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Palestinians and the Assad regime: for history and generations to know

I am surprised to see any Arabs supporting the Assad regime in Syria, but when this support comes from Palestinians, whether factions, officials or intellectuals, the surprise turns to shock because this regime has done everything possible to prevent the existence of a Palestinian entity; to stop a war of liberation; and to block an agreement process that is based on Arab strengths.

In this context, the regime has not hesitated to kill, or to make allies with powers that are friends of Israel or to practice conspire against the Palestinian liberation movement in the Arab world. Nor has it hesitated to break up institutions of the PLO, so the movement would be split into two, one for the regime and one for Palestine; and so that the General Union of Writers and Journalists would become two, one for the regime and another for Palestine; and the same goes for the unions representing farmers, engineers, doctors and all other workers, which together represent quality grassroots support for the PLO. No Palestinian activist, whether a political, military or union leader, has been able to escape the Syrian prison system while working under the Syrian legal system.

This regime not only arrested Palestinians in the country but also made arrest lists for those expected to arrive at Damascus Airport. In one incident, the late Faisal Hussaini was going to Moscow via Damascus and was surprised to find out that he had to spend a night in transit there. The local office of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) sent their delegate to the airport to secure his accommodation for the night; to the delegate's surprise he found that there was an arrest warrant for Hussaini should he ever step foot in Syria. He had to call the PFLP's George Habash, who telephoned the then President Hafez Al-Assad to ask him to allow Hussaini to leave on any flight.

Prisons, atrocities and facts

Those who know about recent history do not need to be reminded of the relationship between the Syrian regime and the Palestinian national movement. The reason that some in the latter oppose the Syrian revolution against the regime – which is unparalleled in tyranny and corruption – is the false assumption that there are others who are worse than the regime; this is not true, despite all the conspiracies planted on YouTube and the exaggeration about the extremists within the opposition. All of the latter, no matter what they do together, will not be able to reproduce the hell of the regime's Tadmor Prison for over thirty years. Even the craziest of the extremists will not be able to torture a human being every day for twenty years just for being a Baathist and follower of the party in Baghdad; or for being a young Muslim Brotherhood member; or a communist belonging to the Riad Al-Turk group; or a Christian of the "Arab Socialist Democratic Union" headed by Hassan Abdel Azim; or any of the others who represent all of the political spectrum in Syria.

On what basis does Bashar Al-Assad's regime deserve and get praise from Palestinians? The answer may be overly naïve and tested by events: it is, we are told, to protect Palestinians in Syria. This is flawed reasoning; exempting Palestinians from being killed like their Syrian brothers is not a solution for the situation in Palestine. In any case, look at what has happened to the Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp and in the regime's prisons where they were killed. Despite the huge tragedy of the Palestinians, some attributed the atrocities, or their causes, to the existence of armed opposition in the camp, even when it was clear that Assad's army was behind them. Discussions with Palestinians displaced from Yarmouk or any other refugee camp reveal the truth, while those who are sympathetic with the regime back its version of events even though they know that it lies about everything.

Hafez Al-Assad and targeting Arafat

It would be nice for those looking at Yasser Arafat's long journey to meet witnesses to events; many of them are still alive. In this context, it is important to take a look at two specific experiences. The first is Arafat's experience with armed revolution and the second with the peace process, and why and how the Israelis targeted the man who made a balanced agreement a strategic goal. It was notable that such an agreement would, at best as far as the Palestinians are concerned, consolidate the Zionist entity built on falsehood and moral standards that call for bloodshed and the theft of Palestinian rights.

Detailed research will find that the Assad regime's classification of Yasser Arafat is a carbon copy of Israel's. Al-Assad senior, until the day he died, used to see Yasser Arafat as "an obstacle that had to be removed"; that is how the Israeli occupiers saw him. Hafez Al-Assad wanted to keep Palestinian resistance as a card in his pocket supporting his tactical plans, ambitions and role internally and externally.

Thus the principle of the Palestinian trump card emerged in Syria. In a climate of deceit between military ranks and branches, Yasser Arafat was arrested for the first time on charges of "preparing for acts of sabotage", while he was doing so with official approval. In that context, it was necessary for Al-Assad to inform Arafat, who reached an understanding with a senior officer, that he, and not the latter, was the military decision-maker and so the "Fatah" card had to be in his pocket.

In return, Arafat stuck to his principle that the Palestinians must keep their weapons, and keep the decision to arm or disarm one for Palestinians alone, independent of all Arab regimes. He wanted to keep the conflict entirely separate from the internal conflicts of each Arab country.

Arab archives may be closed but researchers need to study the facts about the attempts to assassinate Yasser Arafat. Syria tried many times to make the man "disappear"; according to some sources the first attempt was in 1966.

The regime's insistence on controlling Palestinian decision-making created a feud with Arafat. It did not matter that he was the leader of a liberation movement and had an important regional role; nor did his steadfastness help him. On the contrary, Arafat's steadfast stand in Beirut in 1982 caused the Syrian regime to hate him even more.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon revealed to Hafez Al-Assad not only Syria's inability to rescue the Palestinian revolution but also to rescue and feed its troops in the neighbouring country. Arafat was not making any political point when he provided canned food, ammunition and hot bread to the Syrian army in Beirut under Israel's bombardment.

In the Palestinian National Council held in Algeria in February 1983, Hafez Al-Assad tried, through his proxies, to split the PLO and end Arafat politically. In those days, the level of mistrust was stronger but it was not used for long. The conference discussed the so-called "Reagan project for peace" and Palestinians had agreed to reject it while leaving Arafat with room to manoeuvre.

