Transcribed from the 7 May 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
This is very political. The Syrian regime wants to destroy their opposition. Labeling them as terrorists will make it much easier to carry out that process. It’ll make it very hard for the United States, for example, to stand up to Russia, to stand up to the Syrian regime and say no, you can’t attack this city.
Chuck Mertz: What the hell is happening in Syria? We may think we know. But we don’t. Why? Because when we hear about Syria, it’s rarely from a Syrian. Here to tell us what’s really happening and what the war is all about on the ground, right now we are very, very fortunate to have on This is Hell! journalist Rami Jarrah. He is a Syrian political activist who has often been cited by international media outlets under the pseudonym Alexander Page during the Syrian civil war.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Rami.
Rami Jarrah: Thank you.
CM: So Rami, the first and most important thing I want to make sure our audience understands is the campaign that you’re part of: the Worldwide Red Protest. What is the Worldwide Red Protest?
RJ: Chuck, first of all thank you for having me, and for this opportunity to speak to the people who listen to your show.
The Worldwide Red Protest has grown out of the work of activists who have started coordinating in groups internationally in relation to #AleppoIsBurning, which is the main campaign that everyone’s working on. The idea is a platform allowing people who already wanted to voice their concerns on what’s happening in Syria—and especially in Aleppo—to coordinate across the world. Actually now it’s in up to seventy countries, with protests taking place in those countries. We’re basically connecting people with each other in each country.
We didn’t anticipate this much resonance; for example in Germany, there were many people and many groups that have been working but didn’t know each other and weren’t coordinating together. Once these groups were connected and were able to coordinate together and work under one hashtag, one voice, one message, one color, it gave a bigger impact to spreading what’s actually going on in Syria.
This is the problem that we’ve been having for the past five years: explaining what’s actually happening in Syria rather than this narrative that we see spread everywhere, where it’s extremist groups and terrorists that Assad is fighting against, and there are civilians who are caught in the middle and paying the price—and this is not the case. It’s a much more complicated situation than that. The story has much more context to it.
And that’s not easy to push in a campaign, but the least that everyone who works on this campaign can do is connect those who do understand what’s going on, and kill that divide, that fragmentation. We’ve seen a very good impact, and I think that’s thanks to the people around the world who have wanted to voice their concerns and have wanted to say that they don’t like what’s happening in Syria.
CM: Why is Aleppo burning? Why is Aleppo outside of the ceasefire that has been imposed in many parts of Syria?
RJ: Aleppo is a strategic city at the moment. It’s always been a strategic city in Syria, and the commercial center of Syria. The reason that the ceasefire across all of Syria excludes Aleppo is that the Russians and the Assad regime have insisted on making Aleppo an exception.
And we ask ourselves why: one would imagine it is because there are ISIS fighters there, and that would be the excuse. But that’s not the case. ISIS is not located in Aleppo. ISIS is in fact in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, two other cities. The excuse that’s being used to attack this area is a small faction called Jabhat Al Nusra. We’re talking about around a hundred fighters, out of 300,000 people who live in the city. This is the excuse that has led to the bombing of hospitals, the bombing of local councils, the bombing of local services, bakeries, grocery stores, markets. This is the excuse.
And we ask ourselves why: in truth it’s because the Syrian regime and the Russians know that Aleppo is the last standing point for any opposition to Assad. This is very political. The Syrian regime wants to destroy their opposition. Labeling them as terrorists will make it much easier to carry out that process. It’ll make it very hard for the United States, for example, to stand up to Russia, to stand up to the Syrian regime and say no, you can’t attack this city.
It’s strategic; it’s political. They want to destroy the city. They want to force out as many civilians as possible, and they want to besiege it. This is exactly what they have done in a number of other cities in the country.
Assad is a dictator. Assad wants to stay on the chair. He wants to control the country. He doesn’t want to get off that chair. It’s the same situation as in North Korea and elsewhere. This is what the Syrian people are paying for. The same people who are being killed and attacked are then being labeled as terrorists. In some channels you’ll hear them accused of being terrorists, and in other channels they are civilians.
