‘I’m against everything that is violent, and I used to say that our revolution is peaceful and it must remain peaceful, but after going through all this pain and after seeing and watching all these tortured people, kids, women, I say yes to international intervention and even yes to war, because we have had enough’
By Elizabeth Tsurkov
The Syrian uprising reached its deadliest phase this week, with over 600 people killed by the Syrian regime, most of them in the central city of Homs, which has been bombarded with tanks and surface-to-surface rockets throughout the entire week. While Assad’s forces use increasingly violent methods to put down the uprising, Syrians continue to come out to protest against the regime and against the foreign governments backing President Bashar al-Assad. The Chinese and Russian veto on a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Assad regime followed the worst massacre since the beginning of the uprising in the working-class neighborhood of Khaldiyeh, Homs, which resulted in over 200 dead.
In recent months, the Free Syrian Army, mostly made up of defectors from Assad’s army, has been able to gain control of several towns and neighborhoods in cities throughout Syria. However, the poorly-armed and loosely-organized FSA is no match for Assad’s forces, and previously ‘liberated’ areas in Homs and the suburbs of Damascus are now back under Assad’s control. The Syrian public is now largely divided along sectarian lines, with Sunnis supporting the uprising and minorities backing the regime, thanks in part to propaganda efforts by the regime. While footage of murdered civilians continues to emerge on a daily basis from Syria, the regime continues to claim that it is fighting radical Islamist terrorists. Thus far, the death toll is estimated between 7,300 and 8,000 people, mostly civilians, who have been killed by the Assad regime since the uprising began in March of last year.
Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
You can call me Fatima, I live in Lattakia, and I’m an English literature graduate. I’m a Sunni Muslim, in my late twenties.
Israel and Syria went to war with each other several times and Israel is largely seen as an enemy in Syria. Israel also currently occupies the Syrian Golan Heights, which it illegally annexed. Despite this, you agreed to give an interview to a media outlet largely based in Israel. Can you explain why? Do you think your views are shared by other Syrians?
This question is really a tough one. I really don’t hold a grudge against the Jews around the world, and I have always wished that I could have a Jewish friend to prove to the world that Muslims/Arabs and Jews can be friends. I only blame those who do wrong to the Palestinians and mistreat them. Moreover, I feel that the Syrian revolution will affect Israel greatly in the future, so I thought that it would be nice to show Israelis our point of view here in Syria.
Can you describe the situation in Syria right now?
We’ve been living in constant fear for the past 10.5 months. Maybe your readers won’t believe it, they might not believe such things, but we constantly envy the Palestinians for how they are treated by Israel. I have heard how Israel used to frighten and torture the Palestinians, but it’s nothing compared to what’s going on here.
People here are so scared, we still can’t demonstrate easily, especially in Lattakia, which is a small city, so the security forces can always get you, and once you are caught, they won’t have mercy on you at all, either you get out of prison physically and mentally ill, or you will get out of it dead with a severely tortured body [bodies bearing torture marks are returned to families as a means of instilling fear in the population – E.T.]. I want to talk about what’s going on in prisons but I feel too shy to say it and too uncomfortable, because no human being can do or accept that or even believe it. They offend the prisoner according to his religion most of the time, they force him to say divine phrases for Bashar instead of God, this is to sum up of what is done to the men, but I can’t tell all, especially the way they torture girls, it is very humiliating. [Torture in Syria’s prisons is systematic and lethal. Both female and male civilians are raped in Syria’s prisons, according to testimonies of former detainees. Prisoners are whipped, burned with hot iron and the genitals of male prisoners are electrocuted – E.T.]
As for the economic situation, it’s really going down, the dollar now equals 71 Syrian Liras and it is on the rise. Everything is getting expensive, people are hoarding food because they all expect war will come soon. Many wealthy people and big companies are being bankrupted and they are firing their employers. Yet, the regime tries as much as it can to show the world that there is nothing wrong in Syria and we are fine, and it’s just a crisis we are going through, and we know that the regime is pouring so much money in the banks to support the economy, especially after the sanctions, but it’s all in vain.
The regime has blamed the Western sanctions for shortages in food, heating oil and gasoline that all Syrians are experiencing. Do you think the sanctions are to blame for this? Do you support the international sanctions?
As for these sanctions, I don’t think they are enough, because Assad is still strong and many are supporting him financially. I support the sanctions but we want more, we need something powerful to eliminate this germ [Assad – E.T.]. I don’t believe anything the regime claims, the shortages in some materials are the regime’s fault. The electricity goes off for about nine hours daily, in all of Syria. The regime claims that it is a technical problem, while the truth is that they don’t have enough electricity after Turkey has stopped providing us with power as a sanction against the regime.
What is the situation around where you live? Are there protests happening in Lattakia? Is there a heavy presence of regime forces in the area?
