If you want to put a face on the Syrian revolution, try an activist named Samar Yazbek. I had a chance to talk with her when she visited Washington this week, and she brought the cause of the opposition — and its raw human passion for liberation — into focus.
First, a word portrait of Yazbek: She’s a striking-looking woman, with strawberry blond hair swept back from her face and a fierce look in her eyes that is somewhere between rage and sorrow. She speaks passionately, mostly in Arabic through a translator, and listening to her you can’t help thinking of the revolutionary characters in “Les Miserables” who are caught up in a cause that is at once a romantic dream and a nightmare.
Before the revolution came to Syria, she was a writer, whose first novel was called “Heavenly Girl” and, according to an Arab blogger cited by Wikipedia, “challenged existing taboos in Syrian society.” Her bio says she’s 42, but she looks maybe a decade younger.
The most interesting fact about Yazbek, which she doesn’t mention at first, is that she’s an Alawite who was born in Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral region near Latakia in the north. In that sense, she’s a walking refutation of the argument that the conflict in Syria is simply a sectarian civil war between Assad’s Alawites and the Sunni majority. She has defected from her clan into the community of the opposition.
The constant talk of sectarian war “is only a game that the regime plays,” she argues, to make the Alawites feel they will all be slaughtered unless they hang together around the regime and its thugs. She worked to reach Alawite tribal leaders by Skype to reassure them that the community will be safe if the revolution triumphs — but she gave that up when she realized that she could be putting the sheiks in danger.
Yazbek says the pro-regime thugs known as the “shabiha” are the enforcers of the sectarian mind-set. Many of these young men are from Assad’s own tribe, she says. They have perpetrated some of the worst massacres in Sunni villages, but they also intimidate Alawites who think of defecting from the regime. She refuses to talk about her own family, not wanting to put them in greater danger.
What moved me most about Yazbek was when she voiced her fear that secular revolutionaries like her — who refuse to play the sectarian game — are being swept aside in the darkening tempest that is Syria. She said that the opposition must fight on three fronts — against Assad, against the Salafist Sunni extremists who want to capture the revolution and against the germ of sectarianism that is infecting Syria as the violence continues.
“When I go to Syria, I talk to the fighters about pardon and forgiveness,” she says, but she wonders how long this message can prevail. “There is a sentiment of hatred that the regime has succeeded in spreading through the country,” she says. She understands that the United States fears the rise of the jihadists. But she says the longer America lets this fire burn, the more likely it is that the haters and killers will own the future.