Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Changing Sides in Syria - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

This Tuesday, April 30, 2013 photo shows a large poster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, center, and two Alawite fighters killed in Syria. The Arabic writing that reads, "At your service, oh Assad," and, "Bullets will not terrify us and we are not scared of traitors." (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

This Tuesday, April 30, 2013 photo shows a large poster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, center, and two Alawite fighters killed in Syria. The Arabic writing that reads, “At your service, oh Assad,” and, “Bullets will not terrify us and we are not scared of traitors.” (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Turkish–Syrian border, Asharq Al-Awsat—“In the beginning, I protested against the regime,” says Mahmoud as he puffs on his nargileh (shisha). “When the revolution started, it was about dignity for the people. But look what’s happened to it now.”

Swimming against the great tide of people who have defected from the Syrian regime, Mahmoud describes himself as a defector from the opposition. “I know about a hundred people who think like me,” he says, “but this is a town of two thousand people.”

Sitting in a restaurant in the heart of rebel-held territory, he talks freely about how he fears the shape that the revolution is taking and about his sympathies for the widely despised president, Bashar Al-Assad. He insists that he could not speak so openly if it wasn’t for his friend—a media officer with a powerful local brigade—sitting next to him. “A lot of my friends are working with the Free Syrian Army,” he says, “and if I am with them then no-one will hurt me. But if it were just me and you sitting here, I wouldn’t be able to speak with you like this.”

Mahmoud explains how, in the increasingly confusing spectrum of the opposition, a new and troubling group has emerged. He calls them the Shabiha Al-Thuwra—the Thugs of the Revolution—a name that evokes Assad’s gangs; according to Mahmoud they even use the same tactics as Assad’s ultra-loyalist paramilitary thugs. “Everyone is working for himself now,” he says. “The Free Syrian Army is becoming the same as the regime. They do exactly the same things.”

He describes how retribution works on either side of the divide. Mahmoud’s brother, an opposition supporter, was arrested by the regime. A few months later one of his friends, a general in the regime’s Shabiha, fell victim to the same fate at the hands of the Free Syrian Army. “My brother was held for fifty days when he was arrested by the regime,” Mahmoud says, “but my family used all their connections and paid 400,000 Syrian lira to get him released.” Bribery was not an option for his friend. “The Free Syrian Army killed him. Some Shabiha deserve that because they have killed innocent people, but for him they had no evidence.” He explains why he prefers the methods of the Assad government in terms of pure pragmatism: when dealing with the regime, it is at least possible to buy your life back.

Mahmoud’s views, like those of his friends, are reinforced by the news he watches. The citizens of this increasingly splintered country now choose their media sources according to their loyalties.

In rebel bases and homes in the opposition-held areas, a plethora of low-budget revolutionary TV channels blare out sensationalist reports of the latest victories against government troops. In the regime areas, state television keeps support for the government army buoyant through fear-based propaganda about acts of Islamist terror in opposition areas.

As we watch reports of Israel’s bombing of Damascus on Al-Jazeera Arabic, Mahmoud says that he no longer watches that channel either: “I think they are serving their own interests by supporting the revolution. I’ll watch the BBC and France 24, and Syria TV too, but not Al-Jazeera or the opposition channels.”

He questions too the tactics of the Free Syrian Army in the area he lives in. “This town was taken by the rebels months ago, so why are they not advancing forward?” he asks. “Why do they keep their bases in the civilian areas here?” His house was shelled by the regime several months ago, and he believes that the attack was prompted by the dushka anti-aircraft gun—owned by a member of the Free Syrian Army—placed on full view outside the house next door.

There are some things on which everyone at the table agrees. Challenged by his opposition-supporting friends, Mahmoud concurs that the Assad regime was bankrupt: “They stole from the people, and that’s why I went to the protests at the start.”

He shares none of their personal hatred for Bashar Al-Assad himself: “I don’t believe he knows what the regime is doing,” he says. As his friends scoff in disbelief, he illustrates his point: “Say I own a factory, and people work for me. When I’m not in the building, I don’t know what they’re doing. I think that people on the inside are betraying Assad.”

His theory about the bombing in Damascus that killed four members of the president’s inner circle last July provokes derision from his friends. “I believe it was the CIA, and I have seen proof on the Internet,” he says. But his is just one of a wave of conspiracy theories that abound on both sides of the conflict, born of the dearth of reliable information about anything that happens in this increasingly opaque war.

Asked what he thinks the future of Syria will be, Mahmoud offers up an analysis as pragmatic as his views about the Shabiha: “No-one is winning now, so I think Syria will be split into two states, and the opposition and the government will make a deal with each other.”

Once again, his friends disagree with him—but they can agree to disagree and remain friends. Their situation is something that is becoming unusual in Syria: a country where friendships are being replaced by loyalties and once-idealistic supporters of the revolution are growing ever more disillusioned.

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist who has worked on a number of high-profile investigations for Channel 4 and the BBC. Her recent work has seen her gain access to inner city gangs, sex workers and the British far right. She has traveled to Kosovo, Syria and Brazil to report on human rights issues. She lives in London.

More Posts