middle east, politics

Yasser Al Haji’s Syria

Published on Embassy Magazine, April 3rd, 2013

The recent resignation of Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the main opposition group in Syria, is a sign of the protracted nature of the bloody conflict in that country.

The United Nations estimates that around 70,000 people have died in the uprising since its inception in March 2011. Syrian journalist and activist Yasser Al Haji says that things are much worse in the country than most Westerners realize, and that the UN estimate is conservative at best.

“The world powers, including Canada, are doing nothing,” Al Haji said in a lecture March 20 organized by Carleton University’s Centre for Media and Transitional Societies. “Most Syrians don’t want foreign intervention, but just give us some weapons and we’ll defend ourselves.”

Al Haji worked for state news media until the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began.

He slammed the foreign media’s portrayal of the Syrian revolution as a “civil war.”

“The damage done by the Free Syrian Army is limited,” he said. “When did AK-47s ever destroy the infrastructure of whole towns?”

Al Haji said that he was one of many Syrians who didn’t want to see a peaceful movement “escalate into a military uprising,” but he stressed that ordinary Syrians were “forced to take up arms.” Indeed, it’s highly difficult to argue with Al Haji on the point that a non-militant revolution has any serious traction in Syria when faced with the merciless brutality of the Assad regime.

“People holding cameras or phones in marches can get their hand shot off,” he said. “The snipers aim for that.”

Al Haji, who is also an organizer with the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria opposition network, noted that reports of sectarian violence and Islamist extremism in Syria have also been “highly exaggerated.” He said that the fear of persecution against Christians in a post-Assad Syria is ridiculous, and that almost no Christians have died at the hands of the opposition so far.

“All the extremist groups in Syria right now are not more than a few hundred,” he said. By contrast, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has used cluster bombs. The UN will investigate whether chemical weapons have been used in the conflict.

‘Too much blood’

Anas Marwah, a Carleton student, was in the audience at the talk. He visited Syria last December. A Syrian himself (his father is an executive member of a Syrian opposition group), Marwah echoed Al Haji’s depictions of the conflict.

“I saw a man on a motorcycle get his head blown off by a bomb even though he was far away from where the bomb landed,” Marwah said. He noted that the usage of cluster bombs and other types of explosives is evidence that the regime’s killing of its own people is anything but targeted.

Al Haji’s presentation also included a slideshow with photos of the devastation in Syria. The term “Arab Spring” seem an ill-fitting description when juxtaposed with the mass carnage depicted by the presentation. In fact, one can argue that there is no “Arab Spring” in Syria, but rather a kind of “Arab Nightmare.” Families of several dozen have been wiped out by a single air strike.

Al Haji said that he’s worked with around 200 foreign reporters in the past two years or so, and that it’s impossible for any of them to stay for a long time in Syria. The reports end up painting a picture that’s often incomplete. In other words, it’s hard for anyone to really understand the type of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people.

“There’s too much blood,” said Al Haji, who’s skeptical that the conflict will be resolved diplomatically. He said that the least Syria’s supporters can do is send more weapons to the opposition. “We need more anti-aircraft weapons to protect ourselves from the air power of the regime.”

When asked whether the weapons will fall into the wrong hands and flow across borders (much like what happened in Libya), Al Haji answered that there are ways that intelligence agencies can make sure that military aid is delivered in a controlled fashion.

Some pictures in Al Haji’s slideshow were of bombed-out buildings on both sides of streets that stretched block after block. They looked like stills out of a science fiction film set in post-apocalyptic times. For Syrians still stuck in the centre of this destruction, the end of the world may seem more than an abstraction.