I spoke to a group of Syrian expats in Paris about how Assad might not be the only one to blame in this war.
On a cold night of early 2012 in Paris, I knocked on my neighbour’s door to ask him for some salt. This is how I met Wissam, a Syrian PhD student at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. My culinary concern quickly turned into a conversation about the Syrian uprising – the civil war hadn’t yet started at this time but the Homs offensive was just about to take place. Wissam denied that he was a supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime, but he was very reluctant to endorse the rebellious ideology spreading around his country.
As soon as I heard that VICE was working on an issue about the Syrian conflict, I gave Wissam a call and asked him to meet up again. I wanted to understand how someone could support a government that shoots at its own people and doesn’t seem to know the difference between a 10-year-old kid and an armed rebel. He invited me to meet him and some of his pro-regime friends from the Syrian Patriots Union in a café in the 15th arrondissement. I had a chat with Wafa, who works as a researcher at La Sorbonne; Dima, a L’Oreal consultant; Khaled, a company manager and activist within the Pas En Notre Nom action group and Mustapha, who is a teacher at the Centre of the Euro-Arab Studies. In order to avoid any retaliation, they asked us not to take any picture of their faces.
VICE: First off, are you pro-al Assad?
Khaled: No. But we don’t all think the same way here. Even though we're all laymen and laywomen, we have different political and religious views. Everyone should be free to either support or go up against Bashar al-Assad’s politics. That’s not the core of the problem. Basically, what we want is to claim the Syrian people’s right to decide what their future should hold.
Mustapha: We met at protests. The Syrian crisis got us all together. We didn’t know each other before that, but we all wanted to fight against two things: violence and political meddling.
Isn’t that what the rebels also claim?
Mustapha: No. You know, the rebellion is not a movement as popular as you might think. The Muslim brothers are the ones who tried to knock the regime over. If it's still in place today, it means that the Syrian people made the decision not to follow them. These radicals have got full support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western countries.
Khaled: Just read the names of most of the rebel groups. They’re all Islamic names, not a single one is not related to religion.
Don't you think Syrian people only wanted to follow the path of countries like Tunisia or Libya?
Mustapha: Apart from the Muslim brothers, most of the rebels are not even from Syria. I come from Aleppo, so let’s take my city as an example. The German weekly newspaper Die Welt published a note by the BND – the German secret service – estimating that 95 percent of the rebels occupying the city came from Turkish rear bases where Islam fighters from all over the world gather before going to war.
Wissam: Take a look at what’s currently happening in Antakya, where my father was born. Foreign fighters financially supported by various Arabic businessmen are invading the city. The people can't handle it anymore.
Mustapha: France is literally supporting rebels who would be treated as terrorists if they were on French territory. It’s outrageous.
Dima: It’s a masked coup. No one in the Western world seems to realise they're collaborating with dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where freedom of speech and religion are flouted millions times more than in Syria.
Mustapha: At the end of the day, it’s nothing but a fight for petrol. Qatar and Saudi Arabia want to use Syria to build pipelines in order to dispatch petrol and gas towards Europe – and fuck up Russia, by the way.
I see. In terms of brutality, though, don’t you think the government is going way too far?
Khaled: Again, this is misinformation. Let’s look at the Houla massacre of last May, for instance. Out of 108 killed, 39 were close family members to an elected representative of the Ba’ath party, including his brother, his sister-in-law and their kids. Twenty others were trying to protect them and the remaining 50 were part of the attacking forces. The media then said that 108 people were killed by governmental forces and published terrifying pictures to emphasise the situation. It’s ridiculous.
Dima: The governmental forces hire conscripts to fight in their own cities as there aren't any available professional soldiers anymore. Why would they kill their own neighbours?
Have you lost close relatives?
Khaled: Yes. A friend of mine, who I used to study with in Toulouse. He worked as an aeronautical engineer in the army and he was killed. Instead of showing indignation, the school described him as a shabiha [pro-regime activist], when he was just a scientist doing his job. I myself was recently accused of being a shabiha on France 24 (a large French, Arabian-language news channel). It’s nonsense.
Wafa: Those “rebels” killed six members of my family and we're not allowed to be mad at them. We're not denying the fact that Syria is a dictatorship or that the regime is far from democratic, but we don’t think that the rebels will ensure a better future for Syria.
Khaled: Everyone knows that the first deaths were on the military side. Don’t you remember the colonel who was killed in Homs two weeks after the so-called patriotic movement began? He was kidnapped and tortured with two other kids, including his nephew. They made a truck run over their heads. Most Syrian people are not stupid and keep supporting the government against this stratagem.
If most people are afraid of the FSA, why aren’t there more people raising their voices here in France?
Wafa: Al-Jazeera – owned by the Qatar’s Emir, by the way – and France 24 are engaged in proper propaganda. All of us today got threatened on our personal phones and on Facebook. It’s hard to put up with that. We’ve been protesting in Paris every two weeks for the two last years, but the media doesn’t care at all. No one pays attention to the millions of Syrian people who walked the streets to show their support towards the government against radicals. I feel like every time this happens, they get described by the Western media as “victims of propaganda”.
Dima: We attended one of those demonstrations for a “free” Syria. We wanted to discuss matters with people there until we realised that among the protesters brandishing the Syrian flag and booing the regime, there was a majority of Moroccans, Tunisians, etc. The number of actual Syrian people was totally insignificant.
Yeah, but are they not allowed to show their support for similar uprisings to the ones that occured in their own country?
Khaled: Yes, they are, but as we were talking, they also admitted to getting paid to show up by Syrian people who support these organisations. That’s why their protests only last an hour or so. They give the media what they want and go back home.
Wafa: In July, as 10 of us decided to meet in a café right in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they sent us three or four CRS trucks. We told them that we were just there to discuss around a table and they said: “Yes, but you’re talking about Syria!” I was scandalised. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and France have the right to speak about the future of our country, but we can’t. Every time we go against the prevailing opinion, we get accused of working for the Syrian government.
Khaled: I attended a pro-rebels support meeting where they talked about the millions of euros donated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, we're self-financed and we manage to sort ourselves out with €3000. The French government is pretending to help Syrian people, but at the same time, they set up an embargo on medicines and shut down the airlines. We can still go to Syria, but it’s now – hmm – complicated.
Wafa: Syrian people are the ones who pay for these decisions. Bashar al-Assad doesn’t fly with Syrian Air and doesn’t need vaccines. We hear about freedom of speech everywhere, but the Syrian radio stations are limited to the Syrian border. We can’t even repatriate our deceased relatives. I just don’t want my country to follow the same path as Libya or Iraq.
For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria", a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural and religious complexities.