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August 4, 2012

Why the Palestinians are turning against al-Assad

By Jonathan Schanzer, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jonathan Schanzer is Vice President of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of ‘Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.’ The views expressed are solely those of the writer.

Even if Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad somehow survives the current uprising aimed at toppling his regime, the beleaguered dictator will have a lingering identity problem. Indeed, a long-standing pillar of Syria’s foreign policy has been support to the Palestinian “resistance” against Israel. But in the wake of the Syrian onslaught, the country’s estimated 500,000 Palestinians are abandoning – even challenging – their long-time champion. With this dramatic shift, al-Assad is left more isolated in the Middle East than ever before.

Reports from the region continue to confirm what would have been deemed impossible just two short years ago: Palestinians are turning against the regime. Human Rights Watch notes that, “Palestinians have joined anti-government protests.” One FSA commander, meanwhile, has boasted, “Palestinians are fighting alongside us, and they are well trained.”

It doesn’t help that the regime is murdering Palestinians. On Thursday, the regime reportedly killed 20 when it shelled a refugee camp. Reports before that indicated that al-Assad’s campaign had already claimed the lives of some 300 Palestinians. It’s still unclear just how many Palestinians have responded by taking up arms to challenge the regime, but a clearer picture is emerging of who is abandoning al-Assad in his hour of need.

The most prominent Palestinian defection has been Hamas. The Islamic Resistance Movement, as it is officially known, established its headquarters in Syria in the late 1990s. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal reportedly liaised with Iran and other regional financiers from this office, which also played a key role in supporting Hamas’ military operations in the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly, when the Syrian uprising began in early 2011, the faction stood by their patron. But there is a level of violence that even a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States can’t bear. In February, as the body count continued to rise inexorably, Meshaal left Syria for Qatar. Amidst the ongoing violence, Hamas spokesman Izzak Reshak recently condemned Syria for massacring 17 Palestinians.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another long-time Syrian client, meanwhile, has been careful not to directly challenge the regime, but it may also be on its way out. Reports in Middle East news outlets recently noted that PIJ figures were exiting Syria after more than twenty years of close economic and military cooperation. Despite some denials from the PIJ politburo, other faction leaders reportedly quit Syria and headed back to Gaza. A new report suggests that the group wants to move its headquarters from Damascus to Beirut or Cair

And while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has had choppy relations with the Syrian regime, due mostly to disputes arising from Syria’s opposition to Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, the official voice of the Palestinians has also come out against Damascus. Last summer, a senior PLO figure lashed out at Syria. “We consider these actions to be part of the crimes against humanity that have been directed at the Palestinian people and their Syrian brothers who are also the victims of this ongoing bloody campaign,” he said. More recently, PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas flatly condemned the regime’s attacks on Palestinians.

Even the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), a force that answers to Assad’s military and is charged with policing Syria’s nine refugee camps, has reportedly refused to carry out acts of violence on behalf of the regime. For this, some have paid the ultimate price. Indeed, Syrian forces reportedly kidnapped 16 PLA members and slit their throats.  The regime insists that the PLA is still an arm of the military, but it’s unclear if the faction has done more than police the camps.

The one major faction that actively fights for the regime is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmed Jibril. Jibril has warned that his group would “take to the streets and fight on behalf of all those with honor and our Syrian brothers” to defend the Syrian regime. One Palestinian told the New York Times that Palestinians believe Jibril’s group is “working for [Syrian intelligence].” The group is even reported to have killed 14 fellow Palestinians in a refugee camp on behalf of the regime last June.

But Jibril is the exception. Nearly every other Palestinian faction that had once latched itself onto the al-Assad regime has quietly found a way to exit the country or loosen its ties.

To be sure, many Palestinians have long appreciated Syria’s political and financial assistance to Hamas, PIJ, Hezbollah, and other factions that have engaged in “resistance” against Israel. But it has become impossible for even these violent factions to support a state responsible for the deaths of an estimated 18,000 people.

Recently, on the website of the Beirut-based al-Akhbar, the Lebanese writer Amal Saad-Ghorayeb tried to argue that the “real litmus [test] of Arab intellectuals’ and activists’ commitment to the Palestinian cause is no longer their support for Palestinian rights, but rather, their support for the Assad leadership’s struggle…”

This argument suggests that al-Assad’s support for the Palestinians was never about the cause.  Rather, it was a pretense he wielded for legitimacy.

