By Rania Khalek
Trapped between a police state and Al Qaeda, average Syrians explain why they fear regime change.
Supporters of the Syrian opposition have relentlessly demanded that Western observers listen to “Syrian voices.” The idea is that by absorbing the testimonies of Syrians who have experienced the violence of the conflict first hand, Westerners will know how to best help them. Yet Western media consumers have scarcely heard from ordinary people who reside within the areas controlled by the government — the areas where the vast majority of Syrians live. Indeed, the voices of Syrians like Areej, one of many people I spoke to inside Syria’s government-held areas for this report, present a testimony that is simply too inconvenient for Western media to consider.
Areej was a university student in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012 when the American-backed Free Syrian Army captured the eastern half of the city. She had participated in student protests against the Assad regime and was initially sympathetic to the armed insurgents. Nowadays, however, she regrets protesting at all and even blames herself for her country’s descent into war.
“I was with the demonstrations,” Areej told me when we met in Damascus. “At the beginning of the war it was for freedom. But if I could go back to four years ago, I would not have gone out to the demonstrations because I didn’t want the situation to become like this. We regret it.”
Once the armed opposition besieged the government side of Aleppo in 2013 where Areej and the vast majority of the city’s 1.4 million residents lived at the time, they cut off the electricity and the water supply. Life became intolerable. Disillusionment with the uprising turned into resentment and before long, Areej fled to Damascus.
She became even further disturbed by the rebellion after her family’s village Jisr al-Shugour, located in Idlib Governorate, was seized by insurgents in 2015.
When Areej visited her family the following year, she was shocked at what she discovered. Suddenly trapped under Taliban-style rule, Areej was forced to cover from head-to-toe. “I stayed one year and a half without seeing my family. I hugged my father in the street and asked, am I going to get you in trouble for hugging you in public since I am a woman?” she recalled.
The insurgents renamed the center of the town “Slaughter Square,” publicly punishing people there for moral code violations like smoking and adultery. Areej complained, “The style of the armed groups is disgusting. Their beards are like 5 meters long. They think they are living like in Mohammed’s time. They are wrong. And anyway, we are in 2017. They think they are in 1014 Islamic State.”
Many of the armed groups Areej came across were made up of non-Syrian Salafi Jihadists who could not speak the local dialect. In many cases they couldn’t speak any Arabic at all. “There was a group from China, Kazakhstan, another from Pakistan, another with fighters from France,” she said, rolling her eyes. Indeed, there are thousands of Chinese foreign fighters who joined the jihad in Syria. Calling themselves the Turkistan Islamic Party, they helped spearhead the seizure of Areej’s village. But they weren’t alone.
Each street corner seemed to be controlled by a different faction. Every faction spray painted their name on the walls to demonstrate their claim over a street. She remembers on one wall where a rebel group inscribed the popular slogan, “Democracy is the religion of blasphemy.”
Areej noticed that much of the graffiti was scrawled by foreigners. “The groups that are governing the area my family is from wrote their names on the walls in bad Arabic,” Areej recalled, shaking her head in disdain. Her hometown was suddenly teeming with Frenchmen. “Syrian people are dying to reach France while people from France come here to kill Syrians,” she complained.
She eventually helped her family escape Jisr al-Shogour. They joined her in Damascus where they are internally displaced refugees dependent on UN aid. “There are no winners,” said Areej. “All of the countries—Russia, Iran, America, Saudi Arabia—they are playing with us. We are like toys.” Yet she still wants the government to vanquish the insurgents because the alternative they present to Assad is so terrifying.
Worst media coverage in modern history
The voices of Syrians like Areej simply do not fit within the accepted narrative that justifies the West’s geopolitical aims. And it is wholly out of line with the content that dominates the Qatari state outlet Al Jazeera, which has functioned as a 24/7 vehicle for the Syrian armed opposition. And so she and others like her have been ignored.
Like 18 million Syrians, Areej lives under the control of the Syrian government. Seven million of them are internally displaced refugees who have fled from the areas conquered by the insurgents and ISIS. Only about 2.5 million people live under the opposition’s control, while some 1.8 million live in areas dominated by ISIS.
The coverage of Syria by Western media contains little resemblance at all to the lived experiences described to me by the people I met when I visited the areas where most Syrians live in 2016.
Having watched for years as Syrian expatriates promoting regime change from abroad occupy the limelight, Syrians inside the country have developed a strong sense of resentment.
