Caabu hosts meeting with Syrian human rights defenders

Posted by Caabu on 05 Oct 2011

On 29 September, Caabu hosted a successful briefing with two Syrian human rights defenders to discuss the current situation in Syria, and their thoughts on how things might develop in the coming months.

Catherine al-Talli is a Christian human rights lawyer and opposition activist from Damascus.  She was recently forced into exile after being named in the Wikileaks US cable.  Throughout the unrest, Catherine has taken on a considerable protester-opposition coordination role, with strong links to the local coordination committees and the more established opposition figures in the country.  She has also coordinated with protestors to accumulate and distribute evidence of regime abuse.

Catherine spoke mainly about the brutality with which Syria’s protests have been put down.  She emphasised the non-violent nature of the protests, saying that initially people would attend demonstrations carrying olive branches, but also talked emotively about the violence that protesters face.  She personally witnessed protesters shot by government security forces and snipers, and said that there is evidence that over 200 protesters have died under torture.

Catherine also emphasised the pluralist, non-sectarian nature of the uprising, saying that protesters have been chanting slogans of national unity.  She added that speculation about protesters splitting along sectarian lines actually plays into the regime’s narrative, which wants to portray the protesters as Salafists and itself as protecting minorities, including Christians.

Bassam Ishaq is another opposition activist from inside Syria, also forced into exile.  He is an Assyrian Christian from Hassake in north east Syria.  Bassam is a member of the National Salvation Council, founded by Haitham al-Maleh, and is an associate of jailed activist, Walid al-Bunni.  He has also been heavily involved in coordination and unification efforts of the opposition and protestors in-country during the unrest.

Bassam emphasised Syria’s pluralistic and democratic political past before the Baath Party coup in March 1963, saying that this, as well as the ‘Damascus Spring’ – the brief period of opening up that took place shortly after Bashar al-Assad’s accession to power in 2000 – had paved the way for the current pro-democracy movement.  However, he also spoke of the difficulties of trying to form a cohesive, unified opposition after over 40 years of totalitarian rule.  Bassam said that opposition groups were still getting to know each other, and that they want to develop relationships with and learn from civil society in the West.

Catherine and Bassam then took questions from the audience, which focused largely around prospects for the future.  Both Catherine and Bassam said that they believed that support for Libya-style military intervention is on the rise, citing the desperation that is growing among the protesters.  They also said that, particularly following the success of Libya’s anti-Gaddafi revolutionaries, some voices are starting to call for an armed movement.  However, they also stressed that such a shift – from a peaceful uprising to an armed insurrection – would play into the regime’s hands, as it would provide Assad with justification for using force.