Exiled Dissident Ausama Monajed: “The End of the Regime Is Very Close”

As a student in Syria under the Assad regime, Ausama Monajed was arrested and interrogated by security forces several times. The last time he was detained was in 2004, at which point he says he had no choice but to leave the country. Today Monajed is the executive director of the London-based Strategic Research and Communication Center and a member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition force founded in October. Monajed maintains the trends are in the opposition’s favor, and the regime’s base is shrinking by the day. “When they eliminate one or two persons,” he tells FRONTLINE, “they get three or four or five instead. It’s not stopping.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 14, 2011.

Let’s back up to the early days. You are a young man studying in Damascus, and there is a prince in waiting being groomed for the presidency. Tell me what you recall from those days.

I’m [was] in the economic forums every Tuesday, where there’s a big debate on the direction of the country economic-wise, whether to open the country for an open-market economy, whether to adopt a different social structure or to tweak the socialism concepts of the economy that Syria lives under.

And all these debates used to take place evenings, every Tuesday. The president in waiting, Bashar al-Assad, at the time used to attend some of these events. And I used to sit in the second or third row. But from observing him, closely sometimes, or from the time of questions that he either thr[ew] or ask[ed], you realize this man has absolutely no clue [about] the economy.

“Those who lived under this tyrannical regime, they understand that they all absolutely have no intention whatsoever to do any genuine or deep reforms, any kind of reform, even cosmetic, that may compromise the stronghold on power.”

So you weren’t impressed. Did he seem to command respect?

No, he was very young. Not a lot of people were paying him much attention at the time because it was two years before the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Quickly things escalated after, obviously, the severe illness of Hafez al-Assad and then the death, and he was groomed as a president within minutes.

Were you among those that were hopeful about what he would bring to Syria and the changes he would enact?

Never. [I] never [believed] that this president or Bashar al-Assad can bring any genuine or serious change to the country.

As a student, I was arrested several times and interrogated. Those who lived under this tyrannical regime, they understand that they all absolutely have no intention whatsoever to do any genuine or deep reforms, any kind of reform, even cosmetic, that may compromise the stronghold on power. They would never consider at all. Who would give up a power that they’ve been managing or able to control for 40-something years?

The facade of openness that they marketed for some time, and managed to create that kind of illusion among some people in Europe and in the West, it’s only purely economical and financial. Those who benefited from this openness are only the cronies and nouveau riche who are associated with the regime. And the wealth and the accumulated wealth after this openness certainly did not get distributed to the rest of the poor and deprived population.

So did you feel that your fellow Syrians were optimistic? Did you sense a kind of moment there that perhaps things would be different?

There were a few people — we called them at the time Basharists — who believed Bashar is a reform member, Bashar is a genuine person who wants to see some good come into the country, but he’s surrounded unfortunately by these old guards and these security and army officers who do not want to see any kind of change, which I considered at the time a silly argument, and I still do.

Up to these very tough days of revolution, Bashar is in control [of] parts of a team that is taking decisions, and he’s ultimately responsible for everything. So those who believed in him, even had some kind of hopeful belief, lost all that faith when the first bullet was fired at a civilian in the street in Syria.

So a 34-year-old ophthalmologist comes to power. What kind of country did he start to rule? Give me a sense of the Syria he was about [to govern] and how he was moving the strings before all of this began.

Well, it wasn’t him in full control.

Of course, he was groomed. He was put in that place. And there were heads of security intelligence and army officers who were in control of making sure that all the social base of the regime is still there, maintaining the certain support that the different minorities are also in support of the regime.

It was a propaganda war in the country taking place just to give him that kind of image and perception that he’s a leader. He was subject to lots of training at the time — media, economy, foreign policy, all of these. If you remember the early days when he used to give a speech or interview, [they] were complete disasters until he was polished in some way.

He’s not as reviled as other dictators in the region, I’m told by some; [I'm also told] that he has sort of managed to kind of convince so many of the business class to just support him. Is that true?

It’s not convincing business class; it is forcing business class. “Either associate with us, either you work with us, either we have percentages and cuts of your businesses, or you’ll be out of the market, or there will be taxes imposed on your businesses, or your imports will be subject to more investigations or inspections at the borders.”

