Worldview: U.S. student held amid Syrian unrest

Posted: March 27, 2011

When "Tik" Root's parents saw him off for junior year abroad in Damascus, they never imagined he'd wind up in a Syrian prison.

But Tik, who's pursuing Middle East studies at Vermont's Middlebury College, where his parents are professors, disappeared March 18. He was last seen walking near a mosque where protests had broken out. His father, Tom, told me the Syrian Interior Ministry has confirmed it is holding Tik in detention.

The odyssey of this young American - who wanted to study Arabic and "learn about cultures that are misunderstood" - is a reflection of how unpredictable the Mideast's revolutions have become.

Syria, where protests have exploded in the last few days, was supposed to be the place where a revolution couldn't happen. Of course, no one had expected a revolution in Egypt, where Tik spent fall semester. When the uprising occurred in January, he and fellow U.S. students were "extricated" and sent home.

Back at Middlebury, he was told that, if he wanted to pursue his study of Arabic this spring, Syria was the safest location. It had a "stable" dictatorship under Bashar al-Assad.

Now Tik is among the missing; other foreigners are reportedly being held, too. In recent days, Syrian security forces have killed dozens of protesters in the southern city of Dera and arrested untold numbers more.

Syrian leaders have no good reason to hold Tik or other Western students; even though U.S.-Syria relations are rocky, the United States recently restored its ambassador to Damascus. But Assad seems so shell-shocked by the protests, and his response has been so counterproductive, that one wonders whether the regime can survive.

There were reasons to think that Syria might avoid the wave of rebellion sweeping the region. In the past, Assad had cleverly leveraged Syria's strategic position. He was the only Arab leader to ally with Iran, and he helped funnel arms to Hezbollah, the Shiite group that dominates Lebanon and threatens Israel. But his periodic willingness to explore peace talks with Israel fueled U.S. and Israeli interest in better relations with Damascus.

And within Syria, many Syrians, even those bitter at the regime's cruelty and corruption, had reason to fear any weakening of Assad's regime.

Many Syrians drew harsh lessons from the chaotic experiment with democracy in next-door Iraq, where a sectarian civil war drove two million refugees across the border into Syria. Syrian Christians, who make up more than 10 percent of the country's population, were frightened by the forced exodus of half of Iraq's Christians, under pressure from radical Muslim militias.

When I last visited Syria, in 2005, many intellectuals and opposition leaders told me that, if Assad fell, the best-organized political force would be Sunni religious groups. The regime had banned the Muslim Brotherhood, but many Syrian teachers and professionals had adopted the hard-line salafi approach to Islam during years spent working in Saudi Arabia. After returning home, they quietly spread this doctrine in mosques and schools while refraining from political activity so as not to arouse the regime.

Meantime, the secular liberal and leftist opposition was crushed by the government, its members intimidated or jailed. So the Assad regime seemed relatively stable.

Yet discontent simmered. The Assads belong to a minority Alawi Shiite sect, while the majority of Syrians are Sunnis. The family circle is accused of rampant corruption, while desperately needed economic reforms languish. Water shortages are growing, while Syria's oil production is falling. Youth unemployment is high.

So it is no surprise that the Syrian uprising started with young people. Fifteen high school students from Dera, inspired by the Egyptian revolution, scrawled antigovernment graffiti on a wall. They were arrested. Locals protested, security forces killed about 30 of them, gruesome videos appeared on YouTube, and more protesters turned out.

On Thursday, the regime offered pay raises and promised to study economic and political change. But the police killed more protesters in Dera on Friday, and protests spread to other cities, although they are still small.

Can Assad save himself? Some Syria experts, such as Bassam Haddad from George Mason University, believe so. "Yes, the revolt can be contained," he says, "if the regime, from now on, avoids mass killings."

But Syrian youth, unmoved by their elders' fear of chaos, may keep rebelling; a shaken regime may be unable to convince them real reform is coming. Bullets may continue to fly.

It would be far better for Syrians and for the West if Assad introduced serious political and economic changes and cooled his risky relationship with Tehran. Unlikely, yes. But one sign that Assad was thinking ahead, not just reacting to events, would be if he lets Tik Root go home.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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