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Behind the Closed Doors of the Syrian Revolution: In Conversation with Wassim Hassan

Wassim Hassan is a Syrian political activist. He is a member of the The Syrian Women's Political Movement and the Mouatana Movement, a group of Syrian democratic secular activists who devote their time to bringing the truth to Syrians through literature, media, and legal analysis on how they can change the political sphere in Syria. They aim to present the facts without affiliation to religious, nationalist, or leftist ideologies. Wassim has risked his safety on multiple occasions to stand up against the tyranny of the Syrian regime. He currently resides in the Netherlands after having to leave Syria due to the many threats on his life and to protect the safety of his family.


CJLPA: Welcome, Mr Wassim Hassan. I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to come and interview with The Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art to discuss your story as a political activist and human rights fighter. Freedom of expression and democracy have been foreign concepts in Syria for the last 60 years, with one family controlling all aspects of government, education, military, and natural resources. Anyone with an opposing ideology to the regime is often persecuted in an improper justice system. Having spent a majority of your life living in Damascus, what influenced you to get into politics having known the risks this may have on your life and your family’s life?


Wassim Hassan: The deteriorating human rights conditions; the high levels of injustice; the absence of justice, freedom of expression, and participation in opinion; and the absence of equality and job opportunities force an oppressed person to enter the world of politics, especially after reading world history. The ancient and contemporary history of Syria prompted me to reject and denounce the reality of life in Syria, which is based on dictatorship, corruption, and criminality by an exclusionary mafia regime that exploits, plunders, practises atrocities, accumulates sectarian hatreds, discriminates between the people of the country, and invests in media propaganda. Slogans such as ‘resistance to imperialism, Israel, socialism, and freedom’ are used in order to perpetuate his rule and abolish the simplest mechanisms for practising democracy, such as the peaceful transfer of power and freedom of choice, expression, and media. This regime has abolished the independence of the legislative, judicial, and executive authorities, which passed over Syria for a short period in the 1950s, during the end of the colonial era.


The absence of rights, fairness of opportunity, and the right to expression and criticism prompted me to take an emotional and moral stand against this oppression and corruption, pushing me into the furnace of working in public affairs. Politics was forbidden to opponents except in basements and prison cells, so secret work was the only potential means of activism, and this is what I followed from the eighties until the mid-nineties as a member of the Arab Revolutionary Workers Party. After the invasion of Kuwait and the failure of the party, like other parties of the National Democratic Assembly, I left politics and got busy in my own engineering work and devoted myself to the affairs of my family and my daughters who came to the life of the nascent family, until the popular Intifada in March 2011. I ended up leaving all my successful engineering work to be in the right place among the people in confronting the corrupt junta and within the movement of the rising street for democracy and political change in Syria.


CJLPA: Can you tell us of times where your activism has risked your or any of your colleagueslives?


WH: My comrades were subjected to frequent arrest campaigns as a result of their secular, democratic political position and their opinion opposing the approach of Hafez al-Assad and the alliance he engineered in the ‘National Progressive Front’, where he gathered wings from leftist and nationalist parties loyal to his authority. Most of my comrades were subjected to incarcerations ranging from four to 26 years in the prisons of the authority. Later some of them were arrested and imprisoned in the detention centres of the heir, Bashar al-Assad, for up to six years.


During the uprising, my comrades were also subjected to many violations, such as abuse, forced disappearance, and liquidation in detention centres. Most of my comrades (95%) are in the prison cells of the authorities, and some of them were kidnapped in the prisons of extremist factions and gangs, which were later produced by corruption and the security vacuum.


Since the 1980s, I have personally been exposed to security questions from the Syrian secret police. In addition to my opposition to the current regime, my refusal to join the ruling Baath Party led me to be deprived of many job opportunities in advanced positions that were offered to me at the head of the engineering institutions where I worked.


Then, because of my secular position during the revolution, I was kidnapped by members of al-Nusra Front in the countryside of Damascus for three weeks, during which I was subjected to severe physical and psychological methods of torture, death threats, and ransom demands, until I was able to escape with the help of one of my colleagues who was kidnapped with me, through a very complex operation.


CJLPA: You are a member of the Mouatana Movement, a party looking to establish a secular democratic system within Syria. Can you please tell us more about your party’s ideology and policies?