So their goods would be destroyed, obviously. [Their] factories will suffer from some kind of problems and damages and higher rates of energy bills. So they were forced to deal with these mafia cronies, and otherwise they will be out of business. That’s one part. Others, yes, prefer to move their businesses outside the country and move their investments and capital outside. And this has certainly affected the country very badly.

In 2004, you were detained. Tell me a bit about that and how it changed you.

The last time I was detained I was told if they saw me again, I will never see the light. So it was very clear message that “We want you to leave, or you’ll face dire and severe consequences.” I had no choice but to leave.

Were you mistreated? What happens to people [who are imprisoned]? Give me the back story to the Mukhabarat [intelligence] force.

Well, there are about 45,000 detainees now, just since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 15 this year. Those detainees suffer from extreme torture techniques. Despite the fact that there are 17 security branches in the country and about 250,000 security personnel for a country of 22 million — it’s one of the highest rates per capita for security presence — they only have now a few minutes for every detainee to extract information.

There’s no time to send this detainee back to the cell. A cell, it’s about 2, 3 meters by 2, 3 meters, and there was about 40, 50 people. They all stand. They cannot lay down, and they cannot sleep, because there’s no room to even sit down.

They bring them one after one for interrogation, and there’s only between eight to 10 minutes for each one to get the most out of them. And that’s why they use extreme force and brutal interrogation techniques, leading to a death because they don’t have time to come back.

They came for that detainee, and they throw them in cells dedicated for dead bodies. They take these dead bodies at night, and they ditch them in mass graves. Many mass graves were discovered in the past few months. Every few weeks we discover also mass graves in many areas on the outskirts of many cities. And they’re just a complete tragedy.

[Editor's Note: Because international news media are barred from Syria, independent confirmation of reports and videos of mass graves in cities and towns like Dara'a and Jisr al-Shughour has not been possible.]

So tell me what you’ve witnessed and what sparked this. …

The revolution did not start in Dara’a. It started in the heart of Damascus, March 15, where some Christians, Sunnis, Alawite and Druze young men and women demonstrated. And they marched [in the al-Hamidiyah area] for about 20 to 25 minutes, holding banners where the word “Freedom” was written, and also a cross and crescent symbols to symbolize the national unity among different religions. This is not one sect rebelling against another; this is a whole country now demonstrating for freedom.

[They] planned for a demonstration two days later in front of the Ministry of Interior for the families, fathers and mothers of those detained and political prisoners, demanding their release.

Unfortunately, the security services dealt brutally with them. They were beating the men and mothers of those detained. Also, they put everyone on buses and detained them. They took them away to unknown locations.

Next, [on] Friday, March 18, there [were] calls to demonstrate all over the country.

Obviously, initially, the March 15 demonstrations were organized through Facebook, where everyone was signing up to join the demonstrations. But [the] March 18 demonstrations were the largest, and it witnessed the largest numbers and the longest period in Dara’a that day.

And it was like a snowball afterward, reaching every town, every city. City after city, village after village, people were going out in the street. They were chanting just “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” And it was [an] unstoppable train since then.

You sound hopeful.

I’m absolutely optimistic and hopeful, because I know how this regime is corrupt, weak, and like a house of cards from inside. It maintains the facade that they are well organized or very aggressive or possess the necessary means to quell any uprising, but it is all lies.

We know them from inside. And even officers who work now with the regime, they’ve started to realize that the regime is collapsing, and they’ve started to sell information. They know that the heads of the intelligence services and army chiefs will run away with their billions some[where] in the world and hide. And these junior officers will be left to deal with the consequences afterward.

Yes, [I am] optimistic, because we are watching trends all in our favor. The social base of the regime is shrinking day after day. The economic situation is deteriorating dramatically. The international pressure and regional pressure is mounting on al-Assad.

Al-Assad lost all his support regionally in the Arab world, and even those who[m] he used to consider as allies, like Iran and Hezbollah, they started to distance themselves from Bashar, because they can see it from where they are that this regime is collapsing. There is no good end to this.

Why is it taking so long?

Because, number one, we want this to remain [a] peaceful revolution.

Number two, because of the complexity of the [Syrian] society. It is not a [homogenous] society, indigenous society. It is a mosaic society where there’s different ethnic background[s], different religions and different political affiliations and spectrum.