The truth is, it’s really far off from both narratives. Aleppo is a city that involves people who are fighting. It involves civilians. It involves schoolteachers. It involves police officers. It involves everything; it’s a whole city. These are people who want to continue living, and they have been deprived of this because this dictator wants to stay on his chair.
If you do not have anyone to protect you, no one to stand up for your rights, and you see twelve different countries in the air that are bombing the city that you live in; buildings are falling down all around you; people who you know are dying every second of every day; then all you really do have is god. Even if you’re an atheist, at some stage you will turn to someone and say, “Please help.”
CM: Why is Aleppo, apparently, a greater threat to the Assad regime than ISIS is?
RJ: ISIS is a very easy opponent, if you put yourself in Assad’s shoes. Everyone in the world is against ISIS. There’s no discussion about this. Even the Syrian opposition that Assad is attacking is against ISIS (I could say for myself; I’m part of that opposition). I think, in fact, that the Syrian opposition to Assad has the most intense anger towards ISIS. Because ISIS are the reason, the excuse, for Assad being able to attack civilians the way he’s been doing; the destruction that he’s caused has all been with the excuse of ISIS.
So ISIS is an easy opponent because everyone agrees that it has to be eliminated. If Assad is not going to take out ISIS, the world will take out ISIS—and we’ve seen it: the international coalition has intervened in Syria with that stated goal. Whereas the opposition poses a threat because it does not pose a threat to the rest of the world, but rather only to the Assad regime and its allies—Russia and Iran, for example, and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that’s located in neighboring Lebanon. This is why it’s a priority to defeat.
CM: We are told over and over, as you were pointing out, that our choices are Assad or ISIS—you’ve got to choose one side or the other—and that there is no such thing as a moderate Syrian.
Could you describe the people who are housed in Aleppo right now as moderate Syrians within the frame that the US and the West wants to apply?
RJ: Yes, of course. But in that regard, I just want to mention there’s a very serious problem. I’m very thankful that we have some time to talk, because this isn’t something that can be said in just a few seconds. The problem that we face today, and the catastrophe that we could face tomorrow—and I mean as world citizens; as an American or a Brit or a Frenchman—is that if we continue to allow people to be oppressed, whether they want to practice their religion, or whether they want to practice not believing in anything, or whatever people want to practice that does not harm other people (I’m sure we all agree on that)—if we want to allow a dictator to prevent people from doing that, then they will find other means of expressing themselves. When you don’t provide people with freedom, they will provide other means of expressing themselves, and that may mean lethal means, because that’s what it’s been pushed to. Because after years of torture, rape, killing, and destruction, people will reach that stage.
If we don’t prevent that from happening, we will find fundamentalist thoughts and extremist theories coming out of these societies. And yes, they will pose a threat to the rest of the world. There are many theories on the terrorist attacks that have happened in Europe and where they actually came from. But I do believe that this can be the case: this can be a result of preventing people from their freedoms. Because these are the channels and the means that they have left to express themselves.
So if we don’t sort this out now at its source, and prevent a dictator from continuously raping people of their rights, we are going to see more and more terrorism around the world. I’m not saying it’s justified. I’m saying that when you cover someone’s mouth, and say to them, “No, you don’t talk,” they try to push you away. Then you cover them again, they push you away, you cover them again—you keep doing it, then at some stage they’re going to hit you. And at some stage, if you do it again, they’ll kill you.
Because a human being cannot be locked in a cell and not allowed to talk. If you put someone in a cell for ten years, they’ll go crazy. In Syria, people have lived in a cell for the past 42 years. This is the situation. And when they finally spoke out (and they were supported by the international community), they were stripped of their right to continue. And it’s the same situation in other Arab countries, in the other countries that participated in the Arab Spring and in other countries around the world that in the past have been liberated or gained freedom.
