x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian anti-regime activist forced into exile dreams of 'complete' revolution

Omar Shawaf's abiding hatred for the Assad regime and his desire to return home remain strong, despite attempts by Syrian intelligence services to intimidate him.

Omar Shawaf is preoccupied from morning until night with helping to coordinate efforts to topple the Assad regime, and he is not alone.
Omar Shawaf is preoccupied from morning until night with helping to coordinate efforts to topple the Assad regime, and he is not alone.

ISTANBUL // Omar Shawaf still remembers the day more than 30 years ago when soldiers stopped him and a group of friends on the way home from school in the Syrian city of Hama.

"It was raining, but they forced us to lie down on the street, and then they stepped on us with their boots and hit us," Mr Shawaf recalled.

The beating was only a portent of much worse to come for Mr Shawaf's family and the residents of Hama.

Two years later, then-president Hafez Al Assad, the father of the current president, sent his troops into Hama to quell a Sunni uprising led by Syria's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ten members of Mr Shawaf's family were among the between 14,000 and 40,000 people killed in the crackdown. By then, Mr Shawaf had fled the country but like many other Syrians forced into exile, his abiding hatred for the Assad regime and his desire to return home one day has irrevocably changed his life.

Today, he is preoccupied from morning till night with helping to coordinate efforts to topple the Assad regime, and he is not alone.

"There are hundreds like me, no, thousands," Mr Shawaf said in an interview this week.

He has been helping to get aid supplies, medicine and communication equipment to those groups in Syria.

The Syrian government, however, says Mr Shawaf and other anti-regime activists are bent on destroying the country under orders of hostile foreign powers. In a speech this month, Mr Assad said the country was facing an "external war carried out by internal elements".

The Civil Administration Councils, a civilian opposition group of which Mr Shawaf is a member, has been recording cases of violence against civilians and building administrative structures, to avoid chaos and anarchy "if the regime collapses suddenly", as Mr Shawaf put it.

The Civil Administration Councils has been working with the United Nations and other international bodies to investigate recent massacres in Houla near Homs and in Qubair in Hama province, he said.

"At the same time, our staff is trying to organise areas that are out of government control, to make sure relief goods come in, to control public areas, to make sure there is water and electricity," he added. "There is a council in every small area and a council in every province."

Making modern technology available to activists on the ground was an important part of his work, Mr Shawaf said. "In the early phase [of the uprising], things were difficult because the regime switched off telephone systems and the internet," he said. "But it has become easier because people have satellite telephones and satellite internet connections now."

Mr Shawaf claimed the ability of government forces to interrupt communication between activists inside and outside Syria had declined, handing an important boost to the opposition.

"Technology is the most important point in the Arab uprising," he said in reference to revolts that led to authoritarian regimes being toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Mr Shawaf claimed there were attempts by members of Syrian intelligence services to intimidate him, but he said he was not afraid.

"Spies? Oh sure," he said. "I am getting emails and phone calls" containing threats. "But I don't care, because we are in Turkey, and the Turkish government will do everything to protect us. They told me not to worry."

Turkey, a former ally of Mr Al Assad's, has turned away from Damascus because of a violent government response to protests that have killed more than 14,000 people since March 2011, according to activists. Ankara has allowed the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group of which Mr Shawaf is also a member, to be formed on Turkish territory. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel force fighting government troops in Syria, have found protection in Turkish refugee camps that house more than 30,000 Syrians in total.

After leaving Syria as a 15-year-old, Mr Shawaf went to school in Dubai for two years before settling in Turkey, where a relative was studying at the time. He went to a Turkish university, set up a business and received Turkish citizenship in the 1990s, as Syria's authorities refused to extend his Syrian passport.

Memories of what he experienced in Hama as a child still haunt Mr Shawaf.

"I remember one day when there was a protest march at our school and soldiers surrounded the building, demanding that 10 ringleaders, myself included, should be handed over," he said. "We were saved by our Arabic teacher, a Christian. He locked the door and told the soldiers they could enter only over his dead body."

Mr Shawaf, who runs a consultancy in Istanbul for the construction and defence industries, contacts activists in Syria twice or three times a day via telephone or internet. Mr Shawaf said 95 per cent of aid supplies his organisation has been able to smuggle into Syria has been paid for by Syrian donors. But he added he expected more help from Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Last year, Mr Shawaf joined other opposition members in a secret trip into Syria to bring relief supplies to internally displaced refugees on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. "It was the first time in 31 years that I stepped on Syrian soil," he said.

Asked when he would be able to return to Hama, Mr Shawaf replied: "Very soon. But it is important that we complete the revolution, because half-revolutions like in Egypt are very dangerous. Regime people there still have dreams to get the old days back."

He said his parents died in exile, their wish to return to Syria remaining unfulfilled. "But they will be happy when we go back to our home," he added.

"That is why we are fighting now. We don't want the next generation of Syrians to have the same bad stories."

tseibert@thenational.ae