Born and raised in Syria, Joseph is a freelance journalist. He also went to elementary school with a member of the Assad family. He is currently based in Copenhagen, and has worked for both the Danish newspaper Politiken and Danish news station “TV2 NYHEDERNE”. He left Syria a year and a half ago and founded a group called “the Syrian Opposition in Denmark” that acts as a liaison between the Danish Government and the opposition groups in Syria. He spends much of his time lobbying the Danish Government to support the revolution. In May, he spent 8 days in Syria collecting information and meeting various rebel group officials. He sat down with me on June 26, 2013 to give some insight into the current state of affairs in Syria.
Joseph’s words are quoted verbatim and the text is authentic.
Dylan: Thank you for meeting with me Joseph.
Joseph: Thank you.
Dylan: Let’s get started. Why don’t you give me your rendition of the revolution. How did it start, and why?
Joseph: Well, first of all you have to look at…there are several aspects, several contexts, that led to the revolution. The revolution itself, it was sparked by fifteen kids that were apprehended by the intelligence in Daraa, a southern province of Syria… they were apprehended by the intelligence and they were tortured and then afterwards they were released.
They were apprehended because they wrote on the school that the people wanted to “topple the regime” which was two and a half years ago. That slogan, that people want to topple the regime was very prominent at the time because of the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution and it spread like wild fire in the Middle East – in the Arab world not the Middle East – let’s be specific about this. And so they wrote that on their school so the authorities cracked down in brutal force and people couldn’t handle that. That was the spark that sparked the Syrian revolution.
But of course [that was] the context that built up to that moment – to say that was what started the revolution is an understatement. The Tunisian Revolution was definitely not sparked only by Bouazizi, because there were reports about several young people torching themselves before Bouazizi but nothing happened. I’m not going to get into the Tunisian Revolution but let’s just stick with the Syrian Revolution. You have the Syrian writer by the name Jamal Barout. He’s an economist, a very esteemed researcher. He put out a book about Economics, the economic status, before the revolution. In that book he cited that in 2005 to 2010 the poverty rate increased from 33% to 45% and that the poverty rate is estimated by people who are living with less than 1 dollar a day in Syria. [This was] one of the many economic factors. You have also the establishing of a new segment of society, which was marriage between corrupt political authorities, which is the intelligence, the police, people with political authority, and business. So they formed this segment of society that monopolized everything and was controlling every major investment, everything. They took fees on everything, on all major businesses. Several projects were halted and stopped because of that. You have the Aleppo highway, which was stopped because of that – it was going through Idlib as well, because of corruption that wanted to suck money out of that from international investors so eventually they stopped doing it. Another one is the Four Seasons Hotel, you know an international brand, which was also halted for many years, stopped for many years, close to 8 years, [until] then the intervention of Bashar al-Assad personally who told his people to lay off. So the project continued. This is an example of the corruption of this segment, of people who control the economy, and [to] whom the theory of “trickle-down economics”, you know make people rich on the top and it trickles down, did not work because wealth was concentrated within that segment and within the cities actually, the major cities, Aleppo, Damascus.The rural areas were deprived of any sort of growth, even though growth was annually 5% in Syria, but the poverty rate increased.
So from 2003 to 2010 there was annual growth of 5%. But that does not mean wealth increased, it means that people got richer, while the rural areas which actually were where the revolution sparked from, got poorer and poorer by the day. Agriculture was also not well taken care of. Investment in agriculture in Syria was hindered and mainly it was neglected for the sake of service based economy. Even though the backbone of the Syrian economy is agriculture. So that’s another aspect.
But of course the outlining context of all this, [of] the economy and political corruption, is the brutal violence of government institutions which govern everything – every way of life. People simply, I mean, there is a new generation that wouldn’t, will not, cannot, accept this type of country where the leader is a god king that we cannot talk to, argue with, who answers everything with brute force. So that’s it.
Dylan: What was Syria like before the revolution?
