The Salafist and the human rights activist

A year ago, four Syrian human rights activists were taken from a suburb of Damascus. Among them was the well-known lawyer Razan Zaitouneh. The kidnapping illustrates the fatal turn the Syrian revolution has taken, partly due to the West's inaction, writes Kristin Helberg

By Kristin Helberg

A pale woman sits in front of a beige curtain. Her blonde curls are tied back, her blue eyes look tired. It is 4 December 2013, six days before the kidnapping, and this English-language video may be Razan Zaitouneh's last message to the world. Eastern Ghouta, the area immediately to the east of Damascus, where she now lives, is being bombarded daily and has been completely cut off for months. Twenty-three children have already died of starvation.

The world's silence in the face of the Assad regime's crimes is as unbearable for Zaitouneh as it is for Yassin al-Haj Saleh, one of the country's leading intellectuals, who now lives in Istanbul. The two have known each other for a long time and have been central figures of the Syrian revolution since 2011. Al-Haj Saleh's feelings about the behaviour of the West have turned from mere incomprehension and rage into utter contempt. He says that Americans and Europeans have weakened the Syrian opposition and lied to it, putting off the moderate rebels with empty promises, and thereby strengthening the Islamists.

This is a development that has played into the hands of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who is doing everything he can to silence his opponents in the country – activists, members of the opposition, intellectuals and critics of every denomination and social group – and replace them with the spectre of jihadist terrorism.

The failure of the West's Syria policy

To understand why Assad's plan is working so well, we just have to look at the history of this kidnapping. The taking of the four activists on 10 December 2013 from the Islamist-controlled area around Damascus is an object lesson in the West's counter-productive policy on Syria.

This history begins in Bashar al-Assad's "stable" and "secure" Syria, which many people now long to see return, without having any idea what state despotism, surveillance and torture felt like even then. Under the Assads – both father and son – anyone criticising the regime too overtly ends up in prison.

Razan Zaitouneh is one of the team of lawyers representing regime opponents in court. The regime is most fearful of political Islam and the Kurds, so the majority of political prisoners in Syria are Islamists, who, like the Kurds, are treated particularly badly. Zaitouneh therefore also defends Salafists, whose views she personally rejects. But like all prisoners, they have earned the right to a fair trial, says a former colleague from this period who wishes to remain anonymous.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (photo: Reuters/Sana)
The gravedigger of the Syrian people: "What would Zaitouneh say today, if she knew that Assad's war of extermination is now not only being tolerated, but actually rewarded? That he has become a partner in the fight against IS – a force nurtured by his regime – and that his strategy of starving whole sections of cities in order to force their inhabitants to capitulate, led to a UN plan for local ceasefires?" writes Kristin Helberg

Parallel lives, different visions

One of these Islamists is Zahran Alloush, the son of a well-known preacher from Douma, who studied Islamic law at the University of Damascus and in Saudi Arabia and was arrested in early 2009 for Salafist activities. It is unclear whether Alloush or members of his family were Zaitouneh's clients at this time. What is clear is that the Syrian revolution, which began in spring 2011, brought their lives together under very different circumstances.

The prisoner and the defence counsel; the religious fundamentalist and the secular human rights lawyer swap roles. After the first peaceful protests, President Assad declares his critics in the country to be terrorists and enemies of the state. Razan Zaitouneh is described on Syrian television as a foreign agent and is forced to go into hiding. Zahran Alloush, by contrast, is released from prison in June 2011, collects money and followers and starts carrying out attacks in Damascus in July 2012. But for Bashar al-Assad, Zaitouneh is the terrorist, not Alloush.

For two years, Zaitouneh hides in various apartments, giving interviews to CNN via Skype, describing her thoughts in the German newspaper "Die Zeit", and posting the latest news from the revolution on Facebook. At the same time, Alloush is in Saudi Arabia looking for financial backers and founding the Islamic brigade "Liwa al-Islam".

At this time, however, the non-religious, moderate rebels still have the upper hand. Starting in spring 2012, local units made up of deserters and residents and belonging to the Free Syrian Army drive the regime out of the suburbs of Damascus. "There was a mood of awakening," remembers Zaitouneh's colleague, who doesn't want to be named. In eastern Ghouta, he says, clever, responsible people were in charge – politically and militarily. "The atmosphere was great; we were planning to set up courts and a local police force."

This idea of a free Syria also attracted Razan Zaitouneh. In April 2013, after two years in hiding, during which time her husband, Wael Hamadeh, was twice arrested and brutally tortured, the two of them go to Douma, where the lawyer founds a centre for the documentation of human rights abuses (the Violation Documentation Center in Syria).

In Douma she meets Yassin al-Haj Saleh again, who has also had enough of living in hiding and wants to go north, where he can work more effectively for the revolution. Al Haj-Saleh's wife, Samira al-Khalil, a former political prisoner and an Alawite, decides to follow on later, once she has helped Zaitouneh set up two women's centres.

Pockets of freedom

Wherever the regime has been driven out, the people breathe freedom. Curriculums are rewritten, town councillors are elected, newspapers are published and cultural centres are set up – all developments that the West favours, but does not support, even though the huge bombing raids on residential areas of Homs in February 2012 leave no one in any doubt that Assad will use any weapons at his disposal to stay in power.

