Syrian-American observer predicts Assad’s ouster and voices concern for human rights

From Jewish World Review

by HEATHER ROBINSON

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In the wake of the Arab League’s decision to impose a battery of sanctions against the Syrian regime, I sat down with Ahmad (name has been changed for security reasons), a 37-year-old restaurateur who grew up in Syria and returns frequently to visit family there. Ahmad and I last spoke in May after Assad’s government forces had killed about 1,000 protestors. The death toll is now estimated to be more than 4,000.

Supporters of human rights and democracy who value the security and rights of innocent people around the world, including in the U.S. and Israel, can’t help but wonder if this rare stand on the part of the Arab League —and the likely possibility that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad is on his way out—are positive, or whether one is smarter evaluating these developments from a cautious standpoint.

Ahmad is a Christian whose family still lives in Damascus. He returns there frequently to visit and thus can provide insight and primary source information on some of what is happening in a country that is virtually cut off from world media.

Last spring, he predicted that the government of Bashar al-Assad would continue to “crack down” harshly on pro-democracy protestors “despite all th[e regime has] said” — a reference to the pledge, in March, by Assad to reform his government.

Unfortunately, subsequent events proved Ahmad right: since last spring, Assad’s government has escalated its tactics against the largely peaceful protestors, killing so many civilians in an action in the town of Hama some dubbed it the “Ramadan massacre.”

Reports also surfaced of the Syrian government’s allegedly murdering prominent dissidents, such as songwriter Ibrahim Qashoush, dubbed the “nightingale of the revolution,” who was discovered with his throat cut out. Unthinkably, reports also surfaced of Syria’s detaining, torturing, mutilating and killing even children who attended protests.

At present, 4000 Syrians are estimated to have died at the hands of their government. Given his prescience last spring, I thought now would be a good time to get in touch with Ahmad and get his take on how these events might affect not only Syria but the Gulf States, Israel, and the world.

Ahmad emigrated from Syria in 1999 and became an American citizen shortly thereafter. He has family—his mother, brother, and other relatives—in Syria, and he visits about once a year. He is owner of a terrific restaurant in a midsize Eastern seaboard city. With his friendly, warm, and uncommonly sunny personality, as well as his restaurant’s significant Jewish clientele (including this journalist), Ahmad has a gift for getting along with people of all backgrounds. He tells me that he monitors the situation in Syria closely through Arab web sites and the Syrian Revolution Facebook page.

Ahmad says that he didn’t experience prejudice from Muslims when he was growing up in Syria. He says that in his experience, most Syrian Muslims are moderate and do not want extremist Muslim rule.
He understands the anxiety of Israel and others of Syria’s neighbors, adding, “[the Arab League and the West] gave Assad chance after chance because no one wants to see Syria de-stabilized because it could spill over.”

Ahmad’s sympathy is with the demonstrators, who he believes to be nonviolent pro-democracy advocates. “I am an optimist,” he told me, adding that he believes that, should Assad’s dictatorship fall, Syria could eventually become a moderate Muslim democracy that protects minority rights, “something like Turkey.”

Yet, he acknowledges that many Syrian Christians, including his family, still support Assad’s government. He says it is not because they like Assad but due to fear that whoever may replace him could be worse for Christians. But Ahmad says he does not share their fear, believing instead that, based on his experiences growing up, “I can’t imagine a radical oppressive regime arising and holding power in Syria after this … no one will want to live with that.”

Perhaps the most salient piece of information Ahmad shared with me, and something I have not seen reported in Western media, is that, as reported by al Jazeera, the elite members of Syria’s military—Assad’s Revolutionary Guard—stand behind the regular soldiers and tell them that if they don’t shoot civilians on command, “they will be shot in the back,” according to Ahmad. “It is a Stalin-style approach, to prevent the soldiers from defecting.”

In terms of the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions and to kick Syria out, Ahmad thinks it signals the beginning of the end for Assad. That, he believes, is because the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have made their wishes known.

“Usually, when the Saudis put their weight behind” something, “it has leverage, because of the money,” he said. “The regime is falling.”

To illustrate the nature of the Assad regime, Ahmad cited the beating of the parents of Syrian musician Malek Jandali.

In July, Jandali performed at a rally in Washington in support of the Syrian opposition. The following week, a man accosted Jandali’s father, who is a doctor, outside the family home in Homs, Syria. The man asked the father if he could care for a patient. When the doctor indicated he would, the man made a phone call. Two additional men showed up with no sign of a patient. They handcuffed him, duct-taped his mouth, and dragged him upstairs, where one of them held the 73-year-old and forced him, handcuffed, to watch them beat his 66-year-old wife on the eyes and break her teeth. Jandali, who has since managed to bring his parents to the U.S., believes the attackers were members of Assad’s security forces and that they targeted his parents because of his anti-regime views and music.

“Elderly people beaten nearly to death because their son sang a couple of songs in the U.S.,” Ahmad said. “And people say they want to talk to this regime, and it can reform?”

Ahmad, who said one of his friends back home is a demonstrator, said his understanding is that at present, Syrian protestors are largely peaceful. “They go to demonstrations, dance, chant, get shot, then they go out again. It is amazing how courageous they are.”

For one thing, they believe that the government wants them to become violent, Ahmad said, “because that would give the government legitimacy” in its brutal crackdown. “The people are being smart about it,” he said.

He would understand, he says, if the people fought back with violence.

“It may come around to armed struggle because it may [ultimately] be the only thing the government understands,” Ahmad said.

But while he lauds the Arab League’s and the West’s long-overdue recognition of Assad’s abuses, Ahmad is afraid for the innocent in Syria—whether activists or not—in the short term.

The frightening thing is “how much damage [Assad] is willing to do before he goes down. It will get uglier and uglier. He’s cornered, and he might just go crazy.”

Regarding Israel, Ahmad says that attitudes among some of the younger generation in Syria, including the demonstrators, are less hostile–and more critical toward the anti-Israel government line.

“[Historically], the easiest thing for a Syrian leader has been to rally people around the Israeli subject,” he said. “The government uses the subject of Israel to manipulate the people … to give [the government] legitimacy … They call themselves heroes because they are the last ones in the Arab world still opposing Israel.”

At present, however, some younger people in Syria view their leaders’ urging them to hate and fight against Israel with skepticism.

“Younger people are more accepting of others. It used to be, you are born and you die and it is your mission in life to be effective in this [Arab/Israeli] conflict,” Ahmad said. “You don’t have a job, your kids can’t eat, it doesn’t matter, you need to give yourself to this great cause. Then after 40, 50, 60 years of conflict, nothing changed.

“The young people started to realize they are way behind, and all the ideology was bull—-. It was a way the dictators used to control the people and get rich. The [Syrian] people saw that, finally. The Internet opened up their eyes. Now people care about other things, the environment, music, whatever. People, from left to right, are talking about issues.”

This entry was written by and posted on December 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm and filed under Commentary.