x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Smuggled in a bread basket, Syrian ingenuity finds a way

A monitor returned from Syria explains how people there are coping with their continuing crisis.

Never underestimate the Arab ability to find a creative way around an obstacle. And of course, the Arabs facing the most obstacles these days are in Syria.

I keep hearing Lebanese people saying that while their country is used to reviving itself after conflicts, the Syrians will have a tougher time, as they are "not used to instability".

But I am not sure about that, especially after I sat and talked for over two hours with someone who was just there, on the ground, for almost a month during Syria's most difficult time.

Recently I interviewed Mohammed Salim Al Kaabi, the only Emirati monitor who was part of the first batch of Arab League observers. He had been based with 11 others in the south-western city of Deraa, dubbed the cradle of the revolt that started over 11 months ago. A lot of our discussion was off the record, but still it helped me to see Syria through the eyes of a neutral party.

"Somehow, everyone there, whether they were for or against the government, knew that my eldest son's name is Marwan," said Mr Al Kaabi. So he was called "Abu Marwan" by protesters, officials and even random shopkeepers he visited.

This is the Syrian network, intelligence and otherwise, at its best. When people couldn't reach him on his Syrian-number mobile phone - the calls would get cut off - they hid the latest news, and the names of those detained, in bread baskets. Or they would show up by the roadside as the convoy drove by carrying olive branches. "I was in awe at the Syrian people's enterprise and ability to find solutions," he said.

The area had become a conflict zone, with bombed-out cars and torched police stations, mosques and houses. Main roads have army checkpoints. Soldiers were wary of the "jaish al hurr", or army defectors.

Troops were visible near major mosques in Deraa, preventing people from praying inside. I can only imagine how this provokes worshippers. The soldiers do this because mosques have become symbols of the uprising; Sheikh Ahmad Hayasneh, the elderly imam of the Omari mosque, is widely said to have sowed the first seeds of dissent. He is under house arrest at an undisclosed location.

One of the biggest problems the monitors faced was that everything they did, even eating, was taped and posted on the internet. "You will have hundreds of people talking to you at the same time, and asking you questions while holding their mobile phones to tape it," Mr Al Kaabi said.

Other difficulties included duplications in the names of detained or missing protesters. Where people had the same name, the names of their mothers had to be used.

One positive side effect of the mission was that some detained protesters met by the monitors were released next day. The head of the mission said he had confirmation that 2,239 detainees had been released.

The observers' daily reports were sent by convoy to the headquarters in Damascus, at the Sheraton Hotel and at the "Israel boycott office" the Arab League has had since the 1970s. Having visited that office a couple of years ago, I was told that it is now more active than ever before.

Mr Al Kaabi, after pausing for a moment, admitted: "We would break our protocol sometimes to make sure there was no escalation of violence." He described several incidents in which the team would ask soldiers to stay back as they talked to protesters.

By the end of our talk, it was clear that the story was not clearcut. There is now blood on both sides and it has reached the point where the truth is difficult to know.

When Mr Al Kaabi asked a boy at a hospital why he had a big bloody bandage around his waist, he was told by the boy's parents that he had had an "appendix operation".

"But what about the injuries on his face?" he asked. The mother answered: "He fainted because of his swollen appendix, and hurt his face."

That may seem farcical, but the world should not underestimate the ability of Syrians to come up with an answer.