Joseph: Well before the revolution it was, I would say, if you didn’t get into politics, if you didn’t get into anything that was considered ‘red-line’, you lived normal. Institutions were working poorly, education system is crap – I’m an anomaly in the system, I’m self educated, I consider myself self-educated – everything I’ve taken was self-provoked. So you have education is very crap. University was considered a social system, but I had to pay for my university because since the second Assad assumed power we moved from ‘social society’ in quotes, to social market, to more liberalism and that is also what screwed up the economy in Syria for the poor, not for the elite who benefited, but for the poor who suffered a lot. It was pretty much your normal dictatorship: no political life whatsoever. Zero. No NGOs, no civil life, in terms of institutions and associations, there was nothing. Zero. What do you mean by how it was?
Dylan: Yes, day-to-day life, but also if you could comment on what were the means by which people could present distaste with the government?
Joseph: No no. You have a case in 2003 where a parliament member called Riyad Seif, this guy even though he was a Parliament Member, he drafted an economical study. That study was basically targeted at revealing how the monopoly of the cell phone companies by the president’s cousin was costing Syria 3 billion dollars a year. I’m not sure about the figure now but it was something very high. 2003, Riyad Seif drafted this economical study and handed it out in Parliament. The outcome of that was that his political immunity was revoked and he was put in prison for 5 years. Now that’s a Parliament Member. Imagine if that was done by a normal citizen.
Dylan: Today, tell me what life is like for people living in secure rebel strongholds.
Joseph: Yeah well I’ve been there. I lived in Manbij, which is in the northern part of Syria. Rural area of Aleppo. More than 200 000 people lived there. Prices have gone up crazy since the revolution started – since I left about a year ago. I witnessed a spike in prices which is really insane. [but] they are living pretty normal. What changed drastically is free speech, which ironically increased immensely – I say ironically because you have different factions, including al-Qaeda, in the liberated areas, ranging from liberal to very conservative – conservative as in very radical. Even though there is actually al-Qaeda there, you see newspapers promoting different types of thoughts there, people are speaking with ease, but there is still very much apprehension, or more or less tension in regards to religion. It’s not because of the existence of al-Qaeda, anymore than it is social tension, and I see that to be one of the most difficult challenges for democracy in the Middle East and in Syria. With the existent redlines in society in regards to everything, in regards to religion, society, culture, habits: everything; there are a lot of red-lines that you just can’t talk about. Taboos. And these taboos will prove to be a big obstacle for democratic transition in the future.
Dylan: I imagine you haven’t been, but what is life like in secured regime strongholds?
Joseph: I would say for example, there are a lot of differences, but one of the most important differences between regime areas and liberated areas is that liberated areas are subject to be bombed at any time, scud missiles, artillery, whatever…Regime areas are not. They’re very safe. Regime areas are well-served, they still get electricity, liberated areas not. The regime areas, since the regime is the only power there, there is an absolute tyranny over the population there, so any attempts at dissent are dealt with with brute force. But the liberated areas since there are many factions, and many powers that control the situation, they balance each other, they keep each other in check, which is a positive thing – abstractly speaking. There are checks and balances for each other. The regime does not have that system, so its brute force can do anything to anybody. The people who belong to the government, like the Shabiha, the thugs, can do whatever they want they can kill people and get away with it. That does not happen in the liberated areas. I mean of course it happens, but socially and judicially it’s not dealt with the same.
Dylan: And what about in battle zones.What is it like for those living in battle zones or disputed territories?
Joseph: It’s just disaster. The people who live there are two types: too poor to move, or simply cannot move. They suffer the most, whether they are with the regime or the opposition, and it’s a humanitarian disaster.
Dylan: Tell me about the local Revolutionary Councils.