In the United States, two of the Syrians most prominently featured by mainstream media are Lina Sergie Attar, CEO and co-founder of the Karam Foundation, and Zaher Sahloul, the former head of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Both have been pushing for years for the US to bomb Syria, and have set up advocacy arms to promote their aims.
Writing under the pen name Amal Hanano for Al Jazeera in 2013, Attar agitated for the US to go to war against the Syrian government. She claimed to be speaking on behalf of Syrians but she hasn’t been to the country since 2008.
Despite providing medical services in areas controlled by Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Sahloul’s SAMS has received millions in support from the US Agency for International Aid and Development. Both his organization and Karam have collaborated on Syria with the Zionist and Islamophobic Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. They have therefore been branded with the Western media’s stamp of approval.
Attar was a guest on Democracy Now the day after President Donald Trump bombed Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that the US blamed on the Syrian government. “I am very happy that there is one less airfield for Bashar al-Assad to use to kill his own people,” Attar told Amy Goodman. However, residents near the targeted al-Shayrat airbase told the LA Times that the base was instrumental in protecting them from ISIS.
Zaher Sahloul, another vocal advocate for US military intervention who has also appeared on Democracy Now, claims that SAMS provides medical care in opposition areas, but never specifies that these areas — like eastern Aleppo before the government recaptured it or Idlib today — are under the control of Salafi Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda. In Idlib, the Al-Qaeda-controlled area where SAMS supports the rebel-run administration, “schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls,” according to Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center.
During my trip to Aleppo, the center of the Western media’s attention and one of the most misunderstood places on Earth, I met Sameer, a 28-year-old Aleppo native and Aleppo University graduate. (Sameer asked me to change his name to protect him from retaliation by extended family members who have joined rebel groups). He complained to me that pro-interventionist Western Arabs who dominate the narrative come from one of two camps.
“Most Syrians in the West who are today’s pro-opposition activists are descendants of Syrian and Egyptian-expelled Muslim Brotherhood families or they are ex-aristocrats who lost their lands due to socialist policies in the 1950s and 60s,” he told me. “Now they speak out against the government from the safety of America.”
His description reminded me of right-wing Cubans who formed a vast apparatus in Miami to lobby for overthrowing Cuba’s communist government or shady influencers like Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who convinced Washington power brokers that he would usher in a democratic, Israel-friendly government if it agreed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Before the war, Sameer was just out of college and earning $350 monthly as a sales manager. Today, because of inflation due in large part to draconian US and EU sanctions pushed by Western opposition activists, he works twelve hours a day, six days a week and makes about $47 a month.
One reason rebel groups still have fighters is because they pay salaries to average Syrians, especially in areas where the state has been expelled, where residents are most desperate to feed their families. With the Syrian economy teetering on the edge of collapse, the sanctions provide the armed groups with an endless stream of economically desperate recruits. In other words, Western sanctions are fueling the war.
Sameer is among the 18 million Syrians — over75 percent of the country’s population — that live in government-controlled areas. Like Areej, he supports Syria’s government out of strong opposition to the religious fundamentalism and brutality of the armed groups, which they perceive as a foreign invasion force that will eradicate their families if they win.
The US media tends to avoid any factual analysis of the rebels, their goals or their extremist ideology. In doing so, they avoid some of the most crucial questions of the conflict: Who will succeed Assad if his government collapses? And what will happen to the two million Christians, the Shia minorities, and the masses of secular Syrians who have no place under the religiously exclusivist rule the Salafist insurgents have imposed on areas they control?
A recently published report by the London-based IHS Jane Terrorism and Insurgency Centre hinted at the answer. The report found what has always been obvious to Syrians living in government controlled areas: the Islamic State, or ISIS, is the Syrian government’s chief opponent and would be the primary beneficiary of regime change. “Any further reduction in the capability of Syria’s already overstretched forces would reduce their ability to prevent the Islamic State from pushing out of the desert into the more heavily populated western Syria, threatening cities like Homs and Damascus,” the report concluded.
To avoid acknowledging inconvenient truths, American media tends to shift all the blame for the conflict onto the Syrian government, spinning out a convenient narrative of a one-sided war pitting a cartoonishly evil regime that enjoys killing children against a ragtag team of freedom fighters who were forced to take up arms to protect Syria’s civilian population. Assad is invariably portrayed as a uniquely evil figure with no rational capacity — an “animal,” as Donald Trump called him — while the atrocities committed by his Western-backed adversaries, most recently in Rashidin, where over 80 Shia evacuees, mostly women and small children, were slaughtered by a suicide bomber, are ignored or whitewashed.
