branches and declaring their humanitarian intentions, Syrian forces opened fire on the Good Samaritans. Forces have also opened fire on medical personnel trying to assist the wounded and dying. Those wounded who tried to seek care at hospitals were arrested.
In custody, the human-rights group found, scores were subjected to electric shocks and beatings with sticks and wires, sometimes with the victim stretched out on a rack. Executions without trial were also reported, as was at least one rape of a male detainee with a baton. Defectors told Human Rights Watch that they were ordered to shoot unarmed protesters or be shot themselves. Some Syrians were sought and detained for as little as shouting "with excitement" at a pro-democracy, anti-regime protest. Amnesty International reported on one young man, Khaled al-Hamedh, who tried to go buy medicine for his 4-year-old brother in Hama, and was shot in the back crossing the street before a tank deliberately rolled back and forth over his body.
The carnage is unspeakable, and Syrians undoubtedly hope they have the momentum of the Arab Spring on their side. Other Arab nations have reacted angrily; Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, withdrew their ambassadors in protest. The international community has responded with sanctions and varied calls for action, including referral to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity (where Gadhafi has landed for his brutal crackdown on his people).
Assad, who is seemingly sinking into bunker mentality, has publicly insisted that the people love him. But what they've clearly shown is that they love the antithesis of Assad: freedom. They love freedom so implicitly that they continue to risk all for the chance to be able to celebrate in the square like Egyptians. They tear down Assad posters and cheer with the hope that someday they can clean the country of all Assad posters without risk of bloody reprisal. They come out into the streets, again and again, not willing to let their brothers and sisters suffer alone.
No matter the outcome in the bloody repression of the peaceful quest for the fall of Assad in Syria, freedom wins every time brave Syrians step outside their door to demand, once again, that the dictator go.