This is part two of an interview with Naim – a Syrian who, after being involved in smuggling aid to those affected by the Syrian revolution, eventually fled the country. In part one he told his story from before the revolution until he left Syria. In this part he discusses amongst other things: the beginnings of the protests, the reaction of the international community, and the rise of groups such as ISIS. Click here to read part one.
Can you tell me a bit about the motivations of the original protesters?
In early 2011 the protests started, and they stayed peaceful for about 7-8 months. The first time it started in the south of Syria in a place called Deraa. It was shocking for us that it could be possible. Before this in Egypt there was the 25th January revolution, where the people were able to make Mubarrak abandon power. Before that in Tunisia as well – in December 2010. The Syrian people looked at this and said to themselves, why cant we do it?
Homs (my home town) was called the capital of Syrian revolution, because the people were suffering from the government of the city. If you bought a house and you wanted to organise your water and electricity bills you had to pay extra because of the corruption of the governor. He was asking for money for anything he could. This behaviour made the people hate him too much, and that governor was appointed by Bashar al Assad. So when the people of Homs saw that first demonstration they came out after Friday prayer. They gathered in the central square and raised a sign saying we don’t want this governor any more and we are asking you Mr Assad – they wrote it very politely – to remove him because he is corrupt and he is stealing from us.
People of Homs were braver than other cities. It started in parallel between there and Deraa – a city of 300,000 people. Homs is a very big city – 1.6 million inhabitants and some civil actions started so that the regime will change. On facebook, they started to call for demonstrations on Fridays because Friday is the weekend in Syria. Social media played a significant role – really. They started to demonstrate every Friday – after 19th of march – after prayer. And not just Muslims, but also Christian people came. Prayer finishes at 1pm and people were gathering at 2pm.
There is a famous Syrian talk show presenter and he called Syria at the time before the revolution: The kingdom of silence. Magnificent. Nobody dared to speak about policy or give his opinion on policy – neither interior or foreign policy. If you dared you would be in jail. So we grew up under fear. Because of the oppression in Syria during the days of Haffez al-assad, our families were worried about us, they didn’t want us to be hurt.
People felt rage and they would not accept how the regime was killing people asking for their human rights. Basic human rights – not luxury rights – the basics. It was something shocking for the regime. They did not expect that these insects would demonstrate. It had been a kingdom of silence for 40 years and now they are starting to shout and to say that we need our basic rights. The demonstrations became organised, peaceful, very safe and very elegant. They didn’t ask Assad to fuck off, they asked for reform. This was our target. And when people asked for reforms the reaction of the regime was to shoot us. The demonstrations were totally forbidden by the regime. Peaceful demonstrators were faced with bullets.
How did the conflict move from protests to civil war?
The protesters began defending themselves. I was a demonstrator but I am not that type who is able to carry a weapon. I don’t know how to use a weapon, but there are other types of people that have no issue. It started in Homs. It was the end of August 2011. Between March and August it was peaceful demonstrations, but at the beginning of September people were wondering what is the solution? You want to continue to express your feelings but then you are a subject for killing? Or what is the other option?
There was an area in Homs called Baba Amr, a poor area. Next to this area is another – a very rich area called al-Inshaat. The populations were demonstrating in their own areas. After 6 months of killing – and in Homs by the end of August we had 12,000 people killed during demonstrations or after torture – the people of Baba Amr decided that they would start protecting the demonstrations in al-Inshaat. They said to the regime troops, don’t try to get close, there are armed people defending the demonstrators and if you do, we are willing to defend these people with our lives. The Syrian troops were calm, they didn’t come and attack like usual. This was a big dilemma for the regime, and they decided to use the army. Before that it was only the security branches and the intelligence.
The Arab states went to the security council to condemn the regime and ask the regime to stop using fire against the peaceful demonstrators, but Russia and China used their veto’s against the resolution. The regime saw this as a green light and so in Baba Amr, they prepared for a war against the protest protectors and the civilians. The protectors only had Kalashnikovs – not M16’s, M16’s are expensive. The regime brought tanks, they brought around 40,000 army troops, they made a siege, and they started to bomb Baba Amr. They would make a very intense bombing using rockets, and our guys had only the Kalashnikov and RPGs. The regime used rockets and started bombing from their tanks. There is not a lot an RPG can do against the latest Russian tanks.
This battle lasted for 23 days, and until the last 5 days the regime was unable to force their way in. The regime used Scud rockets – a scud is 3 tonnes and will destroy everything for 300 meters, stones, humans, everything. After using scuds and tanks, they were able to win. 90% of the houses were rubble on the ground and about 3000 civilians were killed in these 23 days.
