Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports on his recent trip to Zabadani, a besieged Syrian town near the Lebanon border. "[Zabadani] is basically waiting for some kind of solution to happen and is yet really on the receiving end of the majority of the violence," says Kouddous, whose latest article, "On the Ground in Zabadani, a Syrian Town in Revolt," was published in The Nation on Monday. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Syria. Earlier today, Syria’s prime minister, Riyad Hijab, said the Syrian regime is collapsing "morally, financially and militarily," his comments coming a week after he defected to Jordan. Meanwhile, on Monday, United Nations observers in Syria blamed both government forces and the armed opposition for the increasing civilian death toll in Syria. The escalating conflict has magnified the refugee crisis, both internally and in neighboring countries. More than 4,000 people entered Turkey in recent days, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees there to close to 60,000. There are tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon, as well.
To talk more about the situation in Syria, we’re joined by Omar Dahi, assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College, born and raised in Syria, just returned from a research trip to Lebanon looking at the consequences of the Syrian uprising, including the impact on refugees. And still with us from Cairo, Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. His article on his recent trip to Syria was published in The Nation on Monday; it’s called "On the Ground in Zabadani, a Syrian Town in Revolt."
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sharif, let us begin with you, with this trip you just took to Syria. Tell us about the town you were in and what happened.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, I spent a few days in a town called Zabadani, which is about 20 miles northwest of Damascus just across from the Lebanese border. It’s a town of 40,000, really a picturesque place that is known for—as being a resort town for vacationers in Syria and for the Persian Gulf, known for its striking scenery and fruits and fresh water, and has really been transformed, 17 months after the Syrian revolution began, into a city under siege. There is—the town is nestled in a bowl of a valley. And on the mountains above, the Syrian army has stationed tanks and artillery guns and shell the town every day, either day or night, with indiscriminate violence from afar.
Really, what took place and why I spent a lot of time with the Free Syrian Army fighters in Zabadani is emblematic or a microcosm of what happened in Syria as a whole. You know, characteristic of this revolution that began in the countryside, Zabadani started its uprising two weeks after the revolution began in Daraa on March 15th, 2011. These were overwhelmingly peaceful protests, nonviolent protests, people taking to the square to—calling for change. And the response by the regime was similar to what happened in the rest of Syria: a crackdown by the security forces, violence against demonstrators, widespread detentions and raids on neighborhoods. On May 27th, a 26-year-old man named Hussein Sleekha was shot in the stomach and died. He was their first revolutionary martyr in Zabadani. And since then, the protests grew despite the violence, but the death toll continued to climb. And by August or September of 2011, young men in Zabadani began to arm themselves to protect demonstrations, and there was an increasing rate of militarization of the revolution. Their ranks swelled with defectors from the Free Syrian Army who were from Zabadani, who defected with their weapons and returned to Zabadani—I’m sorry, defectors from the regime’s army who defected with their weapons to Zabadani. And so, they fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, but really this was a catch-all term for anyone who was fighting against the regime. There was no coordination with other groups at first—at first, or with any leadership in southern Turkey.
So, this battle really culminated in a major offensive by the regime on the town in January where they sought to really bombard the town. The rebels mounted a very fierce defense, destroyed a couple of tanks and actually forced the Syrian regime into a ceasefire. It marked the first time in the Syrian uprising that the army was forced to abandon a major offensive. Some point to the fact that there were Arab League observers deployed in Syria at the time who may have pressured the regime to back down; nevertheless, many of the residents speak very proudly of when they, quote-unquote, "liberated" the city. But this was a brief respite. It took three weeks before the regime returned with a massive bombardment of the city, forcing the rebels to surrender on February 11th.
As it stands right now is there’s checkpoints, a few checkpoints within the city. The army soldiers don’t leave those checkpoints. And the city is pretty much controlled mostly by its residents, by the Free Syrian Army; however, the regime has taken, as I mentioned before, to shelling the residents from afar. So, day and night, you hear these booms. They hit residential buildings. People are killed. And this is the kind of life that’s lived there. And as in much of Syria, the town has seen massive internal displacement. Nearly all of the residents of one side of the town, which is the most targeted side, have moved to the other side of town or have left Syria completely, crossing the border into Lebanon. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Where are they getting their weapons from, Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the weapons are coming through a smuggling route from Lebanon, carried by young supporters. They’re poorly armed, these rebels, in Zabadani, mostly assault rifles and some RPGs. The kind of arming and funding and support that we’ve seen from the Gulf, from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that has really ramped up in the last three months and is channeled mostly in the north from southern Turkey to places like Aleppo, they haven’t seen this kind of support coming in. So they’re poorly equipped, and they have taken to not attacking military checkpoints, realizing that they cannot militarily vanquish the regime. So they’re in this stalemate and under constant shelling.
AMY GOODMAN: And why did you choose to go to Zabadani?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I found a way into Syria. As we know, the Syrian government does not really allow journalists in on official visas, or very rarely does. And so, there was a way in through Lebanon to reach this town. I was hoping to reach Damascus, but the number of checkpoints around Damascus prevented that from happening. But really, it was a very interesting and eye-opening experience to see this town, which has—is basically waiting for some kind of solution to happen and is yet really on the receiving end of the majority of the violence.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with this and your bravery in just describing in The Nation piece, especially at the end, as you’re interviewing people and the shells are falling. Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, speaking to us from Cairo, from where he has—where he’s just returned from Syria.