'Only two options left for Syria': My interview with a Damascene journalist – Telegraph Blogs

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Michael Weiss

Michael Weiss is the Research Director of The Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank, as well as the co-chair of its Russia Studies Centre. A native New Yorker, he has written widely on English and Russian literature, American culture, Soviet history and the Middle East. Follow @michaeldweiss

'Only two options left for Syria': My interview with a Damascene journalist

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus today (Photo: Reuters)

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks in Damascus today (Photo: Reuters)

Since the start of the Syrian uprising, the full extent of the regime’s atrocities have only been known to the West because of a plucky and innovative protest movement. With all foreign media banned from Syria, the millions of people lining the streets and calling for the end of a 40-year dynastic dictatorship have been defying not only sniper bullets and hand grenades but severed fibre optic cables. Camera phones and laptops are the chief resources for bearing witness to a revolution in real time.

This is why chatting with a Syrian freelance journalist can prove quite a chore. “I went through my G-chat log and realised I’d missed half your messages,” Farid (not his real name) told me on Saturday night as I sat at in my flat in St. John’s Wood and he typed out a minor narrative of the uprising and its strategy from an Internet cafe with sketchy service in Damascus. “One thing I can’t wait for when Assad is gone: a proper DSL line. That, and McDonald’s fries.”

Farid’s one of the bright young things of the Syrian revolution: a well-informed, politically savvy intellectual. He says he moved to Damascus three years ago. When the uprising began, he turned to filing regular dispatches as a stringer for a host of foreign outlets. His subjects range from the outing of an alleged regime spy at Damascus University to the state of the Syrian economy after US and EU-imposed sanctions.

Like a lot of young Syrians, Farid’s had to rely on his wits and intimate knowledge of what might be called a surface underground. Although Syria is a police state that tolerates little political dissent, it’s not so well controlled as Saddam’s Iraq or Stalin's Soviet Union. There are loopholes to be exploited.

"You know what’s cool about this country?" Farid says. "The regime made 35 percent of the population live in informal housing, so no one has an address."

What's informal housing?

"The government has not allocated land for planned urban developments, so people build their own houses however they want, wherever they want. The houses don’t get recognition from the government, meaning no documentation and recording of the location or owner. That means that even if I get an arrest warrant out on me, I can stay in my house for a year and Assad’s thugs won’t be able to reach me. The regime was so scared of pissing off Damascenes and Aleppines that they let them do whatever they want. You get five workers building round-the-clock, about $5,000 (US) for a decent extension. It was so bad at first that you couldn’t sleep in March and April because everyone was building extensions on their roofs throughout the night."

Central Damascus, though, has not yet turned out the number of protesters that other big cites have. Mainly, the agitation has been confined to the capital’s suburbs, although it is true that early demonstrations calling for political reform took place in Damascus’s old city, at the Omari Mosque. Assad has tried to prove that so long as Damascus holds, so will his reign.

On June 15, as a large pro-regime rally was held in the city, a 2,500 meter-long Syrian flag unfurled above the crowd’s heads. "God, Syria, Bashar" was scrawled on the fabric. In direct response, however, a larger anti-regime rally took place in Hama two days later. The same symbolism was used, only this time, the flag unfurled was 500 meters longer than the Damascene one and made up of a hybrid of the Syrian national flag and the ‘Independence’ flag that had been adopted as the masthead of the revolution at the large opposition conference held a few weeks ago in Antalya, Turkey. On the anti-regime flag was written: "Hama will not kneel."

So how much of Damascus is really anti-regime?

"More than three quarters," Farid says. "This is sort of a hunger revolution. Only the people with cars and apartments are with the Assads because they’re happy with what they’ve got and they want to keep things the way they are. People in Damascus might be well educated, but they’ve got the wisdom or emotional development of a teacup. They still reason by comparison. It’s not 'What could Syria do with its resources?', it’s more like, 'Look at Iraq, look at Lebanon. We don’t want to have a civil war like Iraq.' But in Lebanon and Iraq, civil wars were fuelled by evil proxies such as Syria and Iran. In Syria, we are the evil proxy."