In Syria now, in Aleppo today, there are moderates. It has however become a fashion to be religious. Of course, I’ll remind you: after 9/11, obviously a terrible situation, in the US congress we saw people rise and lay down a prayer. These were congressmen who were praying. This is the situation in Syria. If you do not have anyone to protect you, no one to stand up for your rights, and you see twelve different countries in the air that are bombing the city that you live in; buildings are falling down all around you; people who you know are dying every second of every day; then all you really do have is god. Even if you’re an atheist, at some stage you will turn to someone and say, “Please help.”
This is the situation in Syria. The only way to reverse it, and to prevent that fundamentalism being pushed even further and prevent that danger that we could face in the future, is to stop this action and to stop this burning. We’ve seen examples of this in the past, and if it keeps going, I’m terrified of the future. I think this is a threat that we should all take seriously.
In Aleppo today there are moderates. There are people who want to reverse this. There are people who want to live in a free, democratic Syria. A lot of people have left Syria; those same people who don’t want to fight, still want to go back to Syria. Europe is full of refugees; Turkey is full of refugees; Lebanon, the whole world now. There are Syrian refugees everywhere. They want to go back to Syria, but they want something that is acceptable to live in.
And the situation now is not acceptable. Those who have stayed are those who can cope. And I would ask everyone who’s listening to ask themselves: who can cope with a situation like what’s happening in Syria? It’s important to understand that this has to be reversed, and the only way to reverse it, the beginning of reversing it, is to get rid of this dictator.
And I’m not saying that the next stage is going to be easy. But I’m saying that it’s the only way forward. It’s the only ethical decision to make. It’s the only understanding that I can come to. If Assad’s reign does not end, then this situation will continue to get worse.
If this continues, then we’re going to see the ethical people, the sensible people joining what is not sensible. Because they don’t find any other means of expressing themselves or any other means of justice. This is the problem in Syria.
CM: You told an Al Jazeera interviewer this week, “This is what’s so terrifying about what’s happening in Syria: if you continue to bash people and kill people, they will lose emotion, and they will fight back. And it’s unfortunate that you will see extremism on Syrian soil.” You go on to say that you blame the “continuous dictatorship for the extremism and the inability of the international community to make an ethical decision on why we have terrorism. This is the reason we have terrorism in Syria.”
If the reason for the terrorism, Rami, is this dictatorship in Syria, do you believe that if the Assad dictatorship were to fall, the extremism and terrorism would fall as well?
RJ: I don’t believe that if Assad fell today that terrorism would fall with it, no. But I believe that if Assad stays today, it’s only going to get worse. And I believe that even if we see catastrophe immediately after Assad’s fall, it’s nothing compared to what we’re going to see if he stays in power. It’s the beginning of the end of this problem that we’re facing.
Syrians are not happy with the appearance of groups like ISIS. Perhaps people don’t know this: the majority of the fighters in the Islamic State are not actually Syrian. They come from all parts of the world, as if Syria were this magnet now. And it’s a magnet that other states have allowed it to be: I mean, these fighters are coming through Turkey, through Iraq, through Lebanon. They’re coming through neighboring countries, and it’s hard to believe that this isn’t somehow being facilitated, to allow it to happen. And I can understand the strategy of these states; maybe they want to get rid of these terrorists. “Let them go to Syria, and then we’ll kill them in Syria.” But it doesn’t work like that.
Because today what we’re seeing is that terrorism is also being generated. It’s not a matter of getting rid of what terrorists we have or what lethal thinking that we have around the world; it’s generating new terrorism. People are seeing this fight, they’re seeing this conflict and they’re wanting to join. And it’s usually people who are isolated in their society. There are people who have come from the United States to fight on Syrian soil because they want to use Islam to scream, to say “I’m not happy where I come from; I had no friends in school,” or whatever the reasons are. There are many reasons that people choose to take this route.
