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This piece is by Budour Hassan, a Palestinian anarchist and law graduate who is based in occupied Jerusalem. She writes about Weam Amasha, a Syrian from the occupied Golan Heights who was recently released from Israeli prison. You can follow Budour on twitter @Budour48.

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The Syrian revolution as seen through the eyes of a former prisoner in Israeli dungeons

When Weam Amasha was released on October 18, 2011 in the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, hundreds of Syrians from the occupied Golan Heights welcomed him with bellowing chants in support of the Syrian revolution. The euphoria that accompanied his release, however, would soon die down and be supplanted with hostility and even violence against him and his family because of his staunch opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Born in Buqa’ata, a village in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Amasha’s first arrest by Israeli occupation forces came when he was only 16 after he set fire to an Israeli police station. He was released after serving an 18-month sentence but was re-arrested shortly after his release while suffering wounds due to a landmine that exploded in his hand. Amasha was sentenced to 20 years in occupation prisons after he was convicted of membership in a resistance group that planned to capture Israeli occupation soldiers. In May of 2011, Amasha wrote a letter in solidarity with the Syrian revolution from his cell in Gilboa prison. He stated that he would go on a hunger strike in protest of the killings of unarmed protesters by the Syrian regime and in solidarity with protesters’ demands for freedom, dignity and a modern and civil country.

It was his outspoken and uncompromising support for the Syrian uprising that deprived him of the warmth and community support that typically overwhelms released political prisoners in the Golan.

“When I was released, I expected to be embraced by my community after long years of suffering behind Israeli bars, but instead, our home was attacked by regime supporters; they broke my father’s leg, assaulted my brothers. We were even boycotted,” Amasha told me. “It’s much more painful when your own people do this to you,” he added, heaving a tormented sigh.

Divided by the revolution

The small population in the occupied Golan has long been known for its strong unity and its tight-knitted, largely homogeneous social fabric. However, the Syrian revolution–which some regard as a Gulf-backed imperialist conspiracy–has markedly divided residents of the Golan. Regime supporters have held several large rallies pledging their loyalty to the regime and the Syrian Arab Army as well as expressing their unshakable faith in the promised reforms. On the other hand, anti-regime activists have been holding small weekly vigils to support the uprising and call for the downfall of the regime. This polarisation, Amasha says, is “an extension of the chasm we’re seeing in the Arab world in general. As patriarchal societies, we’re not fully prepared yet for radical changes brought up by youth.”

However, Amasha admits that the Golan has its own unique situation. Amasha affirms that although the people of the Golan are under Israeli occupation, they haven’t escaped the vigilant surveillance of the Palestine Branch–one of the most notorious intelligence branches in Syria.

“The Syrian regime has embedded its own agents in the Golan and their job is not to spy on Israeli occupation forces, but rather to spy on residents and file reports about any anti-regime activity,” he said. “This explains why, despite not being under its direct control, the barrier of fear hasn’t been broken here, especially for those who study in Syria or have family members there.”

Amasha added: “While the Syrian regime was committing the Hama massacre in 1982, the people in the Golan were collectively rising up against the Israeli occupation’s decision to annex the Golan Heights and the attempt to force Israeli citizenship on us. This popular mobilisation for freedom actually rankled the Syrian regime because it did not want any segment of the Syrian people to find their voices and perhaps inspire other Syrians. This is why it’s been important for Hafez and then his son to keep the Golan under the boots of the mukhabarat.”

A bulwark of resistance?

I asked Amasha to explain why so many prominent resistance activists in the Golan and Palestine, including former prisoners who spent decades in Israeli occupation jails, vehemently back the regime: “You obviously cannot question the patriotism and the ethics of these freedom fighters. They genuinely believe that this regime is part of the resistance axis, and overthrowing it is a massive blow to resistance.”

