From her desk in Paris, the Syrian writer Samar Yazbek is fighting for the freedom of her people. Khalid El Kaoutit spoke to her about the tenacity of the Syrian regime, the brutality of its secret police and a people which has risen up for democracy
Ms Yazbek, you've been living for nearly a year in exile in Paris. How do you feel as you see the way the violence in Syria is escalating?
Samar Yazbek: I had hoped that the regime would fall at the latest in the spring. Everyone assumed that. We thought the regime would eventually become exhausted.
Why hasn't this happened?
Samar Yazbek: Assad inherited power from his father. He's also taken over his style of government from his father. But I don't believe there's any difference between Bashar al Assad and Gadhafi, for example. Assad is just cleverer. He has cleverly exploited his image as a modern, educated leader. In addition the country was made ready for the rule of Bashar al Assad over a period of forty years.
But the country still rose up against his violent rule.
Yazbek: Everybody knew that a revolution was due. But people were very unsure whether the people would join in on the street. It so happened then that children in Dara'a wrote protest slogans on the walls and the secret police punished them by tearing their fingernails out. And that went too far! The brutality of the secret police brought even more people out on to the street. Terms like citizenship, liberty, or dignity had already been winning real meaning for the people. And the demand for these rights continued to grow, especially among the younger generation.
Why did the regime respond with such brutality? How do you explain its extreme behaviour?
Samar Yazbek: That is what worries me. They don't just want to set up a dictatorship. No, they want to humiliate people. The military and the secret police simply can't accept that people are demanding their rights. That's their psychological structure – they can't imagine a diplomatic solution, just killing and terror.
They want to grind the people down. They build Syrian society like a farm which belongs to Bashar al Assad and his clan. And the servants on the farm are absolutely forbidden to demand any rights for themselves.
Gadhafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali – hasn't the regime learnt anything?
Samar Yazbek: You mustn't forget that they helped Gadhafi – that they tried to stop the Arab Spring. And once the revolutions had got under way in the other countries, they even had time to prepare themselves. And they knew that Syria has an important geo-strategic role in international politics and that it is protected by Russia, China and Iran. The government also knows that it is important for the security of Israel.
You are an Alawi Muslim. This group makes up the governing elite in Syria, doesn't it?
Samar Yazbek: No! The Alawites are not the governing elite – that's a historic error. It's one family, the Assad family, which has taken this ethnic group hostage. The Alawites suffered repression for many years – and they became a part of the regime in order to re-establish their identity. But the regime only exploited the Alawites – and now the Alawites support the government, because they are frightened they'll be massacred by the Sunni when Assad falls.
Is that a realistic scenario?
Samar Yazbek: I don't think so. But Assad has tried in many ways to divide people on ethnic grounds – so far without success.
But there is strife than before the revolution.
Samar Yazbek: I was there during the early months of the revolution, I was on the street and joined the demonstrations. It was all peaceful. The people wanted to overthrow the regime. But then Assad started to play his devilish games: he had Sunni Moslems killed and said it was the Alawites and the other way round. He succeeded in getting the people to turn to violence.
Samar Yazbek: He deployed the military against the people – and that led more and more people to desert from the army, and these people were recruited into the Free Forces. They became the military wing of the revolution – they had to desert, or else they would have had to kill their own people.
But to start with, it was an exceptional revolution – peaceful. The people went out on the streets without any protection; they knew they might die – and they went on the streets the next day too. But violence leads to a culture of yet more violence.
Has the revolution lost its innocence?
Samar Yazbek: No, it's lost its peaceful methods. And that means that the level of violence and repression against ordinary people is increasing – after all, it's a people's revolution; it's not just the elite. They're using the Shabihah – Alawite mafia types in black Mercedes with shaded windows – to kill Sunnis.
As an Alawite yourself, you could have just used your privileges instead of going out on the street.
Samar Yazbek: The idea never crossed my mind.