It was easy and different [in other] Arab Spring models, where there is predominantly one background to most of the population. In Syria, 75 percent are Sunnis, but there are also still other minorities that are still subject to the policy of fear [and] politics of fear that the al-Assad regime is trying to market, either as chaos [or] as extremism in the region and in Syria.

So how did the Assad regime react to the mass protest in Dara’a? What does he do?

Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Atef Najib, was the head of security of the city of Dara’a.

When people went and demonstrated in huge numbers in Dara’a, [the] reason [was] that a few days before, their elementary school’s children wrote on school walls, “People want to topple the regime.”

They were copying what they’ve been listening to [on] Al Jazeera and other TV channels covering the Egyptian uprising and the Tunisian uprising. Most Syrians were glued to their TV sets at the time in January and February of this year. And there were all these graffiti on the walls.

And then the security forces arrested these 12- and 13-year-old kids, and they tortured them in a very bad way. They mutilated some. They pulled the nails of some, and many of them suffered severe injuries in the head. They broke a few arms and a few legs.

… Notable personalities in the city [of] Dara’a went to meet with Atef Najib, Bashar Assad’s cousin, and asked him to release those kids. He refused. And he said: “Forget that you have these kids. Go and make other ones. And if you cannot make other kids, bring your wives, and we will make kids for you.”

… A few days and weeks later, some kids were sent dead to their parents. Some were sent in a very bad medical situation and condition, their injuries not being treated for several weeks.

We have videos documenting all these cases. We have cases all ready and all presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and those responsible for these actions will be prosecuted, I guarantee you.

There are some videos that really helped to spark certain protests. Can you describe [the] release of a video and what effect it had the next day?

There are several benchmark incidents [or] personal stories that help[ed] have a spiral effect on the whole revolution. One is the story of [Ibrahim] Qashoush, who is a singer who composed a song and a melody against Bashar, who was behind the whole synchronized chanting in the central city of Hama.

It’s a popular song, and it’s a beautiful melody. … [It says,] “Bashar, you must leave.” The lyrics was carefully chosen, and sometimes funny, sometimes humor[ous], sometimes very deep. It was the whole city [of Hama] a few days later singing this song, and it was soon all over the country.

This singer and his friends recorded it in a studio somewhere, and they put it online. And everyone was downloading it. They were using it as a ringtone for their mobile phones. The men and women were having it in their cars. You can hear it in the streets of several cities.

So this annoyed the intelligence a lot. As a consequence, they planned an operation just to assassinate this person and kidnap him and did a lot to reach him. Eventually they got hold of him, and they tortured him brutally, to [the extent] that they took off his throat and they ditched him in the river.

When he was discovered the next day, those who know him knew that this [was] their friend. His throat was obviously cut out just to send a message that whoever dares to challenge against Bashar al-Assad will face a similar destiny.

[Editor's Note: You can read more about the popular protest anthem in Anthony Shadid's report for The New York Times and can also listen to the song on YouTube.]

… [Describe Bashar al-Assad's first speech after the uprising broke out.]

Bashar Assad never spoke to the nation, and he will never do [that]. They consider the nation as just animals in the Assads’ farm.

When Assad had his first speech [to Parliament on March 30], it was very late. It was several weeks after all these crimes and atrocities [were] committed.

I think his first speech gave a huge push for the uprising, because those who thought that Assad is not really responsible, [that he] is not giving the order to fire, [saying that] Bashar Assad would never accept such treatment [for] peaceful demonstrators, were shocked. These people who believed in him as a reformer — we called them Basharists — were shocked.

The way he laughed when he gave his speech, or the way these appointed MPs were chanting his name and calling him to be the leader of the world, as if we are witnessing a communist country back in the ’50s or ’60s, the way he never mentioned the fallen heroes or those lost lives of Syrians, that he should be the commander [in] chief of the country, it just was beyond anyone’s imagination. I think they lost dramatically when he gave that speech.

[In] his second speech [on May 15], he addressed the Cabinet, the new one that he formed, again refusing to address the nation. And also he was giving very technical and detailed orders on laws and decrees, which has nothing to do with what’s going on in the streets.

People are calling for him to step down. They do not want to see a new media lull. When the regime claimed that they dropped or abolished the state of emergency, which is one of the longest [states of emergency] in the world, by the way, since 1963, and they said, now, like any other civilized country, if you want to organize a protest you have to go to a police station and just seek permission, anyone who challenged them and went to seek permission to demonstrate were arrested. [They] were arrested and then tortured, and many of them [were] killed and sent back to their families as a message, or were ditched in mass graves. So there was absolutely no point. …

Who’s rallying in favor of him? Two days ago there was a huge crowd in Damascus.