When I asked him whether he thinks that this regime is indeed a bulwark of resistance, he replied: “For the regime, supporting resistance is not a moral and principled stance, but rather a position based on interests. The regime monopolised the idea of resistance and used it to subjugate and maintain control over the Syrian people, on the one hand, and as a bargaining chip in international arenas, on the other hand. If the Syrian regime was principled about its support for resistance,” Amasha wonders, “why did it disperse by force pro-Palestinian protests in Damascus during the Second Intifada? Why did regime forces attack demonstrators against the war on Iraq? The history of this regime is full of massacres against Palestinian resistance movements in Lebanon, but not once has it come close to firing a bullet at the Israeli occupation army since 1973.”

“Freedom cannot be compromised”

Amasha’s message to resistance activists who insist on siding with the Syrian regime against what he describes as the “popular revolution in Syria” is clear: “You cannot oppose a foreign occupier but accept the oppression of a local tyrant. Freedom cannot be compromised and divided.”

I first heard about the “National Unity Brigades” (in Arabic: Kata’eb Al-Wahda Al-Wataniye) from a YouTube video announcing the formation of one of their brigades and their intention to take up arms against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. In the first line of the statement, the speaker declares “Religion is for God, and the homeland is for all.” At first, I was skeptical: anyone can make a video declaring the formation of a new battalion. Then, while I was talking to a trusted friend from Syria, he randomly brought up the National Unity Brigades, telling me how excited he was about these new brigades that were forming. Many of his friends, he said, had just joined, and they were growing in numbers. I asked if he knew anyone from the brigades that he could put me in touch with. After asking for permission, he gave me the contact information of one of the members of the brigades who calls himself “JD.” We had a conversation where we talked about many things, from the reasons for the founding of the brigades, to their relations with Islamists, to prospects for a post-Assad Syria. The conversation was originally in Arabic, and I have translated it into English with his permission in order to share it:

(Note: The italics are my notes.)

DN:  Hello JD, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me. So tell me, where exactly are you right now?

JD: In Syria, in the Damascus countryside to be precise.

DN: What is the history of the brigades?

JD: 4 months ago we came up with the idea and began planning, collecting money, and discussing specifics. We began actually fighting on the ground 3 months ago. I started working with them a few days after they were founded. We now have several brigades located in almost all of the provinces of Syria, and we are working on spreading to all of them.

DN: Why did you decide to start the brigades and take up arms?

JD: The brigades started as a reaction to the increasing sectarianism in Syria. The regime started it. Then later, extremist groups joined in. Their goal was to bring the country to sectarian civil war with no end. The National Unity Brigades operates for the sake of a civil, democratic state for all ethnicities and social identities.

The decision to arm was not our decision: it was imposed on us by the violence of the regime and its brutality in the killings. If you watch the statement for the formation of the Tamer Al-Awam brigade in Suwayda, one of the brigades that falls under the umbrella of the National Unity Brigades, they clarify that they are switching from activism work in relief and aid to taking up arms due to the regime’s brutality and massacres.

DN: So what are your goals then?

JD: Our first goal is to bring down the regime. Our second goal is to form a civil and democratic state. We want this. And we act in the name of this.

DN: Can you tell me about the choice of names of the brigades?

JD: Every brigade has a national name. We are trying to distance ourselves from religious or ideological stamps. Our brigades contain everyone: Muslims and minorities. All participate in the battle for liberation. The brigades are a manifestation of the reality of national unity.  And we have good relations with everyone. We try to approach everyone, even people from the Jihadist movement…in the end they are Syrian too, and our goal is to be one front.

DN: What are some of the names of the brigades?

JD:

Abdel Rahman Al Shabandar Brigade (Syrian Arab nationalist who organized the Iron Hand society against French rule)

Martyrs of the Syrian Revolution brigade

Joul Jamal Brigade (named after a Syrian Christian who defended Egypt in the Suez crisis in a suicide attack with his small boat against a French warship)

Martyrs of Badama Brigade

Martyrs of the Wastani Mountains Brigade

Ahmad Maryoud Brigade (anti-colonial Syrian fighter against Ottomans first, then French later)

Youssef Al-Admeh Brigade (Syrian anti-colonial leader against French occupation)

Tamer Al-Awam Brigade (named after a Syrian filmmaker recently killed in Aleppo)

DN: Who arms and supports you?