WH: We are a group of secular democratic activists under the name ‘Mouatana Movement’. Our liberal movement and political line is characterised by political realism and the avoidance of intimidation and exaggerations in its proposition. We practise internal democracy in a horizontal organisation in which there is no leader or leaders, but a collective leadership elected in periodic conferences. We seek through our literature, our publications, through websites, and media to analyse reality without affiliation of religious, nationalist, or leftist ideologies. We have made a detailed criticism of the main lies spread among the elites and by the groups of Syrians mobilised with ideology and delusions that distort reality to serve their ideas.


The Mouatana Movement has entered and contributed to building several political alliances, including the ‘Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’, but we soon left it in 2017, for political reasons that we clarified in our departure letter. We also conducted a comprehensive critical review of our intellectual line, our role, and our discourse in our periodic conferences that try to build policies and present inspiring studies for a generation of change in Syria. We do this through political editorials on our website and through a political forum that hosts actors and active personalities to discuss the situation and provide the appropriate vision and analysis.


CJLPA: Can you touch on the importance of establishing a system that removes any religious influence in a diverse country like Syria?


WH: During my activism in the secular democracy, in general, and in work for the Syrian women’s political movement with many activists, we sought to spread the ideology of freedom and respect to others with a difference in opinion and by supporting marginalised groups and minorities in any field or level. Therefore this means supporting diversity, uniqueness, creativity and pluralism; preventing the domination of one group over the masses; preventing the monopoly of power control; and confronting oppression and dictatorship; and pushing for the achievement of equal citizenship and social justice; with respect for different religions, beliefs, and individual and collective choices within a democratic state through decentralisation, dominated by citizenship, the law, the independence of the judiciary, the media, and the freedom to establish organisations, unions, and parties as contemporary secular democratic systems.


Regarding your question about the importance of establishing a system that removes any religious influence in a diverse country, it is known that the Syrian society is multi-sectarian and ethnically diverse, and is predominantly Muslim. Therefore, it would not be possible to remove the influence of religion in society or completely cancel its influence through a decentralised democratic administration which the authority submits to a monolithic and exclusionary religious vision. Instead we rather the establishment of a state that respects all religious visions. The secular democratic state that we seek will not be an authority hostile to religions, but rather take a neutral approach towards beliefs; protect the freedom of religion; and prevent the oppression of any group over the rest, governed by law, equal citizenship, and equal opportunities.


CJLPA: Many young Syrians are not familiar with the oppression and atrocities that occurred under Hafez al-Assad due to the lack of transparent reporting at that time. Having experienced life under Hafez al-Assad, how would you describe the life of Syrians under Hafez al-Assad’s rule to people who are unaware?


WH: Hafez al-Assad seized power after his coup against his comrades in power and the leadership of the Baath Party on 16 November 1970. With his comrades, the members of the previous government he dissolved were imprisoned in Mezzeh prison in Damascus for more than a quarter of a century. He pursued new policies characterised by hidden sectarian fanaticism. His rule aroused the ire of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, around 1976, in turn began assassination operations against Alawites and those close to the regime, carried out by extremists from the ‘Fighting Vanguard’, such as the massacre of Alawite students at the Military College in Aleppo in 1979, and the Azbakeya massacre in Damascus. This raised the level of mobilisation and incitement against them. Hafez al-Assad’s regime, in cooperation with his brother Rifaat and his officers, carried out many massacres, including in Jisr al-Shughur and Aleppo, and concluded them in Hama in 1982, in which thousands of civilians were killed, many of whom were innocent and not at all involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. The number of Islamist detainees in the famous Tadmor prison reached more than ten thousand, alongside the almost eight thousand liquidated on different occasions.


The nationalist and leftist parties that did not accept joining his mock front were also pursued by the coalition that al-Assad formed in 1974 to absorb the political workers and tame them with temptations and some formal roles, and present the democratic appearance of government, even if only formally. Those who rejected this alliance were imprisoned, including the new left, especially the Labor Party. The campaigns of arrests did not stop from 1976-1992, affecting most of the cadres and activists, and Palmyra desert prison was filled with them. Sednaya prison was subsequently established to accommodate thousands of prisoners of conscience. It also continued to track down activists and individuals and prevent gatherings and organisations under the blows of the emergency law that ruled the country. With the Baath’s takeover of power in 1963, political life in the country was completely desertified, opportunities for expression and freedom of the press were completely absent, and authoritarian and canned media prevailed without taste, colour, or smell, until the death of the tyrant Hafez al-Assad in the year 2000.