There’s a big saying now, going all over the country, especially today, that opposition demonstrations get dispersed by force, but support demonstrations get congregated by force. It doesn’t rhyme in English, but there’s a whole chant in the country now with this meaning.

Who’s demonstrating? It’s the public-sector workers who all have no other choice but to go; otherwise they’ll lose their jobs. They threaten their families. They say, “We know where your daughter and where your son live, and we’re going to come after [them] if you don’t show up for that demonstration.”

Who’s demonstrating is also private-sector workers who are the bosses, or associated with the mafia of the regime. Who’s demonstrating is security officers wearing plainclothes, even army personnel wearing plainclothes. Those are the ones who are demonstrating, and [a] very tiny percentage of civilians who belong to the Alawite sect, who would fight along with Assad until the end.

But the way they have been filming these demonstrations, and the angles they’ve been positioning the cameras, it shows you that they are not as wide and as huge as they used to be. They’re not using aerial photos or images, for instance. …

And it just shows you how [great is] the pressure they are under to show some kind of popular support in the street, even a fake one, because despite the tanks shelling cities and towns and villages, despite using even boats on coastal areas to [pound] neighborhoods, despite the checkpoints that [are] chopping the country in roads all over, people are still demonstrating. … When they eliminate one or two persons, they get three or four or five instead. It’s not stopping.

Talk to me about the formation of the Syrian National Council, the opposition force you are a member of. How did it come about?

Since the beginning of the uprising, we’ve been trying to form a political umbrella to represent the revolution politically, to deal with the strategy, to talk to the world and to provide an alternative to the Assad regime. Obviously it was a very challenging task for several reasons.

First is that there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians who became politicized in just a matter of a few days. And those belonged to different ethnic groups and different religions and have different political beliefs.

It was very difficult to have all of these Syrians inside the country and outside, who oppose the regime now in masses, to come under one banner, one umbrella and one slogan [in] one day.

So it was a process of coalescing. [We had] several conferences and several attempts until we reached a point where we were able to bring all [factions] of the Syrian society and all backgrounds together under one umbrella. And it is the Syrian National Council.

The Syrian National Council has 230 seats in its general assembly. About 55 of them [are] for the coordinating committees on the ground, 75 for the centrist and liberals, [and] then the rest of the seats are distributed to the rest of the different components of the Syrian society. The general assembly [also] has a 29-seat executive committee. …

Every component, like the coordinating committees, will name their representatives in the general assembly. And they will do their own elections or agreements or a consensus on who is going to be occupying the six seats in the executive committee.

Why isn’t the business community of Aleppo and Damascus excited that you guys have formed? What’s scaring them?

It is a big myth that the business community in Damascus is not supporting the revolution. We have more than 45,000 detainees just since March. These are the wage earners of every family. When someone is arrested, it’s not [only] his wife and kids who are affected financially straightaway. It’s his brothers and the family of his brothers and families of his sisters [and] uncles, who are the bigger family.

You have hundreds of Syrians now who need financial assistance for education needs, for medical needs, for living expenses. Who is paying for all of that? It’s the business elite of Damascus. They would not go on the street and demonstrate. It’s just not their nature. … But they will pay a lot.

With one phone call from someone who is coordinating some of the financial issues, that we need a million Syrian pounds in town X by day Y, they say, “OK.” Who is paying for all this medical equipment, operations and supplies? Who is sending these injured ones to Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon for medical treatments and operations? All the Sunni businessmen of Damascus. We know them by name, and they’ll be [on] a list of honor to be released afterward, when the whole thing is over.

The business elite of Damascus would help through connections, again, through finance, through relations with the international companies. And they obviously trade with the world, so through their agents and representatives worldwide, they will help and push for change. They are liaising with the SNC through the SNC representatives inside the country.

Now. Aleppo is a different story. It’s difficult, because the difference between the business in Aleppo and business in Damascus is Damascus is the finance, trade and merchant business and services. And Aleppo is more industrialist, heavy on industry and stocks.