JD: Patriotic individuals who don’t want recognition. We reject any support that is politicized or that is not patriotic, no matter how big. And everyone who supports us shares our dream of a civil state.

DN: So, do you reject outside support then?

JD: If it is politicized or political, then yes, we reject it. We also reject it if it is party-based or sectarian.

DN: But the problem is that there is lots of outside support for the Islamists. Won’t they remain stronger than you militarily if your position is as such?

JD: Yes, but the root of the problem is the various brigades aren’t unified. Support and donations should go to the military council, and then the military council should distribute the aid accordingly. But, unfortunately, there are some brigades who get donations exclusively to them. We reject this and seek unification of military efforts in a military council that represents the free army and revolutionaries in the form of a “Revolutionary Military Council.” This is actually taking place in Aleppo with the formation of The Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo.

DN: So you want the structure of Aleppo to be applied to the entire country?

JD: We want justice and fairness when it comes to support. We want to unify the efforts to liberate Syria under one umbrella.

DN: What are your relations like with the Islamists? Do you foresee any problems between you and them in the future?

JD: Our relations are good with all the brigades without exception. The National Unity Brigades are not against any brigade that is fighting against the regime. We have fought in battles side by side with Islamist and Jihadist brigades. The National Unity Brigades operate for the sake of a civil state. But we also accept the rule of the ballot box, and the decision for the future of Syria is ultimately up to the people.

We are a national movement that does not support any movement or ideology. Personally, some of us are secular, others religious, but as a movement, we reject these types of characterizations.

DN: Do you think that the National Unity Brigades will have any sway in terms of Syria’s future? Do you think you are strong enough to make a difference?

JD: Whenever a brigade is formed in the National Unity Brigades, it signs a Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement document. This document specifies that it is required that all members of the National Unity Brigades disarm immediately after the regime falls, or to join the national army in the future. The National Unity Brigades are a way for Syrians to realize freedom and democracy for the Syrian people in order to choose the destiny that they see fit. Syria’s future will be determined after the fall of the regime by the people through dialogue and compromise, not by weapons. And of course, through the ballot box.

DN: But what do you do if the regime falls and you surrender your weapons, but others do not?

JD: This issue can be dealt with by a national army. This is a problem for the coming army. But we are against brigades continuing after the fall of the regime that are not under the banner of a national army.

DN: Do the National Unity Brigades have a position on foreign military intervention?

JD: The Syrian people are able to deal with their issues from the inside. Foreign states are not charity foundations, and we reject any intervention that is conditioned on anything that will restrict the future of Syria. But we also acknowledge that the decision is ultimately up to the Syrian people.

The Syrian people have sacrificed a lot, and they deserve freedom, justice, and dignity. We are afraid to impose any restrictions on the future of Syria, whatever kind they are. The Syrian people have sacrificed a lot for freedom, and we don’t want this to be a deficient freedom at the end. However, the decision is up to the people.

DN: What else can you tell me about the National Unity Brigades, and what plans do you have for the future?

JD: Soon, we will form a political body made up of patriotic individuals. However, it is for the homeland, without parties, without agendas, and without personal desires.

We are committed to the Geneva Conventions. We also have our own rules and guidelines for our fighters. We forbid any kind of exposure or endangerment to civilians. We also have courts for those who violate instructions. And we make all of these things clear when somebody joins the brigades, and every member signs onto them.

Lastly, most of us are very young. Lots of us left university and our whole lives to work for the Syrian revolution and for the victory of the Syrian people.

DN: What about you personally?

JD: I was at university trying to get my bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. And don’t ask me how I got where I am today…because I don’t even know!

DN: Where were you?

JD: I was in university in Damascus. When the revolution started, first we started protesting. Then, we started distributing food and water. Then, we started distributing medicine and aid. And now…we’re here!

By now it should be evident that the mainstream news outlets’ coverage of events in Syria is flawed, at best. Even those news outlets that are accused of being ‘sympathetic’ to the demands of the opposition only scratch the surface of what’s really happening in Syria. Headlines focus on military events, such as the seizing of government air bases by the rebels, or the recent tensions between Turkey, Russia and Syria. Basically, no matter what slant a news outlet takes, the only news stories that are reported are those that do not contradict the dominant ‘civil war’ or ‘proxy war’ narrative. Frankly, this can be very depressing for those of us on the outside.

