Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the myth of sectarianism in Syria

In his latest interview, with RT’s Murad Gazdiev, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the question of whether Sunnis are oppressed in Syria, as corporate and Gulf media so often allege. President Assad replied:

“…the first narrative when it started, internationally–mainly in the West of course–and within Syria, in some mainstream media’s in our region and in the West, their plan was to create this rift within the society that will make things easier for them when you have such a civil war, kind of civil war, between sects or ethnicities. And it failed.
 
Now, they keep using the same narrative at least to encourage some fanatics in different places in the world to come and defend their brothers in this area, cause that’s how they imagine that there is conflict between sects. So, because of their narrow-minded way of thinking, maybe or their ignorance, they came here just to support their brothers.
 
Now, if I’m going to tell you this is right or wrong, your audience doesn’t know me, they don’t have any idea maybe about my credibility. I’ll tell you, you know Syria very well, it’s better to go and see the reality on the ground.
 
If there’s such a narrative, let’s say, in reality sects killing another sect, Syria should be divided now according to sectarian line.
 
…Now, in Damascus, in Aleppo, in Homs, in every area under the Syrian government control you will see every spectrum of the Syrian society with no exceptions. This reality will debunk this narrative. I mean yeah how could they live with each other while the government is killing them, according the sectarian basis? It doesn’t work.”
 
 
President Assad’s words prompted me to reflect on the secular Syria I have seen on eight trips to the country, since first visiting in April 2014. Below, I share related articles, posts, photos and short clips, just a glimpse of secular Syria, where faiths are respected and where most Syrians, if asked about their faith, reply “ana Souri”, I am Syrian.

 
 
 

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During my visit in June, I met with Syria’s Minister of Reconciliation, Dr. Ali Haidar. Established in June 2012, the Ministry has successfully dialogued with tens of thousands of armed Syrians to enable and facilitate return to their civilian lives.
 

In a June 2014 interview, Minister Haidar told me that over 10,000 Syrians had reconciled and returned to their civilian lives. According to his office, as of June 2017, that number was over 85,000.

…I asked how life was in Madaya before 2011. “Madaya was a tourist’s paradise,” the mayor replied, smiling, eyes closed, remembering. “People who came from outside of Syria would come to Madaya,” to enjoy the environment of natural beauty.

Further on among the hillside dwellings, we stood near an apartment that had been occupied, one floor turned into a prison to hold locals until their fates (including execution) were decided in terrorists’ Sharia trials.

Nestled behind the apartment, out of view, was a factory where terrorists manufactured mortars and rockets. [video]

Above that factory, one of the food storage caches was found after militants had left Madaya. The mayor said, “Last time the army found a storage with more than 400 cartons of food.” Syrian authorities filled five trucks with medicine hoarded by the armed groups, he said.

Walking gingerly over rubble, not yet cleared by engineers of any unexploded ordinance, we reached the bomb workshop, a single ground-level room. Equipment and materials for manufacturing explosives still lay scattered.

Down the lane, another villa had also been used as a headquarters and prison until it was hit by Syrian army shelling, forcing the “rebels” to relocate. Another mass food storage was found in a neighboring building, the mayor said.

Entering the relocated prison through a hole blown into the wall [video], I walked past a room containing a cooking stove and refrigerator, both booby-trapped by terrorists to kill whoever tried to move them. I had learned of this tactic in 2014 in the old city of Homs.

“They left booby-trapped explosives in the houses, all over, even behind paintings on the wall,” I was told. Similarly, in Maaloula in June 2016, I was told: “They rigged houses so that when someone opened the door, an electrical trigger with a small charge would detonate and explode a gas canister.”

Two rooms, metal doors welded onto the entrances, had been used as cells. In the middle of another room, a metal bed frame with a piece of cloth tethered at one end. “They interrogated and tortured people here,” a former FSA militant said. An unwilling participant, he said he was forced by other militants to join, and that he was among the first to take the government-offered amnesty when peace was restored to Madaya in May 2017.