The situation here in Lattakia is unbearable. Lattakia is known for its Alawite majority, 40% is Sunni, and shockingly it was the second city to revolt against Assad after Daraa [in Southern Syria – E.T.]. So it was a big shock not just for the revolution, but to Assad himself. We went through bloody massacres, and after the attacks that took place on Ramadan [during the month of Ramadan, August 1-29, 2011, 69 civilians were killed in the city on Lattakia alone – E.T.], they destroyed many houses in the Palestinian refugee camp. We went through ugly six days, no one could get out of his house or else he’d be killed. This was also the case with Hama, Homs and so many other cities, but they raided each city separately and they give five or six days for every mission, claiming that there are “armed group” in this city, so they must be eliminated. But they won’t admit that these armed groups are only the defected soldiers, officers and others who fled and hid from punishment and death, because every soldier who had defected gets executed if he gets caught.
Regardless of what is going in Homs at the moment, and all these atrocities, killing of women, kids and many young people, we feel that they are trying to calm down the coastal area, including Lattakia because the regime feels connected to the area [Lattakia, and especially the villages around it are dominated by the ruling Alawite sect – E.T.]. So there are only small demonstrations that take place everywhere around the revolting areas in Lattakia, in addition to school demonstrations that happen almost daily, even though the regime won’t hesitate to detain kids. Many neighboring cities and Sunni villages around Lattakia are demonstrating too, on top of the protests in the city. Towns like Haffe (Sunni), Salma (Sunni), and Jableh city, which has an Alawite majority.
We live in a very very fearful atmosphere, because security forces are all over the place. I am sick and tired of seeing them everyday, they probably know me by now, because they have unfortunately become like our neighbors. The city is not like before at all, it has completely changed, people retreat to their homes around 5-6 PM, around these hours you won’t find many people walking on the streets, only those who have business and the security forces and their thugs, the Shabbiha [literally, means “ghosts”, refers to plain-clothed enforcers of the regime – E.T.]. Moreover, many young men have fled from Lattakia, especially those who have participated in protests or even those chanting “Allahu Akbar” from the balconies at night, as a means of protest. I feel Lattakia is the city of ghosts and Shabbiha. The stories that we hear from the prisoners are very disturbing; one story might make you unable to sleep for three nights in the row. I used to cry a lot at the beginning of the revolution, especially when they raided Darra, but now I feel that I got used to it.
There have been numerous reports of sectarian killings in mixes cities such as Homs and Hama. What do you think about sectarianism in Syria? Do you accept the regime’s claims that the opposition is sectarian and wishes to promote the rights of Sunnis alone at the expense of other groups (Alawites, Christians, Druze, Ismailis)?
Sectarianism in Syria is very frightening. I think currently, people are not completely divided along sectarian lines, and the regime is trying its best to make it so. The regime started it in Lattakia, but it failed to do it. Thank God people were all aware that the regime is pushing us to make the uprising sectarian [to ensure the complete loyalty of non-Sunnis to the regime – E.T.] The regime is the sectarian one, the opposition is not sectarian at all, you can notice that when you see that members of the opposition are from a different mix of religions and beliefs, all those who make up Syria. Most of the minorities know deep down that they won’t be harmed by the Sunnis if they rule after we manage to topple Assad. Alawites keep on repeating that Sunnis will kill them once Assad is gone, which is totally wrong, they are just afraid of us, but the ones who will be punished are only those who did us wrong or carried out the ugly and inhumane measures against us, the revolutionaries. Plus, there are many members of minorities who really don’t want Assad, but they are very afraid to disclose it.
There is a trend of growing militarization of the conflict in recent months, with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is based on soldiers who have defected from the regime’s army, significantly growing in strength, with new defections announced on a daily basis. What do you think are the causes of this trend? Do you support the FSA?
All these soldiers defect after seeing the truth, because after they go out and carry the gun to fight the so-called “armed groups”, they are shocked to see peaceful people carrying roses and olive branches chanting that they want to topple the regime. The lucky soldiers manage to flee, but many of them are caught and get executed immediately.
I certainly support the FSA, and I say that the Free Syrian Army represents me, because I know that it is the only thing left for us to help and protect us. I really wish that there would be someone out there to help them and support them, because the soldiers defect with only what they have, so they are not really well equipped. If they had more equipment, we would have seen victory in most of the cities that are on fire. For instance, two weeks ago, Zabadani, which is near the border with Lebanon and near Damascus, was announced as liberated by the FSA. But later, Zabadani was raided again by the Assad thugs, so FSA is still weak and needs financial and military support.
What do you think is the way out of the current crisis? Do you support international intervention?