I just want to mention something. I came to the States two years back; I was visiting a newspaper—it was an exchange program where we would learn how this newspaper operates and gain experience from that. And when I was there, I saw on the front page of this local newspaper that ISIS had entered Mosul in Iraq. I was with the editor-in-chief of this newspaper, and I asked, “Why is this on the front page, and why is all the other stuff that’s happened in this region, where people have been fighting for democracy—why is that not on the front page?”
And he said to me, “Well, you’ll have to do another 9/11 to see that on the front page.” And I found that to be a bit of an insult. Because a few people who got on a plane and attacked two buildings have nothing to do with the entire Arab and Muslim population, who totally refuse the idea of innocent civilians being killed because of political disputes or even because of an offensive by the Americans on other states around the world.
So I told him this story. I have a friend who is—was—a leftist and an atheist, who was part of a group called the Coalition of Free Damascenes for Peaceful Change, in Damascus. This was a small group that was working on pushing protests, filming these protests, showing the world that Syrians were calling for freedom and democracy. He was kidnapped in July 2011, and he was taken to a security branch, where he was tortured. Someone left that branch a few months later and told us what was happening to him. He’d had the skin ripped off his back. He’d been hung from his head and left, bleeding from his eyes; it was just disgusting.
The point is, his brother came and joined our group, and said he wanted to help his brother. A few months later, he felt that he wasn’t really doing anything, because he was just filming protests, and this wasn’t helping get his brother out of prison. Then he said he was going to join a small group, a group of fighters in the Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army didn’t really receive any support from the international community as was promised, but there were other small groups that were then popping up around the country that actually did have some support. So he decided to leave the Free Syrian Army, and joined this group, a small group, and I’ll mention the name of this group once I say what happened.
A month later, he got into a car, and rigged this car with explosives and dynamite, and he drove it into the security branch that his brother was locked in, because this branch was notorious; it was well known for years that most of the people in this branch would never get out. He drove into this intelligence branch and blew up the branch, and he killed his brother, and he killed himself, because he wanted to end the torture that his brother was undergoing.
I know I told that story quickly, but knowing this person, and knowing what this person had endured, I believe that this person is a hero. Because this person had one thing in mind, and it was that he wanted to end his brother’s pain, even if it would cost him his life. And the sad thing is that the group that he had to join that would help him carry out something like that was Jabhat Al Nusra, which is an Al Qaeda-linked group.
And I’m saying: this man was a leftist, an atheist from an atheist family. This is what I mean when I say if this continues, then we’re going to see the ethical people, the sensible people joining what is not sensible. Because they don’t find any other means of expressing themselves or any other means of justice. This is the problem in Syria.
CM: Do you believe that there can be peace, that there can be rights for the people of Syria, that the lives of Syrians on the ground can improve with a peace that would include Assad still being in charge in at least a section of a partitioned Syria?
RJ: If we’re talking about Assad remaining in a section of Syria, what this means is that for that section, and the people who live in that section who oppose Assad, no justice has been found. What we’d see is that they’d leave Syria, and Syria would remain for those who support the terrorist acts that were carried out by the Assad regime. I don’t know what future that would bring for them, but I know that there will be people who will have been deprived of their city. I am one of those people. I am from Damascus. I will be deprived of my city for the rest of my life, and my daughter will be as well.
That might be a solution for the rest of Syria; if he no longer had his hands on other parts of Syria, then there would be a chance to build those other parts of Syria. But again, there are people who will be victims in that case.
Syria has become such a dilemma, such a geopolitical nightmare, that Syrians themselves are no longer able to do anything to change the situation.
But we all hope Syria stays one country. No one wants to see the United States divided up into three or four different countries. We want Syria to stay intact, and I think any people of any country would want the same. There are resources that different cities provide to other cities, for example. If it’s to stay intact, then there is no seriousness in any negotiation saying that Assad will remain in power. There is no seriousness in that.