With the majority of Palestinians now seemingly abandoning the Syrian dictator, that pretense is now shattered.


Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Stories of Despair and Defiance


We left Beirut early in the morning, heading North. A bunch of Syrian youth in Lebanon had organized three trucks to deliver food to Syrian refugees scattered throughout the Northern region of Lebanon. I was lucky enough to volunteer to tag along and help out at the last second. Each family was to get a month’s supply of food each. The problem, however, was getting it to the families. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not concentrated in one place as they are in Turkey: some stay with family they know from Lebanon, some rent a place, and some are offered a place to stay. Luckily, we had a list of several families that were registered with this particular program for food aid. With the help of some very nice Lebanese locals from the area, we were able to navigate the area (which none of us were familiar with) and successfully deliver two bags of food to each family.

It was my first encounter with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. At first, I was hesitant to ask them any questions. Knowing that they had probably been through a lot, I didn’t want to make them feel like spectacles. But I soon learned that they had no qualms about sharing their stories with us. Once they discovered that we were Syrians (and not Lebanese working for some NGO) every single family we visited invited us into their humble homes to sit down (so much so that we actually ended up being way behind schedule). We would politely ask them if it would be ok if we asked them some questions about their experiences, and the universal answer from them was, “Ask! Ask whatever you want!” We even asked if they were ok with us photographing and filming them, and while a few did decline for safety reasons, the vast majority accepted. Most of the refugees came from Homs, or areas around Homs, but there were also quite a few who came from other areas in Syria.

The first house we visited was a family from Homs. We knocked on the door, and a woman in full niqab answered. We told her who we were and how we were bringing food to Syrian refugees. She politely declined the food, stating that she is not a refugee, and although she is Syrian, she had been living in North Lebanon for the past 12 years. She told us that it was her relatives upstairs who were the refugees. It struck me how honest the woman was, given that she could easily lie and claim to be a refugee for an extra bag of food. The woman led us upstairs where we met her relatives who had just come from Homs. The house was quite large, although empty, and it later became clear  after meeting other families that this family was one of the lucky ones, as they already had family on this side of the border. This was the first family we had met, and we were hesitant to ask too many questions. When we met the man of the house, we asked him what had happened and why he had decided to come to Lebanon. He explained to us that things became unbearable in Homs, so he packed his things and came with his family. When we asked how he had come to Lebanon, he answered, “The Thuwwar (revolutionaries) brought us here safely.” We saw an opening to ask a political question, and asked, “So, was it the regime that was giving you a hard time in Homs?” He looked us right in the eye, and answered defiantly, “No. It is us who is giving the regime a hard time in Homs.”

A small shack housing 3 families from Baba Amr in Homs

After this experience, we became bolder with our questions. The second place we visited was a small shack, housing 3 families from Baba Amr in Homs. Baba Amr is one of the neighborhoods in Homs that the Assad regime almost completely destroyed, and one of the first places where the Free Syrian Army took hold. The families here were a lot more vocal than the family in the previous household. One of the couples had just had a newborn baby daughter a few days ago. She was visibly malnourished. The father proudly proclaimed, “We got married during the revolution, and she was born in the time of the revolution, so we named her Shahd Al-Thawra (Witness of the Revolution).” It struck us all that in the face of overwhelming tragedy, and being newfound refugees in a land away from their home, the family still seemed very positive. We provocatively asked, “So who did this to you? Was it the armed gangs?” He scoffed at the question, “Armed gangs? There is no armed gangs. Only the shabiha that the kalb (derogatory Arabic word meaning ‘dog’, referring to Bashar in this case) sent.” He re-affirmed the narrative that the Syrian revolution was in fact peaceful from the start: “I was a peaceful protester from the beginning. I would go to all the protests. But the shabiha kept shooting at us. What else could we do?” When we asked him how he had gotten to Lebanon, he gave the same answer as the previous household did: “The Thuwwar brought us.”

A family of six lives in this carpenter’s workshop.