Joseph: Well the local revolutionary council we met in Manbij, for example, these people who are prominent city members, all of them are well-educated: lawyers, university graduates, they run civil society like a back-up system in case the regime falls. They work as an alternative government, a local government, that run branches like [the] health branch, military branch, and they work on organizing all types of civil life and services in those areas, in the liberated areas. They fund themselves based on local donations, that they gather from the locals, or they raise the bread price [like in Manbij] so they are self-funded. More or less they work as a government; they collect money, they get donations, and the workers donate their time to keep things functioning. Like the court, the judges actually do their jobs as lawyers or business owners, and they donate time to the court to resolve conflicts. I say the court because it’s a part of the Revolutionary Council, they work with them as a part of the Revolutionary Council, under its administrative authority.
Dylan: The Syrian National Council, tell me about them.
Joseph: Well the Syrian National Council is the first attempt to organize things. It came before the Coalition, it assembled prominent opposition members. Basically it fell apart because it did not affect anything on the ground. It was detached, it was a bunch of people living abroad, trying to resolve issues in Syria, a place they did not go to or left a long time ago. Things on the ground in Syria change, and transform: the types of relationships, the nature of political connections that govern everything changes every hour, every minute. The notion that there is an external body operating trying to solve things, is, to say the least, very inefficient – to say the least. So that is the reason the Council fell. Another reason is the attempt of people to monopolize political decision-making, which did not go well. It led to division, and you see that happening in the Coalition.
Dylan: And the Syrian National Coalition?
Joseph: The Coalition was a second attempt for the Council, but the funny thing is, it contained the same elements just in a different format. Naturally it brought with it all the existing problems, [but] it did not solve anything. It just tried to have a fresh start trying to deal with the same problems in a different way.
Dylan: Who makes up the Coalition? Is it again lawyers, educated people…?
Joseph: Yes pretty much ranging between…now they’ve expanded the Coalition, it involves military, activists inside Syria, even actors. You have the different segments of Syrian society involved in the Coalition.
Dylan: Are there clear lines within the Coalition, clear divisions, clear factions?
Joseph: Of course. You have…it’s no secret that the Islamic Brotherhood is the strongest faction inside the Coalition. They are the faction attempting to monopolize that power. You have liberals, like Michel Kilo, a Christian, liberal democratic. You have, ranging between far left and far right.
Dylan: But the Islamic Brotherhood is the strongest?
Joseph: Yeah of course.
Dylan: Is there a clear second strongest?
Joseph: I would say everybody else.
Dylan: And what is the tie between the Coalition and the Free Syrian Army?
Joseph: I wouldn’t say ties, I would say ‘relations’, because I don’t think there is any clear tie between them. The Coalition has its own Military Council. The Military Council gets funded, or is separate, to a certain extent, from the Coalition. So they act alone but as a part of the Coalition.
But this Military Council, and its Chairman, have not lived up to the expectations of many Syrians. I heard them several times speaking, and they’re detached from reality, from what’s happening on the ground. Not only that, their interpretation of things on the ground is not up to the task. When I hear Saleem Idres speaking, he’s the leader of the Military Council,[it is] based on heresy, Facebook things…it’s very detached. That’s why I’m saying there are no ties, Take for example General Ackedi, a leader of Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo, one of the biggest units of the FSA in Syria who is on the ground, he’s not a politician, but he’s, no doubt, very well aware of what’s happening on the ground, very into things, he could tell you the types of relationships, what’s happening, what’s not, you can get actual information from him, not opinions and allegations that won’t do you any good, [but] actual information.
What I mean is that the Military Council does not have “hands on” experience because its leaderships are not on the ground – that makes them, you know, another loose link. The American promise of giving weapons to the Military Council, has become activated a bit more, because they are getting more power to distribute on the ground.
Dylan: Does the Military Council have boots on the ground? Do they have their own units?
Joseph: They have some units, but their effect is very mild.
Dylan: Given that, how does the FSA coordinate its military operations?