At this time, some officers announced that due to the regime tactics, and having seen the facts on the ground, they were going to stand for the Syrian people and the case of justice by leaving the Syrian army. They formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Some of them were civilians with no experience, but when the officers came, they trained them. These officers – sergeants and colonels maximum – created the FSA. After Baba Amr, other areas of Syria became aware that the regime will just make a city vanish, so its either be killed while demonstrating or be killed while defending our lives. The best choice is to defend your life. If you are demonstrating you will be killed, but if you defend yourself you might not be killed, so people made their choice.
You mentioned that the Arab states approach the UN to try to help the situation. Can you tell me your thoughts on the approach of the international community to the conflict?
In the beginning, only the Arabic channels tried to get the information out, but nobody could report there – they would be arrested or killed. Al-Jazira tried to interview witnesses or relatives of the victims, but regarding the western media, nobody gave a shit. Most of the Arabic states were against the regime – except Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan. They were trying to press the Syrian regime to stop killing people. After 7-8 months of political attempts failing, the Arabic states – led by Saudi Arabia – decided to go to the security council.
In may 2012 there was a very famous massacre in an area there call Houla – 65km north of Homs. 200,000 people lived there and they were involved in the demonstrations. Sha’bi troops went in the night with swords and killed 112 people – only women and children. That was so shocking. At that time Ban-Ki-Moon (the UN secretary) condemned this crime and said there should be an independent investigation to see who is responsible. For us that was very funny because we knew whom was responsible and it happened before the eyes of the USA and England and the western world. I remember the statement of the US foreign ministry, ‘we condemn with the strongest statement this horrible crime and we call all the parties to make a dialogue’. That was the only reaction.
After that, we were asking what is happening? What is going on? Where is the world? Everyday we raised signs asking for the USA, for Britain, the Arabic states or France to help us. Please, we are being killed. We are human and you are human, please care for us. You cannot stop Bashar al-Assad like this. It made no sense. I cannot count for you all the massacres because there are not 10’s but 100’s, and they happened under the eyes of what we call the civilised world. Why did the USA let this happen – it knew everything and it was indirectly supporting Assad because if they weren’t they would stop him, the USA can do anything it wants to.
The Syrian crisis has become something that can’t be solved because there are too many factors. Now the USA is saying we cannot help the FSA because too many troops of the FSA belong to al-Nusra or other radical Islamic groups. Now they are saying this after two years, but if that’s the case, why didn’t you help the FSA when it was in Baba Amr and there were no radical troops. You were closing your eyes and you waited until the radicals had come to say we can’t support terrorists.
As someone who wanted to protest against the regime in favour of liberal ideas, what do you think about the rise of the radical Islamist groups who have appeared?
After the west didn’t get involved, the environment became more fertile to push people. They had lost any type of hope that anyone would help them and they could do nothing but watch themselves being killed. You cannot imagine the number of tragic stories in the houses, of the wives and the children. You can consider it the catastrophe of the 21st century. So, in 2012 – in July, after all this had happened it became a fertile environment to push people. When you have no means to defend yourself and you see the security troops come to your house in the middle of the night and arrest you, and arrest your wife, and your father and your children – they were arresting teenagers. They are ruining your life in front of your eyes. As a human – as a person – you will be pushed, you will become crazy and you won’t care – you will just want to get revenge. Ok, for me, I may kill myself if someone raped my wife in front of me, but for many people… they want to get revenge on anybody who supports the regime. They will reach a point where they will explode themselves just to get revenge on the person who raped his wife. They pushed people and frustrated them and this provides fertile ground for the starting point of being radical.
At this point the Islamic part starts to appear, and some troops appeared who called themselves Islamic names. That was the beginning of – not the really radical ideas – but of being a bit more extremist in your ideas and thoughts. That was a target of the regime, the regime wanted this and they did this killing on purpose to make people reach this. At this time, the biggest trick done by the regime happened. At the end of July, they released a huge amount of Islamic radical prisoners that they had from the time of the USA invasion of Iraq. These were people they had picked up crossing the border when they were escaping Iraq. Assad set free all the radical Islamic prisoners. What proves this conspiracy, is that one year later all these prisoners became leaders of radical groups. This created a base for al-Nusra and later on al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The majority of Syrians refuse radical thoughts – Syrian people by instinct do not offer a warm lap to radical thoughts. Syrian people are in general open minded, and they are very good hosts and generous people. The radicals will say for example that women shouldn’t work, they should be at home, but in Syrian culture the women work in fields and the rules of the society are that women contribute. The majority of Syrian people are against extremist ideas and thoughts. Very few – I cannot deny them – maybe 5% and maximum 10% want this but you cannot consider them as a considerable minority – they are a very small minority. Everyone around me, everyone that I know refuses radical thoughts. Nobody accepts that at all.