**

Further on in the district, three men worked clearing rubble from around a home badly damaged on the ground level. They waved and greeted us as our taxi stopped, but went silent and refused to speak when noticing my camera. A level up, a woman’s face peered out a small hole in the wall, then her hand reached out and gestured to come upstairs.

She was one of the many who left al-Waer, departing in 2013 and renting elsewhere in Homs. She said her life prior to 2011 was wonderful, and was strongly optimistic for the future:

“People are coming back home. Although many houses are destroyed, they are inhabited. If they are destroyed, we’ll rebuild them. What matters is that we’ve got rid of those bastards,” she said of the militants dubbed “moderate rebels” by western media and politicians.

The men below, it turned out, had been militants, but took amnesty and reconciled with the state, and are returning to their lives.

This was hard for me to process: living in the same building is a family evidently patriotic—the woman’s brother is in the Syrian army and she herself praised both the army and government—and the very former militants the family fled from, men who took up guns against both the government and in many cases civilians.

I asked if she knew her neighbors well. “Of course,” she answered. “But some people were brainwashed by others about ‘bad people, oppressing people.’ So, there were guys who joined those bastards,” she said of the militants.

As we spoke, one of the men came into the room. We shifted the conversation to casual talk about her family. After he left the room, she explained quietly that he was keeping an eye on her, what she might be saying to me. I was again struck by the strangeness of the situation, and when he had left, asked her if she wasn’t afraid to be living above the men.

“The state is here, we aren’t afraid. They’ve provided everything for us, are helping us, mash’allah,” she replied.

I stopped on the stairs leading from her apartment, listening to the call to prayer coming from the nearby mosque, watching as life trickled along the streets of the badly damaged district.

-from my September 2017 article on Madaya and al-Waer, Syria War Diary: Order Returns To Western Cities, Civilians Recount Horrors Of “Rebel” Rule

 
 

When in the eastern district Bab al-Hadid in June 2017, I interviewed a man in his small hardware shop who spoke of what the West deemed “rebels”:

“They are criminals! They call themselves ‘rebels’, but actually they are all terrorists, with no exceptions. They’re all the same but with different names. ISIS is like Nusra, Nusra are like the FSA, the FSA are like ISIS.”

When armed groups arrived in his area, the man stayed for one month, then left, taking his family to the government-secured area of Hamdaniya, which he described as “one of the most dangerous areas. We were targeted the most with missiles, mortars and Hell Cannons.”

Following the liberation of Aleppo, like so many others, he came home. “Wherever the army is, there is safety,” he told me. “Life is back, we’re safe again. We used to fear for the safety of our children when they were going to school or going to relatives.”

Down the street from the small shop, in the courtyard outside of a mosque, a group of Aleppo youths were preparing Ramadan meals for the district’s poorest, part of the Saaed Association’s “Break the Hunger” campaign which began in Damascus years ago.

One volunteer explained to me that they chose to cook and serve the food in the Bab al-Hadid district of Aleppo, “an area that was filled with fear and destruction,” to say that there is still life and hope there.

-from my August 2017 article, Syria War Diary: What Life Is Like Under ‘Moderate Rebel’ Rule

 

Aleppo’s religious leaders defy divisiveness

Inside his church, a new structure built about a year ago to replace the historic church destroyed by terrorists in years prior, Rev. Nseir introduced three Sunni leaders from the city: Dr. Rami Obeid, Dr. Rabih Kukeh, Sheikh Ahmed Ghazeli.

“These Sunni leaders are considered ‘infidels’ by al-Nusra and company,” Nseir said, explaining that they don’t follow the distorted Wahhabi ideology guiding the Western-backed terrorist factions like the Nusra Front and others which had been deemed “moderate rebels” and “opposition forces.”

Before turning the floor over to these religious leaders, Rev. Nseir noted:

“When the church was destroyed, the first person to call me was Mufti Hassoun, who told me, ‘Don’t worry, reverend, we’ll rebuild the church.’”

Dr. Kukeh spoke generally on the multi-denominational culture of Syria:

“The mosaic we are living in Syria is incomparable to any way of living all over the world. Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites. There is no discrimination based on religion or sect. The propaganda spread throughout the media have no roots here.”

