Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the Syrian regime has faced all the accusations of human rights breaches with pure denial. They denied the existence of protests and the lack of support to its leader Bashar Al-Assad. Bashar Al-Assad claimed instead that protesters were saboteurs and armed gangs, and the Syrian people wanted Assad in power (no mention of the 97% anymore though).
Although the brutal stories were numerous in the 10 months old uprising, but the brutal story of Daraa is still one of the most important ones. Not only because it started the whole thing, but it gave the regime no excuse to claim the usual ‘fabrications’, ‘foreign conspiracy’ and ‘infiltrators’ official lines. In Daraa the teenagers, who sprayed anti-regime graffiti, were arrested and tortured with their nails removed, with their parents verbally humiliated, which was quite important in quasi-tribal area. This story is a fact, and not a hearsay.
The regime never discussed what happened in Daraa. They formed an investigative committee but never reported a conclusion. Now we got important insights from Bashar Al-Assad himself about his thinking in reference to Daraa and other issues. This information came through Sheikh Anas Sweid, a local Imam in Bab el Sbaa in Homs, and his fascinating interview with Aljazeera. The Sheikh described his three meetings with the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad (since the start of the uprising) as part of talks with local leaders to calm the situation down. The interview shows how the regime always acted in a sectarian way in Homs, the heart of the current Syrian revolution, by bringing Alawite merchants to the city centre, or cutting power and supplies on the Sunni areas. Sheikh Sweid stated that 70% of the Homs city inhabitants are currently displaced. More importantly the interview painted a picture of a weak, hesitant and clueless president.
The first meeting between the Sheikh and Assad was in April 2011 as part of a delegate of around twenty scholars from Homs. The meeting lasted for four and a half hours, with no real outcome at the end of it. Assad seemed surprised when he was told about the secret police thugs and moukhabarat brutal crackdown, but he was taking notes! Sweid stated that Assad’s requests to calm things down were unreasonable. Mosque goers wouldn’t let him continue in his Friday pray if he showed any sympathy to the regime.
Interestingly Sweid preferred not to attend a followup meeting with Assad, so he was interrogated by the secret police on why he missed the meeting with the president. “I preferred to leave the matter to others”, Sweid answered . The fact that Bab El Sbaa, Sweid’s local neighbourhood, became a hot spot for the revolution secured him a second meeting on his own with Assad (Sweid also mentioned he met Assad for a third time, but no details were given apart from it was similar to the previous two – without any serious outcome).
In their two hours one-to-to meeting, Sheikh Anas Sweid asked tough questions, but got some awkward or fluid answers. Assad began his talk by admitting that all the problems are stemming from the practises of the secret police and other security forces; “If you have thousand pictures in your mind, I have tens of thousands in my mind. Do not tell me about their bad practises. I know the solution is to withdraw all forces from the streets, but I only want to do that after the streets are calm“, Assad admitted. Assad continuously asked Sheikh Anas Sweid to help in calming down the street, but Sweid’s response was that no one owned the street to qualify to order it, and if he tried he will be seen as a traitor; the people wanted to see the crackdown stop first, moreover they don’t trust that they won’t be hunted down if they returned to their houses. Assad replied to this statement: “I won’t repeat the mistake of the eighties”, in reference to 1982 Hamas masacre (but actually he is walking on the same path until now).
When asked on the reason for sending more than two hundred tanks to Baba Amr which wrecked havoc, Assad answered the usual line that they were chasing the armed gangs which tended to be mobile by moving into new areas. Assad added that the trust has been lost between him and the people. Sheikh Anas Sweid then affirmed the importance of the political solution, which drove Assad to answer strangely in an unexpected and unrelated bomb: “My view to the Sheikhs was wrong. I used to be wary of anyone with a beard or wearing hijab. I was once dining in a restaurant in Aleppo where I found lots of women wearing hijab. I thought I was in Afghanistan, so I asked Sheikh Mohammad Al-Bouti about the incident, and if these people were Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Al-Bouti, a famous Islamic scholar who is pro-regime now, answered that the people are just religious”.
Sweid told Assad that it would take time to get people to stop protest, may be a month if they tried to calm the street. But as long as new people were falling on a daily basis, this wouldn’t happen. “Can ruber bullets be used instead of real bullets to ease the situation”, Sweid asked. Assad muddled the answer by responding on how bad the economy was (bullets must be cheaper or a discount was on offer). After requesting permission to speak freely, Sweid then told Assad about his experience with the moukhabarat, and how they questioned him. Assad answered sarcastically with laugh: “I hope they don’t do the same with me”.
Sweid told Assad about the street whispers (not anymore, they are shouts now), and how people wondered if he got what it takes to be in control. Assad: “why?”, Sweid: “you say you have no information about orders to kill, but people are being killed. Perpetrators are known through local knowledge, and some names have been published. Why don’t you go for the these names and prosecute/execute them. People will trust you again and re-elect you”. Assad answered in a shocking way which showed the extent of his family influence: “I punished Atef Naguib (his relative responsible for Daraa incident), and my cousin Jamil Al-Assad in Latakia, and sacked my cousin’s husband in Banyas. My mom and old aunt called later criticising me for the matter, so I promised to sort it after the crisis ends. “
Sheikh Anas Sweid has left Homs last week after receiving several threats, and showing his profile as a terrorist on the regime’s Addounia TV. You might think the interview is unbelievable, but this is not the first time we read reports describing Bashar Assad as deceitful and unsophisticated person.