However, there is still reason for hope. A number of events that have occurred in the last week that were not reported in mainstream news outlets, but in social media circles, show that despite everything Syria has gone through, rationality prevails, and this, more than anything, should give us hope for the future in a post-Assad Syria.

Take, for example, the recent events in Al-Qardaha. Qardaha is the hometown of the Assad family. Throughout the revolution, many sectarian statements have been made against this town, as if it is as a whole culpable for the crimes of the Assad regime. However, a few days ago, news trickled out that there was infighting in Qardaha between the Assad family and other families of the town. What happened exactly isn’t clear, but the news that was being reported widely was that Qardaha was rejecting Assad rule. What is more telling than whatever actually happened in Qardaha is the reaction by Syrian revolutionaries. Excitement spread throughout the Syrian opposition community. Many Syrian revolutionaries posted statements in solidarity with the town: “Qardaha is rising up!” “Go Qardaha go!” “Qardaha we are with you!”. Then, the town of Kafranbel in Idlib, which is famous for its clever signs, released a video of a protest they had where they declared their solidarity with Qardaha. In the video, the people of Kafranbel chant the classic Syrian revolution chant to declare solidarity with other cities undergoing repression, but, for the first time, the city being named is Qardaha: “O Qardaha, we are with you till death!”

News of the events in Qardaha and the popular excitement in reaction to it culminated on Friday, October 12th. Since the Syrian revolution began, every “Friday” has a name, such as “The Friday of the Unification of the FSA Brigades”, or “The Friday of the Revolution is for all Syrians.” The Friday of October 12th name was the first in a while that Syrians were excited about, for it was named the Friday of “The Revolutionaries of the Sahel Will Make Us Victorious.” The Sahel, literally meaning “the coast”, is the region in Syria comprised of the Lattakia and Tartus provinces. The Sahel is the historical home and center of life for the Alawite community (the coastal mountains in the Sahel in particular). Although the cities of the Sahel are mixed, and Alawites don’t constitute a majority in them, it is where they are most concentrated throughout Syria. Thus, the naming of the Friday like this, especially in reaction to the news coming out of Qardaha, is a very positive development.

Banner for the Friday of “The Revolutionaries of the Coast Will Make Us Victorious”



Another reason there is still hope is reports of huge protests in Aleppo, where much of the military battle has been concentrated in the last few weeks. One protest caught on video shows a young boy leading protest chants for a very enthusiastic crowd in Bustan AlQasr, a poor working-class neighborhood of Aleppo. Although it seems just like any other protest, this one was worthy of mentioning due to what the boy is chanting. There has been much criticism of the actions of the armed revolutionaries in Aleppo, so much so that some people have declared they can no longer support the armed opposition after the events in Aleppo. The chants of the boy, however, show us that the people of Bustan AlQasr’s position is very nuanced. While raising revolutionary flags, and cursing Bashar, they also criticize the FSA in Aleppo who are making mistakes. This type of non-dogmatic, nuanced support for the revolution gives hope for a post-Assad Syria where reason and rationality prevail over ideology and “with-us-or-against-us” mentalities. The video is posted with translations below:


Translation:

Syria, freedom or nothing!
May God make our revolution victorious
and down down with the Baath party!

And we don’t want anymore looting (referring to FSA here)
That is true!
And our brigades are fighting each other
That is true!
They stole the sugar and the tahin.
That is true!

And this guy (Bashar) is a thief!
That is true!
He even stole my dreams!
That is true!
He stole what little my family had!
That is true!

I am with this revolution!
That is true!
At the checkpoint they stripped me
That is true!
They threw me in prison
That is true!
And then they accused me of thuggery.