In regards to the terrorists who portray themselves as freedom-fighting jihadists, Dr. Kukeh said:

“Those who are killing the Sunnis are the same who claim that they are defending the Sunnis. The shells that hit us daily are sent by them.”

He named six Sunni sheikhs in Syria, most in Aleppo, who were assassinated by terrorists for not joining them. One of them, Sheikh Abdel Latif al-Shami, was tortured to death in July 2012.

Dr. Kukeh, who said he named his oldest son after the former Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, “because I love that man,” explained that in 2012 he was living in eastern Aleppo when terrorists began to occupy districts there. He was targeted for assassination because he did not agree with the terrorists’ ideologies.

He said he was convicted of charges related to his writing for a local publication, his son’s name, and a lack of anti-government demonstrations emanating from his mosque. Those demonstrations never occurred, he said, because he never encouraged them like other Wahhabi sheikhs did elsewhere.

The conversation drifted from the source of terrorism in Syria, Wahhabism, and its distorted, un-Islamic nature, to the unity I’ve heard Syrians all over speak of.

-from my November 29, 2016 article, Aleppo: How US & Saudi-Backed Rebels Target ‘Every Syrian’

 
 
The roughly 65,000 people of Nubl and Zahra’a villages, under siege from terrorist factions of the so-called FSA, al-Nusra, and affiliated factions for three and a half years, were on February 3, 2016, liberated from the choke-hold which strangled them. Zeinab Sharbo, 25, and Mounthaher Khatib, 26, each have young children who suffered for want of food and basic elements of life, and who were traumatized by the terrorists’ bombing of the villages. Although corporate media, when deigning to mention the villages, usually focused on their predominately Shia composition, Sunnis also live in the villages. According to Zeinab, “Sectarianism wasn’t a problem before, we were brothers and sisters, we intermarried with neighbouring villages.”
 
 
 

In Damascus I met with various leaders of internal opposition, who notably all rallied behind President al-Assad and against the external Riyadh and Turkish-backed “opposition” put forth by the West. The Kurdish representative, Berwine Brahim, stated, “We want you to convey that conspiracy, terrorism and interference from Western countries has united supporters of the government and the opposition, to support President Bashar al-Assad. We opposition members see that President al-Assad is the guarantee of Syria.”

On two occasions I have met Syria’s highest Muslim religious authority Grand Mufti, Dr. Ahmad Badreddin, whose own son Saria, 22, was assassinated in October 2011. The following day, Mufti Hassoun publicly called for the pardon of the assassins, who in turn sent a message they would kill him next. Hassoun continues to use his platform to call for Syrians to lay down their weapons and “come back” to their country. He rejects the sectarianism sent to Syria by Saudi Arabia and calls for the rehabilitation of European mosques influenced by Wahhabism.

…Staying in the Old City of Damascus, I got a taste of the daily mortar terrorism, then primarily from “moderate” “rebels” in their stronghold of Jobar, just east of the city. I visited a hospital where children from the mortared Manar school were being treated for mild to severe injuries. On another visit, in Damascus, I visited the University Hospital, where children, women and men were being treated for injuries from mortars and missiles fired by terrorists in Douma. Many had amputations, many were in intensive care, including those with severe brain injuries.

…Most Syrians request that I tell exactly what I have seen and to transmit the message that it is for Syrians to decide their future, that they support their president and army and that the only way to stop the bloodshed is for Western and Gulf nations to stop sending terrorists to Syria, for Turkey to stop warring on Syria, for the West to stop their nonsense talk about “freedom” and “democracy” and leave Syrians to decide their own future.

-from my March 2016 article, Syria Dispatch: Most Syrians Support Assad, Reject Phony Foreign ‘Revolution’

 
 

Reverend Ibrahim Nseir is head of Aleppo’s Presbyterian church (destroyed by terrorist factions in 2012), and his charitable work is an example of the types of efforts which arose as a direct result of the different needs of communities during the war on Syria.

