The New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and the Syrian American Council held a discussion with Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio and youth activist Hadeel Kouki on the situation inside Syria and future prospects for the country. Read on for a dispatch from the event:
One month ago, the Syrian government expelled Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio from the country he lived in for the past 30 years. His crime? Supporting the Syrian government’s opposition forces and speaking out against the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Seven months ago, Hadeel Kouki, a student studying law and English literature at Aleppo University, fled Syria after several stints in jail. Her crime? Protesting against Assad’s dictatorship. Kouki endured days of torture in prison. “Maybe they tortured me more than any other people because I belonged to a minority [group],” Kouki told the audience at a New America event this week that assessed the current state of civil war inside Syria, the future of the fractured country, and the severe impact of the conflict on minorities. “I am a Christian girl. The regime always wants to show the revolution as an extremist, Sunni revolution which is not true.” They do that, she said, to “make other minorities afraid of being involved in the revolution.”
Assad, part of the minority Alawite population, an off-shoot of Shia Islam, has long claimed to be a champion and protector of other minorities in the majority-Sunni Muslim country. “My family has suffered a lot, and is still suffering in Syria because of this regime, which claimed to protect minorities,” she said. “That’s not true at all.”
Lies – from all sides of the conflict – pervade the country, according to the testimonies of Kouki and Paolo. “We have seen a systematic negation of facts,” Paolo said. “The interpretation of the revolution as terrorism [by the regime] has been systematic from the beginning.”
It didn’t take long for one of those lies to surface at this week’s event: A man in the audience asked whether it was true that the Saudi government was paying each protestor $500 to demonstrate against the Assad regime. He said he heard that rumor from relatives in Syria.
“Hadeel, are they paying you?” Paolo asked.
“They paid nothing for me and for the other activists,” Kouki answered. “Everyone who goes to a demonstration knows you could die. A lot of people lost neighbors of their families, lost homes, they lost everything. They are not losing everything for some money. They are losing everything for free Syria.”
It’s time, Kouki and Paolo emphasized, for international intervention. “I am not a political expert,” Kouki acknowledged, “ But I think it’s unfortunately the only way now to reach where we’re going. The violence of the regime is more and more everyday, so of course we need some help to support the Free Syrian Army.”
Paolo echoed her plea for help, calling on Russia to join the United Nations in supporting a free Syria. “We need international civil society to send peacekeepers and activists to help [Syrian] society go into democracy the right way,” he said.