A Free Syrian Army unit receiving medical supplies coordinated by the Syrian Support Group. Via Facebook.
Louay Sakka is a co-founder of the Syrian Support Group, which was set up to help promote democracy in Syria and support the moderate members of the Free Syrian Army as they fight Assad regime. Although Sakka left Syria in 1997 and has only been back once since, he has become a key supporter of the FSA, helping rebels find each other on the ground and communicate with the US State department. He does this all from the comfort of his basement in Oakville, Ontario, using Skype, Viber, and his Android phone. He also fundraises for the FSA and has set up a PayPal account to allow people from all over the world to contribute. So far they have raised over $150,000 this way – essentially, the SSG is helping to crowdsource a war. And now, with the US saying it will arm the Syrian rebels after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the, the SSG will only be getting busier as this situation unfolds.
I met with Louay in downtown Toronto, where he works as an IT specialist by day, to discuss how this all works.
VICE: I understand you’re based out of your home in Oakville. How does that work?
Louay Sakka: Well, I have a network of thousands of people in Syria. They all know how to reach me and if I can’t help them directly, I will put them in touch with the contacts who are operating in other areas, such as Aleppo. I’m from Damascus, so that’s the area I focus on – but I oversee all the communications. Every day I am working to connect rebels and activists on the ground in Syria, to help them understand their situation and each other. It’s important to understand their backgrounds, like who they are and what their needs are.
And you do this through Skype?
Yes, mainly through Skype, but also Viber and my phone. When you make multiple conference calls, Skype requires you to have a good internet connection. If you want to do a conference call with ten different people, which you often need to do in these circumstances, you need someone with a very good internet connection, and that’s one reason why they need me. I can do that from my home.
How much else can you do from your home?
It is very important that [the rebels] have an understanding of each other. We can break Syria down into provinces to better understand the different people from different backgrounds in order to help unite the Free Syria Army, the rebels and the activists. They don’t always understand each other. For instance, people from Damascus are very different from people from Aleppo. We are involved in the structuring and in the chain of command in Syria. The FSA is made up of 80 percent civilians and 20 percent military defectors, so we help unite them all because there has always been a historical mistrust between those two elements.
How many rebels and activists do you communicate with daily?
Well it depends. In the beginning I would talk to hundreds daily, and now that we have a leadership in SMC (Supreme Military Council), I talk more directly to the leaders daily, which lessens the amount. But I still talk to many, many people each day.
It seems like almost every day there is breaking news from Syria, what is the most recent crisis situation you’ve had to help deal with?
Well, probably the most recent incident happened in Al-Qusayr. Fifty thousand people were living there and we had to evacuate it to save civilians from Hezbollah.
How were you able to help with this?
On May 28 I received a call from General [Salim] Idris (currently Chief of Staff of the SMC) asking if we could find a way to escort the civilians out of Al-Qusayr because it was surrounded by Hezbollah. He called me at 4AM to tell me how bad the situation was and I quickly reached out to the State Department to explain. From there the State Department promised to work on it and they talked to the UN who talked to Russia, who could put pressure on Iran and Hezbollah to get the to cease fire and allow the civilians to exit safely. A day later the civilians started to evacuate the town.
That’s intense. Were you successful in evacuating everyone?
Well I can say that when the city fell into the hands of Hezbolloah, it was empty because we were able to get them out.
So why do they need to call you and not the State Department directly?
General Idris needs to call me because there I have a much faster response time and I am in a position to communicate better with people here. If he calls the State Department it will take a long time and it’s much faster to deal with me. But the SSG now knows many people within the State Department. For day-to-day operations in Syria, I will relay what is important to the right people.
Do members of the FSA stay in touch with you while something like a ceasefire is going on?
Yes. I get constant updates and they will let me know when everyone has been evacuated.
Have you ever lost communication with someone while fighting is taking place?
Yes, there have been many times where I’m talking to people who have been disconnected because their area has just been bombed. Once I was talking to someone from Damascus, in the neighbourhood of Kadam, who was trying to give me an update of what was going on. Artillery fire started to hit them and they had to cut and run out. From there, at that moment, it’s really tough, because there is really nothing I can do but wait. I had to wait a week to hear back from them and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive.
There are pro-Assad Syrians out there. Do you ever worry about your safety?
No, because they are such a minority that they would not dare support him now. All the things Assad has done, from using chemical weapons against his own people to air attacks that wipe out full towns, I doubt anyone would stand by him now.
Are there other people like you working from their homes?
We have people like me all over. In the UK, Turkey, France and many places in North America such as Chicago and Washington.
I understand there is an SSG fund. Could you explain the PayPal account component? How exactly does that work?
We set the account up last summer after we got our license from the US Treasury Department in order to give people a chance to donate money. There are many people who wanted to help the Free Syrian Army but couldn’t, and now there is an easy way for them to do it.
So, people from anywhere in the world can go online and donate funds through PayPal that will go towards this cause?
Yes. And then we use this funding for many things, such as our administration work and some of the FSA projects, media awareness centers, and internally distributing non-lethal aid. Also, we use that funding to assist in our bigger donations. Like when the US government wants to give [the FSA] food and we need money to move the food supply around, we would use the money from the fund for such an operation.
Are there any restrictions on who can donate?
Yes. There is a blacklist set up by the US government that we are not allowed to accept money from.
Who is donating to the fund?
There are Americans, many people from France, Eastern European countries too, interestingly enough, and also Canadians. Sometimes people give what they can, like $10 or $20, but it’s very helpful. We have monthly donors who contribute as well, and then there are bursts [of donations] to the account when the media gets talking about it.
Because the FSA is working alongside some extremist groups, how are you preventing the money from going to terrorists?
This money is not going to terrorists or extremists. They are part of the same cause, but they are separate from the SMC. They follow their own leadership and get weapons from their own channels and leadership. When people say they don’t want to give money to the FSA they are missing something. They say that it is going to al-Qaeda – but they neglect the fact that there is already a lot of support going to the extremist groups and by not supporting the moderate members [of the FSA] who only want democracy, we allow the extremists to win.
Are you concerned with the alliance the FSA has with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups?
Yes, of course I’m worried about this. I’m worried that the extremists will take over; part of the reason the Syrian Support Group was set up was to help the moderate members overcome this possibility.
Is General Idris concerned as well?
Yes, Idris is very concerned. But at this point he is in no position to push [the extremists] out because he needs them to help fight. They are very effective in helping to topple the Assad regime, which is the main goal right now. But he is aware that they are a threat for the future stability of the country and he also wants to ensure they won’t take over as they did in the eastern provinces, taking control of the oil and gas fields.
What are some of the main issues in Syria that people in America need to understand?
They should know that the lack of support is causing people to be recruited to the wrong fight. Staying out of the problem is not going to help it. I am very concerned with Aleppo right now because I know many people from Hezbollah have gone there after Al-Qusayr and want to fight there – we can't evacuate Aleppo because it has a population of four million people, so we are just watching this very closely. I am in constant communication with my contact who watches over Aleppo and he will let me know immediately if there are any important updates.
What should people who are thinking of donating money through the PayPal account know?
That they will look back at these donations with pride that they helped. We are very thankful for the help and support and sympathy. And also we get many nice postcards that show support. It means a lot.
Follow Angela on Twitter: @angelamaries More from Syria: