Is Syria in revolution?

“Syria today reflects the process by which revolutions have been incited in the past. Syria has lived under a dictatorship for fifty years. People lacked employment. Poverty levels reached 35 per cent. Corruption was rampant. Many people became very rich. Many more suffered from poverty.

The Syrian regime was governed by the Alawite minority, who received preferential treatment by the regime. Yet many others were neglected, especially in the villages, and were deprived of education.”

The Syrian revolution is a revolution for justice, for the rule of law. It demands freedom for those imprisoned for political reasons. Today, Syria lacks the fundamentals of the rule of law, it suffers from a corrupt system of justice and it knows no social system.”

Image courtesy of Hind Kabawat, © 2013. Some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Hind Kabawat, © 2013. Some rights reserved.

How did it begin?

“The people of Syria saw what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. In response to these events, the children of the town of Dar’a, children between the ages of twelve and fifteen, publicly criticized the Syrian regime.

The children of Dar’a were arrested and tortured in jail. Non-violent demonstrators demanded the release of the children of Dar’a. People distributed flowers and water. Yet non-violence only carried the revolution for six months.

In September of 2011, civil activist Ghiath Mattar was arrested and tortured. His lifeless body was returned to his mother. Killings and targeted rape became widespread, a parallel to the Iranian regime, when the regime endeavoured to stop the Iranian revolution in 2009.

It is important to remember that many high-ranking officers in the Syrian military are Alawites. The strategy pursued by the regime for fifty years was to install Alawite leadership within the military, so that the Alawites would become indispensable to national security and to the command structure of the army.”

So Assad has abused fears of an ethnic conflict to maintain power?

“Indeed ─ it is in the interest of preserving this power structure, that the Syrian regime promotes the notion that the Syrian revolution is a civil war and more specifically, a sectarian conflict. The regime is trying to frighten the Syrian minorities with the prospect of sectarian violence.

This is wrong. The regime tries to spread the notion that it is protecting minorities, such as the Alawites (a Shiite sect), that Sunnis will kill them [if Assad is toppled]. This is wrong. So many Christians, Druze and Alawites have taken the side of the revolution. They do not believe the rhetoric used by the regime.

Yet neither do they believe in the rhetoric and the actions of extremist groups. I, myself a Christian, have gone to the liberated areas, where the Islamists are, for over a year now. I am accepted there. The young people call me “mother”. We love one another as Syrians. You could see this clearly, when Al Qaeda burned a Church in Ar Raqqa and people of all religious beliefs protested against this. This is what they said: “The Syrian people are one”. I have shared bread with Muslims in the past, even though they can tell I am a Christian. The people of Syria are not sectarian. They are not fanatics.”

What would you say to allegations that the conflict has been co-opted by some more radical groups such as the Al-Nusra front, close affiliates of Al Qaida?

“I am disappointed with the people who label the Syrian revolution with Islamism, extremism and Al Qaida. There are people in the revolution, who are religious, yes. The majority of the dead are Sunnis. But this does not make the revolution Sunni and it does not make it the revolution of Al Qaeda. It is a human revolution. We are against Al Qaeda and the jihadists! We are against Bashar al Assad! They are two faces of the same coin. Both want to kill the Syrian people, to have no rule of law, no democracy, to kill civilians and civilian actors.

It is the regime, which encourages Wahhabism and extremism. Ask yourself: Why did President Assad grant a presidential pardon in 2011? Why did he release Abou Omar al Baghdadi, who now heads Al Qaeda in Syria, from of prison, when he kept my friend Abdelaziz al Khayer in prison? My friend is a modern man and he is liberal.

The answer is this: Assad wants to give the Syrians only two options. It is a choice between himself and Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda is not the revolution. Many actors in the revolution are against Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda receives support from no more than 10 per cent of the population. They do not care, whether the regime falls or not. They do not help their brothers and sisters in other areas. They kidnap for money.

The Mujahedeen are not Syria. We do not know their intentions or who is financing them. They have no vision to help the Syrian people. They just want a place of their own and to scare everyone. They only give grounds for Assad’s rhetoric. If he cooperates with the West and protects minorities from “sectarianism”, he looks good in the eyes of the world.

But he is not protecting the minorities! He is endangering them: he is arming them and forces them to take sides. His hands are full of blood. He has killed 130’000 people. He is responsible for four million refugees and he has destroyed 60 per cent of Syrian territory. Half a million people are disabled, their arms missing, their feet, their eyes. There are 200’000 prisoners in Syria. We do not know whether they are dead or alive. One of my own students, a civil activist, who was among those who pledged non-violence, saying “Kill us and we won’t kill you”, was taken five months ago. I do not know where she is.” 

What then can be done?

