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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

A 13-year-old boy and the point of no return in Syria

The anger that the alleged torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy by Syrian security forces has fostered means the chances of reconciliation in the country are very slim.

A boy disappears during pro-democracy demonstrations. His corpse, bearing apparent signs of torture and mutilation, is returned to his home after almost a month. No reconciliation deal, no political reform, will ever make Syrians forget the fate of Hamza al Khatib.

Both the 13-year-old and his father had been arrested during ongoing demonstrations in the province of Deraa. The area near the border with Jordan was one of the first to erupt in protests against Damascus in February, and several demonstrators were killed there on Friday.

But Hamza's death and the allegations of torture have aroused a new determination. Regardless of loyalties, anyone who believes that the security forces committed this crime will be outraged.

It should be difficult to imagine hardened soldiers torturing a 13-year-old boy over the course of a month, but of course Syria's mukhabarat are infamous for their repressive hold on society. So far, it is activist groups, particularly using the Facebook site "Syrian Revolution 2011", that have made the allegations of torture. But they will be believed by far more people than Damascus will be.

It is a lesson that the Assad regime should have learnt far sooner in this Arab Spring. Martyrdom has been a central theme in the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt: no one will forget the 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation last December has become a symbol for grievances across the region. In Egypt, the rallying cry of "We are all Khaled Said" - in reference to the young man beaten to death by police - united a country. Now in Cairo, pictures of martyrs killed in clashes are displayed alongside photographs of discredited regime loyalists.

The lessons of Egypt and Tunisia have not been heeded, and it is a real possibility that Syria has passed a point of no return. In every country where protesters have been met with violence, a solution that benefits both governments and the people has been driven farther into the background. Whenever security forces are allowed to use repressive tactics, there will always be the chance that a 13-year-old boy will be killed.

Syria's mukhabarat will take the brunt of the blame, but so must President Bashar al Assad. There are now reports that elements of the armed forces are no longer following Mr al Assad's orders, which could also mark a point of no return.

Hamza's death will not be forgotten, but tragically, with more conflict ahead, he will not be the last young person to be killed needlessly.