The third house we visited housed one of the families I remember very distinctly. For one, they had come all the way from Aleppo months ago. This was odd, as Aleppo is much closer to Turkey than it is to Lebanon, and thus, most of the people who want to flee go to Turkey instead. It was also odd because whereas other areas were hit very hard from the beginning of the revolution, Aleppo was considered relatively quiet until a few weeks ago. We asked him why he had run away, because we had heard that Aleppo was quieter than other places. He responded that that was not true, and that the regime attacked the area where he lived very early on, and that he felt the need to flee the danger to keep his family safe. He then remarked on the current “Battle of Aleppo” taking place: “We left because the regime was attacking us, but thank God the Free Syrian Army is now winning in Aleppo and freed the area I am from.” He was a shy man, scared to reveal too many details to us, but once we asked him his thoughts on the Free Syrian Army, he did not hesitate to sing their praises. However, there was a noticeable melancholy in his eyes. This family was living in one of the most horrible conditions we had seen that day. The family of six was living in a carpentry workshop, amidst planks of wood and table saws, where they had two small mattresses. His four children slept on one mattress, while him and his wife slept on the other.

The fourth house we visited, however, had the most horrible story we had heard all day. The family was from Qusair, a city very close to the border with Lebanon in the province of Homs. As soon as we introduced ourselves, the man of the house invited us in and kindly brought us all chairs. In the middle of the room was his wife, who was lying down on a mattress on the floor. The woman was missing one leg. We did not ask what happened, but the husband soon began to tell us the story. The family’s house in Qusair was right behind a mosque, and one day, the shelling was getting very close to their house. The woman ran outside to warn children who were playing to come inside the house. Just as she got outside, the regime bombed the mosque right in front of their house, and shrapnel from the bomb hit the woman all over her leg. The husband ran outside, and carried his wife from his house to the hospital that was only 50 meters away. The husband claimed that while he was carrying his wife to the hospital, she had lost 16 bags of blood. The Free Syrian Army then helped them escape to Lebanon, and the husband was carrying his wife along the way. When the family reached Lebanon, the man was convinced that his wife was already dead. However, when she reached Lebanon, she was able to get treatment at a hospital in the area. She can only use the bathroom from her hip now, and has lost one of her legs, but thanks to generous donations, she expects to get a surgery soon and install an artificial leg. After this story, we began to ask the man questions about the FSA. We asked if he acknowledged that the FSA had made any mistakes. He refused to speak anything but good about them. He told us if people want to know what’s going on in Syria then they should just watch the news, because the news is telling the story exactly how it is. He paused for a moment, thought about what he had just said, and then added, “Except Al-Dunia and Al-Manar. And of course, Syria TV.” We concluded by asking the man if there was anything he was in need of. We asked every family if there was anything else we could get them, and they usually would reply that they needed a fan, or a mattress, or some kind of medication, and we would record it and put in a request for it later. This man, however, was very stubborn. Although his house was visibly under-supplied, he refused to ask for anything. We prodded him into asking for something, saying that it was no problem, but he was insistent that they were fine, and claimed that there are other families who are much more in need of supplies than they are. He then attempted to justify his stubbornness by remarking, “We won’t be here for long anyway.”

Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon who insisted we take their picture! The boy on the right is from Talkalakh and the boy on the left is from Homs.

Two families from Qusair and Homs living in one house invited us in. They were so happy to learn that we were Syrians, and even happier to know that a few of us (including me) were from Homs. They asked if anyone among us was not fasting so they could make us coffee, yet we said we were all fasting and politely declined. One of the families had just arrived two days ago. They said they came illegally as their names were on the border. They were a very happy family, despite the terrible conditions they were living in, as half their house was not even sheltered. One of the ladies asked us, “Do you know where we’re going to fly the Syrian Revolution flag?” We named different cities in Syria as answers, as she shook her head. When we had given up guessing, she shouted, “At the bastard’s palace! We’re going to hang a 25 meter flag over his palace in Damascus once we’re done!” One of the men proudly proclaimed that he was a protester from the beginning. We asked why he had protested, and what is it that he wanted. He replied, “What is it that every man wants? Freedom!” When we asked one of the men if it was the FSA that had brought them here, he defiantly replied, “Did the FSA bring me here? I AM FSA!” At this reply, we were shocked. None of the people we had met thus far had openly admitted to being members of the FSA, but this man showed no fear and only pride in his statement. Dumbstruck by his frank admission, we had trouble coming up with any follow-up questions. All I could muster up is “May God protect you guys”. Soon after that, we left, despite the family’s insistence that we stay. This family was by far the most hospitable family we had met that day.