It does not make sense. This man is responsible for 90% of deaths throughout the Syrian conflict. These are numbers that have been gathered; these are documented deaths. Most of the people who have been killed in Syria have been killed by airstrikes and have been killed by ground missiles, and nobody owns this artillery except for the Assad regime. This man is responsible for a very large number of people who have been murdered and raped and tortured and imprisoned and starved to death. To accept the idea of this man staying in power is the same as saying that we shouldn’t have brought Hitler down. It’s exactly the same; there’s no difference to it. There might be some people who are sympathetic to Saddam Hussein today because of the way that he was killed, but Saddam Hussein was a dictator who was responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of people, and was the reason that Iraq was destroyed. This man deserved to die. He deserved to pay the price for what he did.
And Assad—if he’s not paying that price, at least he should not govern the people that he’s terrorized and killed for so many years. Because it will maintain that problem of fundamentalism. People will hide in their shells, but they will still have that hatred in them. And they will blame the international community for interfering and then not doing anything.
A lot of Americans today might think to themselves, “Why do Syrians feel so entitled that we should help them? Why should we help?” It’s because the Americans intervened in the beginning and they orchestrated a lot of what’s happened, and they said that they would do things. If Syrians knew that that wasn’t the case, then they would have been a bit more independent about their revolution. But that’s unfortunately not the case. The case is that the United States intervened—a number of other states did intervene—but didn’t really do anything. And this left the door open for the Russians, for the Iranians, for Hezbollah, and for the Assad regime to really control the situation and decide what actually happens in the country.
CM: There has been the fear in the United States that if the US were to send arms to anybody within Syria—the Free Syrian Army for instance—that those arms would end up in the hands of ISIS. Do you believe that the United States should be arming the people of Aleppo?
Also, President Obama is sending in 250 more US special forces to fight in Syria. What do you think about either of those two solutions?
RJ: Regarding the 250 that would be deployed, I think they’re going to be deployed to the Kurdish areas, so this would really have nothing to do with the opposition that’s fighting against Assad.
In regard to sending weapons in: yes, there is a danger. But I must mention that the United States is not an immature state that does not have its own intelligence; neither are the British or the French. Those involved in Syria, even the Qataris and the Saudis and the Turks, who are on the border with Syria, have their intelligence. They know exactly which groups are affiliated in any way to groups like Al Nusra and to ISIS, and they understand the situation inside the country. They have a lot of allies and local groups that they support, and that they speak to on a daily basis.
This is a piece of information that I want people to know: there are about 300 local councils across northern Syria that are supported by the United States. These are local councils that provide local services to civilians, and this is a good thing that the United States is offering to Syria. But this means that they have their lines of communication, and they understand exactly where they would send weapons and how or whether those weapons could fall into the hands of groups of terrorists, Al Nusra or ISIS. And I think—I don’t think, I am certain—that if the United States wanted to provide actual support and training to groups that were willing to fight ISIS and fight the Assad regime that this would be easy go.
But what’s really happening right now is there is a collision between two large states—and we’re talking about Russia and the United States—and this collision is the one that the United States is avoiding. And the US can say that we have an issue with weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, but in Kurdish areas they’ve thrown weapons from planes that have fallen into the hands of ISIS, and they haven’t stopped doing that. So there is some contradiction to that statement.
It’s a question of ethics. Do we accept living under tyranny? If not, do we accept other people living under tyranny? If yes, then I think we’re selfish.
But these countries that are involved in Syria know exactly what’s happening in Syria and know exactly how to provide weapons to the exact groups that are willing to fight, but these groups also want to fight Assad. Russia doesn’t accept that. That’s the problem that we’re facing today, and that’s the reason that I’m sure the United States has taken a step back. They do not want to make Syria the first example of a state where both Russia and the United States are involved, with boots on the ground, unless the country is going to be divided.
CM: You told Al Jazeera that when you are in Syria, you have to disconnect yourself from the rest of the world. For the people of Aleppo, to what degree do they believe that the outside world is the major influence for why this war continues?
