"I’ve learned what it means for a human being to be truly free." An Exclusive Interview with Syrian Revolution Icon Hadi Abdullah

Apr 06, 2016

Radio Free Syria recently had the great privilege of interviewing journalist, activist and revolutionary icon Hadi Abdullah. Despite being targeted by both the Assad regime and Daesh (ISIS), Hadi Abdullah remains a tireless and truly inspirational figure.

Radio Free Syria: I’d like to start by asking, after five years of the revolution, how do you retain your resolve and your optimism for the future?

Hadi Abdullah: There is a difference between remaining optimistic and staying the course. Staying the revolutionary course, or the main reason that keeps me going in this revolution, is that there are martyrs who were our dear friends, who were with us during the very first days of the revolution, and we started the revolution together. They were martyred, and others were detained. So these martyrs and detainees are the biggest source of strength that keep me going, so I can remain loyal to them.

RFS: How do you feel you yourself and the revolution have changed and evolved since 2011?

HA: In terms of myself, I feel like I’ve aged 50 years during these 5 years of revolution. I’ve been through many trials I never thought or imagined I would face. I’ve been through many things, many calamities, many good things and many bad things, in such an intense manner. That’s why I can say, or at least I consider I aged 50 years during these five years. Even my hair has gone prematurely gray as a result of the many bad things I saw, the massacres I witnessed, and bloodbaths I survived. So on a personal level, I feel like I grew up, not just emotionally but also physically. That’s one side of it. Another angle is that I have gained so much life experience. I learned what it means for a human being to be truly free. We’ve continued for five years, and I lived…I lived as a free person. Before the revolution, I never felt this, although I was a teacher at a university, and my situation was excellent in comparison to other young men. However, I never used to feel this idea of freedom of thought. I didn’t even have this perspective. I hadn’t yet had the slightest experience, or slightest life-changing experience, that we are living right now.

So, for me, despite everything, I see better and positive developments, in general.

In terms of the revolution, it is going through its natural “labor pains.” That’s my opinion. It may be changing, yes, but this is its natural trajectory. It started as a peaceful revolution, calling for freedom and the fall of the regime, and remained peaceful for several months. We were forced to take up arms as a result of the massacres committed by the Assad regime, and as a result of women being kidnapped by the regime, and the massacres we witnessed, so as a matter of self-defense, we took up arms only to defend ourselves. After that, it [the revolution] began to move from stage to stage, one contraction after another, however, in my opinion these stages are normal to some extent, and now the revolution is returning. Meaning, it was gaining strength during some stages, and weakening during others. During the last period, the revolution was very weak as a result of the entire world conspiring against it – in other words, the revolution did not find a single loyal friend to help it.

However, now, it seems that its [the revolution’s] spirit is returning once again.

RFS: You have been a target for both Assad and Daesh. How do you react to claims that the regime is opposed to Daesh?

HA: I don’t have the slightest reaction, I mean, many of the so-called confrontations between the regime and Daesh are fake confrontations. In fact, it is quite the opposite – there are shared interests between the regime and Daesh, and most lately the city of Palmyra’s attorney general defected, and I was one of those who assisted in his defection and securing safe passage for him to Turkey.

He told me some very important information about how the regime handed Palmyra over to Daesh, in addition to the oil trade between the regime and Daesh, and between Russia and Daesh. He told me many important and detailed facts concerning the convergence of interests between the regime and Daesh, and about the cooperation happening on the ground, whether that’s in terms of oil and gas, or in terms of the weapons market between the two sides! There are now weapons and ammunition being sold between the two.

The point is, the regime and Daesh, even if they are not “friends,” their interests align against the revolutionaries of Syria in many cases. So, when I see them fighting, even if it seems real, I don’t have the slightest reaction. I might say that I hope they both take each other out, but inside of me I am sure that these battles are mostly symbolic.

RFS: We read a lot in Western media about “Western-backed” rebels with very little evidence of any actual backing of forces opposing Assad. How do you view media representation of that and of the revolution in general?

HA: In terms of the term “western-backed” rebels or opposition, this term really hurt us, or we can say its negative impact was far greater than any positive impact, meaning that while countries from the “Friends of Syria” or “Friends of the Revolution” group make statements, the regime on the ground is constantly reinforcing its troops on the ground or committing massacres. Most of the time these Friends of Syria countries suffice with spoken words, or they make a statement promising “great things” while the reality is what is actually done is very little. For this reason, this term, Western-backed rebels, has caused us a lot of harm on the ground.

In reality, the West is not helping us enough, yet from the regime’s view, and from the point of view of the people, we are seen as having an affiliation with the West. To clarify for listeners, in general we can divide the fighting forces in Syria in the following manner: we have the regime and its allies, including Russia, Iran and Iraqi and Lebanese militias, then we have Daesh, then the Kurds, meaning the militias specifically – the PKK, the PYD, then we have Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda), then we have the Islamist forces who are fighting and are mainly backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi, and then we have the Free Syrian Army factions (FSA) who are mainly backed by America or the MOC [Military Operations Center] and some other countries with US leadership.