I don’t know directly people who live in the areas controlled by ISIS, but I hear that anyone who might object them will be arrested and maybe killed. They will ask you ‘are you praying?’ or they will ask how many prayers you need to do in the morning, and if you answer wrong they might arrest and kill you. These people don’t relate to Islam and its values in a single way. In Islam nobody can judge you, nobody can ask you if you are praying, if you are drinking – this is an issue between you and your god. This is wrong. What makes me feel sorrow is that the western world thinks that ISIS is representing Islam and it becomes a phobia and this is very bad. Those people are not acknowledging the value of Islam. For me, I don’t consider them Muslims. Muslims are not authorised to kill unless you are defending your life, so how can you kill people because of their practices or their beliefs. So I think that people under ISIS are suffering and they are in a permanent state of fear. It is the same as if you are under Assad.
After 2 years the demonstrations stopped. In 2014 it stopped because there were no more people to demonstrate, they were either killed or migrated or the rest were afraid and didn’t see the point any more. The demonstrations stopped and it turned purely into an armed struggle, but this armed struggle became very complex. The FSA is there and fighting, at the same time the circumstances mean that it must fight 2 parties – Assad’s troops and ISIS because ISIS is fighting the FSA. The regime was the only one who has a benefit from the presence of ISIS.
Al-Nusra is a radical group, they have their own agenda, but they didn’t hurt the Syrian people. They are radical and they want to impose their own perspective of Islamic law on people – which is different from mine or yours – so that cannot happen, but at least they didn’t hurt people. They have their own extremist thoughts but they helped people. When Al-Nusra was in an area they provided bread for the poor people, but ISIS is something different. ISIS is a unique phenomenon. If you are raising up the icon of ISIS what is your value – your value is to down-tread people, and kill people who are not praying. You are saying that the regime is infidel so why are you not fighting them? Why are you fighting the FSA. To steal the oil and to steal the wealth of the Syrian people. It does not belong to you this gas and oil, its owned by the Syrian people. A legal government should handle this. ISIS’s agenda is completely different.
I do think there was too much fury about them, but their agenda is an evil one. By killing the reporters and making the videos, they intend to affect the people and to spread terror and fear. Why don’t they kill without making a video and making the reporters ask for the help of the USA? They ask for the closure of Guantanamo bay, or for prisoners to be released, but then they do not wait for the negotiation phase,.They kill them immediately. Islam says that if you are defending your life and you have to kill, you must do it mercifully and not in the ways which they do. That is why I think they have an evil agenda. They want to spread fear so that no one will resist them.
What do you think the future of Syria will look like?
What I dream will happen is that in some way Bashar Al-Assad will piss off. But this is not the core of the problem. The core of the problem is the lack of structure of this regime, because if the regime controls everything – even if you graduate, for example, and you search for a job and are going to be hired, you must go to the security branch and they must approve it. This is an aggression towards the people and their privacy. What does it have to do with them if you want to work as a lawyer or an engineer? If they do not approve, you will not have a job – what the fuck is this? Our problem is in this mentality. Its very dangerous to change the regime, you could have a similar situation to what happened in Iraq. The Iraqi regime vanished and chaos came afterwards. The best solution is to change the head of the regime now, and make a transition government consisting of some parties of the regime who weren’t involved in bloodshed – as well as other components from the civil community. I don’t believe that much in the political resistance. There are many people who are well organised and well educated – these people should take the lead to create change.
I think the best solution is that Assad goes, then a new government with some people of the regime is formed. We need the regime to prevent chaos. Then, after maybe 4 years – we call this period the transition period – a new parliament should be created and gradual change over a few years should start. We would reach a period where we don’t have this type of concrete regime any more – so we have a clean environment to practice our values. To elect freely, to express our opinions freely in an article or thesis or on twitter. Maybe after 10 years we will be able to have free elections and a new regime. We should support the activists of the civil community because the civil community is the most important weighted factor to push such a process forwards. It will rely on normal people who have no experience in politics or elections – we should rely on the civilian population. The civil community is very dedicated and well educated.
Of course all this is a dream for me – I don’t think it will become like this because Bashar al-Assad is on a mission. I don’t think currently that there is a near end to the fighting. Maybe in the long term. I am so afraid that the west will impose a system that says: ok, 80% of the Syrian population are Muslim and 20% are Christian so the the government should be 80% Muslim and 20% Christian and will must divide the parliament as well. 10% for the Kurd, 10% Christian, 5% Alawite, 60% for the Sunnis. This is the worst thing that could happen because this will divide the country and make the minorities isolated. It will turn them against each other and make them more aggressive. It would be totally wrong but I’m afraid that they might impose such a system. This is not real democracy. By imposing that the defence minister must be Alawite, the foreign minister must be Christian, the others must be Sunni, it would be a big mistake. I believe that the factor should be the qualifications of the person and not his religion or his beliefs. That is his personal matter – we should not take religion and insert into political life – big mistake. I would hire people according to their qualification not according to their religion or their tribe.
Some people say that the war is about to finish or about to have an end next year but I have lost trust that it will end soon. I hope so but I don’t believe it.