CJLPA: After the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, took power and advertised himself as a reformist bringing change to Syria’s political system. What changes did Bashar al-Assad promise to make in regard to the Syrian government and were any of them ever enforced?


WH: Things had been arranged for the transfer of power without obstacles, as the People’s Assembly (parliament) held an emergency and urgent session, so the decision was taken to jump the son Bashar into five major military ranks, to become a first lieutenant general and commander of the army. The council unanimously amended the constitution with an article related to the age of the candidate for the presidency, making it 34 years old. The so-called Sham Ballot was held without competitors. Within the articles of the constitution detailed by al-Assad, the Baath Party was the leading party of the state and society, and the candidate of that leading party is not allowed to compete with anyone, who is of course in our case the heir, Bashar.


In his swearing-in speech on 17 July 2000, Bashar al-Assad made many promises, and began issuing frequent decrees suggesting the start of a new phase of modernization and development. For two years, living conditions improved slightly as intended, and some leniency appeared in the security forces’ grip on the population, but soon the situation returned to its previous state, following the US-British invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and after the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005 and Security Council Resolution 1559 to remove the Syrian forces from Lebanon, where confusion and fear prevailed in the ranks of the authority, with the defections and liquidations that took place (such as the defection of Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and the death of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan and several officers involved in the Hariri assassination). The security forces’ grip was tightened, and the opponents who signed the ‘Damascus for Democratic Change Declaration’ document were persecuted and closed the door to the activities of forums and committees to revive civil society, which had flourished after the oath speech mentioned above.


The Bashar al-Assad regime was able to evade the consequences of the International Tribunal for the assassination of Rafic Hariri, and the tribunal continued ineffectively, despite the crimes the regime committed against the Syrians over the years of the Syrian revolution since 2011, on top of which was the crime of using chemical weapons against opposition sites. In his famous speech a few days after its outbreak, al-Assad described that as a global conspiracy, comparing the rising opponents with germs that must be cleansed: ‘If they want it to be a war, then it will be’. The sectarian and Iranian militias, and later the Russian forces in 2015, did not hesitate to bomb cities and urban areas with barrels and chemical weapons.


In an interesting statement by Mustafa Tlass, a senior colleague of Hafez al-Assad, he says: ‘The fall of this regime requires a change in the form of the global system, because Hafez al-Assad has woven his regime into the fabric of the global system’. This raises a question about the nature of Assad’s authority and its functional role within the region and the global system after the end of the non-aligned system and the Soviet bloc, and the exploitation of the role of the military regimes leaping to power through coups, the role that Assad mastered and succeeded in playing, moving between the ropes of the Russians and the West. This constituted a guarantee for him to continue in the most complex international transformations and so far at least he has been successful, especially if we add the influence of Islamophobia and the Islamic awakening, and the fear of the development of the role of extremist political Islamic organisations in the era of the ‘Arab Spring’.


CJLPA: Hama faced one of the biggest massacres under the rule of the then-President Hafez al-Assad. The military force commanded by Rifaat al-Assad entered the city of Hama and conducted a series of bombing on buildings with civilian inhabitants. The government’s justification for their ‘military operationswas the need to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood, having a disregard for any of the civilian casualties it took to get to that goal. Tens of thousands of casualties occurred, but due to the lack of reliable reporting at the time, the incident did not receive much coverage on a national or international basis. Can you please touch on the power of state propaganda in Syria, and how they have taken advantage of religious extremism to paint themselves as the ‘good guys’ or the ‘best option in Syria?


WH: Religious extremism is not confined to Syria and the Assad regime. It is religious fanaticism based on the legacies of the old authorities throughout the periods of caliphate and Islamic rule in the region, but it has exacerbated since the decline of the nationalist tide and later the leftism and the rise of the Islamic awakening. Enthusiasm for this awakening was increased by the victory of Khomeini in his ‘Islamic revolution’ in Iran in 1979 and the possibility of realising the dream of its sisters. We witnessed a remarkable development in the religious, especially Wahhabi and radical, organisations and their multiplication, leading to the phenomenon of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and provoking international responses, especially from America and Russia.


