x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Adopt' the Syrian uprising, supporters in Germany urge

'Adopt a Revolution' is modelled on charities that seek sponsors to 'adopt' children in poor countries, or rainforest trees, through regular donations.

BERLIN // Activists in Germany are supporting the Syrian uprising by raising money and smuggling cash, mobile phones and laptops into the country to help opposition groups organise peaceful demonstrations.

Their Adopt a Revolution programme (www.adoptrevolution.org) is modelled on charities that seek sponsors to "adopt" children in poor countries, or rainforest trees, through regular donations.

Based in a secret location in Berlin, it says it has raised almost €120,000 (Dh588,000) from 1,400 sponsors across Germany since it was launched late last year, and is supporting some 30 so-called "local coordination committees" in Syria.

It was founded by two Germans, Elias Perabo, a political scientist, and Andre Find, an expert on online campaigns, as well as by a Syrian expatriate, Aktham Abazid. They have set up a network of helpers and couriers to transport equipment and cash and to maintain contacts with the opposition groups.

"A lot of the money goes toward renting secret apartments for activists," Mr Find told The National in a telephone interview. "Our aim is to support their political work, so we also supply digital cameras, laptops and materials for demonstration such as fabric and spray paint for making banners. You need authorisation from the secret service to buy certain types of spray paints in Syria so it has to be purchased on the black market where it is pretty expensive."

The equipment enables the protesters to communicate with each other and record the demonstrations and show the activities of Syrian authorities on the internet.

Mr Find, 31, said he and his colleagues had been struck by the lack of grassroots support for the Arab Spring in Germany and Europe, and wanted to give people a chance to help and show support.

"It's not primarily about the money, €120,000 isn't that much. What's more important is that we're showing the Syrians that they're not alone, and we want to encourage the groups to carry on their unarmed resistance.

"We have received feedback from many committees who say that they've been organising this uprising for months and got virtually no support from abroad, and that this is the first time they've been helped. They no longer feel forgotten."

Mr Find said the scheme doesn't want help from governments because that would allow the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, to claim that the revolution was being financed by foreign powers. "We want this to come from ordinary citizens to help fellow citizens in Syria."

While it is impossible to rule out that the money may be used to buy weapons, Adopt a Revolution said it vets the groups closely and has contacts on the ground in Syria to check where the cash is going.

Paying for weapons would get Adopt a Revolution in trouble with the German authorities. Besides, the group believes that in the end, only peaceful demonstrations can topple Mr Al Assad.

"In a war, the extremely strong Syrian army knows how to proceed, but the army is totally helpless when demonstrations are constantly held all over the place," Mr Find said. "I'm not saying the Free Syrian Army hasn't played its part, but Assad knows that even if he gets the military situation under control, he can't control the minds of the people."

Adopt a Revolution asks the committees to submit regular reports and publishes them on its website.

One report posted by an anonymous member of a group in northern Syria said it had used €1,800 to buy internet connections as well as a mobile loudspeaker system "to spread our message better and to give signals for the demonstration to disperse quickly. That is extremely important so that everyone can get away in time when we suddenly hear that the military or secret services are approaching the demonstration."

Mr Find has little doubt that his scheme is being monitored by Syria's secret service. A member of Adopt a Revolution's advisory council, Ferhad Ahma, who belongs to the opposition Syrian National Council, was attacked and injured by two men in his Berlin apartment in December, prompting the German government to warn Syria not to intimidate activists in Germany.

"I don't think he was beaten up because of his involvement in Adopt a Revolution, but it shows what Syrian agents in this country are still capable of," said Mr Find.

The work, which involves monitoring video feeds from Syria and staying in touch with contacts, can be harrowing, said Mr Find. "Sadly, we've had cases where we lost contact with someone and then heard later that they had been injured or arrested." One courier has been killed en route.

Smuggling goods is still possible because of the length of Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan. The supply of money is being aided by the depreciation of the Syrian pound. That is prompting wealthy families to act as "private banks" in which a family member in Germany takes euros and tells a relative in Syria to pay out the equivalent amount in pounds.

Mr Find says Berlin could do far more to assist the revolution, for example by severing diplomatic ties with Syria, easing asylum restrictions and offering medical assistance to injured protesters.