For the Western mainstream media, the very existence of Syrians like Sameer — ordinary people who have been forced into a corner and who now view the government in Damascus as the only thing standing between themselves and life (or death) under Salafi-Jihadist warlords — is perhaps the most uncomfortable reality of the conflict.
Even the progressive American left, which has traditionally been skeptical of pro-war propaganda, has bought into the mainstream version of the Syrian conflict. Across the political spectrum, from the New York Times to Democracy Now — the supposed bastion of alternative media — we hear strikingly similar talking points supporting intervention. The impact of such coverage on the antiwar movement cannot be overstated. In private, leftists of all stripes tell me that they are afraid to speak out against the destruction of another state under the guise of humanitarian intervention for fear of being mocked as “anti-imperialists” or accused of Islamophobia and “Assadism.”
American media outlets from right to left seem to imagine that there is a democratic mass movement living in Al Qaeda’s Idlib. Or they insist that the uprising was always moderate and democratic until Assad’s bombs transformed protesters into armed and radical insurgents, a common talking point that permeates any discussion of Syria. According to Syrian protesters I spoke to, both of these claims are at best simplifications, and at worst, complete myths.
From the perspective of the Syrians I met who witnessed the protests of 2011, there was never one single unified democratic uprising. Some protests were led by idealistic young people who wanted basic democratic reforms. Others were religiously conservative and devoted to Islamist oriented demands.
“There were always 2 parallel streams in the Syrian uprising at the beginning. The civil activists who wanted democratic reform and change in the form of a secular state, and the conservative stream, which was markedly more Islamist and sectarian in its tone and demands,” Edward Dark, an activist from Aleppo who participated in the city’s pro-democracy protests, told me.
“The former was mostly urban, the latter rural,” he explained. “As the uprising went on and the violence intensified, the civil movement became increasingly silenced and weak, while the Islamist movement became quickly more militant and radicalized.”
Video footage of an anti-regime protest in the Syrian city of Baniyas on March 18, 2011, for example, shows an imam listing protester demands, including a call for gender segregated schools and for women teachers to wear the niqab, both practices banned by the regime. His demands were met with raucous cheers, applause and religious chants from a large, all-male crowd of demonstrators. These videos were often promoted by US media as proof of Syria’s democratic uprising at the time. But few observers bothered to listen to what the protesters were actually saying.
Opposition activists in the Syrian village of Hula echoed these same right-wing demands to journalist Nir Rosen in 2011. “They were upset about the ban of the niqab, or full veil, on women in public schools – while the medical student complained that the books of the medieval Islamic scholar and Salafi source, Ibn Taimiya, were banned,” Rosen reported at the time.
Of course, there were pro-democracy protests, but the uprising failed to spread along any unified political lines. The revolt presented a mix of religious conservatives and democratic-minded reformers. Depicting these disparate groups as one in the same would be the equivalent of conflating left-wing American protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter with the right-wing Tea Party protests or Trump rallies.
According to Dark, “most civil activists refused to support an armed uprising, and either went into exile and remained silent, or became active on a solitary basis. Those who switched to the armed camp did so mostly out of sectarian, or personal reasons (revenge over a death for example). The rest who remained either turned their back on the armed uprising, or actually turned against it as they saw it was now being used a vessel to destroy the country and no longer championed any ideals of freedom and democracy and instead encompassed a violent Islamic extremism that was contrary to what they were struggling for.”
“The wake-up call for me was when rebel groups from the neighboring towns stormed Aleppo in spring 2012, bringing with them a wave of violence, looting and destruction the likes of which Aleppo hadn’t seen in centuries. A particular incident I can clearly remember was seeing black Qaeda flags at a checkpoint in my city, and having a foreign fighter ask Syrian people for their IDs. That’s when I knew everything had gone horribly wrong, and it was all over for our side of the ‘revolution’,” he said.
Dark was heavily attacked for refusing to support the armed insurrection. “Those outside Syria called me a traitor for turning my back on what they still saw as a ‘Syrian revolution’ as was to be expected from people who never lived and saw what we did and only got their news from social media or global news networks,” he said.
“Most Syrians also seem to think the Syrian regime is infinitely more preferable to the anarchy of a failed state ruled by extremist Islamists. I would invite anyone who thinks the opposite to come to Syria and try living in rebel vs regime controlled areas, or to imagine that some of those rebels he supports came over to his city and took over power there,” he added.
