Early on in the Syrian revolution activist Hammam Yousef met the German minister of foreign affairs in Berlin and told him it was his chance to change the course of history and start a new page of understanding between the West and the Arab world.
There had been six months of peaceful protests and Yousef was not asking for military intervention, simply for UN observers to be embedded with the demonstrators to put pressure on the regime to stop shooting into the crowds.
“Syria is a very important country in the Arab world, it can influence the rest of the region,” says Yousef. “But it didn’t happen. If it had, it would have cost a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars that need to be spent now.”
Since that fruitless meeting some half a million Syrians have been killed; five million are refugees and six million are internally displaced. Iran and Russia have joined the conflict as two powers with their own agenda in a proxy war made up of international, regional and local players.
What began as normal people asking for the implementation of a multi-party system, 14 branches of the secret police to be dismantled and the release of political prisoners, ended in a nasty war and four attempts at dialogue, all of which have failed, says Yousef, listing them: “The Arab League, Kofi Anan, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, Geneva one, two and three.”
“Why do Syrians need to negotiate with an individual or a group of people controlling this country by illegal means?” he asks. “Why should we as Syrians negotiate our fate with individuals or with a gang?”
“Many political initiatives were on the table but the regime manipulated and refused them all. We as opposition wanted a political solution from the start and we didn’t necessarily want a military intervention.”
These initiatives have come and gone but Bashar Al-Assad’s bombardment of the opposition has been a constant, relentless assault. In mid-February the regime and Russian forces escalated their attack on Eastern Ghouta, one of the last remaining opposition-held areas of Syria, forcing hundreds of families to seek refuge in basements, some without food or water.
Within one week barrel bombs and mortars had killed 334 people, including 44 children. Then, on 7 April, dozens more were killed in a suspected chemical attack. In total 1,700 civilians died in the assault on Ghouta before thousands were bused out of the area as part of a ceasefire deal brokered between Russia and Jaish Al-Islam.
“This is clearly a policy the regime is using to empty the whole city and force its inhabitants out,” says Yousef. “It’s a strategy to evacuate all the cities that the regime considers vital and strategically important for the stability of the regime. Ghouta was one of the main areas.”
After similar bombardments hit other cities, the opposition has now been pushed together in Idlib, which suits the regime says Yousef. “In their minds they will be able to get rid of everything once and for all.” Many fear it’s only a matter of time before Idlib suffers the same fate as Ghouta.
To add to the mix, last weekend the UK, France and the US launched missile strikes on Syria after purporting outrage at the chemical gas attacks. Whilst Yousef acknowledges that many members of the Syrian opposition agreed with the strikes, he predicted that Western intervention wouldn’t result in real change in the interests of the Syrian people.
Perhaps the darkest fallout from the attack is that regime supporters were dancing in Ummayed Square in Damascus because nothing really came of them. “What should the United States or France or the UK feel about the fact that regime supporters are rejoicing that nothing really happened?” he asks.
“If an intervention would have happened much earlier and if it was the means to force a political solution I would be more optimistic. It’s not going to change drastically on the ground and I see it as hypocritical,” he continues. “The regime has already caused the deaths directly or indirectly of more than 600,000 people. It didn’t really force the regime to withdraw or say, I am ready to comply with UN resolutions.”
The Syrian people are definitely disappointed but it was not a shock for them. They stopped hoping that anything really good will happen because it’s been seven years now.
Whilst the war has generally meant that we consider Syria in terms of the last seven years, Assad’s failures and abuse go back further than 2011. Pre-revolution Assad was a poor leader, says Yousef, who was born in 1970 when one dollar was worth four Syrian pounds. In 2011 the dollar was equal to 50 Syrian pounds.
Yousef’s father was one of approximately 17,000 Syrians who were forcibly disappeared under Hafez Al-Assad, who Bashar, the current president, inherited power from. “My father was a writer,” says Yousef, “he had connections with the opposition at that time and he was himself against the monopoly of the Ba’ath Party. [Hafez] Al-Assad got rid of all his opponents at that time in the same way.”
In 1979 and 1980 Hafez arrested many intellectuals and Islamists as he moved to consolidate power and quash civil disobedience. Two years later he pounded the city of Hama with artillery fire for several days, razed homes to the ground with bulldozers, and slaughtered some 20,000 people.
Hafez was also benefitting from the state of “no war, no peace” with Syria’s neighbour Israel, says Yousef, under which the Syrian dictator was able to keep in place an emergency law which was expanded in 1967.
Yousef now lives in the Czech Republic. His siblings are spread out across the world apart from one brother who is still in Syria – he was drafted into obligatory service in 2011, which was only supposed to last for one and a half years, but he was never released.
“The regime is in need of manpower,” Yousef explains; “they’re even drafting men in their forties. There are many cases of people who would love to run away but are afraid that they will be killed if they are captured or afraid that revenge will be taken out on their families.”
Yousef’s father, mother, grandfather and aunt and other members of his family have all been arrested at different times between 1980 and 2000. Yousef himself was detained for one year in 2000, however this didn’t stop him from co-founding the Syrian Non-Violence Movement (SNVM), an NGO that played a significant role in the beginning of the revolution.
The SNVM believe sustainable, bottom-up reform can only be achieved through cultural and social change and to realise this organised general strikes, a boycott of the public sector and more creative resistance such as adding red dye to Damascus fountains to symbolise all those who had died at the hands of the security forces.
But as the revolution became a war, their efforts took a secondary role: “What I believe is that once there is no military confrontation civil society will come back to the [fore],” says Yousef. “That was the goal of the regime, to have the confrontation as a military confrontation and for the world to see that the only opposition to Assad is a military operation, which is not correct.”
“In general there is this feeling of helplessness because you wish you could do something to change the course of events but as an individual or even as a group it’s really difficult,” he adds. “It’s too much for any nation to take or succeed in achieving what they want in a similar context to what we had in Syria. I doubt there are people on this planet that can take on all the pressures of what people in Syria had to deal with.”
Now, Yousef helps refugees and children who have escaped the country overcome trauma, works on building Syrian civil society in the diaspora and encourages other Syrians to do the same, wherever they are. “Maybe the next generation will go back to Syria,” he adds. “When they really believe there is real change.”
Change, says Yousef, means the fulfillment of all the initial objectives put forward by the protesters – no rule of army, no secret police, no corruption, no emergency law – and the few extra that have been added as the war unfolded – no Assad and no Iranian or Russian occupation.
Syria was never Syria for the Syrian people, reflects Yousef, because since Assad came to power the whole country has been built to elevate him as the eternal leader. “We were living in a country that was called Syria but we never felt that this country was ours. Even this disappeared. There is no Syria as we know it anymore.”
“The division between people has reached an extent that it has become really difficult for people to do something together,” he adds. “Already you have the areas where the Kurds want to have their own autonomy or own state – the divisions are already there, it’s not drawn as a political or a geographic map but it’s there already.”
Add to this an indifferent international community and a region that is “not interested in a real progressive democracy in Syria” – because they see it as a threat – and it’s no wonder Syrians feel despair.
We were expecting an unprecedented brutality by the regime but we didn’t expect that the whole world would just watch
“Unless we as human beings realise that we are not separated, that we suffer together, we will let such things happen without trying to help. I wish that one day people on this planet will really feel like they’re one, because this is not going to end, this is not going to end in a good way. People in Syria are not insects; they are not cockroaches to be exterminated.”