“Our church helps 200 families per month, around 40% of whom are Muslims. We have a building in al-Kora Ardiya neighbourhood (western side of Aleppo) which we gave to an organization called Ahl al-Khayr. It is not a Christian organization, but we cooperate with each other to decrease the pain of people. All of the community there are Muslims.”

Over the years, terrorists have repeatedly cut the city’s water lines, meaning a dearth of water to many Aleppo neighbourhoods—although both the Syrian government and independent associations have dug wells and sought to provide alternative sources of washing and drinking water for the residents.

Reverend Nseir’s church also helps provide water sources. “Last year, when Aleppo was greatly suffering due to lack of water, we dug two drinking water wells there for them. The churches have played a very important role in cooperating with Muslim organizations to decrease the suffering of the population in Aleppo.”
 
 
 –Glimpses from Syria, Dec 2015 photos and notes
 

The Sectarian Card: Slogans and Massacres

What sectarianism we see in Syria today was delivered primarily by the Wahabi and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and by Turkey, with NATO’s blessing and backing. The cross-sect make-up of both the Syrian State and the Syrian army alone speaks of Syria’s intentional secularism, as well as the prevalent refusal of average Syrians to self-identify along sectarian lines.

On the other hand, from the beginning, the West’s “nonviolent protesters” were chanting sectarian slogans, notably, “Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the grave.” Other popular chants included: calling for the extermination of all Alawis; pledging allegiance to Saudi-based extremist Syrian Sheikh Adnan Arour and to extremist MB supporting Egyptian Sheikh, Yusuf al-Qardawi.

Qatar-based Qaradawi advocates killing Syrian civilians: “It is OK to kill one third of the Syrian population if it leads to the toppling of the heretical regime.” The inflammatory Arour said about Syria’s Alawis: “By Allah we shall mince them in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.”

The NATO alliance’s terrorists have committed numerous massacres of Syrian civilians and soldiers, many of which were intended to sow sectarianism, including:

The June 2011 Jisr al Shugour, Idlib, massacre of up to 120 people (soldiers and civilians) by between 500-600 so-called FSA terrorists; blamed on the SAA as having killed “military deserters”. [see Prem Shankar Jha’s  article “Syria – Who fired the first shot?”]
The Houla massacre of over 100 civilians on May 25, 2012, which only 2 days later the UN claimed—without an investigation— had been committed by the Syrian Army. [See Tim Anderson’s detailed rebuttal, “The Houla Massacre Revisited: “Official Truth” in the Dirty War on Syria” In the same article, Anderson also looked at the August 2012 Daraya massacre of 245 people and the December 2012 Aqrab massacre of up to 150 villagers.
The August 2013 massacre of at least 220 civilians (including a fetus, many children, women, elderly) and kidnapping of at least 100 (mostly women and children) in villages in the Latakia countryside.
The December 2013 massacre of at least 80 residents (many “slaughtered like sheep”, decapitated, burned in bakery ovens) in Adra industrial village.
The continued terrorist-mortaring of civilian areas and schools; the repeated terrorist-car-bombing of civilian areas and schools. [see: “The Terrorism We Support in Syria: A First-hand Account of the Use of Mortars against Civilians”]
Yet, in spite of outside forces attempts to sow sectarianism in Syria, the vast majority of Syrian people refuse it. Re-visiting Syria in July 2015, Professor Tim Anderson recounted that Latakia alone “has grown from 1.3 million to around 3 million people – they come from all parts, not just Aleppo, also Hama, Deir eZorr, and other areas.” He also visited Sweida, a mainly Druze region, which has accommodated “135,000 families, mainly from Daraa – others from other parts”. Mainly Sunni families.

-from my October 2015, Deconstructing the NATO Narrative on Syria

 

-Souria Samideen–words of a Syrian from Quneitra, post in Lebanon, Apr 9, 2015

Shaaban embodies the secular coexistence that is Syria. “I’m a Muslim, but I feel am partly Christian. I visit (Christian towns of) Saydnaya and Ma’loula. I celebrate Christmas, because it is something that I feel. There is an Arabic proverb which says: ‘Differences don’t mean that you don’t love one another.’ We each have our own different ways of life.”