The Syrian regime understood that this was the beginning of a partnership between Arafat and the late King Hussein of Jordan; Syria thought that it would not get what it aspired to if Jordan and Palestine were close. Soon enough, an underground rebel movement emerged from Syrian military intelligence armed with Syrian weapons. Many statements were made and many people thought that Fatah was finished and that Arafat was gone forever. Camps were bombed and Palestinian blood was shed. Two years later Palestinians were victims of the bloody attack by Lebanon's Amal movement against refugee camps in Beirut (the "Camp War"), reminding the Palestinians of the disaster of Tel Alza'atar in 1976 when, at the peak of the Lebanese civil war, Hafez Al-Assad's army had a role in committing massacres in the refugee camp.

Arafat surprised Al-Assad when he went to Syria itself, by agreement, in order to heal the wounds. At that time, he had arranged relations with Rifaat Al-Assad, Hafez's brother, who was at the peak of his power, so he leaned on him throughout the visit. When Arafat was to go to Tripoli in Lebanon, in June 1983, nobody knew for certain if he had had joined the small convoy of vehicles leaving Damascus. The convoy was ambushed; rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire rained down onto Arafat's car, but he wasn't inside. He showed up suddenly at the Conference of Arab Writers in Damascus to give a powerful speech which, whenever it was repeated, sounded as if it was being heard for the first time.

Nothing was left for Hafez Al-Assad at that point except for expulsion in order to deal with the Arafat phenomenon. A flight to Tunisia was delayed so that Arafat could be put on board. According to British journalist Alan Hart in his biography of Arafat, it was George Habash, "the wise man", who bade him farewell at the airport. The two men hugged and Habash whispered in Arafat's ear: "Dear lord, if you, Abu Ammar, are leaving Sham in this way, I don't know how I will leave when my turn comes, perhaps in a coffin!"

Arafat the magician played his next trick and suddenly appeared in Tripoli, on the day of Eid, as if his move was among the traditions of that city and its residents. He seemed composed and there were many expectations of him. Al-Assad biographer Patrick Seale insisted that Arafat went into a trap by himself when he was besieged. People argued about how many days were left for Arafat to stay alive; Seale only gave him hours. Al-Assad estimated it at eight days: four for his people in the camps and four for Yasser Arafat and those with him.

The expectations were wrong; the Palestinian leader and his colleague Abu Jihad spent three months defending the revolution, the camps and the people of Tripoli. He eventually left in December 1984 by sea, again by agreement.

Yasser Arafat did not give up on his attempts to establish a normal, non-subordinate relationship with Hafez Al-Assad, but the latter declared his open enmity, with no explanation or excuses. Following the Tripoli incident, one of the ugliest campaigns in Arab history began, which targeted Fatah members and cadres and other Palestinians in Syria. Considering that Syria witnessed the beginnings of the movement, and it was the place where Fatah blended with its social roots in Palestinian camps, the number of detainees was huge and many were subject to brutal torture in the regime's prisons, along with all national opposition groups, including former Baathists, leftists, communists, Nasserists and Islamists.

It happens in Lebanon

There was no law, no human rights centres and no internet blogs to rein-in those monsters or expose them. Researchers in Palestinian social history will have the opportunity to listen to hundreds of stories about what Palestinian families were subjected to. I do not exaggerate when I say that some of the prisoners came out barely resembling human beings and about to die; they were released on purpose so that they'd be a lesson to others. Some were not even able to find their wives and children, especially those with small families who had no extended family groups in the camps' social environment; they had arrived there for the purpose of the struggle and their families had been sent to other, chilling, fates In some cases, girls, after being subjected to poverty and sexual abuse from men within the Syrian regime, would find themselves on the wrong path; this would destroy the head of the family, if he had actually survived. At that time, receiving a salary from Fatah was a crime for which people could be sent to prison, where they would be forgotten.

At the same time, the Lebanese regime, which was collaborating with the regime in Damascus, was suffocating Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon; they were prevented from working in around eighty trades and professions, and those who joined the Palestinian national movement were persecuted. At the same time, reconciliation was ongoing at a high level with war collaborators and criminals, killers and drug dealers from Christian militias allied with Israel, such as Elie Hobeika and others, as well as many officers who dealt in drugs. It was easy for the Syrian regime to understand the "independence" of the spies, and to forgive traitors and to open the doors welcoming them to Damascus. At the same time, it was impossible to reconcile with Yasser Arafat for one reason; his insistence that Palestinians maintain control over their national decision-making. Arafat was ready to open up to his nation and its leaders but only as far as receiving advice.

In January 1994, Arafat took the chance to meet with Hafez Al-Assad at the funeral of his eldest son, Basel. Arafat could not change anything about Al-Assad's position. Two years later, he went to give his condolences to Al-Assad on the death of his mother, but his position stayed the same, even during the full confrontation with the Israeli occupation; the position of the Syrian regime did not change. On the contrary, it was more eager to attack Arafat. The height of this political assassination came when the Syrian regime blocked his attempt to address the Arab Summit in Beirut via a video link, while he was under siege. Arafat was, it seemed, now "irrelevant".

Yasser Arafat was finally martyred and the "obstacle", which many believe the Israelis took the liberty to liquidate, was removed. The Assad regime had contributed to weakening Arafat politically, during the siege of Ramallah, until it became rare for the man's phone to ring. A month after his death, Hafez Al-Assad's heir, Bashar, received President Mahmoud Abbas in the same place where Arafat had received a cold shoulder from the new president when he attended the funeral. Arafat was not given the chance to meet with Bashar alone, unlike other presidents who went to give their condolences. Moreover, Bashar received Abbas with a smile, perhaps thinking that Palestinian leaders turn against themselves, so the new ones judge the old ones and condemn them. This is what I have tried, and still try, to refute. Which is why the current Assad regime should not be praised.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 30 June, 2014


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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