x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Observations of a Syrian monitor

It was Mohammed Salim Al Kaabi's first visit to Syria since the revolt began. As an Emirati observer for the Arab League he was warned by anti-government protesters it was not safe to visit their villages.

Mohammed Salim Al Kaabi, the Deputy Chairman of the Emirates Human Rights Association (HRA), was the single Emirati observer among a group of 50 for the Arab League in Syria.
Mohammed Salim Al Kaabi, the Deputy Chairman of the Emirates Human Rights Association (HRA), was the single Emirati observer among a group of 50 for the Arab League in Syria.

DUBAI // Mohammed Salim Al Kaabi will not soon forget the face of the Syrian teenager he met in Dera'a.

Even as his parents pleaded with him to remain silent, Abdo called out to Mr Al Kaabi and his fellow observers at a hospital: "Sirs, I want to talk." He fixed his hair for their cameras, pulled himself up, lifted a blood-soaked towel from his bandaged waist and said: "I was shot."

The deputy chairman of the Emirates Human Rights Association was the only Emirati in the first group of 50 observers sent to Syria by the Arab League to ensure authorities were sticking to the terms of their peace deal.

Mr Al Kaabi returned last week from a 21-day posting in the south-western city of Dera'a, dubbed the cradle of the Syrian Revolt. Since protests against President Bashar Al Assad began in March, the United Nations says at least 5,000 people have been killed.

"That boy was braver than most of the adults we met in hospitals, who were obviously shot but gave other excuses for their injuries," said the retired army officer in an exclusive interview with The National.

Mr Al Kaabi and the rest of the team stayed at the White Rose Hotel. "Every morning outside the hotel, we were greeted by hundreds of pro-government protesters," he said. "It felt like a staged show."

The 12 Dera'a observers left in teams at 9am each day to visit hospitals, jails, official sites and residential areas. They also sat with the elders of a village to get a different perspective to that of the protesters.

Having travelled to Syria before the conflict began, Mr Al Kaabi said that the situation there was now "dangerous", but added that how it got to this point was "not clear-cut".

"There are too many agendas with too many factors and players," he said. "Yes, we saw armed men on roofs of homes, who might be snipers. Yes, we saw those they call Shabeha - armed un-uniformed men - but we didn't see them use their guns. We also didn't see any armed opposition nor any armed protesters."

"It was a very different Syria I saw this time," he admitted. "There was fear in people's eyes."

The observers were promised bullet proof vest, but did not get them. Instead they wore fluorescent orange vests and white caps.

Bodyguards provided by the government travelled in convoys with the team, but stayed back as the team entered residential areas. "Everything was done in coordination with the Syrian government," said Mr Al Kaabi, They returned each day by 4pm and compiled their notes, photographs and video clips to send to the observer mission headquarters in Damascus.

During his last week there, following the release of the observers' first report, Mr Al Kaabi only met with the pro-government side.

"Anti-government protesters stopped meeting with us," he explained. "They told us, 'don't come to our villages anymore, it is not safe'." He, along with 22 other monitors from civic societies, subsequently pulled out, saying the mission had become "inadequate and one-sided".

Mr Al Kaabi stressed, however, that the government team in Dera'a was "always very professional with us".

He also felt safe in the rural areas. "Whenever we went to one of the villages, the people would greet us with an olive branch of peace, encircle us and tell us they would be our human shields," he said.

The team met Sheikh Ahmad Hayasneh, the elderly imam of the Omari Mosque, where the first big protests against Mr Al Assad erupted in March. Mr Al Kaabi said the team wanted to reduce local tensions by trying to get him released from "cell-like detention" and returned to his home to be kept under house arrest. They were not successful.

The fate of the Arab League's 22-member observer mission is not entirely clear. Another 15 Emirati monitors have since been sent and, during Sunday's Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, officials said they would extend the mission to Syria for another month.

However, this could change in the coming days after Saudi Arabia's announcement it will be pulling its monitors out of the mission.

rghazal@thenational.ae