The argument that in 2012, it was not clear who was fighting whom in Syria is just a lame excuse. At this time, Syrian Islamists like Alloush were just starting to get organised, and there were only very isolated pockets of foreign jihadists in the country. Instead of giving the many different local rebel groups the money, training and weapons they needed to create an alternative Syrian army, they were left to fight amongst themselves over supplies.

Some become corrupt and criminal, started extorting money or selling grain to buy weapons. After all, at the very least they need a Kalashnikov to stand up to the regime's snipers and tanks. They don't stand a chance against the fighter jets' rockets and the helicopters' barrel bombs.

Zaitouneh criticises such behaviour by the rebels. "We must not become the thing we are fighting against," she demands, but in the face of the brutality and might of the regime, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the rebels to uphold their principles.

The rise of the Islamists

In these circumstances, Islamists like Zahran Alloush appear and have an easy ride. Thanks to their supporters in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, they are able to act as benefactors in many places. They buy grain from the Free Syrian Army, bake bread and distribute it to the people; they support poor families, seem honest and not corrupt, and their superior equipment and discipline ensures them greater military success – even against the advancing forces of IS.

Alloush establishes himself in his old home of eastern Ghouta, where he can rely on a personal network from his childhood years. At the end of September 2013, more than 40 different Islamic brigades join forces there to form the "Army of Islam". Zahran Alloush becomes their leader, and Douma their base. The Islamist rebel leader and the secular activist have chosen the same spot for their struggle against Assad, but they are fighting for very different visions of a free Syria.

Zaitouneh's activities are a thorn in Alloush's side. It isn't just that the Violation Documentation Center in Syria is documenting crimes committed on all sides of the struggle, Zaitouneh and her team are setting up civil structures and an independent local administration that undermines the Army of Islam's claims to authority. Moreover, as her former colleague recalls, she stubbornly refused to wear a headscarf. All of which sound like reasons to get rid of Zaitouneh and the others, he thinks.

The Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office, Christoph Strässer (photo: Knoll/Florian Jänecke)
On the anniversary of the abduction of the Syrian lawyer and human rights defender Razan Zaitouneh and her colleagues Wa’el Hamada, Samira Khalil and Nazem Hamadi, The Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office, Christoph Strässer called on "the relevant actors and parties to the conflict to do everything in their power to ensure the safety of the four abducted activists and to facilitate their release"

Poison gas deployed against civilians

The regime makes life in East Ghouta a living hell. First there is the poison gas: on 21 August, Assad's sarin kills over 1,000 people. The world is shocked. Then, in late September, the world gives Assad carte blanche to keep killing: after all, UN Resolution 2118 implies that if Assad gives up his chemical weapons, he can carry on murdering as he pleases. At least, this is how activists like Zaitouneh see it, having seen the bodies in the street that day in August and heard the cries of mothers as they found their children among them.

And this is also how Bashar al-Assad sees it. In October, he has eastern Ghouta completely cut off and bombarded on a daily basis. He wants to win back this rebel-held suburb of the capital – whatever the cost. The West is untroubled by this as long as Assad hands over his list of chemical weapons on time.

Because of this, people like Razan Zaitouneh and Yassin al-Haj Saleh lose faith in the United Nations. The fundamental principles of human rights clearly don't apply to the Syrian people, the lawyer writes at the start of December 2013, since "Assad, the true criminal" is still free, and nobody cares.

What would Zaitouneh say today if she knew that Assad's war of extermination is now not only being tolerated, but actually rewarded? That he has become a partner in the fight against IS – a force nurtured by his regime – and that his strategy of starving whole sections of cities in order to force their inhabitants to capitulate led to a UN plan for local ceasefires?

We don't know what she would say, because on 10 December 2013, a group of unidentified people invaded the Violation Documentation Center in Douma and kidnapped Zaitouneh, her husband Wael Hamadeh, the lawyer and poet Nazem Hammadi and Samira al-Khalil, al-Haj Saleh's wife. As the local warlord, Zahran Alloush is under suspicion, but he insists again and again that he has nothing to do with the kidnapping. Al-Haj Saleh doesn't believe him. "Whoever did it was acting on the orders of, or with the authorisation of, the Army of Islam," he says. Alloush is aware of everything that is happening in Douma.

Relatives, activists and politicians all over the world are working on behalf of the four, to no avail. Because nobody has made any demands and because there is no trace of them, al-Haj Saleh fears that his wife and her friends are dead. Their legacy, then, is all the more important. Zaitouneh, showered with prizes in Europe, condemned the West again and again for its inaction in Syria.

For his part, Yassin al-Haj Saleh has completely written off the West. "It's as though all the calls for help to the 'civilized' West were being held back by a thick wall. The West is closing its eyes and ears to the wishes and hopes of Syrians, who have invested so much in this revolution."

In order to draw attention to the fate of the four kidnapped activists, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Germany has now honoured them with the Petra Kelly Prize, which is given in recognition of outstanding achievements in respecting human rights, fostering non-violent conflict resolution or protecting the environment. What would be even more valuable than this award would be that their messages finally start being heard.

Kristin Helberg

© 2014

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin