Monsters, politics, and a Syrian boy's agony

Why haven't Western nations lined up to denounce the actions of Syria's regime, writes Neil Macdonald.

WARNING: This column contains graphic details.

I can't get Hamza al Khatib out of my head. Like every father, I've contemplated the horror of being unable to protect my children from evil. There is no worse fear.

When Hamza was snatched up at the protest he'd attended with his dad back in April, he probably thought his father would appear at the police station and sort it all out.

I can't help wondering when he realized he was beyond help.

He must have screamed himself hoarse as the torturer crushed his kneecaps and applied the burns.  When they shot him — to wound, not to kill — the hot pain would have been quickly followed by numbness and shock.

If Hamza could still talk at that point, he'd have been begging for mercy, or desperately trying to tell them something to make them stop. But of course it wasn't an interrogation. He was only 13 years old. What in heaven's name could he have told the Syrian mukhabarat that they didn't already know? And in any event, shattering his jaw certainly put an end to any intelligible utterances from the boy.

I desperately hope Hamza was already unconscious, or dead, when they started  hacking off his penis.

What happened to Hamza al Khatib provokes an atavistic terror, even at this distance. It's not rational. And that, of course, was the point of the exercise. Hamza was butchered and handed over to his family in order to fill defiant Syrians with uncontrollable dread. To make it plain that the regime of Bashar al-Assad observes no boundaries.

Human Rights Watch, which has been documenting the tactics of Assad's bullies, put it nicely in a report this week: Syria is engaging in crimes against humanity. Posting government snipers on buildings with orders to shoot people randomly, whether they are protesting or not. Lining up prisoners at a soccer stadium and machine-gunning them. Firing live ammunition into crowds of protesters carrying olive branches and baring their chests to show they're unarmed. Shooting any soldier who refuses to shoot his own countrymen and women. And working overtime behind closed doors on the thousands they've arrested. Using "medieval torture," in the words of a Human Rights Watch official.

A thousand dead. Tens of thousands arrested.

And here's the question: Where is the outrage? Where the hell is the outrage?

Why haven't Western nations lined up to denounce it for the evil it is? The world isn't supposed to stand by while dictators slaughter their own people, or at least that is what we were told when Washington and Paris unleashed cruise missiles and fighter jets to protect the people of Benghazi from Muammar Ghadhafi's vengeance.

Why isn't the UN Security Council meeting? Why hasn't Bashar al-Assad been referred to the International Criminal Court, as Ghadhafi was?

Syrian children carry pictures of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib during a protest in front of the United Nations building in Beirut on June 1. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)
The answer is both understandable and deeply shameful: National interest trumps the agonies of Hamza al Khatib and his fellow Syrians, and will continue to do so.

Bashar al-Assad is far more important than Ghadhafi, and that earns him a pass. The Arab League, which piously denounced Ghadhafi and effectively enabled the bombing of Libya, is saying practically nothing about the terror in Syria.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful member of the League, has clearly decided this Arab Spring nonsense must end before the contagion spreads into its citizenry. It is helping Bahrain crush its rebellious Shia citizens, and will brook no initiative that might deter Assad.

Turkey is invested heavily in Syria, and has tried to perpetuate the ridiculous notion that the goofy-looking ophthalmologist in Damascus is not a monster, like his father before him, but actually a reformer.

Israel appreciates the fact that the Assads have kept the northern border quiet for nearly 40 years now, and fears any government that supplants the secular tyrants in Damascus may be infected by Islamists.

So do Israel's allies.  As President Obama has said many times, Israel's security is America's paramount concern. Hence Obama's long silence while Assad massacred innocents. Even now, the president's official position is not that Assad should be charged criminally, but that he should change his ways and institute democracy or "get out of the way," whatever that means.

Canada, conspicuously, has said practically nothing about Assad.

Then there is Iran, which uses Syria as a land bridge to extend its influence to the Mediterranean. Iran violently crushed its own uprisings, and now, according to some reports, the Iranians are helping Assad hunt and slaughter his own people, lending technical assistance to find those who dare to post images of the dead and dying on the internet.

To be clear: the Assads are guilty of atrocities that only Saddam Hussein could have matched. That Bashar al-Assad is Western-educated, and married to a woman Vogue magazine raves about, is nothing but camouflage for the primitive, vicious dictatorship he leads. He knows, as Saddam Hussein knew, what his fate will be if he is overthrown — and if children have to be tortured to prevent that, so be it.

When Hamza al Khatib's picture hit the internet, the regime first produced a doctor who declared his injuries inconsistent with torture. Then the government said staff at the hospital — doctors and nurses — had mutilated the body.

Then, this week, an obscenity Orwell could not have imagined. Syrian TV featured an interview with two men it identified as the boy's uncle and father. Both praised Assad as a great president. Assad, they declared, loved Hamza as though the boy was his own son. He'd personally promised to look into the death, and that was good enough for the family.

Presumably, the father's and uncle's penises are still intact. They were terrorized even as they mourned. Like Syria itself.