How Syria’s “Romeo and Juliet” almost destroyed Assad’s grip on power.
In late 2017, social media pages in Syria started carrying an ominous message referring to a girl called Catherine Mezher.1.https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/posts/774166999429586 She was 17 and had been missing for a significant period of time, an already unnerving fact. The fact that she was a resident of Suwayda was scarier still for Syrians who had access to information in one form or another.2.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/874644140889395201
In Syria, kidnappings have become a deadly and far too common aspect of life, but it is in Suwayda where kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, and death following botched abduction attempts have reached their zenith.3.https://twitter.com/delfoo/status/8746441408893952014.https://twitter.com/JohnArterbury/status/8743748623237980185.https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/photos/a.542209512625337.1073741829.539110796268542/841619369351015/?type=3&theater In a war that has seen so much brutality so far, the only images the news of a young teenage girl being kidnapped could conjure were those that would haunt one’s dreams. Not long after, the family issued a statement: the abducted girl was most likely killed for her organs, indicated by her last known location being a medical warehouse.6.“في حادثة كاترين.. الاقتصاص “العائلي” في السويداء يطغى على سلطة “القانون” – Shaam SY The culprit they were pointing towards was none other than the Al Bustan organisation and the state’s security forces.7.“في قضية كاترين مزهر” – Al-Hayat8.https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/posts/774166999429586 Syria’s own brand of support NGO, the Al Bustan group is infamous for its well-established links to the Assad family.9.“How Assad regime controls UN aid intended for Syria’s children” – The Guardian The Al Bustan organisation is the brainchild of none other than Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and one of Syria’s foremost oligarchs, who owns stakes in most spheres of life and directs some major enterprises outside Syria including the Al Watan newspaper and Syria Tel, the country’s dominant Telecom10.Pies, Judith, and Madanat, Philip. “Media Accountability Practices Online in Syria” European Commission, June 201111.“Paradise Papers reveal how Assad’s cousin used front companies to bypass US sanctions” – Al Araby. There were grounds for people to see this as a credible claim, since reporting in Syria had linked Al Bustan to militias with violent and criminal practices, such as Saraya al-Areen12.“العرين 313” ميليشيا يسار الأسد لقمع العلويين والمعارضين.. هذا ما تفعله أخطر “مافيات” الساحل” – al-Souria. Stories and reports from Tartous province linked the Saraya Al Sareen militia to the infamous checkpoint of death, known for the spate of kidnappings occurring there and brutality of the people associated with it.13.“العرين 313” ميليشيا يسار الأسد لقمع العلويين والمعارضين.. هذا ما تفعله أخطر “مافيات” الساحل” – al-Souria14.“حاجز مفرق “القرداحة” يبتلع التوأمين “زينب” و”فيوليت : Zaman al-Wasl
Yet what the Mezher family did went beyond that, as they weren’t just challenging a militia.15.“في حادثة كاترين.. الاقتصاص “العائلي” في السويداء يطغى على سلطة “القانون” – Shaam SY They were going for the core of the power structure, the Al Bustan representatives and by extension, the people providing them backing – the governorate’s leading intelligence official. In terms of the current political demarcations in Syria, this was open rebellion.16.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/914608152401907712 They were challenging the Assad family and by extension of that the Assad presidency and the Assad state in one act of defiance. It has to be said that most people reading about the conflict would probably not see their action in this light, but in Syria this is the demarcation line between loyalists and opposition. Support or opposition of Assad’s continued rule is the key divide for those who have a place in the current structure and those who do not. This is what the calls for Assad’s resignation symbolise, and why the fight over this issue is at the core of the war. Even loyalist communities who have suffered remarkably high casualties continue to support his rule in principle. The alternative is close to the realisation of one Wehrmacht General at the end of WWII, who is quoted as saying “We used to be colonels and generals, now we will be shoe-shine boys and bellhops.”17.http://www.historynet.com/the-walls-have-ears.htm Having being the dominant social class in Germany up to that point, generals preferred death to being shoe-shines and bellhops, and continued war was preferable for almost all.
And in the face of this defiance, the weakness from the strain of ruling with an iron fist became visible. Damascus blinked. The Mezher family, backed up by friends and local Druze gunmen from the Men of Dignity militia, an unaligned Druze militia that backs neither side in the war, abducted the Al Bustan province representative.18.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/91460815240190771219.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/896166426095927296 Damascus reprimanded the intelligence governorate official for the SAA, but that didn’t appease Catherine Mezher’s father.20.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/914608152401907712 He released videos of interrogations of people he said were implicated in the abduction.21.https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/photos/a.542209512625337.1073741829.539110796268542/841619369351015/?type=3&theater Visibly wounded in the interrogation, the three men spoke of taking the girl to a specific spot, perhaps the last recorded words of the men on these tapes.22.https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/photos/a.542209512625337.1073741829.539110796268542/841619369351015/?type=3&theater They wouldn’t survive long after the videos were shot, unlike the Al Bustan official. He was the bargaining chip for the father who wanted his daughter. The new approach had failed, so Damascus’ local proxies and the official structures were organising.23.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/916242023904096257
By October the situation had moved dangerously close to open war on the streets of Suwayda.24.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/916242023904096257 Groups were gathering like football hooligans itching for a fight. Outlets were appealing for calm and yet it seemed like these cries were falling on deaf ears. This wasn’t just a case of a father missing his daughter, the kidnapping had gone too far. Perhaps the population viewed the 4th Division and Republican Guard affiliates patrolling and extorting along the checkpoints on the Damascus road as too much. Fighting was almost inevitable and there were few options to pacify a new uprising of this scale left for Damascus, not with the other existing hot zones at least.
And yet today we don’t speak of the Suwayda uprising of 2017, a voice of calm carried the day even if not to everyone’s satisfaction, and even if it didn’t bring back the ones already dead, it did avert the clashes. Catherine Mezher spoke, as she had escaped her Druze family to the Alawite coast to marry a boy.25.A video of Mezher’s appeal appeared online shortly after the escalation began. The people who had confessed to taking her to a warehouse had been right, but it was not for her to die a gruesome death. She had eloped to marry a non-Druze man, something her conservative family wouldn’t have approved of. To further back up her claim she uploaded a video of her wedding.26.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/917255188691537920 Her father still issued rejections but people were no longer willing to fight over something that had turned out so petty.27.https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100010023490619&lst=1044072171%3A100010023490619%3A1521112618 In due time the remaining abductees linked to the case were released and tensions somewhat subsided to merely a tense sense of unease.
This is an instructive moment. Syria isn’t secular, Syria isn’t united, Syria isn’t a single confrontation and more often than not, Syria’s civil war has nothing to do with geopolitics. I wish it would because if it were so it would have been long over, but it has to do with Syrians, Syrians who feel distinctly different from one another and are becoming isolated in their own shrinking immediate circle. And even Syria’s Romeo and Juliet’s happy ending was bitter, bitter and maybe a tad sweet.