No one can tell how the revolution is going to end, especially considering that many countries are still helping Assad, not just Russia and China, there are also other countries that are implicitly helping him. I believe we can get rid of Assad with the help of the FSA, God and high-ranking people in the regime [who would defect – E.T.]. I don’t think there will be any kind of international intervention; they only discuss that to shut us up. Personally, I’m against everything that is violent, and I used to say that our revolution is peaceful and it must remain peaceful, but after going through all this pain and after seeing and watching all these tortured people, kids, women, I say yes to international intervention and even yes to war, because we have had enough, we are not angels after all. Homs has been struggling for the past four months, and no one else cares or helps, the world and the Arab world only say sweet things and offer imaginative solutions to end the crisis. All are just talking, not acting, and all the small things that have been done [by the international community- E.T.] to help, are still insignificant and don’t help us at all. We are completely alone.
The level of violence keeps increasing in Syria and action by the international community seems all but impossible due to Russian intransigence. How do you expect events to unfold in Syria?
God forbid, If the situations remains the same and no one help us, I expect that we will have a very ugly civil war, with many losses, which is already taking place in Homs now.
What do you think are the reasons for the lack of international action against Assad?
Many countries around the world have so many secret vested interests with Assad. This regime is behind all the corrupt affairs around the world, and some governments still urge the regime to make reforms. This is ridiculous, this regime is a Mafia. We also truly believe that Israel wants Assad to stay, we don’t know if Israel had a hand in supporting and helping him to stay in one way or another, but we can tell that even Israel doesn’t want him to leave. So, all are helping him implicitly and want him to stay.
Most analysts and governments estimate that Assad’s days are numbered and eventually, his regime will crumble. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, why?
Yes, surely his days are numbered, because after all this fighting and the economic losses, he will go down soon, God willing. But we still need a bigger push to liberate us, like helping and supporting the FSA. As we all witnessed how some cities were freed by the sole help of the FSA , this can be replicated if additional help is provided to the FSA. The regime looks really tough from outside, while from the inside, it’s really devastated and they are fighting amongst themselves. The regime is really not well-organized, and there are still some good people inside [the regime – E.T.] who want to do something to end this when the right time comes, those good people are Alawites, Christians, Druze or Sunnis, it doesn’t matter. We are also counting on how tired the security forces are. All signs say that the end is near.
What is the future Syria you wish to see once Assad is removed?
I wish to have a liberated and free country where I can say whatever I want freely and without any fear, because we have lived with our fair share of fears. Personally speaking, I still remember well how I used to be afraid of praying at my university (Tishreen) because if I was caught, I would have been sanctioned. As a Muslim, I wish that we could practice our rites and worship freely without being afraid. Basically, I wish to have a post-Assad Syria full of justice, understanding, peace, and as always, all sects are intermingling together in one melting pot. I wish to have civil rule, although I am religious, because we have many sects in Syria, so we can’t have one religion rule us all. The majority of Syrians are Sunnis, but that doesn’t mean I want Islamic rule. I also hope we can develop educationally, economically, scientifically, medically and technologically. Assad had deprived us from all of this. I also wish I could surf the internet without any fear or without being monitored and without using all these proxies to log into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and all the revolutionary websites. We are sick and tired of it.
If Assad is removed, what kind of impact do you think this will have on the Middle East? How do you see the relations between the post-Assad Syria and Iran, Lebanon and Israel?
I’m sure that the Middle East will completely change once Assad is removed. We will suffer a little after he leaves, because we need time to reorganize the messed-up country again, and it will take maybe a year and more to get back to normal, but it is worth it. God willing, in the long run, the Middle East will flourish economically, agriculturally, educationally and enjoy just governments.
Based on what I read by analysts, experts and people around here, I think we are going to have very good relations with Lebanon. The future Syria might cut all the ties with Iran, unless their regime is toppled too, and if Iran gets a good and a just ruler, we might be allies, because the Iranian people are suffering from their oppressive leader as we do. As for Palestine and Israel, I don’t know if the Syrians would be able to make peace with Israel. It’s not easy, whenever you say that you want to do anything related with Israel, you are going to be accused of treason. I think that if the regime knew of this interview, they would accuse me of treason, especially because I oppose them, just like how they detained the 17-year-old blogger Tal Al-Malouhi, who is now 19 and still in prison.
If there is something you could tell our readers and citizens around the world, what would it be?
I want people around the world to stand by us, we the deprived and oppressed Syrian people. We are suffering so much and striving to get our freedom that most of you in Europe and the US have. I hope you don’t get fooled by the story of our idiotic regime, which claims that they are fighting armed groups all over Syria that are killing and terrorizing us. It is the regime and Assad’s thugs who are killing us. If you can do anything simple to try to help us, let the world know what we are going through. If you can’t do this yourself, you can at least pray for us to save us from this monster, Assad. Our current condition is really poor and tragic, and we know that Assad won’t stop and he will kill more of us in cold blood, with the help of Iran, Hezbollah troops, the guns of Russia and with the money of China. If you can reach out to us, or spread our message to those who are still unaware of our agony, please do.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is an Israeli writer and human rights activist who closely follows events in Syria.