So those are the parties involved in the fighting. Practically speaking, the West is only “backing” the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the support is very little. We can say they are trying to give us support so that we don’t completely “die,” but they won’t give us the support to get rid of the criminal killing us! Right now, there is a criminal holding a knife who wants to slaughter us, and right now, practically speaking, they’re not giving us what we need to get the knife out of his hands. They’re just giving us enough to avoid complete slaughter, although we are always under threat of being massacred or assaulted by this criminal.

At the beginning, coverage of the revolution was fine, but at some point, with the emergence of Daesh and its expansion across Syria and Iraq, we started to feel that most of the coverage became politicized. We had already started to feel the international community’s military and political betrayal, and then we began to experience even the media’s betrayal. They betrayed the entire Syrian scene by presenting it only as Daesh, or Assad’s war against Daesh, or the international coalition’s war against Daesh, and all of this is completely wrong!

During the battle for Kobane, they diminished the entire Syrian case to Kobane, and that’s not correct! It’s a huge mistake, and when the media focused all its coverage on Kobane and forgot about the rest of Syria, the Syrian regime seized the opportunity to commit massacres in other areas of Syria. So, we began to feel that the media is truly politicized, with the aim of only showing Daesh’s role to ensure that other nations would join a coalition to fight this organization.

In reality, there were revolutionaries who were continuing their revolution over the years, asking for their freedom and the fall of the regime. They were facing the regime on many fronts –in Aleppo, in Idlib, Rif Damascus (rural), Ghouta, the Jobar district inside Damascus, inside Homs and many other areas. Thus, the revolution was present and remains present in many areas, but the media instead presented the view that what is happening in Syria was Assad’s war against Daesh, or the international community’s war against Daesh. However, the revolution was still alive, even aside from the military aspect and the revolutionaries fighting Daesh. All of this was happening while amazing civil society work was and is going on, the building of Syrian society. All of this while there were people living in the liberated areas as if it was a transitional stage without Assad! The liberated areas are working and implementing electricity and water projects on their own through revolutionary bodies.

To this moment, they are establishing revolutionary organisations, with women’s centers, for example. They are establishing schools, psychological support centers for children – they are working on many revolutionary projects which the Western media aren’t interested in seeing. Instead, the Western media are only seeing Assad, Daesh, terrorism.

RFS: Assad and Iran have long claimed to represent an axis of resistance [for Palestine against Israel], especially in light of Israel’s partnership with Russia. What would you say about this axis of resistance?

HA: In terms of this topic, even little children in Syria know the regime uses the beacon of resistance to show itself in a positive light. Just as Daesh as used religion as a cover to accomplish its goals, the Assad regime has used the idea of resistance to try, or actually as a cover to show itself in a positive light. However, the reality is that they haven’t shot a single bullet at the occupied Golan Heights in 40 years, and there has been a “long-term” truce between the regime and Israel, and the regime has preserved this truce. The regime has managed not to shoot a single bullet at the area for 30 or 40 years, yet for some reason cannot preserve a truce between it and its own Syrian people for mere days!

Every day, the regime violates this cessation of hostilities and strikes out, either with its planes or Russian planes or even cannons, which target many areas here [in Syria] every day. There have been 40 or 50 violations of this truce so far, all harming the Syrian people. Even if the last so-called “achievement” for the resistance was that an Israeli paper admitted, or reported that the Assad regime is using Israeli drones bought from Russia (Israel sold them to Russia, Russia gave them to the regime), and the regime has used them in the battles on Syria’s coastline. Thus, the Assad regime is using Israeli drones against its war on the Syrian people! This was published in an Israeli paper and it was reported on by many other outlets, including AlJazeera.

RFS: One final question. The superpowers and the regional powers are currently discussing various forms of either federalism or partition in Syria and Iraq. What do you see happening in the future? How will the Syrian people counter this?

HA: In the demonstrations which mobilized on a recent Friday, the protestors in many areas chanted and held signs up stating that they flatly refuse a federal system for Syria. One of the main foundations of our revolution, or one of its key principles, the one of March 2011, is that Syria will remain one, both geographically and as a people. We have certain things which are sacred, like the Syrian people are one and cannot be divided by anyone, and that Syria is one land that we will never accept to be divided. We refuse the division of Syria: even if regional powers try to divide it temporarily, this will not last long – or rather, it will fail. We are against a federal system in Syria, and we stand for one Syria, as it is - however, without Assad and without Daesh, of course.

RFS would like to thank Malak Chabkoun for translation and patience with RFS' editorial staff.