Joseph: Based on the region. Each region has its own command. Each unit has its own command. There have been attempts to unify. Liwa al-Tawhid specifically, in Aleppo, which has about 40 000 fighters, they’ve been trying to make it one leadership, one command, but it’s very difficult because the leader of Liwa al-Tawhid used to work as an import – export businessman. He’s not a military man – this guy he’s trading in wheat or something. He’s an import-exporter, he does not know anything about reconstructing military. You see where I’m going with this…? Every commander in the FSA, he’s doing something that is not his job. They found themselves in this, and are just winging it.
Dylan: We talked about the FSA and Liwa al-Tawhid – who are the other armed actors and groups at play?
Joseph: Well you have more radical than Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrarr al Shaam. Ahrarr al Shaam is borderline al-Qaeda. And then you have al-Qaeda. These two are the second and third most effective I think.
Dylan: They come after and behind Liwa al-Tawhid?
Joseph: Liwa al-Tawhid, the thing about Liwa al-Tawhid, it’s big – disorganized. Those two are smaller, more organized, and efficient, much more efficient than Liwa al-Tawhid.
Dylan: When you say al-Qaeda you mean al-Nusra?
Joseph: Yes, Jabhat al-Nusra has divided into two. Jabhat al-Nusra has what we’d call a Syrian branch, a Syrian branch is people who mostly pay tribute to an Emir. Emir is prince, and this prince is Jolany, this guy is a Syrian. And these people who pay tribute to Jolany are mostly called Jabhat al-Nusra. There is another branch who pay tribute to Abu Omar al Baghdadi. These guys are under what is called Dawllat al-Iraq wal-Shaam. Dawllat al-Iraq wal-Shaam is practically al-Qaeda. That’s why I keep saying al-Qaeda because I don’t want to say Dawllat al-Iraq wal-Shaam all the time. So just to not confuse them I say al-Qaeda. Political thought of both branches is al-Qaeda. But one of them, Jabhat al-Nusra, is not very interested in politics at the moment, they’re mostly interested in fighting, frontlines, while Dawlllat, or al-Qaeda, they stay back and control things and try to force their creed, their way of running things, their Shari’a law, and they are the worst case scenario in parts of Aleppo. They are expanding every day.
Dylan: Do the two groups get their funding from the same source?
Joseph: No one knows.
Dylan: If you had to guess?
Joseph: This is the thing about them, there is a lot of vagueness and ambiguities about them that even the names of the players are not real names, so nobody knows about them and the key players are not even Syrian.
So Abdul Khadr Saleh, this is the name of the Liwa al-Tawhid leader.
Dylan: So what do you see as the main challenges to the success of the revolution.
Joseph: It’s no secret to anybody that [there is] fragmentation and disorganization, ill-training, ill-equipping, underfunding, of the parties that want to change things for the better. All of those factors led to halt the advancement of the revolution.
Going back, things kept deteriorating from the beginning, and that left the door open for al-Qaeda, for those people to come and promote their own agendas, because, I mean, the true value of thought is what it does on the ground, not by how lovely it sounds. People want to eat before everything else, they want security and food, they don’t want rosy promises and pink dreams, they can live off that for a month or two, not a year or two.
Dylan: Who supports the regime among the populace?
Joseph: When this revolution started, ok, it had a lot of support from a lot of the population. Whether it was support or make-believe support, it had a lot of support…out of fear or out of something else, but it had support. But the way it responded to demonstrations, the way it responded to calls for reform, the brutal force I told you about, made it lose more and more support, it got more and more isolated. So to react to that the regime started turning the conflict sectarian. So it could fall back on those hardcore loyalists, the Alawites, the Shiites. The conflict in Syria was transformed into sectarian by the regime because it knew it needed only that handful of hardcore supporters willing to die for it to sustain itself.
Dylan: And the supporters of the revolution? Who are they? What breaks them up?
