March 22, 2013

This is the first of a two-part article looking at the impact of President Barack Obama’s visit to the region and Syrian opposition perspectives toward Israel.

By Nuha Shabaan and Ahmed Kwider

President Barack Obama’s visit to Amman on Friday and his commitments to assist Jordan's estimated 420,000 Syrian refugees are unlikely to change perceptions among opposition activists and politicians that the United States is, at best, indifferent to the suffering of the Syrian people, and at worst, an active player in a dark conspiracy to destroy Syria.

Obama’s official visit to countries surrounding Syria “means more isolation for the Syrian people,” said Nayaf Ayoub Shabaan, spokesman for the interim Syrian Parliament [and brother of SAS News reporter Nuha Shabaan]. “In reality, the visit means more hatred towards American policies, but not for its people,” said Shabaan, adding that “we know there are many Americans who do not agree with their government’s policies.”

Reflecting the sentiment found in more than one dozen interviews conducted for this series, Yaman Saudi, 31,the founder of the Syrian Democratic United Party, said that if the American administration “were concerned about American interests and human rights, as they claim, they would protect the Syrian people.”

Shabaan said Syrians now understand that “American politics have no relation its own history and principles; it is just about interests.”  

Activists both criticized American motives in the region and yet wished for more leadership that they say would have ended the revolution months ago.

“Had the Americans stepped in from the beginning, there wouldn’t have been Islamists, Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Qaida,” said Saudi, originally from Aleppo but now in exile in Egypt.

“Our houses are destroyed, and we have seen nothing but [American] silence,” said Maher al-Hamwi, 30, a defected soldier living in Hama.

“The wrong-headed American policies in the region have resulted in where we are,” Saudi said.

Two years on

Syrians did not choose to enter an armed conflict with the regime, says Adam Salam, 45, who was an architect before the revolution but now heads the Revolutionary Leadership Council’s Damascus office. “Those who wanted the revolution to be peaceful are either locked up or forced to carry arms to defend themselves,” he said. As two years have passed, Syrians have seen the world stand by as citizens are killed “and Assad fuels sectarianism to set the entire region on fire," Salam said.

By the time the Americans realize that Syrians “are determined to escape from the slavery of the mukhabarat [intelligence] state, their ideology and civilization will have lost credibility in the world,” Salam said. 

Still, Syrians told SAS News that it is not too late for the United States to help end the conflict. American officials “need to make brave decisions to provide air coverage and allow Qatar and Saudi [Arabia] to sufficiently arm the rebels,” Salam said.

“There is no doubt the West, led by America, is the reason why the opposition is not getting arms,” said Mahmoud al-Khalaf, the founder of the Wasat [Moderate] Party, based in London.

In Syrian political chat rooms these days, conspiracies help make sense of what some see as non-sensical. To many Syrian political observers and activists, it simply does not add up that the United States sits on the sidelines, not arming the rebels, as Iranian soldiers openly fight Syrian battles and Hezbollah moves its own soldiers and weapons in and out of Syria.

More sinister forces must be at work, they say. “All nations are conspiring against the Syrian nation – don’t believe it, there will be no arming,” said Wael al-Khatib, a former captain in the Syrian army now in the FSA. “It’s a conspiracy. A CON-SPIR-A-CY,” he stressed.

In order to gain credibility around the world, the Syrian opposition must reach out and offer the international community assurances that it can govern responsibly, said Khalaf. “The revolutionary leadership can show its commitment to a civil state and respect for international conventions and agreements made by the Assad government,” Khalaf said.

American officials have spoken on and off the record about their financial support for Syrian refugees and other non-lethal aid, stressing that government donations have exceeded those of most of the rest of the world.

The argument, though made repeatedly in recent months, appears to have gained little traction with Syrians hoping Assad will fall.

“Your silence is killing us,” the defected soldier Maher al-Hamwi says in a public message to the American administration. “You were the first to call for justice and freedom and here we are fighting for our freedom and democracy, so why are stopping us? Why do you stand by the tyrant?”