Yazbek on Syria: An Occupied Territory

Syrian novelist and journalist Samar Yazbek spoke at Harvard University as part of her recently concluded US tour. Yazbek talked about the situation in Syria and her new memoir Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution. Neila Columbo was there:

By Neila Columbo

Photo courtesy Neila Columbo.

Yazbek’s talk was held in the Weil Town Hall at the Harvard Kennedy School. On this day, in the afternoon, I arrived for the talk, and in the hall, I saw her waiting to begin. In our brief passing, her warmth struck me.

After she was formally introduced, she began her talk in Arabic. Harvard Professor Sami Alkyam translated her words. I took notes feverishly; I have recounted as best I can.

Samar Yazbek participated in the first 100 days of the Syrian revolution and is now living in exile in Europe. She wishes to share with us where and when the revolution started, how it has moved from a peaceful to a violent one, and to show how Bashar al-Assad’s regime has created the shift from peaceful demonstrations to a revolution based on ideology. She also spoke about the ‘Army of Freedom’ (or as we have come to know in the West, the ‘Free Syrian Army’) what she thinks it will be, and how it came into existence.

The spring of revolutions that began in late 2010 is of course threaded to the broader region, yet there are special circumstances for each revolution. Syrian’s revolution began with the youth of Syria, according to Yazbek.

The youth were engaging in social networks, she said. They began to learn about the ‘Arab Spring’, and revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. One day, in March 2011, in the small, southern city of Deraa, not far from Damascus, a small group of Syrian schoolchildren wrote on the wall “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

The Al-Assad regime sought and arrested the schoolchildren who wrote on the wall, placed them in prison, and tortured them. The regime officials harmed them by pulling the nails from their small fingers.

The locals gathered to demand the release of the fourteen children. When parents frantically came for their children, they were arrested, especially the women. The regime taunted the fathers, saying if their children were not returned, they could impregnate their wives for new children.

Syrian society. Family.  Government. A delicate balance. The regime sought to silence the protesters, Yazbek said.

16th of March, 2011.

A peaceful demonstration was organised in Deraa. At the beginning, it was not what they expected. A few people, she said; you could count them. The primary goal was to ask for political reform and  greater freedom, not President Assad’s resignation. Yazbek was there and participated. She described how ugly the regime could be to men, women, and children that day.

A young child is holding a sign that reads “Please Free My Mom.” The regime arrests him.

Yazbek expressed she felt it was no longer her home, but rather an occupied territory.

People took small, minor roads in the countryside of Syria they to get to the place they wanted to meet. Some of the people were carrying olive branches, some carried flowers. The stood peacefully to express their concerns.

While they were standing, she could peripherally see a young man next to her fall down. She then began to see all the young men were falling. Pulled down, fallen.

She then realized the army, gunmen, were spread about, surrounding all where they stood. Eleven young people died that day. She saw with her eyes.

The Syrian army and police attacked them at the demonstration in the most ugly way, she said. Hitting, arresting. They even prevented people from taking the deceased bodies of the families. This was just one scene that exemplified what was occurring in demonstrations all across Syria.

Until this time, the citizens were just asking for basic reforms; for the right to pursue happiness, of basic human freedom.  But after the demonstration in Deraa, after the unspeakable way the regime treated the peaceful demonstrators, this is when the people began asking for the regime to step down.

From there it spread across cities in Syria. Across Syrian society and youth, who were seeking a better life. After such oppression and attacks, demonstrations began to increase, occurring every week. It was a turning point in the revolution.

The demonstrators were in despair, ultimately beginning to believe death is better than living this life. “Truth is more important than my life.” Even if arrested for demonstrating, the people began to believe it was better than the forty years of ‘slavery’ al-Assad’s family had imposed.

Yazbek explained that, in the beginning of the revolution, it was primarily occurring in the countryside, and eventually demonstrations spread to larger cities. There is a reason for it, she says.

The people in the countryside were the most harmed by the policies of al-Assad when he came to power. Yazbek said it took less than a half-hour for him to assume power, in a surreptitious way, upon the passing of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

Al-Assad did, she said, try to enact some economic reforms. Economic investment pacts with Sunnis and many others — yet the nature of these investments were different based on social class. The Syrian people in the countryside, who suffer the greatest poverty, is where citizens were most harmed by these investments.

The policies of al-Assad began to interfere more in daily life in the countryside. Societal benefits were delegated to certain class, and others were marginalized. Eventually, as the revolution spread, people were coming together to demonstrate, of all classes, to protest, irrespective of social or economic class.

Photo courtesy Neila Columbo.

Some religious groups and various people resisted. At first, people in the cities and along coast stayed quiet and did not participate The Air Force began to increase their expectations. Men began leaving the army. The first line in demonstrations was the army. The second line was those supporting the government, and in the third line were the police officers. They would ask the soldiers to kill the peaceful demonstrators and if the soldiers in the army refused, the police in the third line would kill them.

After two to three months, soldiers in the Army started to escape.

And they started to form peaceful groups, Yazbek said.

This led to two developments; more demonstrations started, and al-Assad started to use the Air Force against Syrian civilians. This caused many civilians to be killed.

The defected soldiers formed an armed group to protect civilians as they saw people were being killed. It was the beginning formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Yazbek noted that they still are not organized in a way to face the al-Assad forces. The manner they are depicted in the media is exaggerated.

They do not have a lot of weapons, she said.

They are brave men just trying to do what they feel is right.

Heroes, Yazbek said, with the greatest courage. Even if death is the price for their, and our, freedom, they will do what needs to be.

They need more support, more weapons, they are still facing a lot of hardships and difficulties.

She visited the soldiers of the Free Syrian Army in the northern part of Syria recently. It was very sad, yet she was happy to see their spirits were high, the way they are protecting cities, thy do what it takes to do the job and most of the time it is with their lives. They do not have enough weapons, not enough food. Yet considering all the difficulties, these same soldiers were able to liberate certain parts of cities and the countryside. Many of them are killed fighting to protect just a small piece of land. And as soon as we secure the land, we realize it is not ours, as while we are standing there, the Air Force is attacking us. So it still is not our land, Yazbek said.

Yazbek said she hears some reports in the media that the revolution is not for freedom, but due to religious or sectarian strife. She underscored this is not true. Alawites and Shia are fighting ‘hand in hand’. Sunnis are not fighting against Alawites. This is created as a ‘trick’ by al-Assad’s regime to make it appear as though the revolution is due to sectarian issues, but this is not the cause. The revolution is an uprising rooted in the desire for freedom and democracy.

While Yazbek has heard of reports Kurds made a peace agreement with the regime, she does not believe it to be true. Her impression is that the Kurdish people are divided.

Yazbek speaks about the jihadis – of the 750 soldiers she saw in the Free Syrian Army, only 19 would be considered ‘jihadis’, and they were not welcome by the Syrian people or the FSA. This is another trick by al-Assad to lay blame for the crisis on outside ‘jihadi’ or terrorist groups.

When asked what approach she may recommend to the international community for how best to help the Syrian people, with a gentle expression of suffered hope, Yazbek notes it would be her recommendation for the international community to enact a humanitarian no-fly zone to protect civilians such as practiced in the Libyan revolution in 2011. She appreciates the sympathies of the U.N., however she hopes such words will translate into humanitarian action to provide material support to the Free Syrian Army.

Yazbek was asked: Who is leading the revolution?

The revolution is led by the people, she said. There are many political parties in Syria. The Alawite / Shia youth have mobilized to join the revolution, and some are disowned by their family for doing so. A lot of people were killed because of supporting the revolution — it is the way the society is built. It is working against young people. They do not have a say. Unfortunately, Yazbek said, 90 per cent of Alawites believe they will be killed if they do not retain power. She is also asked about Israel’s role.

Yazbek noted that Israel  has played a role in maintaining a delicate balance with the al-Assad regime. She believes Israel and Western countries are interested in keeping it “stable” as it is. Yet the regime is collapsing by itself, and time is critical; it will create two dangerous issues. The first, an increase in sectarian violence, and an increase in jihadi groups coming to Syria.

Yazbek is afraid that, until that time comes, Syria will become a place for jihadis to operate without a proper governance in place. Today is better than tomorrow. Every day al-Assad continues to stay in power, it causes more chaos and destruction. In Damascus, the Sunni merchant class still sides with family loyalists.  When I speak with my cousins, she said, they are afraid of change. Paranoid of Western power, they feel afraid of conspiracy and complacency of the upper merchant class.

There is something else Yazbek wants to tell us. A lot of people are having economic investments with the ruling class in Damascus, as they are afraid for themselves.

While the United Nations estimates 17,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Yazbek believes it is more likely close to 24,000 Syrian people have died.

Neila Columbo is a freelance journalist, and writes about environmental issues, international affairs, and sustainable development; she tweets at @NeilaColumbo.


Yale Daily News: Samar Yazbek: Novelist, patriot, fighter-in-exile