Samar Yazbek: I'm a member of the human race, not a specific ethnic group. The people have demanded liberty and social justice. I've seen that myself in the poorest areas of Damascus. They were shouting: "Not Sunni, not Alawite, we are all Syrians." They were calling for a civil state. But that was before they started to shout religious slogans and found themselves forced to return to Allah.
Samar Yazbek: They had to return to Allah in the end, once they'd been abandoned by the whole world and left to their deaths. They needed someone who would support them – it's part of their simple culture.
So does Allah play a positive role in this revolution – can he change the way things happen?
Samar Yazbek: What can I say? It's a two-edged sword. On the one hand there are the people who risk their lives and who are confident that they will have another life after their death – if things go on as they are, they'll need Allah... Humans are weak creatures; they need a spiritual way out in order to survive. That's one side.
And the other?
Samar Yazbek: After years of repression, the Islamist way of thinking has become realistic in Syria. It could be just my fear, but if the Syrians are left alone, it could come true.
What can the world do?
Samar Yazbek: It isn't doing anything, the world. It wants this regime because this regime defends its interests. It needs to create a counterweight, but everyone who's involved in this process has their own interests. They can't agree on how they should coordinate these interests among themselves – especially after their experience in Libya. The Russians ended up with nothing there, so they are worried now. But when the division of influence has been solved, then they'll act differently. In any case, I don't think anything will change before the elections in the USA.
That sounds very sober.
Samar Yazbek: I've seen young people in prison cells who were hanging from their feet like slaughtered animals. I've heard screams, I've seen catacombs. I've seen people suffering the kind of cruelty which tramples on human rights – people who were beaten so severely that their skin was coming off their bodies. That was extreme – but now I think that all this cruelty was nothing compared to the pictures I'm seeing now from Syria.
Have you got your own personal contact with Syria?
Samar Yazbek: Of course, every day. With the activists who are still there.
Don't you feel cut off from what's happening in the country?
Samar Yazbek: No. On the contrary. When you're outside, you want to create a place which is similar, parallel to how it is inside the country. The feeling that you've escaped death is an additional burden.
You feel guilty, and you feel that you have to give even more to the revolution, you must sacrifice more than if you were there yourself.
What can those who are in exile do to help?
Samar Yazbek: Firstly through working with the media. The regime is trying to distort the picture of the revolution. So we always try to show what is really happening in Syria. We can also help people by organising international aid deliveries.
I've just set up an organisation which is called "Syrian Women for Development". We're dealing with the problem of mothers who have no income. We record incidents where Syrian women suffer imprisonment and torture. We are in touch with research centres which are drawing up laws concerned with women's rights.
What role have women played in this revolution?
Samar Yazbek: A leading role! They have set up revolutionary movements which are active throughout the country. There are women writing against the regime, describing the real picture. Others are active in aid organisations. It's true that they are less present on the streets, but that's because of the drastic increase in violence. Women are exploited for the purposes of violence – they've been deliberately targeted. There's been sexual molestation, there have been rapes.
And what role does Asmaa Assad, the Syrian First Lady, play?
Samar Yazbek: Asmaa is an accomplice of the regime. She's an accessory to its crimes. On the day that Homs was bombarded, she was shopping in the Internet. She's used as a beautiful accessory for the regime – a beautiful, elegant women who, nonetheless, lives at the expense of the Syrian people – who lives off its blood.
She has betrayed her city, her people and all women. She has also betrayed those who had high hopes of her at the beginning, when she promised to help build a modern, civil society. But it's been more important for her to remain First Lady than to stand up for justice.
Will it be the Islamists who will set the tone after the fall of Assad?
Samar Yazbek: If one's honest, one has to say: the Islamists will be stronger in the short term. But that won't necessarily be fatal, so long as we can build a democratic state in which they can express themselves in a democratic way. We can argue and have different opinions. But we won't let them drag us back into the past. We'll need years to build up a civil society, and we're only at the very beginning right now.
Interview: Khaled El-Kaoutit
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Editor: Lewis Gropp / Qantara.de
Samar Yazbek was born in 1970 in the Syria city of Jabla. She studied Arabic literature, and then became a film and television critic. She has published several novels and volumes of short stories.