The next house we visited was another family from Baba Amr in Homs. The man of the house asked me where I was from in Homs. I told him I was from the Insha’at neighborhood, to which he replied, “Ah…my brother was killed in Insha’at.” The man admitted to being part of the FSA immediately. This time we were ready, and not as intimidated to ask questions as we were in the last house. We asked what motivated him to join the FSA. He said that he was a frequent participant in protests in Homs, and, repeating what many others were also stressing that day, the protests were completely peaceful at first, and all they were asking for was freedom and dignity. What he said after, however, visibly bothered all of us in the group. Instead of saying that it was the regime that attacked them, he said that it was “Shias and Alawis” who attacked their peaceful protests. This was the first time all day any mention of sect was made. He then continued about how shabiha had raped many women, and in response to this he joined the FSA. My friends and I were obviously uncomfortable by what seemed to be his generalization about Shias and Alawis, and we started to leave. But I decided I wasn’t going to let his sectarian statement haunt me, and wanted to confront him about it. I pulled him aside and privately asked him, “Do you think there will be revenge attacks against Alawis after the revolution?” He replied, “Of course! There are already revenge attacks against them. What do you think? If someone shoots at me, don’t I have the right to shoot back?” I retorted, “Yes, but it is the shabiha who are shooting you, and not all Alawites are shabiha. What of the Alawite civilians who aren’t shabiha and have nothing to do with it? Surely they don’t deserve to be the victims of any revenge attacks just because of their sect!” He agreed with me, responding, “Of course not, not the civilians. We won’t touch them. But the shabiha will pay.” Somewhat satisfied but still somewhat uneasy, I thanked him for his time, and we left to the next house.

The flag of the Syrian Revolution flies high above a school housing 35 Syrian refugee families.

One of the last houses we went to was a family from Hama. Of all the families we had met, this was the only one who said that they had reached Lebanon with absolutely no help from the Free Syrian Army. We asked the people at the house why they had left. One of the men replied, “We left because we were running away from the oppression. The oppression by the ruling family: the Assad family.” The man spoke proudly of his city of Hama and the huge peaceful protests in the city before last Ramadan. He spoke of Ibrahim Qashoush, who sang “Yallah Irhal Ya Bashar” to a crowd of thousands of protesters in Hama, and was later killed by regime forces. When he spoke of Qashoush, it was obvious that he was very proud to be from the city that he had come from, and from the city that was thought to be a liberated city for a few days, with thousands attending peaceful protests, and millions more watching them on YouTube. However, what began as euphoria soon turned into tragedy as the Syrian Army moved in at the beginning of Ramadan last year. The man told us that the Syrian Army killed 700 people, and raped many women as well, all in response to what he insisted were peaceful protests. We thanked him for his time, and told him that hopefully we would see him in a Free Syria soon.

At the end of the day, we had completed our task, and distributed 100 bags of a month’s supply of food to 100 Syrian refugee families scattered all over Lebanon. I haven’t recounted all the stories I heard from that day, but I hope I gave a good picture of what Syrian refugees in Lebanon had to go through, what their motivations were, and what life is like for them here as refugees. On the drive back, we all reflected on the events of the day. These are people who have literally been forgotten by the world. The UN has abandoned them. The international community doesn’t care for them. Their state has not only abandoned them, but has attacked them. If it wasn’t for the amazing Syrian youth who came together to help these families out, what would they have done? Finding them homes, getting them supplies, getting them medication, food, mattresses; these are all things that young Syrians came together to do for the few Syrian refugee families that we do know of. But there are thousands more that we do not know of. Some who are too scared to register, others who have found refuge in parts of Lebanon so remote that no one even knows they exist. Is this the price one pays for rising up against oppression? Is this what people deserve simply for stating that the country they are from belongs to them, and not to one man, or one family? There was much sadness in the faces of many of the people we met that day, but there were also many signs of defiance, and of resistance, as if they were saying, “Yes, we are living far away from our home, in a land we don’t know, and yes, we are living in miserable conditions, but in the end, we know that it was us who was right, and it was the tyrant who was wrong, and history will judge us accordingly.”

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