x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syrian diaspora laments opposition's disunity

Practically every Syrian has lost a relative or friend in the civil war back home, straining and even breaking ties between neighbours, friends and families in the diaspora.

Anti-Syrian government protestors clash with police outside the Syrian Embassy in London in February. Leon Neal / AFP
Anti-Syrian government protestors clash with police outside the Syrian Embassy in London in February. Leon Neal / AFP

LONDON // The sectarian and social divisions laid bare by the conflict in Syria are being echoed among the estimated 20,000-strong Syrian community in the UK, with the prospect of unity receding by the day, say Syrian expatriates here.

Practically every Syrian has lost a relative or friend in the civil war back home, straining and even breaking ties between neighbours, friends and families in the diaspora.

Since the uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, started in March last year, a many groups, mostly anti-Assad, have sprung up in the UK, many of them no more than a website or Facebook page. Many members are loath to speak with the press because of fear of reprisals against family in Syria but also because of inexperience in political and media organisations.

"Before the revolution, there was no reason for these groups to clash but now there's no unity or vision and what each group wants is exclusive to that group," said Malik Al Abdeh, a Syrian freelance journalist, who described himself as disillusioned with opposition politics.

His brother, Anas Al Abdeh, is a member of the Syrian National Council coalition of opposition groups and chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development political party that wants democracy in Syria.

"Our relationship has been quite fraught and I've been very critical," said Malik Al Abdeh. "The SNC has lost the plot and is not in a good place. But my feelings aren't probably shared by a large swathe of the community in London who would never admit to any misgivings they might be feeling. I'm probably an odd voice."

One of the best known groups operating in the UK is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights founded by Rami Abdulrahman, a long-time opposition activist. With the help of a network of about 200 activists in Syria and a few aides in the UK, the group publishes a death toll of casualties considered to be one of the most reliable by international human rights groups.

Mr Abdulrahman, 40, who works from his home in the city of Coventry in the English Midlands, has been attacked on Syrian state television and said his family in Syria and his brother living in the UK would not speak with him for fear of reprisals from Assad sympathisers.

"All of my family in Syria, nobody talks to me because they're scared of the regime," said Mr Abdulrahman, who was arrested several times in Syria because of his pro-democracy activities before he left in 2000.

"But when I see people dying and being killed, I forget everything and it gives me energy to continue," said the father of a six-year-old daughter. "I hope before I die to see democracy in Syria like here in the UK."

His group lists all casualties regardless of whether they were killed by regime or opposition forces but it does not publish names. "If I give the name, the regime will bring out another man with the same name and say, 'look, he is alive'," said Mr Abdulrahman. "We are about human rights, not propaganda."

But other Syrians in the UK have attacked him, accusing him of receiving funds from the British intelligence services, which he denies.

A rival group of Syrians even set up their own group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, but they were not contactable.

"There are about 20,000 Syrians in the UK and they live all over the country," said Abdulwahab Sayed Omar, a spokesman for British Solidarity for Syria (BSS), which he said represented Syrians of all backgrounds opposed to the Assad regime.

BSS was focused on trying to bring together Syrians to plan for post-conflict reconstruction. "The fight to overthrow Assad is very complicated but post-war Syria will be even more complicated," he said.

The group also organised occasional demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy because Moscow is an important source of support for the Assad regime.

That view was echoed by Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, whose wife is Syrian. "Most Syrians are divided into whether they are pro or anti-regime. There are those who see the army as the solution and those looking for military intervention," he said.

"And then there are a whole array of personal issues exacerbated by rumour and fear of informers acting for the regime who are still active here in the UK and who monitor protests," he said. "I've seen Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds who were best friends no longer speaking to each other."

Rashid Ibo, who does media outreach for the Kurdish National Council, which represents several Syrian Kurdish parties, said Syrian Arabs had prevented the flying of the Kurdish flag at demonstrations outside the Syrian Embassy. He believed the opposition was overly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of its members fled to the UK after they suffered a brutal crackdown in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.

"We have suffered so much and have protested at the Syrian Embassy for many years and none of the Arabs attended then," he said. "But we are still with the revolution and we just want self-determination within Syria's borders."

Since the uprising started, a group called the British Syrian Society that was co-chaired by Fawas Akhras, who lives in London and is the father-in-law of Mr Assad, has been lying low. Emails obtained by The Guardian earlier this year showed he offered the Syrian president moral support and advice on how to spin his suppression in the media. A new group, the Syrian Social Club, has arisen to present the pro-reform and pro-government voice.

"The alternative to sticking with the state is total collapse and opening Pandora's box and chaos," said Ammar Waqqaf, a member of the new group. "Many more Syrians are turning against the opposition, against the violence and against the rise of Islamic extremism but we saw that coming. We are in the fog of war."