Joseph: I would say the supporters of the revolution are from all backgrounds. They are not narrowed down to anybody. But the revolution as well transformed, it changed. You can ask somebody, “what is the revolution?”; someone would tell you it is religious, another would…this vagueness of the revolution is another symptom of the fragmentation of the opposition. The idea of the revolution, of what is the revolution, is not clear in the minds of the population. While the regime is clear cut, everybody knows who it is, what it is, what it wants: but the revolution is vague, and with it the population is vague as well.
Dylan: A lot of pundits want to paint it as a sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict. It’s not that?
Joseph: No no, of course it is, to a certain extent of course it is. The outlining context is no doubt, that it reached this point: it did not start as such.
Dylan: Can you make an estimate of the percentage of Syrians who support the revolution?
Joseph: Define revolution to me.
Dylan: Could you make an estimate as to how many Syrians want the revolutionary efforts to continue, versus the percentage that want it to stop and for the regime to continue?
Joseph: If you’re saying, who are pro-regime, I would say 20% at maximum. But, I would say 80% want things to be normal again. [As for]Assad to stay in power…I think at this point there are a lot of people who would accept the regime to stay but Assad to go.
Dylan: Tell me about Assad. How can someone kill so many of their own people?
Joseph: These people, the way they’re raised, brought up, they are…I went to school with one of them. They believe that everyone is there to serve them, that that country is theirs. They actually call it “Syria al-Assad”, [literally “Syria of the Assads”]. They believe that that country is theirs, that they control it, that everyone there is their property. He doesn’t see himself a president, he fancies himself a god. These people have a delusion of grandeur; they don’t look at things normally. How he would kill 100 000? He is punishing them, for daring to even rise up against him. And he is thinking he is doing what is best for them – because he sincerely believes everybody is inferior.
Dylan: Tell me a story about the child you went to school with.
Joseph: This guy was one of the Assad family, some cousin of the president. And we were in elementary school, and if the teacher would tell him to do something, or try to ask him for something and he would get annoyed at her, he would just cry, or make a scene, until she apologized to him, and she says she is sorry to him for hurting his feelings or his pride. So, I think that is the same context for Assad, that he wants us to say sorry for demanding what is ours from him.
Dylan: Obviously you desire international intervention. What do you think the nature of that intervention should be? What form should it take?
Joseph: Well that’s a very complicated question, because it’s not up to me – it’s up to what is possible, and I think what is possible is increased support for the local Revolutionary Councils and the more liberal units of the Free Syrian Army – because they should set a new tone for Syria. They should be the building blocks for the new Syria. The Coalition is very detached from Syria, and I think we have to realise when a bad investment is a bad investment and pull out.
You have to go directly to the source and make up a parliament of these Revolutionary Councils that can work as a legislative force to control those Free Syrian Army units that will work as an executive force and have that be the new government of Syria. Maybe even with inclusion of the already existing institutions. I’m not totally for abolishing the institutions of Syria. I’m actually against that. I would like to include those institutions, the old ones with the new ones. There are a lot of good people still serving with the regime, they are doing good things, they are keeping people alive. Whether they are against or pro-regime they are people and they should be taken care of.
Dylan: Last question: paint a picture of Syria if the status quo of half-hearted intervention continues versus what you hope would happen with the intervention you desire.
Joseph: What is happening right now is half-hearted. Here and there, not really serious. If that continues, the country will just continue to be destroyed. The country will continue disintegrating, and institutions will fall apart, the economy is crumbling. It’s just obvious what will happen if we maintain the same course.
There should be a tipping point, we should induce that tipping point – where one party is overwhelmingly stronger than the other, whether it’s political, or on the ground militarily speaking or…– and how to achieve that is up to the military strategists. You have to induce this tipping point. And the regime is out of this equation. You have Iran, Hezbollah, all of these guys are supporting him [Assad] for two years now, keeping him from losing and losing. Especially helping the regime not to lose more, recently is Hezbollah. I think socially and culturally and historically, the regime is not acceptable anymore. What you have to do is induce this tipping point through the forces that are good in the opposition.
Dylan: Thanks very much Joseph.
Joseph: Thank you.