By Firas Maksad - Special to CNN's Global Public Square
Imagine Jon Stewart of The Daily Show being dragged out of his car in New York’s Times Square, beaten savagely by President Barack Obama’s secret service and then left to bleed on the New Jersey Turnpike. This is what thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did to Ali Farzat, the country’s most popular cartoonist, in the heart of Damascus before dumping him on a distant highway. His crime? Depicting the plight of Syrian citizens suffering from four decades of political and economic oppression.
Hooded men dragged Ali Farzat into the back of a van as he left his office on Thursday. They broke his arm and fingers so he may never draw again. Nearby policemen watched helplessly, knowing this was a matter beyond their authority. As regime thugs brutalized this distinguished-looking sixty-year-old man, they explained, "This is punishment for those who disrespect their master,” in reference to President Assad. To add insult to injury, they cut off Farzat's iconic beard and his long gray hair that Syrians have come to recognize.
Although shockingly brazen, what happened to this celebrity cartoonist is becoming fairly common in Syria. The Assad regime is desperately trying to prevent a rebellion that began in the countryside from taking root amongst the country’s urban and cultural elite. In July, prominent actors and producers were beaten in the street and then arrested for protesting the crackdown. That same month, the composer of the uprising’s most popular chant was found dead, his body thrown in a river with his throat slit and vocal cords removed as warning to those who might follow suit.
These acts of savagery against artists and celebrities might have succeeded in deterring people in years past, but in the age of satellite television, new media and social networking sites, they are now only feeding the people’s outrage. After watching Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans overthrow their long-time dictators, the Syrian people refuse to be dragged back into oppressive silence. They will not let this historic opportunity to win their freedom pass them by.
But as with Egypt and Libya, the Syrian people cannot do it alone. The regime’s instruments of repression are too strong and well entrenched. They need the will and resources of the international community to give life to a new Syria, one that respects its citizens and is a force for stability in an otherwise tumultuous, but vital, part of the world.
Some in Washington and elsewhere balk at the idea of involvement in yet another predominantly Muslim country. Others argue that international intervention only plays to the regime’s advantage. These people should listen to the voices of tens of thousands of Syrians taking to the streets every week, pleading for the international community to help stop the mass killings, torture and abductions.
Those targeted by the Assad regime are America's natural allies against al Qaeda and radical extremism. They are the cultural and intellectual leaders of the Syrian and Arab peoples: Men and women who have insisted from the beginning of this six-month uprising that it remain peaceful. If the international community turns its back on these protesters, it gives credence to al Qaeda’s argument that violence is the only way to overthrow Arab dictators and their silent backers in the West.
The Obama administration was slow at first, but has now taken a number of steps to align itself with the people of Syria, calling on Assad to go, freezing the financial assets of senior regime figures and working with European allies to target the export of Syrian oil. Still it could take months, perhaps even years, before such steps compel President Assad to end the killings. More needs to be done to hasten his departure and prevent him from transforming an otherwise peaceful popular uprising into a sectarian conflict that could spread to neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.
A full-fledged economic embargo, one signed on to by Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States would strangle regime finances and unravel the web of patronage networks the Syrian regime has built to sustain itself. Through multilateral diplomacy and leadership, we must build on growing Arab willingness to act as the Arab League meets in an emergency session on Syria on Saturday.
But as with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in America, this is primarily a peoples’ struggle, not a struggle between states and competing world powers. As such, international thought leaders, activists and celebrities have an important role to play in seeing that their Arab counterparts find their long-silenced voice and help guide their societies to a better future.
Perhaps one-day Jon Stewart will host Ali Farzat on The Daily Show. This would be a bittersweet moment for many Syrian and Arab fans of both men.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Firas Maksad.