She tells the story of a Jewish family from abroad who in 1999 visited Syria, went to their ancestral homes and were shocked to find graves of their ancestors untouched. This is Syria.

Mufti Hassoun calls his Greek Orthodox counterpart, Bishop Luca al-Khoury, his cousin and brother. “Our grandfathers, 1,400 years ago, were one family. My grandfather embraced Islam and his remained Christian.” He maintains that he, as Grand Mufti, serves the Syrian people, period. “In Syria, there are 23 million Christians, and 23 million Muslims. My title is Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic, not the Mufti of a particular denomination.”

-from my: The real Syrian moderates: voices of reason, March 2015 article

“If America wants to continue financing terrorists, under whatever guise—including training of so-called ‘moderate groups’—this means they are against the three UN resolutions on terrorism. We really don’t know what the US administration wants. They have allowed or sent tens of thousands from at least 83 countries to fight against us. Can you imagine 40-50,000 coming from Europe without their Intelligence knowing? But when our allies, like Hezbollah, come to our support, they are deemed ‘terrorists’?!

The US, the UK, and France don’t say anything about the corruption in Saudi Arabia, Qatar…This is the real democracy that the Western countries want to establish? They don’t want a single man in the region to say ‘I am unhappy with the policies of ‘Israel’.’

When we are facing such a challenge that will end the sovereignty of Syria, and that of the Palestinians, then we, and they, have to Resist. We are the real force that is making achievements against Da’esh both on the ground and from the air. Once the training, harbouring, arming of the terrorists stops, Syria would again be a stable country.”

Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister, Fayssal Mikdad

Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, is an approachable man, usually wearing a broad smile or mirthful half-smile. He calls himself the Mufti of all Syrians, not solely of Syria’s Muslims. Having met Sara Flounders previously, Sheikh Hassoun embraces her with a friendly squeeze of both shoulders and big smile. Recognizing me from a visit last year, he welcomes me the same way, beaming widely.

We take our seat and listen as he welcomes us with the standard Arab hospitality of well-wishes and gratitude for our concern and our visit at this time of crisis. Then, he breaks from formality, the mirthful smile present, to tease Ramsey:

“Anyone who reaches his seventies in such good health has a girlfriend in addition to his wife.” Mufti Hassoun laughs louder than all of us, clearly enjoying our collective shock.

He resumes seriousness, speaking of his country, ‘a beautiful garden’.

“Today we are paying a tax due to our having the richest culture in the region. We never expected that terrorists from outside Syria—from our Arab brothers and those west of them, particularly from USA, Turkey and England—would come here to make unrest. The Syrian people did not support the terrorists. They are working to destroy not only Syria but humanity. ”

-From my: Excerpts from US delegation visit to Syria, Feb 2015

“Oh, my Syria!”:a Syrian Kurd from Aleppo countryside:”It isn’t a ‘revolution’”, post in Lebanon, Nov 14, 2014

-Grounding: Syrians from Hassaka Speak of the Peaceful Life They Knew, post in Lebanon, Nov 9, 2014

As Foreign Insurgents Continue to Terrorize Syria, the Reconciliation Trend Grows, interview with Minister of Reconciliation, Dr. Ali Haidar, published August 2014

Liberated Homs Residents Challenge Notion of “Revolution”, July 2014 article

“freedom”: Homs resident speaks of the early days of the “crisis”, June 2014 post with audio

-Flagging down a taxi I assumed was a servis, the driver nodded “no” to my question “Cola?” (a main traffic hub). But the family inside said to hop in.The older woman with some tattooing on her face asked where I was from. Her pleasant looking son replied, “we are from Syria” (no surprise nowadays). From Hasaka, near the border with Iraq.

“Ana Kurdi, (I’m Kurdish)” she said. She said they fled 6 months ago, “Daash mawjud (ISIS is there).”

I asked if they had voted. Emphatic “yes”es all around. For who? “Bashar!”