Hafez al-Assad’s regime, like other international intelligence agencies, soon picked up on this to invest in the Islamic Awakening organisations. By virtue of the closeness of Assad’s authority and its understanding of this violent ideological environment, it was able to confront certain aspects and exploit others. Assad and his media excelled in demonising the popular movement in Syria since the first hours of the uprising. It was a choice for the extremist Islamists who struck terror among civilians in the West of Syria, while his regime and the mullahs’ regime in Iran and their militias did not attack in the cities of the West of Syria and played it cunningly. Better the devil you know, as they say.


The regime’s exploitation of the vertical division in Syrian society and the fear of minorities from the discourse of Sunni extremism, which began to spread on important media platforms such as al-Jazeera, Orient, and other sectarian channels and social media, prompted Christians and Druze to join the Alawites in their fears, and rally behind the regime’s masterful use of the propaganda of ‘opposition and resistance’. He was able to isolate, besiege, bombard, and destroy Sunni cities and displace their people under the pretext of confronting terrorist gangs.


CJLPA: Can you provide us with examples of how this playbook was used by Bashar al-Assad in the 2011 uprisings?


WH: Although the Syrian popular uprising presented general national concerns and did not rely on Islamic slogans at the outset, it was quickly exploited by the Islamic organisations formed in recent decades, whose role appeared since the first months, as important bombings and assassinations were carried out by al-Nusra Front. The role of al-Qaeda escalated after the Islamic State’s invasion of Iraq’s Mosul to Raqqa in Syria, and the Islamic factions grew like mushrooms following the support of the Gulf countries and their peoples for this phenomenon (Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sunna, and so on). It was not only the will of the Syrian intelligence behind this proliferation. The Islamic factions played the worst roles in the Syrian revolution and contributed to the exclusion of the other in their rhetoric and performance and their demonization of democracy, patriotism, and secularism.


CJLPA: In 2011, Syrians began to protest the government after decades of oppressive rule. This was one of the biggest acts of protest ever recorded in modern Syrian history. The Syrian government reacted with violence and by arresting the people involved in orchestrating the protests. What was your reaction when you knew that protests were taking place all around the major Syrian cities?


WH: The Syrians yearning for freedom were watching the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings taking place in Tunisia and Egypt and then Libya and Yemen with great passion, and I was following the developments hour by hour, until the Syrian street moved in Damascus in the Hamidiyah market and in Daraa, the cradle of the revolution. I rushed to meet my old friends from political activists and we started by the founding of the ‘Mouatana Movement’; I was one of its activists dreaming of a new Syria. We met and discussed what to do and how to contribute to what was happening. Those were days full of fervour and vivid dreams when the barrier of fear was broken and the door to becoming in the country opened again after it had been locked away by Assad and the Baath for decades.


I participated with activists in the Sahnaya region in the Damascus countryside, taking every opportunity for demonstrations and sit-ins in the Damascus countryside, in al-Qadam, Darayya, al-Asali, Barzeh, Harasta, Douma, al-Qaboun, and Jdeidet Artouz. Soon, the demonstrations expanded and became every Friday. The Islamic discourse began to appear, so my activity focused during that period on participating in the demonstrations of As-Suwayda and contributing to them with many activists in Jabal al-Arab. This was done in the squares of Shula, al-Fukhar, Tishreen, al-Sir in As-Suwayda, and in the streets and squares of Shahba and al-Qurayyah. At that time, Fella of the mountain activists called upon us to participate in the Free Army in the Sultan al-Atrash Brigade, which was led by the martyr, Khaldoun Zain al-Din, an officer who defected from al-Assad’s army.


Later, with the escalation of the whistle of bullets and the decline of the voice of demonstrations, the armed Men of Dignity Movement emerged in the mountain. It hastened, with the fans of free and patriotic discourse behind it, away from the sectarian entrenchment that the regime and some religious Druze sought to corner it in. I worked as a political advisor to the leader of the movement from 2013-2015, the young Sheikh Waheed al-Balous, who put forward the political project that I worked on. The project worked on spreading his call with activists (the National Peace Initiative from As-Suwayda) and calling for a comprehensive national solution in Jabal al-Arab, more specifically in the town of al-Qurayya, the cradle of the national symbol Sultan al-Atrash. It would host a Syrian conference inclusive of all the parties to the Syrian conflict, which was turning into a complex civil war between Syrians (Sunnis-Alawites and minorities), provided that the conference be independent and under the auspices and protection of the Men of Dignity (perhaps the Druze who played a patriotic role in the establishment of Syria during the days of Sultan al-Atrash). The regime faced this by blowing up the convoy of the leader of the Men of Dignity (Waheed al-Balous) and his comrades with two large explosions in As-Suwayda. With the assassination, it almost destroyed that promising attempt.