As another Syrian told me, “We are trapped between a police state and al Qaeda. Of course I choose the police state.” For many Syrians they prefer a state to no state at all.
Getting sectarianism wrong
Anas Joudeh, an attorney and political activist in Damascus, says he and his colleagues, not the armed groups, represent the real opposition in Syria. Joudeh heads the Nation Building Movement, a civil society opposition group that works to build domestic and organic nonviolent opposition from within the country.
“I will not accept anybody from Ahrar al Sham or Jaish al Islam or Mujahideen or whatever guy in those ranks to be at the table of the political discussion. If we do that, what next? Should we appoint Ahrar al Sham as Defense Minister of Syria? They will kill me. I’m not talking about minorities. I, who was born to a Sunni Muslim family from Damascus, will not accept this. They will attack me first,” he told me when we met in Damascus late last year.
Joudeh was ecstatic at the eruption of protests in 2011 but quickly became disenchanted with the sectarian flavor of the insurgency. After some of the opposition took up arms and began to organize into Islamist factions, Joudeh stepped in to help mediate between the government and the armed groups and was close to reaching a negotiated ceasefire. But the emergence of ISIS changed everything.
“Everything collapsed when ISIS took Mosul,” Joudeh told me. “The armed groups in Aleppo and in Idlib said we can’t have any kind of negotiation with the regime now because our guys will go to ISIS and we will lose everything. We have to keep some kind of balance with ISIS. So they said we will not attack ISIS because we are brothers with the same ideology. They are Muslims like us. The whole scene changed. You have to look now for the civilians under their control, but [the armed groups] are out of the equation,” recalled Joudeh.
Joudeh strongly disagrees with the notion, common in US media and among opposition advocacy groups operating in the West, that the Syrian government is committing genocide against the country’s Sunni population.
“It’s always easy to have a simple view of what’s happening. That’s the problem with the Americans,” he commented. “They think it’s all sectarian. But until now we didn’t have this religious war in Syria. If you go to Tartous and Latakia you have almost one million refugees from Idlib. The regime is not an Alawite regime. It’s an oligarchy. It’s about self-interests.”
Joudeh pointed to Aleppo as an example: “The western side of Aleppo [that was] controlled by the regime is mainly Sunni. And they are totally pro-regime. The roots of the crisis are mainly social not religious.”
The armed insurgency seeking to topple the government, on the other hand, is exclusively Sunni and has openly expressed genocidal ambitions that Western media tends to downplay, if not ignore altogether.
The insurgency;s sectarianism is even more dominant today given that the vast majority of the rebellion has merged with Al Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, called on the group’s Syria affiliate to “prepare yourselves for a long battle with the Crusaders and their allies, the Shiites and Alawites.”
Syria may be a dictatorship but it is also a religiously pluralistic and culturally rich society that would be shattered by a Salafi-jihadist takeover.
Mahmoud Abdel Latif al Jamil Ahmed was an Imam in East Aleppo in 2012 when it was captured by rebels. He worked at the endowment ministry of liaisons affairs. He told me he was arrested by the insurgents and charged with the following crimes: Writing in a newspaper they did not like, naming his son Hassan Nasrallah (after the leader of Hezbollah) and failing to instruct his congregants to protest the Assad regime after Friday prayers.
On June 27, 2012, he says he was almost assassinated “because I did not agree with their [the rebels] ideas. They tried to shoot me. They killed 11 sheikhs, four of whom were working with the endowment ministry.”
Another Imam who asked to go by Dr. Rami, added, “They are the enemy of humanity. The mosaic we are living with in Syria is incompatible with them. Those killing Sunnis are the same as those claiming they are defending Sunnis.”
He blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia for inciting fanaticism that is antithetical to Islam. “Our religion calls for tolerance and free speech,” Rami insisted. “How far are the terrorists from these concepts?” He referenced the role of Saudi-born clerics like Abdullah al-Muhaysini, whom he called “Al Qaeda’s “rock star Sheikh,” in inspiring rebel atrocities.
In Aleppo, I also met the city’s Bishop Youssef Tobji, a leader of the city’s threatened Christian Maronite community. “If you respect us, please don’t say ‘rebel’ in front of us,” Tobji demanded. “They killed our children, our history. They are terrorists.”
The bishop then turned to me and asked how America, the target of the 9/11 attacks, could arm groups associated with Al Qaeda and then have the audacity to glorify such people as rebels. I struggled to offer him an answer.