Cover Story

Turning Syria inside out

"Turning Syria inside out" Continued...

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

In America Ishak worked as a civil engineer. He and his wife had three children and became active in the Washington, D.C.–area Church of the Apostles, an evangelical Anglican congregation. But the desire to see a pluralistic democracy in Syria ran deep: When Hafez al-Assad died and his son Bashar became president in 2000, Ishak sensed an opportunity for a new era. He returned to Damascus, opened a Christian bookstore on Straight Street in Damascus’ Old City (and later one in Hasaka) and became an outspoken advocate for minority rights and greater freedom. He became director of the Syrian Human Rights Organization and joined the Syriac Unity Party, formed largely to protect the rights (and land) of the country’s ancient Christian population.

At the time observers viewed the younger Assad, then 34, as mild-mannered, studious, and open to reform. Few realized the young president—groomed for over six years by his father—would prove as ruthless a dictator. Already, the Assad regime in 2000 was the longest-lasting in the post-World War II Middle East. 

Hafez al-Assad survived by crushing opponents and holding fast to an alliance with the Soviet Union. But his was a secular regime that involved minorities and came down hard on Muslim extremists. A 1983 massacre by Assad’s army of Sunnis in the city of Hama left an estimated 25,000 dead, mostly civilians. Intentionally, Assad left behind crushed buildings and bodies buried under layers of concrete—along with thousands of homeless—to remind the rest of the country of the destruction destined for anyone he considered opponents. The Assad creed: “Fight a hundred wars, demolish a million strongholds, and sacrifice a million martyrs” to consolidate power. 

Thirty years later that creed is playing itself out in an unrelenting civil war. It began with a brutal crackdown on street demonstrations in early 2011, with Assad forces using teargas and firing on demonstrators from helicopter gunships. By July the Free Syrian Army formed under defected Assad commanders, and by August the leading political opposition met in Turkey to form the Syrian National Council (SNC). 

Bassam Ishak was one of the SNC founders. He now admits to naïvely advocating a negotiated transition to democracy—but learned Assad “has no real political tools … only force.” 

Ishak lived under surveillance and a travel ban, along with several hundred human rights activists, for five years. State security suddenly lifted the ban in 2011 under so-called “reforms” in the early days of the uprising. But then Ishak received threatening phone calls, essentially ordering him to leave the country. Did you fear for your life? I asked. “No, I feared for my freedom,” Ishak said.

He fled Damascus in September 2011, traveling only with a briefcase containing his laptop, and leaving behind his family. He lives in a neighboring country he does not want disclosed and “travels around a lot,” he told me. 

An insider to a civil war overtaken by outsiders, Ishak has a growing concern over Islamist groups in Syria. During early Assad years, he said, under the name of land reform many Christians lost their land to Muslims. Today, he said, “the revolution is treating us no better as gangs targeting Christians with kidnappings and ransoms have forced the Christians to run out of the country.”

Still a member of the SNC, he is reluctant to support its umbrella group formed last year (with tacit U.S. support) called the Syrian National Coalition. It represents all opposition groups and has won recognition as the legitimate power in Syria from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others. 

“They are not home to us,” Ishak said. The Coalition seeks to marginalize Syria’s Christians (who number more than 1.5 million), he believes, and “doesn’t have legitimacy with Syrian people but with countries outside.”

Six months ago Ishak became president of the Syriac National Council, a new organization representing Christians in Syria and among the diaspora in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere: “We want a new Syria that’s tolerant of pluralism, based on rule of law, with all identities respected equally. And we want the historic land of Christianity to keep its land.”

The Syriac National Council represents a break by minorities from the jihadist-leading Coalition. Its members are seeking recognition of their own. In April Ishak and other Council leaders met in Washington with lawmakers and officials at the State Department. Now that the U.S. government has committed to humanitarian aid to rebel groups, the Syriacs are requesting aid for Syriac Christians along with a security force and provision for Christian medical facilities and charities. 

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