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VOA Middle East Voices.
Given the massive international condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown against what much of the world sees as a pro-democracy uprising, public opinion on the issue looks something like this: Assad is the bad guy. Protesters are the good guys. But some Syrian citizens say their attitude toward their leader is more nuanced and that the outside world has it wrong. Assad is defending and preserving the nation.
The dichotomy can be illustrated with two nearly identical videos purportedly shot in Syria last month and posted on YouTube. Both clips show men unloading bloodied lifeless bodies of other men from a pick-up truck and tossing them from a bridge into a river. Both have Arabic titles, but it is the content of the titles that sets them apart. One of them claims the victims in the video were members of Syrian security forces. The other one implies they were protesters. An analysis of the clips’ Arabic audio provided no clues in support of one or the other.
Which images represent the larger truth? No one knows for sure, but the question has been overshadowing the unrest in Syria since its onset nearly six months ago.
The Assad regime has claimed time and time again that it is battling what it refers to as “armed gangs,” “terrorists,” “Islamists” or simply forces acting in the interest of foreign governments or foreign agents. But, even though foreign media access to Syria is limited, journalists and human rights organizations have been communicating with on-the-ground activists since the uprising began. These contacts have yielded a treasure trove of information, but what still remains unclear is the exact role “armed gangs,” protesters and security forces have played in the unrest and who pulled the trigger first in this year’s uprising.
Viewpoints from the Assad side
On VOA’s Middle East Voices Facebook page, three Syrian individuals regularly have been questioning video evidence posted there by other Syrians, while also stating their support for the Syrian president. VOA e-mailed these three individuals to inquire further about their motivation and their support for President Assad.
Responding to e-mailed questions, they gave their names as Dr. Ali Mohamad, Aline Alkhory and Syrian Jano (the latter wished to be identified with a pseudonym). All three said they were Syrian citizens, but denied any association with Assad’s government, membership in his Ba’ath party or that they were being paid to defend his regime.
“I know for a fact that these gangs exist,” claims Dr. Ali, adding that “my own family witnessed [them] in different parts of the country. Gunmen played an important role in triggering the events and in the way they cascaded.” Dr. Ali, who described himself as a 35-year-old medical doctor now living in the United Arab Emirates, did acknowledge that there is opposition to Assad within Syria, but said that its size is overblown.
Aline Alkhory blamed the unrest on a “conspiracy… planned by many forces” and triggered by “anger” that she acknowledges came as a result of some missteps by the Assad regime. Aline, who says she is a 27-year-old engineer also living in the UAE, said that “clearly… some rightful demands” are being voiced by protesters, but stressed that “some entities, including armed gangs, are abusing these demands to create a huge crisis.”
Syrian Jano, who describes herself as a 28-year-old working in Syria’s maritime shipping industry, agrees with Assad’s “armed gangs” and “terrorists” argument, adding that she has “witnessed their existence in many governorates in Syria, most of them Syrians and the rest [representing] other nationalities.”
The rising toll
With the United Nations now putting the death toll of the Syrian unrest at 2,600 (Damascus immediately countered with 1,400 dead, evenly divided between protesters and members of security forces), all three pro-Assad activists argue that the government has used mostly appropriate measures to quell the protests.
“Demonstrations were dealt with by the security forces with what I can describe as reasonable force, using temporary arrests, gas bombs, sticks and other things we witnessed the British police use in London,” Dr. Ali pointed out, referring to August austerity protests in the British capital. Jano added that “force was used against armed men only, not against unarmed protesters.”
None of the three activists specified in detail what they saw as the root causes that might have brought many of the protesters into the streets, speaking only in general terms of a need for reform and dialogue. They dismissed the notion that sectarian tensions were partly to blame. And, they all agreed that there were outside forces at play, among them the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, al-Qaida as well as foreign media organizations.
“[Outside forces] incited protesters to reject dialogue and dismiss reforms, they used the media to give a sectarian [spin] to the events and they supported false claims of shelling civilians and destroying houses,” says Dr. Ali, adding that “a lot of blood could have been spared if it wasn’t for the foreign involvement.”
When asked if Assad should resign in the face of anti-government protests and the international outrage events in Syria have triggered, all three agreed that he shouldn’t. Aline said, “[His] resignation [would] generate a huge political gap and a huge mess.” Jano said “Syria needs Bashar al-Assad now.” Dr. Ali said, “[H]is resignation [would] create chaos and may lead the country to a civil war.” All three also argued that Assad has the support of millions of Syrians and that proposed elections, scheduled for 2014, would ultimately determine whether he should continue to lead the country.
Dialogue - a way out?
All three activists also insisted that the current unrest in Syria is an internal matter and that it should be resolved as such. “I really don’t think any country really cares about the demands of the Syrian people or democracy; they only care about their [own] interests,” said Aline. She did indicate that she does not consider herself a typical Assad supporter, but “respect[s] him and support[s] his foreign policy and reform plans.”
As for a way out the crisis, Dr. Ali and Aline agreed on one approach - dialogue. Dr. Ali said, “Dialogue amongst different Syrian movements and parties, as well as representatives from different cities where unfortunate events took place, without any foreign involvement. This should be based on good will from the government and the opposition.” “Dialogue is the first step, but we need all parties to have some objectivity and be willing to [make] some concessions,” added Aline.
Jano called an end to “bias in the Arab and Western media” the “ultimate solution” to the unrest in Syria. She also asked that the world give “the government a chance to implement reforms, which takes time.”
None of the three replied to an e-mailed follow-up question asking them to gauge Assad support throughout Syria and respond to opposition claims that dialogue would only serve to identify activists for regime repression.
So, what is one to make of those who defend what outsiders find indefensible? VOA posed the question to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCSY), an umbrella group uniting local opposition organizations within the country.
“Well, they are misled,” said Hozan Ibrahim, an activist and spokesperson for the LCCSY living in Germany. “If they knew the truth, they could not support a murderous dictator. Ibrahim characterized Assad’s defenders as “people who work in embassies, and their children, who have a good command of English and other languages; or members of families with close ties to regime.”
Responding to e-mailed question, Ibrahim also offered a different view on the root causes of the crisis in Syria.
“The unrest is because of the build-up of repression and authoritarian domination over everything in Syrian society - the security forces interfere in every aspect of Syrians’ lives. Also it’s because of the thousands of detainees who have been held for years…. The Syrian people have many reasons to demand freedom. They don't buy the lies on which the regime has built its propaganda over the years.”
Asked to gauge the oppositions’ support within the country, Ibrahim estimated it to be at 65 percent. He said that number includes those “who can’t demonstrate or are afraid to.” Twenty percent, he said, are with Assad and 15 percent are indifferent.
When asked about the issue of foreign involvement, Ibrahim only pointed to the support the Syrian regime has received from other countries over the years, expressing disappointment that similar assistance was not offered to the opposition.
Rejecting claims of sectarian undertones of the conflict that have at times been invoked by the Syrian regime, the LLCSY spokesman said Syrians “have always been pluralistic.” He pointed out that the streets of Syrian cities and towns are today filled with Sunnis, Christians, Druze, Ismalis and Alawites (an offshoot of Shi’ites to which Assad and many in Syria’s ruling elite belong).
An alternative way out
As for a way out of the crisis, Ibrahim offered only one option – for Assad to resign.
“His only option now is to step down,” Ibrahim said. “We believe the solution should be a safe and peaceful transfer of power through a national conference after Assad steps down, and all those responsible for crimes committed during the uprising should be held accountable.”
Regarding the dichotomy, for Ibrahim there is none. “There's only one truth: Syrians are sick of the repression of the last five decades, and want freedom…,” said he.
So, who has it right and who has it wrong on Syria? To some the answer is self-evident. To others it is not.
* One video has been removed by YouTube for “shocking and disgusting content;” the other video, at the time of this story’s publications was age-restricted by YouTube, but still viewable.