RJ: It’s very unfortunate: because of the situation that Syrians are in, a lot of conspiracy theories are floating in the air everywhere. There are some conspiracy theories that say that the Americans actually support ISIS, because this is all a game; that the Americans and Assad are in an agreement under the table, and they just want to kill the Syrian people. Some of these ideas are outrageous. But Syrians do genuinely believe that the solution can only come from abroad. Because Syria has become such a dilemma, such a geopolitical nightmare, that Syrians themselves are no longer able to do anything to change the situation.
There are these small fighting groups across all of Syria that are fighting against Assad, but these groups started with the idea of trying to bring down this dictatorship and then found that it’s not that easy: there are planes in the sky. There are jet fighters. There are military armaments that are being upgraded, and they’re using S-200s and S-300s, it’s not a joke, this is an all-out war. This isn’t really something that people can face with Kalashnikovs.
Syrians believe that there is not going to be a solution unless something happens from the international community, where a real decision is made on Syria to end this war. But I can say that they do not take the current efforts seriously—I mean the Geneva talks. No one is taking them seriously inside the country, because so far we know that in Geneva I—these were the first peace talks—there was an agreement that even the Russians agreed on, and the Americans agreed on, and every single country involved agreed on, and the Syrians accepted but then didn’t implement. So why would there be Geneva II and Geneva III? Syrians say to themselves: only because it means that they want to drop some of the things that we negotiated. Things like releasing all the political prisoners—we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people in prison. Things like stopping the attacks on civilian homes. These are the sorts of things that were negotiated, and if we have to renegotiate, this means that we’re not going to get something realistic that we actually aspire for. At least not safety, security.
So yes. Syrians believe the solution is going to come from abroad. But they don’t believe in the efforts that are underway at the moment.
CM: By taking out Assad, though—what many fear is that the West will create another situation like post-Qaddafi Libya. Do you believe that Libya is better off? And would you rather have that happen than what is currently taking place in Syria?
RJ: Libya can’t be compared to Syria, for the simple reason that what has happened in Libya is different to what has happened in Syria. What has happened in Syria and how long it’s gone on for is totally different to what happened in Libya.
But having said that, I do not believe in any sense that we should accept a dictatorship in power, or accept tyranny. You can call this poetic, you can say that this is not responsible language, that I have the responsibility of people’s lives. But what I’m sure of is that if Qaddafi had stayed in power, at no stage in the future was he going to hand his power over to democracy. When his son was going to take over power, at no stage in his future was he going to hand over power to democracy. I know there are actually states that handed their dictatorships to democracy, but this is not the case with these dictatorships, this is very obvious. If they wanted to step down, they would have stepped down. Qaddafi stayed put. He was resilient, in his narrative. And that was a narrative that was a threat to his people.
If we’re going to look at this in terms of how it affects the rest of the world, how this affects us, it’s correct that in the short term, it could affect the United States, it could affect Europe, it could affect Asia, it could affect other countries in a negative manner, because these countries have oil; there are many reasons, financial, economic, and political. But in the long term—this is what I insist on—if we do not work on people power, people accepting that other people should have the same worth that I have, then there is always going to be that resentment, there is always going to be that hate, cross-border hate. And what I think we should all be working on, as citizens of this world, is reconciliation between countries.
When the uprising began in Syria, when people were calling for freedom and democracy, they looked towards the United States; Obama’s campaign had said “Change.” And Obama was mentioning that what is happening in Syria is ridiculous, it’s murder, civilians are being killed for calling for their rights, these are brave civilians. And even with all the hatred (I’m trying to be very frank right now) that Arabs have towards the United States because of the wars that the United States has led in the Middle East, at that moment it was totally reversed. What I’m saying is that paves out a long road of security and even compassion among citizens of different countries across the world. This is what we seek. This is the sort of world that I want to live in.
So it’s a question of ethics. Do we accept living under tyranny? If not, do we accept other people living under tyranny? If yes, then I think we’re selfish.
CM: Rami, this has been an honor speaking with you. Your perspective is highly valued, at least with me, and I hope with our listening audience as well. Thank you so much for being on our show this week.
RJ: Thank you Chuck, thank you for having me, and thank you to everyone who’s listening.