During that period I was in a media course for the Citizen Movement in Gaziantep, Turkey, followed by a family visit to my daughter Razan, who was studying at a university in Istanbul at that time. I felt the difficulty of my return to Syria, where the Assad intelligence services were waiting for me at the airport, and made the decision to take refuge in Europe, where I live today.


CJLPA: With Syrians having access to social media sites, everyone in Syria who had an opposing ideology had the freedom to express it. How much of a role did social media play in the spread of the protests?


WH: There is no doubt that the means of communication contributed to the spread of news, the interaction of people, the exchange of messages, the participation in planning and organisation, and the speed of exchanging information. However, at the same time social media deluded a wide segment of the rising youth regarding their superiority, so they had some arrogance, and were thus not communicating with and benefiting from the wisdom of the older generations, who were more experienced with the nature of this brutal power. The young generation, with the rapid assimilation of new technologies, developed a feeling of fullness and contributed to an unfavourable rupture between young people and the previous generation, which was negatively reflected in the form and nature of the movement later on.


CJLPA: The violent reaction of the regime led to a brutal civil war that took the lives of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions around the world. Throughout the modern civil war, the Syrian regime committed a vast amount of war crimes by continuously using chemical weapons on civilian targets. What were your experiences living in Syria throughout the war?


WH: It became increasingly clear to me that the fall of the regime was not possible with the tools used in the past decade. The vertical division was great in the country, and the Alawite sect, alongside other sectarian minorities, were lined up strongly around power. This contradicts the statements of many that all the Syrian people revolted against Bashar al-Assad, and this should be corrected, as it is not enough for the opponents to repeat their desires and dreams, without realising the realities on the ground. On the basis of the existing sectarian division, the regime would not have fallen, as most of us dreamed, even if the army of Islam entered Damascus. Bashar al-Assad’s army would have gone to base itself with his supporters in Latakia and Tartous, and regained support from his allies later to attack those who outweighed him in other cities. One of the additional reasons for the inability of the opposition to achieve a decisive victory was the absence of military and political unity, not achieved at any stage since 2011, despite the contributions of the countries of the region and the West to bring together the Syrian factions and forces, in preparation for negotiations that can be conducted with the authority or with its representatives.


Many members of the Syrian opposition brazenly deny the reality of the support provided by the West to the Syrian revolution and accuse the West of negligence. Indeed, many consider the West supportive of the Assad regime, explaining what happened in terms of military and political interventions of the Russians, Iranians, and Turks, by American, French, and perhaps Israeli orders to maintain the continuity of their protégé, Bashar al-Assad, in in a series of conspiratorial interpretations of what is going on. These narratives unfairly deny and twist the facts.


As for the sanctions, they did not achieve a significant response from the tyrannical authorities that they were applied to in North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq’s, and Gaddafi’s Libya, where the authorities continue to oppress and increase the crushing of popular groups, in many cases under the pretext of those sanctions. Here originates the heavy blame on the West and the Americans, especially because their contribution to supporting the movement of the Syrian people and their just cause did not live up to the desired level as democratic governments and societies. The Americans only intervene when their interests are threatened and not for principled positions in support of democracy and for the sake of the peoples in the ‘Third World’, as they claim. Without military pressure, we will not have negotiations advancing, and there is no real military pressure on the authority of Damascus, which has benefited from its Russian and Iranian allies more than the Syrian people have benefited from their friends and allies. An exclusionary extremist no less tyrannical than Assad’s sectarian authority, unless the West seriously contributes to developing and bringing the democratic team in opposition and the loyalists to work together to save the country from the domination of the military and sheikhs.


