Recently I interviewed a Syrian-American acquaintance, a restaurateur in his mid-thirties, Ahmad (name has been changed for security reasons) about what it was like to grow up in Syria (he immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult) under the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez Assad. I also spoke with him about the unfolding news from Syria as pro-democracy protestors square off against the regime, about what he hears from contemporaries and other relatives back in Syria, and about his views regarding prospects for regime change and future relations between Syria and Israel.
Given recent news regarding the Syrian regime’s crackdown on reportedly nonviolent pro-democracy demonstrators, with the death toll approaching one thousand and no call by President Obama for Assad’s ouster, now seems a good time to get the interview out there. (Update: on Saturday it was reported that Syrian government forces had killed a dozen demonstrators over the 24-hour-period as protests continued to swell in defiance of the government crackdown).
My conversations with Ahmad were eye-openers: first about the totalitarian nature of life in Syria, second about the nature – at least in Ahmad’s view – of the protestors and their views, especially those of the younger generation, toward Israel and the West. Based on what he told me, it is no surprise that young Syrian people are ripe for rebellion.
I spoke with Ahmad at his restaurant, located in a mid-size Eastern seaboard U.S. city. With his friendly, warm, and uncommonly sunny personality, as well as his restaurant’s significant Jewish clientele (including this journalist), Ahmad has a gift for getting along with people of all backgrounds. Every individual is unique, and his perspective reflects his personality. He may not be your average Syrian in terms of his attitudes. But I got the sense he was speaking to me freely and without agenda.
Ahmad and I spoke at length twice; our latter interview was on May 6, about one week ago. At that time, he predicted the government of Bashar al-Assad would continue to “crack down” harshly on pro-democracy protestors “despite all th[e regime has] said” ““ a reference to the pledge, in March, by al-Assad, to reform his government and to lift the state of martial law that has existed in Syria since 1963 and that Ahmad maintains has kept Syrians in a political and economic stranglehold for decades.
“I know how they function,” Ahmad told me over a plate of babaganoush and sleek-a fantastic Syrian dish of rice, kale, black-eyed peas, and carmelized onions. (Full disclosure: perhaps because he considered the interview a special meeting, and perhaps in keeping with the middle eastern tradition of hospitality, Ahmad refused to allow me to pay my bill for lunch). “I believe they might really crack down. And they might be successful, because there is no foreign media involved and no images can get out.”
He said that recently, a human rights leader and former journalist named Bassam AlKhady who established a web site, Syrian Women Observatory, to promote women’s dignity and to end honor killings in Syria called on protestors to stop demonstrating for a couple of weeks to see if the government would uphold its promises to reform. “That might not be too bad,” said Ahmad. “Because if all keeps going as it is going, it could lead to a sectarian civil war. The government is trying to push this toward sectarian violence.”
That said, Ahmad is generally in sympathy with the protestors, who he believes are standing up for dignity and opportunity.
Because in Syria, there is no freedom of speech and forty percent of the population lives on under $2 a day, the revolution “is about dignity and freedom of choice. We want to feel like an adult. I don’t want someone to tell me, ‘Believe me, this is good for you,'” said Ahmad.
When Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez came to power, there was hope among the people for more economic freedom and human – including women’s – rights. But within five years of the regime’s rule, “All freedom of speech was gone,” said Ahmad. “You have one political party and you have to join the party.”
That one party, he says, “promised people we’ll be against Israel – that’s so easy to use it to get people around you.”
Asked about attitudes toward Israel in Syria at present, including among the protestors, Ahmad said, “Fighting Israel has always been a popular idea, it is the easiest thing to get people [riled up]. But the younger generation is starting to be sick of it. Some say you guys have been telling us for 40, 50 years we have to fight Israel. Now some say, ‘Leave us alone. We want to live.’
He added, “The subject is less popular with the younger generation. They are more concerned with getting good jobs and living their lives.”