Thursday, November 27, 2014

Human Rights Defender: Rami Nakhla

Nonviolent fighter, a democratic and a Peace activist, Rami Nakhla, in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believes in a bright future to his country, Syria. He talks to Kirthi Jayakumar about his activism, the conflict in Syria and the kind of solution he believes it needs.

This post is written in advance to mark the Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare

What is happening in Syria right now?                       
It is a very challenging question to answer. Not everyone will agree with any one answer. It started off as a nonviolent uprising against the dictatorship that tortured ordinary civilians. It began as a fight for democracy, and remained a nonviolent conflict for eight months. But with the element of regional interference and brutal crackdowns by the government, along with external channels bringing in weapons, the armed resistance began. It escalated into a full scale civil war between the regime and the people. The regime is a minority one, representing the Alawite population that is about 5 million people out of 23 million. The Alawite sect is supported by Iran, being a Shiite sect. The remainder of the population in Syria is Sunni. This angle makes it look like a sectarian conflict, but it has several political and regional dimensions. That said, right now as we speak, there are all kinds of nonviolent, liberal and secular activists fighting side-by-side with radical Al-Qaeda affiliated wings, against the dictatorship. It is a rather complicated state of affairs.

There is a lot of talk about how the opposition to the regime is divided in Syria – one of the factors credited as being the reason for the continued state of war. Do you agree? If it is indeed true, why is unity so elusive?
There is a huge division among the Syrian opposition. This is primarily because there was no real opposition for the last five decades in the country. The only one was the Muslim Brotherhood – and being a member of that group could well earn you a death sentence. Currently, though there is a division, the slew of leftist, secular, communist, liberal and nonviolent activists are fighting alongside with those who follow a more radical approach and want an Islamist state after the current regime. The sheer diversity among the opposing masses makes it appear fragmented. There have been several attempts to bring the opposition together – there was the Syrian National Council, then the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces – but they were all composed only of representatives that operated at the political level with absolutely no roots to the ground. Two of them operate from outside Syria, and there are many that operate on the ground as well.

Rami at a meeting in Turkey
discussing the future of his country.
Image (c) Rami Nakhla
What are your thoughts about a military intervention in Syria?
At any stage, you simply cannot ask the international community to intervene militarily. It is seriously unbelievable that people ask or even lobby for an external power to intervene in a domestic realm. I believe that we certainly need an international mechanism in place – something like an international policing authority – that would help keep the security of the people intact. For instance, when a dictator is slaughtering his people, such an authority could intervene and keep such conduct in check. That said, the Syrian conflict is very dynamic and therefore, very complicated. In the beginning itself, the international community should have issued a credible threat to Syria, not intervention, but a credible threat indicating that a non-adherence to certain limits and red lines would result in an intervention. This didn’t happen. Instead, they used a red line with chemical weapons, which, in my opinion, was pointless. The Syrian regime had already killed 150,000 people without chemical weapons! In effect, it was like telling the regime that they could do whatever they wanted without using chemical weapons. The international community did not make use of the opportunity to issue a credible threat, and the Syrian regime exploited this. The international community has said that there will be absolutely no military intervention to topple the regime. But the Syrian opposition has continuously lobbied for this option. This is simply not productive and will lead us nowhere. I believe that we need to take this out of the equation, use international support to buttress a political solution that we should find ourselves, and not to request an intervention.

Can you tell us about your own story as an activist against the regime?
I have lived all my life in Syria, and I have been an activist since 2006. I used to use a pseudonym – Malath Aumran – and no one knew it was Rami Nakhla behind it all. Nevertheless, for all that I was known as, as Rami Nakhla, I was interrogated as many as 40 times by 2010, being taken for as many as once or twice a week for questioning. They would question my activities as Rami, but they didn’t know Malath was me. I was on their radar as an activist since then. In 2010-2011, the regimes collapsed in Tunisia and Egypt, and the government here decided to become wiser. They began arresting activists who might possibly play a role in creating a Syrian revolution to topple the regime. Even before things started out, I hid in Damascus for a while, and then fled to Lebanon with drug dealers. The uprising began when I was in Beirut, where I co-founded an initiative that helped to coordinate protests and spread word on the regime and its atrocities. I was their spokesperson. The initiative supported all the work it did with eyewitnesses and pictures, rallying and networking on the uprising all the time.

A testament to the Syrian pogrom: Mass Graves in Syria to mark
the passing of innocent civilians and protesters
Image (c) Rami Nakhla
What kept you going? It isn’t easy being an activist, and even when you have a cause in sight, it isn’t always easy to keep the fight going…
If you had told me three years ago about the things I would see in the three years since, and tell me that I could take it, I wouldn’t have believed you. But the human body is an incredible machine. At the beginning of the uprising, the most traumatic thing for me to see was peaceful protesters being beaten. When the conflict escalated, it was traumatic to see them being shot. People would bend down and pray on the streets in the face of all that violence. We changed as a people, I know I did – I never thought I would see what I did and still sleep at night. We are a traumatised nation, and we need therapy en masse after the war ends, to recover from the trauma. When the pain is too great, you stop feeling it.

Understandably so. Do you see an end in sight?
Without international solidarity and support, I don’t think we can make it. At this moment, I don’t see an end in the defined sense of a winner and loser divide. There is no possibility of a military victory for either side, but only a political solution. Every conflict comes to an end sooner or later, either with a military victory or with a political solution. But, the current situation on ground – considering both sides and the forces they have – this conflict can go on for years and years. We might just lose everything, and Syria might be wiped off the world map for all we know. It would be catastrophic. We already see so many refugee camps on the borders – all filled with people suffering in terrible conditions. We need a political solution to achieve peace. War cannot be won militarily – not this one especially. This is what I am working on currently.

What have your own personal challenges been in this journey so far?
We face challenges in our lives every day – it is as true for me as it is for you. In my time as an activist in this conflict, I will say that I went through three stages. In the first phase, I was organising protests and rallying people. I was a nonviolent activist entirely. The second stage was when the armed conflict began. Undoubtedly the non-violence still existed, but I couldn’t stick to the original plan of action – my priorities had to change. It was all about containing the armed conflict at this point. I went to Washington DC and worked with the United States Institute of Peace – where we produced “The Day After” document. The third stage came up when the conflict began escalating into sectarian considerations as they played out in Syria. My focus shifted to working on achieving a peaceful solution. Once a sectarian overtone sets in, you need to involve all the parties to the conflict in bringing a solution alive. You cannot ignore anyone. The key to that is to reconcile tensions and differences, redistributing our powers in the processes. This is what I am working on now, and I must admit that it is quite challenging. It is hard to admit to yourself that the priorities have changed and must be accommodated. I worked to topple the regime at one point, but that is no longer the priority – what we need now is a sustainable political solution. It needs courage to shift the priorities about to meet the right one at the right time. 

To stay in touch with Rami Nakhla and his inspiring work, follow him on twitter as @MalathAumran