In addition to all this, a new statement has been released by the revolutionaries in the Sahel as an appeal to the Alawite community. I have translated the statement below:

Statement by the Battalions and Committees of the Sahel (Coast) Regarding the Events of Al-Qardaha and the Rural Sahel

In the name of God, the gracious, the merciful.
O sons of our coast, in the mountains of the Alawites:
We people of the Sahel are very aware that the Assad family has no regard for any sect or religion, and that it’s singular regard is to remain in power, even if that costs them the sons of their own sect.
And you all know the names of your sons who were killed by Hafez Al-Assad in the period that he governed in order for him to consolidate his power over the sect first, and Syria second.
It did not make a difference for Salah Jadid, Mohammad Omran, and others, that they were Alawites in the days of the father Hafez, just like it did not make a difference for the hundreds of Alawite dissidents in the days of his son, for the regime treated them with brutality and barbarism like it treats all dissidents from all sects. In this regard, all sects were treated equally; even the writers and those who were peaceful among you were not spared whenever they dissented; the story of the poet Hassan Al Khayer whose tongue was cut off by Hafez al Assad who then murdered him, and also the story of the death of the employee in Qardaha at the hands of someone from the Assad family a short time ago is the biggest evidence of this.
We realize that there are those of you who are against this regime and its crimes, and for this reason, the slogan “One, one, one…The Syrian people are one!” was one of the first slogans that was chanted by all Syrian revolutionaries, and it was the message we wanted to send to you before any other person so you could put your hands in ours to make this gang fall, but unfortunately we have not received what we aspired for, and the regime was successful in getting a lot of your sons to kill and repress us, and we hear the voices of the murderers speak in your accent and pose for pictures next to our bodies and our prisoners.
Despite all this, we still to this day believe that there are many among you who reject what this regime has been doing in your name, but our faith in you is not sufficient unless Syrians as a whole see you standing sincerely and strongly on the side of victory for your brothers.
Like we previously invited you to do, we want you to be with us to bring down this gang and disavow all the mistakes being made in your name, and hasten the withdrawal of your sons from the army and the security forces, and cleanse your villages from Shabiha and their followers. As this happens, you will see us become close to you, support you, and encourage you.
The Great Syrian revolution is advancing, God willing, towards the realization of its goals, and the day of decisiveness is approaching slowly with His help, and we think that you have begun to feel this. So it is for us, and for you, and for Syria, that we invite you to put your hands in our hands to accelerate the downfall of this regime so we can teach our sons and your sons to live in peace and to try to remove all these tensions that the the Assad family gang planted between us over the course of 40 years.
Your participation with us in bringing down this gang will protect you and protect us from the regime’s attempts to ignite sectarian strife between us, and will save a lot of blood of the sons of your homeland who are being killed every day at the hands of Shabiha who are comprised of many of your sons, unfortunately.
Our Sahel, that is decorated by the generosity of our sea, can accommodate all of us, and our history and world history will write lines about our great revolution; Could your stance in the face of these crimes of this gang be like the stance of the free men of the mountain who stood against its division in the old days [here referring to French plan to create separate Alawite state in the mountains]. Would you accept that this history records you as being with Bashar and his gang, or with those free men who will live in the memory all of Syrians, without regard for different sects?
Syria, which we all love, with its mountains and its beaches, waits for a strong stance from you. Please do not disappoint us and disappoint it with it.

Signed: Free Men of the Sahel Brigade. Hijra to Allah Bridages. Mountain of Turkmen Brigades. The Sahel Tasks Brigade. News Organization of Lattakia. We are all Anas Shughri. The Free Syrian News Network of the Sahel-Jable-Banias-Lattakia-Tartous. The Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Al Assad in Tartous.

Perhaps the statement is not 100% ideal, but it is certainly a step forward. By at least making attempts to reach out to the Alawite communities, this statement gives hope for a post-Assad Syria.

There are many things to be depressed about these days in regards to Syria. Syrians today watch the news in horror. We have all been overcome by defeatism. However, if you turn off the TV every once in a while, and just try to listen to what some are trying to tell us, there is a chance that you may catch a glimmer of something positive. And while that may not be much, and while we may be getting a little overexcited, there is a chance, however small, that it means something. And if it does mean something, then it has the capability of shaping a better post-Assad Syria. And for this reason, there is hope. For it is in our darkest hours that a glimmer of light is noticeable.