-from my June 3, 2014 post, “I have worse things to tell you, but I can’t bring myself to talk about them”

As I sit outside the old city walls one afternoon, roughly one hundred metres from East Gate, bullets whiz closely past, coming from the direction of Jobar, a terrorist stronghold. [see: Not only mortars, but gunfire too, on Damascus]

Al-Midan, a district of Damascus known for its traditional Syrian sweets, still has local customers but faces the same loss of foreign customers as most in the tourism industry. “I used to bring delegations here specifically for the sweets,” says Anas, a journalist with Syrian television. “But as you see there are no tourists here now.”

Nagham, a university student, says even many local Syrians won’t go to Midan now. “People are afraid to come here now, because its so close to Yarmouk. Midan is safe, but people think that the ‘terrorists’ in Yarmouk will fire mortars here.”

A school in Zahara neighbourhood of Damascus has been converted into a shelter for displaced Syrians and Palestinians from Yarmouk. The children shine with bright smiles, the adults have tales of sorrow from their experiences and from being displaced by the snipers and other attacks by the armed gangs. They all say the same thing: “The rebels, those terrorists, came into Yarmouk, we had to leave.”

Their accommodations are sparse (there are so many displaced from various areas of Syria that accommodations become overcrowded), but the UN-provided accommodation is far worse, with rooms overcrowded with up to 25 or more people who sleep mattress to mattress for over one year. “We’re like sardines here,” says one displaced woman. “They keep piling more people upon us.”

…Elsewhere in Latakia, a city secured by the Syrian army but attacked from a distance with missiles, children and teens play in a fountain in a large, clean park, and men and women sit smoking shisha or hookah and chatting.

Fadia, an unveiled Sunni Muslim, sitting with a group of veiled and unveiled women, says that internally Latakia does not have serious problems. “Life is good here, we’re living happily, the army have protected us here. We love our president, our army, our country, but the outside forces want to destroy the country. There is no problem between Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Alawites here. We are all one family, no one can split us apart.”

This is a point Lilly Martin, who is from California but has lived in Syria for the past 22 years, drives home. [see conversation with Lilly Martin]

“At the beginning, we had a surge of violence, protestors attacking Syrian police and security, but right away the Latakian people turned against it. The population here didn’t accept it. We have Christians, Muslims, and minorities here. There is very little support for the ‘rebels’ here, so it’s been a peaceful city,” she says.

-from my May 2014 article, In Syria, Life Goes On Despite Everything

 

-“We love him. I’m Sunni, not Alawi,” Walid, from Raqqa, noted. “They’re afraid our voices will be heard,” he said–from my May 2014 article, Syrians Flock to Vote in Lebanon
 
-“I’m Sunni Muslim, but in Syria it’s not important what religion you are.”–from my May 2014 post, Meeting Syrians in Lebanon
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Easter celebration (video, my old Youtube channel)

8 comments

  1. We don’t need the “American way of life”, we just want a “Human way of life”.

    Thank you Eva.

  2. Wonderful article and photos! Shared to FB and shared the article about no sectarianism in Syria my FB group, “As the Patriot Turns”-because there are those in it who think Islam teaches its children to be terrorists.

    Also shared to Twitter… and to my Google+ group “The Blessings of Liberty”, for the same reason.

  3. Ordinarily, I would say Nationalism is a stupid concept. After all, none of us had any input into where we were born, it wasn’t our own decision, the hand of fate so to speak. However, there are two notable exceptions. The Palestinians and the Syrians. Even though victory is still a long way from either of them, they can be truly proud of their tenacious, against all odds fight for survival. I can’t think of any people who have withstood such sustained and brutal attacks.
    I hear a lot of people say, ‘those Muslims, they aren’t happy unless they are at war’. I’m rendered speechless most of the time. I mean, where do you start? Great photos.

    At this moment in history, being able to say ‘ana souri’, is something a person can be really proud about.

  4. Thank you, Eva, for these wonderfuil pictures from Syria. It is indeed a wonderful country! Have you been in Maloula too? The interview of Dr Bashar al-Assad (31st of may) demonstrates the wisdom of his political leadership.

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