I still believe that the Baathists—with all my observations on their exclusionary and corrupt behaviour—are included in the rhetoric of opposition and resistance, and they have a serious desire for independence from the Russian and Iranian allies. Although the Baath has no significant role and the party does not support the Assad security authority in Damascus, Damascus is still in their view the ‘beating heart of Arabism’ and they want to play this role. This is not to say, as many opponents believe, that the Syrian authority is fallen, crumbling, and just a tool that lacks will and does not sustain anything. Rather, Assad’s authority has great strength and influence on the scene, and it is still dominant over decision-making and in all previous and current stages, despite the misery in the economic and living scene. What is the point of a disaster? The security and military authority is in his hands in Damascus, and it is not right to underestimate facts and twist their necks to pass illusions and lies.


In conclusion, on the issue of accountability and justice, I believe that at the stage of calling for a political transition and a governing body that will include the two conflicting parties, justice cannot be achieved immediately—as agreed upon in accordance with international resolutions, for example—because the decision of the transitional government will be between hands that are unfortunately equally stained with blood. Justice will come later, after decades, if the fervour of struggle continues among legal and human rights organisations and institutions, as has happened in the experiences of other countries.


With the chances of establishing the Islamic caliphate state substantially declining after the intervention of the international coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces, ending the state of ISIS, which is the worst alternative, the Assad regime with its allies is still the most dangerous enemy for building democracy in Syria. We need today to reach a settlement that stops the bloodbath and launches the process of political transition, in which all parties from all categories—Syrians, Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Christians, minorities, organisations, etc—will participate. Thus, we will end the phase of the Assad regime’s monopoly, stop the war, start rebuilding the country, and launch the process of community recovery.


CJLPA: On an international level, how do you believe we can bring accountability and justice to the crimes committed, when countries like Russia and China constantly use their veto powers to stop any investigations from happening in Syria?


WH: With this international polarisation between the world of tyrannical tyrants (Russia, China, Iran…) and the democratic world in the West, especially after Putin’s war on Ukraine, the United Nations and the UN Security Council are no longer able to control the organisation of conflict management and reduction. The exacerbation of corporate control, the escalation of climate disasters, and the weakness of international commitment are all further hindrances on effective action. The great impact on the Syrian issue was in terms of enthusiasm to end the suffering of the Syrians, and also regarding accountability and justice. The reality has increased the living suffering and exacerbated the plight of the refugees in the countries of the diaspora close to Syria, and the veto that the Russians will frequently use in the Security Council is still a major obstacle, whether in holding war criminals accountable or in getting out of the bottleneck in the Syrian issue.


CJLPA: What do you think is the best course of action from within Syria?


WH: It goes without saying that the Syrian issue no longer concerns Syrians only, as the region and the international situation are strongly concerned with what is happening on Syrian territory. Therefore, I can claim that the continuation of work and civil movement within the country is necessary to prevent the situation from sinking. We must keep the flame hot.


The West remains extremely important in preventing Al-Jazzar’s rehabilitation and pushing the political transition process in accordance with the relevant international resolutions, most notably Resolution 2254. The policy of sanctions and slow death is no longer sufficient to destabilise the situation and push Assad’s arrogant authority to the negotiating table to make real concessions. Al-Assad’s authority still possesses some strength that prevents it from negotiating seriously with the opposition forces, whose negotiating and field power has begun to erode and decline. We need higher levels of force and pressure rather than just sanctions.


The launch of the As-Suwayda uprising in August 2023, which continues with its peacefulness and which is carried by a bright face for the Syrians (despite their differences and diversity) has brought many democratic and secular slogans and the necessity of political transition in accordance with international resolutions. The uprisings in ‘Dignity Square’ wrote the alternative discourse that the Syrians deserve in order to build a homeland. It accommodates all Syrians and achieves peace, freedom, and political and economic transition for the country, away from wars and in harmony with its regional surroundings. Within it, Syria does not remain a chess pawn in the game of regional countries such as Iran and Turkey. The Syrian people, despite their ethnic and racial diversity, have the right to live in dignity in a homeland that has many resources and reasons for growth to build a neutral state. Recently, it has become clear that betting on a religious caliphate or tyrannical regimes has failed, and it has become necessary for the obscurantist, exclusionary de facto forces or tyrannical authorities to retreat in favour of democracy and diversity. It is important to build on the Suwayda movement internally in order to move against the de facto forces currently there and to bet on building a body of Syrian democratic opposition. It is not like those residing in exclusionary Islamist Turkey. Rather, we have to build a democratic opposition centred in Europe, where there is the right of expression and the possibility of adopting free and independent Syrian policies. The Berlin conference to build the ‘Syrian Democratic Alliance’ held in October 2023 was a step in this direction, as it brought together many people of the political and civil forces in one front, and it has become a duty for the democratic forces in the world to support this trend in action and not just through the media.