So they fear that that most of their capital is invested in factories, number one; number two, the influence of tribes in Aleppo. … The heads of tribes are pro-Assad because Assad gave them the free hand to do whatever they want to do in Aleppo. …

What do the pro-Assad protesters chant?

“God, Syria, Bashar,” and that’s it. “God, Syria, Bashar.” The freedom protesters’ chant is “God, Syria, Freedom.” So it’s only one word, “freedom” versus “Bashar.” Very clear.

How does this end?

There are different scenarios. It’s not only one scenario. It depends on the way the international community is going to handle or deal with the situation. It depends on for how long the regime can sustain or can finance its killing machine and military operation and assaults.

They are in very big trouble economically. Tourism used to generate revenues of between 25 to 28 percent of the national budget. Since March, it is zero. Oil revenues generate about a third of the national budget, and it’s now almost going to be zero by November because of the oil sanctions that we managed to impose on the Syrian exports of oil. They’re losing money. And also they’re transferring whatever money they have abroad.

Fortunately, most of their illegal money is being laundered in Russia. So [the] most probable scenario is a white coup perhaps, or not white, where some of the military officers, perhaps not the first string, the second, would make a coup and either arrest Assad and whoever [is] left from the heads of intelligence and the army chiefs, or they will leave deliberately at some point.

Assad is not [the ousted, assassinated Libyan leader Muammar el] Qaddafi. He is not [Yemeni president Ali Abdullah] Saleh. He doesn’t have that in him. He’s much more weaker. And he still has [a] wife and kids and can still manage to live decently somewhere in the world. And they would send some guarantees for him.

[Do you want him to go] to the Hague to be tried for war crimes?

Whether Bashar Assad accepts to hand over power [and] leave or finds a safe haven somewhere, he will be tried. He’ll be tried as the commander [in] chief of the Syrian army. He’ll be tried as the Syrian president. He’ll be tried as someone who gave orders to shoot and kill. He’ll be tried either in the Hague in international court or in Syrian court, which is what we prefer.

Tell me about his brother and how he’s put down these demonstrations.

Bashar’s brother, Maher Assad, has a different nature than Bashar himself. He’s much more violent. He grew up within army circles. He even used to settle his arguments with friends or even family members by shooting at them. Maher personally led the operation of forming military death squads outside the classic formation of the army by choosing and picking those who were tested on front lines by killing civilians and kids and women with no shred of humanity or mercy, and picking all these people and forming these kind of death squads that he sends north, south, east and west in the country to kill.

… The army witnessed a lot of defections because the army, they are conscripts. … And many of them, naturally, will be [coming] from that town or that city, and they will defect and refuse to shoot and kill civilians. So the intelligence from second row would shoot at them and kill them.

Most of those soldiers who were killed were shot from behind. And we have all the videos and the doctors explaining how they were shot from a very close proximity from behind, quote/unquote “executed” because they refused to shoot. And here were the death squads of Maher Assad’s, who is officially in charge of the Fourth [Armored] Division of the Syrian army, but also formed these death squads on the side.

They send them by airplanes, and they kill and do house-to-house searches, arrests, killing, raping and kidnapping. …

Explain to an American audience why Syria matters and why they should care.

Because of the geopolitical position of Syria. Syria is on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Syria is south of Turkey; it is the gate of the European Union to the Middle East and the Arab world. Syria is a key ally of Iran in the region. Iran depends heavily on Syria to support Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

That explains the tremendous amount of support the Iranian regime is putting to prolong the life of Bashar Assad. Syria is a key and major player in the Arab League and also in the Middle East as a source of not stability, but chaos and games, for a long time.

Syria is perhaps the one last remaining ally of Russia in the Middle East and also in the Arab world. Russia has the only marine base on the Mediterranean. It’s based in Syria. They leased it to the Russians. So it is a very, very strategic country. Unfortunately, the Syrian regime was responsible for the killing of many American troops in Iraq through allowing jihadis to go to Iraq and facilitate their [blood]baths. … So for all these reasons, Syria matters.

Do you think in some ways this is going to be the beginning of the Arab Winter? Will it be another long year before you see spring in Damascus come again?

Well, we don’t think that this is going to end very quickly. It is going to take some time, but we are certain that the end of the regime is very close.

No one is able to give you any time, but again, by watching all these trends, watching where things are heading, time is certainly on the revolution’s side and against the [government's] side.

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