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Mehrunisa Qayyum Headshot

Syria's Escalating Violence Targets Women

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I want to understand why the senior White House official could not explain how dealing with Syria through a variety of coordinated measures would help stabilize the Middle East region at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) convention last week. And by "stable" I do not mean the status quo of massacres in civilian towns.

My mind drifted because I remembered the bully who terrorized me in elementary school: the name-calling, threats, demeaning my dignity as a human being. I complained to my mom and was told 1) to ignore, then 2) to walk away, 3) to stand up for myself, 4) tell the teacher/principal, and finally 5) if someone hit me, hit back twice. Was this a five-step plan to assertion? If it worked on an individual level for a child, wasn't this supposed to apply somewhat to adulthood? What about at the larger community level? While we're at it: what about at society to state level -- or what is more aptly referred to as civil resistance -- for the twenty-some million Syrians -- of which over 14,000 have already died in the state-sanctioned violence?

Stage 1 and 2: Ignoring and Walking Away

As the bully increases in his delusions of power and exhibits class "control" issues, he/she visits other backyards in the neighborhood and tries out other tactics: vandalism, theft, and even animal cruelty. As I remember my mom's advice to try to ignore, then walk away, the bully would start picking on someone else.

Similarly in Syria, the Assad regime has visited other backyards -- like Lebanon's. As the bully has gone unchecked by unengaged powers, Assad's violent backlash has spread to Lebanon. Ignoring and walking away still didn't end the problem.

Stage 4: Telling the Teacher

Sometimes running and telling the teacher works. And sometimes it doesn't work. In Syria's case, the U.S. administration position remains unclear when dealing with the situation in Syria as it is somewhat dependent on Russia's actions. Nonetheless, advocacy organizations, like the Syrian American Council & ADC Advocacy Days on the Hill specifically sought humanitarian aid for Syria. Efforts like these are needed. However, some U.S. officials, like Senator McCain, respond with force.

Back to the school analogy: I don't remember each bully responding well to the teacher's reprimand -- especially if there is very little to no respect for the teacher. Sometimes there was retaliation in the school cafeteria; detention was not always effective. In early June, a similar scenario played out in Syria.

Stage 5: Getting Hit... Hitting Back
Right before the UN Observer mission announced that it would suspend its monitoring activities due to the escalating violence, Human Rights Watch released a report on systematic use of sexual torture against men. Let's not forget: the bully is an equal opportunity victimizer. Human Rights Watch Middle East Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, shared how its report quoted witnesses saying that soldiers and pro-government armed militias sexually abused females, as young as twelve, during home raids and military sweeps of residential areas. These are the people they are enlisted to protect.

In 1992, Bosnians endured their bully for some time before intervention. Other "schools" of thought felt best not to engage in Baltic politics -- it was post-Soviet demise and national identity politics was the equivalent of take no prisoners dodgeball. In the end, NATO intervened militarily -- not because the rule of law and human rights outcry represented the crimes of the bully. Rather, a proxy war emerged in that the "bullies" were getting support from powerful allies. Unfortunately, another neighborhood has seen the rise of bully on a quiet block. Sometimes he played nice, but he learned how to outsource bullying tactics, e.g Shabiha.

There is no rule of law if a citizen cannot report a crime against herself to the authorities that have targeted her. Similarly, as noble as Kofi Anman's intentions and mission are, and have been, the unruly bullies are not adhering to the Hall Monitor's words nor are seeking a pass to leave the institution's premises.

Looking back to the bullying days, was there ever a "safety zone" for protection? Maybe the bathroom (unless your bully was the same sex as you were, then your elementary self was in trouble). I no longer see the significance in safety zones because it presupposes that each side will respect the boundaries. Bullies do not respect boundaries. Remember when you played tag on the playground and the bully would not respect that the jungle gym was the safe zone for no pushing -- but did it anyways? The weak first graders (Free Syria Army) got pushed to the ground by the second graders (Shabiha), who were co-opted by the third graders (Assad regime) who promised to share their spoils of candy with them if they joined in alliance...

Stage 3: Asserting Yourself
Somehow in all of this, we officially skipped stage three because globally we were too afraid of fueling stage five: "if the bully hits you back, hit back twice." In offline channels, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is kinda, sorta facilitating Syrians to "assert themselves" by advising select opposition elements -- but with caveats. We feared that a civil war would ensue. The problem is that other global players went straight to stage five: Russia is arming the Syrian regime while Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia allegedly continue to arm different elements within Syria. So it is all the more disturbing when a senior White House official attends a forum, like the ADC Convention, and does not address an audience of 200 people on what U.S. expectations are for Syria. The U.S. Department of Defense continues its arms agreement with the Russian company supplying arms to the Assad regime. This is inconsistent with how the U.S. is coordinating with Turkey, our ally. Why keep it a secret? Such expectations do not need to be mutually exclusive: removing the bully and delivering aid to civilians -- unless there are lethal aid efforts underway.

I was always worried when my parents reminded me of the stage five tactic when the worst of my bullies outweighed me. But then I realized, the bully expected this. So I had nothing to lose by standing up for myself. At least I would have my dignity... and I still have my teeth.