Protesters in Al-Suwayda rally against the Assad regime, demanding justice and change. This marks a new wave of peaceful protests that began on 17 August 2023.

CJLPA: Now we see many Arab nations turning a blind eye to these atrocities by normalising relations with the Syrian government. It seems that the current regime is not going to be leaving power any time soon. Can you please tell us the dangers of normalising relations with the Assad regime?


WH: The project to rehabilitate al-Assad and normalise relations with his government before he submits to international resolutions is an additional disaster for the Syrian people. The solution in Syria is not the victory of any of the parties to the armed conflict, but rather the loss of all of them, in favour of a democratic, civil administration for the country with a project that brings together Syrians in a decentralised Syria for all Syrians, regardless of their plurality and diversity. Without the domination of the military or the Islamist extremists, and this is the least that the Syrians aspire to, it can open the horizons of the process in the country again. The continuation of Assad’s rule is nothing but a recipe for the continuation of tragedy, suffering, and death.


CJLPA: One aim of the Syria segment in the Journal is to explore the challenges faced by refugees across the world in integrating in the countries they seek refuge in. We would like to ask you a few questions on the obstacles you faced integrating into the culture and lifestyle in the Netherlands. When did you decide to leave Syria and what was the sequence of events that led to your departure? Can you please touch on the challenges you faced in your journey leaving Syria?


WH: Leaving the homeland is a personal loss that cannot be compensated for in any way, regardless of the degree of integration with new societies. Forcibly uprooting a person from his soil is a great personal tragedy.


I went with my daughter Razan, facing, like all those who ride the sea in rubber boats on the way to Europe, severe threats to my life. This is what happened with our Syrian brothers who boarded the boat of the child Ilan, which sank on the shores of the Greek islands after sailing from the same point that we left the shores of Turkey. There is a great degree of manipulation; a large number of smugglers exploited and intimidated most of those wishing to leave by sea via Greece to Western Europe.


The other challenge comes after obtaining residency as a refugee and a newcomer in a new country with a different language and culture, and with the continuation of the Syrian ordeal. One’s personality in the country of asylum is divided between the path of self-building, learning the new language and integrating, and attachment to one’s family in war-torn Syria, continuing to hear about every violation or deterioration and the war crimes that frequently happened to my family and the country.


There is no doubt that the Netherlands offers an advanced package of services to newcomers, and this is the point of my appreciation and respect. Here we learned a lot, thanks to programs to support refugees and ensure they are living in dignity. We were allowed to exercise the right of expression and choice that we were denied so much in Syria, and later granted citizenship—available for those who wish after five years of residency—which paved the way for education and work. This added to our awareness and experience and will also have important role in the return of generations of Syrians, endowed with competencies and a human horizon that will contribute a lot to Syria.


CJLPA: You have continuously fought for the human rights of Syrians even after your departure from Syria. What is a piece of advice you would like to give to young Syrians around the world that are looking to make a change in their country?


WH: The great destitution and lack of human rights in Syria and its Arab and Islamic surroundings remains the main cause of the unrest there, and the first engine for the movement of young men and women. Therefore, the demands and uprisings will not stop, regardless of the cause of oppression and terrorism, such as the suppression and silencing of free voices. Here arises the role of the Syrian youth in the diaspora around the world to support their country. Syria is filled with ideas, money, and works that rekindle the movement for a democratic Syria for all, similar to the modern countries of the world. Our alienation in Europe taught us a lot about respect for difference and acceptance of diversity and human rights. We learned a lot through the decentralisation of its municipal governments, which ensures correcting mistakes and continuous progress according to the needs of each municipality. The benefits of elections and the importance of voting in them, the importance of political programs for candidates, development plans, the development and improvement of facilities, overcoming mistakes, and addressing them in law. We learned that a politician is an employee to serve his country and among his citizens and not a master over slaves who tyrannises them, and the importance of dialogue between cultures and their convergence to serve man and humanity, instead of fanaticism.


This interview was conducted by Nour Kachi, Legal Researcher on CJLPA's Special Edition, 'The Human Agenda'. In addition to his role at CJLPA, Nour is currently working on qualifying as a lawyer in the US and UK.


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