Syria: a lab experiment in cruelty

Yesterday the BBC news website had up a video (it's apparently been taken down now) showing Syrian soldiers casually whipping and slapping a group of passengers in a mini-van, taunting them with remarks like shave his head before they beat him properly and who wants freedom anyway?

Compared to some of the videos available on YouTube and some Ive seen at in the offices of Amnesty these images are actually quite mild. But I always find this casual sadism hard to watch.

A man slapping another frightened, cowering man in the face. Who could do this? Answer: plenty of people. Give them a uniform, a weapon and a licence to mistreat, and numerous people will turn into nasty bullies, would-be torturers. This was of course the central finding of the infamous Stanford prison experiment in the USA in the early 70s (role-playing leading to out-and-out sadism), and its almost as if the Syrian armed forces and intelligence agencies are being allowed to act out a large-scale version of the Stanford experiment.

The Stanford experiment was called off when things skidded out of control. By contrast you do wonder whether the Syrian authorities have any intention of reining in their own torturers and killers. It doesnt look like it. The Arab Leagues latest ultimatum three days to comply with the terms of the first deal over getting troops off the streets and releasing prisoners etc seems to have been met with tanks on the streets in Homs and fresh killings.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Free Syrian Army and a growing number of army defections is leading to a chorus of warnings about the possibility of a civil war. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is now leading these, talking about how the situation is quite similar to a true civil war. There do seem to be reliable reports of armed opposition to the Assad regime but isnt it a bit rich that Russia has become vocal about this after being such a blocker at the UN Security Council over the thousands of deaths of largely peaceful protesters across the last nine months?

Lavrov seems keen to present a two sides to this argument about Syria. Yes, killings by army defectors could well be human rights crimes, but are there two sides to a situation where a person is tortured to death in a prison cell? Whats the other side to that?

At a recent demonstration in London large numbers of Syrians and others marched to the Syrian embassy demanding an end to the bloodshed (see this earlier post). There was a small counter-demonstration by pro-Assad Syrians around the corner, and this new film - see below - has comments from some of the pro-Assad contingent. They cast aspersions about the integrity of the main demo You will find all nationalities, except Syrians; they are well paid etc while stressing that there is another side of the story with what is going on in Syria. The film also features the story of Marwan Mahassen, a man who was imprisoned in Syria for 16 years (1983-1999) and, he says, horribly tortured, including by the infamous German chair method to stretch a victims spine. Again, Im not sure what the other side of his story is supposed to be in this context.

Nobody normal can imagine that kind of torture, says Mahassen. Thats right. Torture is a beyond-normal perversion.

Meanwhile, one of the pro-Assad protestors says that with Syria its a case of Better the devil you know than the devil you dont. I take this to be a veiled threat to Western powers already nervous that major upheaval in Syria could destabilise the entire region. But does that mean that were supposed to accept more torture, more killings and more doubletalk about there being two sides to mass repression?

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