Farid doesn’t believe that a civil war is likely, despite Western press attempts to depict a largely peaceful uprising as an incipient sectarian conflict-in-the-making between Syria’s minority Alawites population (14 per cent) and its majority Sunni one (74 per cent). The Assads are Alawites and for 40 years they’ve maintained what Farid calls a "racist mafia state", empowering their own sect as a national military and entrepreneurial elite at the expense of Syria’s citizens.

I mention to Farid one well-cited academic ‘expert’ who’s gone from Assad-apologist to tepid-but-interesting chronicler of the protest movement. During the Army’s invasion of Jisr al-Shughour, he was telling news organs that the regime had no choice but to hammer the city because it couldn’t afford an "organised military resistance" to take hold as in Libya's Benghazi.

"Yeah, I know that asshole," Farid says. "There was no organised military resistance. It was mutinied Army soldiers and a handful of residents. You know what the regime did in Jisr al-Shughour? After Assad’s security forces raped young girls in front of their parents, they humiliated them by making them walk around naked and serve tea and prepared food for their rapists. They did this in Deraa, too, weeks earlier. I wish there was a proper military resistance to have stopped that from happening."

A Syrian civil war may also be averted for objective reasons. Alawites are largely confined to cities and villages near Idleb and Homs. If and when internecine violence erupted, the major clashes would be against regime stalwarts left in those areas; stalwarts deliberately armed and recruited, Farid adds, by the Assads. But they'd be fought by a regular military commanded by Alawite officers, whom the protesters are still, at this late hour, relying on to defect and turn against the state.

"The regime armed those villages with enough weapons to start World War III. The villagers’ sons were recruited as shabbiha [gangs of young thugs]. They get paid over $100 a day. The Alawites there will suffer a bit but only because they’re part of the death squads, not because they’re Alawites. There won’t be anything like a mass genocide encompassing residential areas or women or children."

Alawites elsewhere have actually suffered the most from Assadist repression, and their Sunni allies know it.

"The only area where Alawites live alongside Sunnis is Lattakia, and both sects are really tight in that city. At the start of the protests, when shabbiha were killing Sunnis in college dorms in Lattakia, based on family names and ID cards, Alawite families were sheltering students. An Alawite imam started leading Sunnis in prayers, while a Sunni imam led the Alawites. Assad got so paranoid about [Alawite-Sunni cooperation] that he kicked out many of the Alawites from Lattakia and replaced them with hired mercenaries: Druze from Lebanon."

Farid admits that Damascenes are now stockpiling weapons, not as part of any co-ordinated insurrectionist strategy, but because everyone in the city is well aware that when the revolution reaches the regime power base the reprisals will be extremely fierce. Families are not about to leave their personal safety to chance.

Shortly after our chat, Farid emails me a list of supposed weapons available now, along with their black market prices in Syrian pounds: Kalashnikovs made in Hama and the Czech Republic; handguns imported from Lebanon including Brownings, Berettas and Glocks. Pistols, Farid says, are "favoured as they’re small and easy to hide, but they’re also more expensive."

If Farid seems confident that the opposition will win, it's because he thinks that the regime has set its own expiry date by a series of over-reactions and miscalculations. "In January, they killed kurds for protesting. In February, they sent dozens of security forces to stop protests in front of the Egyptian and Libyan embassies. In March, they tortured 16 kids. In April, the Iranians and Hezbollah entered Deraa, and shabbiha entered Lattakia and Homs."

There are only two options left.

"Kill or deport all those who had lost family members, had family members tortured or raped or jailed — i.e., suffered since the start of 2011. Or topple the regime. Half the protesters are demonstrating for personal reasons now. Assad’s stupidity has become our greatest virtue."

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