“It’s hard, because the West simply looks away. They look away from the starvation, the famine, the destruction of our villages. The West looks away when the missiles, the bombs, the airplanes, the barrels of fuel that destroy our homes.

The nephew of a good friend of mine was standing in line at the bakery for bread, when they bombed the bakery. They bomb bakeries and schools. They bombed a school in Ar Raqqa, but they do not bomb the Al Qaeda fighters.

The United Nations cannot get aid through to the people. There are delays and there are more dead, there is more blood, there is more starvation. The people are dying of hunger and disease. A student of mine told me only yesterday (10.10.2013) that people in Mouadamiah, a suburb of Damascus, were eating the leaves of the trees for want of food. Last week, two children died of starvation there. This is how you open the door to private Saudi and Qatari donors. The fine print they attach to their aid is this: ‘start being more like us’.

Their only dream is to go back home. They are humiliated. All they want is to go back to their land, to plant their flowers, to do so in a place of justice and freedom. This is what the Syrians want: They want the rule of law, they want liberty, they want equality and they want there to be an end to oppression.

In February, I stayed with a Family called Hashoum. We were sitting together, I slept in their house. Now, they are in a refugee camp. Three armed squads raided their village. They cannot return to their home, if they want to live, if they want their children to live. Because the West is sending a message to Assad: Do whatever you want, but do not use chemical weapons to do it.”

So prohibiting chemical weapons is insufficient then?

“Absolutely. By not siding with the Syrian people, the world is sending every dictator in the world the message that it is ok, that if people dare to rise against you, asking for their freedom, for change and for a democratic society, it is ok for you to kill your own people, to destroy or burn your country, as long as you don’t use chemicals! This is the message the world is sending to Assad and to all dictators of the world.

Do not lecture us about human rights, about freedom. We learn about the French and the American revolutions in school. You fail to lead by example. You are letting the Syrian people down. They are getting killed every day!

But there is hope. There is hope for conflict resolution and there is hope for anti-sectarianism. Conflict resolution is about listening to others and understanding them. And that is what people of Syria have done for years. It is about knowing the other and not to judge. It is about creating ground rules for living together. People from both sides need to build their future together.

Teaching is just as important. Over the course of the past two years, I have taught in refugee camps and I have seen people there build a beautiful community. They teach, all learn and all accept each other. Young women are teaching people in the camps. My friends and sisters, Khadijah, Walaa, and Fatimah, the great women of Syria, they teach in the tents of the refugee camps near the Syrian border. They do not want the children to grow up without learning. This is how civil society is built. We were not allowed to build a civil society before this revolution. People are getting to know each other.

Those who want this conflict are the ones who profit from it because they secure privileges and earn money from arms sales. But the small people have had enough.”

How will it end?

“The violence will end when we sit together at the negotiation table. There are people now within the regime, who oppose what Assad is doing and who oppose what the extremists are doing. That already gives us a common ground. We all want a civil society. We want to live together, majorities and minorities. We need the good people from the regime to be part of the solution, to plan the future of Syria together. We need both sides.

Take Abdul Aziz al Khayer, for example. He would be, he is, a great leader. But like so many others, he has been imprisoned by the regime.

I was speaking to a high-ranking member of the regime just the other day on WhatsApp. I asked him, why he was still on the side of the regime and he told me this: “If I cross your bridge, they will burn my village. And even if I do, I am not sure whether you will accept me”.

We need to protect these people. Maybe they can stay on the other side to wait for the right moment to partake in the resolution. But the resolution needs to come from both sides.

This revolution changed my life completely. Before the revolution, I was sitting in an ivory tower, contemplating and debating justice and the rule of law. The revolution led me to make the acquaintance of the villagers of Northern Syria. Um Khaled, Naima and Lamia. I know them now as my sisters. I have come to know the Syrian revolution as a good, a beautiful, and a big cause. There is no way back to the ivory tower from here.

Democracy is from the people to the people. It cannot be built from the ivory tower. It needs grassroots. It needs the feeling of the people. Leadership is about taking care of the small people while thinking big ideas. Give them your hand and your heart. Walk with them. Especially the women who can’t see a future in Syria without their contribution. It seems that it is a long way to freedom in Syria, but I can see the light coming after the dark tunnel, walking with the people, hand in hand.”

Hind Kabawat is an attorney and International Council at Janssen and Associates in Toronto. She studied at Damascus University, the Arab University in Beirut, the University of Toronto and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CDRC) at George Mason University and a founding member of the Syrian Centre for Dialogue. Further, she serves the Advisory Board of the World Bank on Middle Eastern Issues and as a member of the Global Agenda Council for War Intervention at the World Economic Forum. In 2007, she was awarded the Peacemakers in Action Award from the Tannenbaum Centre for Interreligious Understanding and in 2009, she received the CDRC Public Diplomacy Award.

St. Andrews, 11 October 2013