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A march to awakening in Syria

On Dec. 19, 1998, United States embassies across the Arab world felt the ire of residents outraged by U.S.-British airstrikes on Iraq. The most violent demonstrations occurred in Syria, where protesters stormed the U.S. and British embassies in Damascus. Protesters also destroyed the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker, who lodged vigorous objections with the Syrian government in response. I was among those protesters.

When I arrived at my high school for class that morning, the principal announced that lessons were canceled because we would be participating in a march. Students were shocked and delighted; any day without boring school lessons was a gift. But what was this about a march? Public expressions of anger were unheard of in Syria. I had glimpsed TV footage of marches abroad, but I had never seen one with my own eyes.

As the march began, I asked my classmate where we were going. “I don’t know,” he said apathetically, clearly preoccupied by female students who had joined the march. The crowd was swelling by the minute. We marched onto a highway that had been cleared of traffic, likely by the Syrian government. Government employees joined the march and traffic police began to lead the crowds. Apparently, the government had canceled work for public servants just as they canceled class at my public school. When we reached the U.S. Embassy, someone told us to stop. From that point on, events unfolded very quickly.

The crowd began chanting against the bombing of Iraq. Security forces handed stones to people, who threw them at the embassy. Someone scaled the embassy walls and burned the U.S. flag. The crowd erupted in jubilation. An angry mob ransacked the embassy compound. Someone directed us to the British Cultural Center and the U.S. ambassador’s residence. An angry mob ransacked these buildings as well. Eventually, police waded into the crowd to disperse us. The rally ended.

In all this hubbub, I felt conflicted. Security forces clearly wanted us to engage in violence, but I felt that throwing rocks or ransacking buildings ran contrary to my conscience. Instead, I spent the day peacefully chanting against the bombings and buying water bottles for those injured by tear gas. Looking back, this was a seminal moment in my life. My actions on that day marked the first time I knowingly disobeyed the wishes of Syrian authorities based on my sense of decency.

But I would do so again.

As a senior in college, I saw a local teenager I knew running frantically through a park followed by seven or eight men. His mother was crying on a nearby park bench. I confronted the men: “Listen up! This boy is from the neighborhood. His father is dead and he has only his mother. Go near him again, you’ll get trouble from the entire neighborhood.” Unbeknownst to me, the men were plainclothes military policemen. I was detained and faced a six-month sentence in the notorious Adra Prison on bogus charges of “impersonating an intelligence officer” and “assailing military police officers.” While in detention, I witnessed the inhumane conditions of Syrian military prisons, where inmates laid on lumpy mattresses on the floor of overcrowded cells. I saw ferocious beatings and heard the anguished screams of detainees under torture. During the daily muster, which was supposed to be a dignified show of allegiance to Syria, I heard military police giggle and shout vulgar profanities at the prisoners and each other, mocking the system they were tasked to enforce.

I also learned how justice took place under the regime of Bashar Assad. After a few days in detention, I was tried in military court, even though I was a civilian. The judge convicted me before allowing me to utter a word in my defense. A half-hour after my conviction, I was summoned to the office of a high-level military police officer who knew my mother through professional contacts. He told her, “Here is your son. Take him and go.” I was dismissed as quickly and arbitrarily as I was convicted.

I was not relieved as I left the military police facilities; I was angry. How could my country have been ruled by such a corrupt regime for all this time? What could I do to outsmart this venal police apparatus and change the power structure? I resolved that I would do what I could to end Assad’s rule nonviolently, even if this was grounds for my execution.

Today, I am a devoted supporter of the Syrian Revolution. When the first protests began in 2011, I helped nonviolent activists target the Assad regime’s pillars of support. When rebel fighters took Syria’s most populous province of Aleppo, I toured the region to see how Syrians were coping with the chaos, to discuss the military situation with the moderate armed opposition, and to aid nascent government structures and civil society initiatives. In March, I monitored democratic provincial elections in Aleppo that were Syria’s first in 50 years. Early this month, my colleagues from the Coalition for a Democratic Syria and I hosted the regime defector “Caesar,” who smuggled out graphic photos of more than 11,000 people killed in Assad’s military prisons, which show the grisly fate that might have awaited me at the prison of Adra.

But Ambassador Crocker, whose home I refrained from attacking 16 years ago, has emerged as one of the leading voices for U.S. collaboration with the Assad regime. Last December, Crocker described Assad as the “least worst option” and stated that upcoming talks at Geneva were a chance to quietly resume ties to Assad. His ideas may have gained traction within some quarters of the Obama administration in recent months as officials desperately look for new ways to counter the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham.

Ambassador Crocker and I share one thing in common: We have both seen the Assad regime’s brutal tactics firsthand. But while I responded by risking my life to sow the seeds of revolution as a pro-democracy activist, the ambassador has drawn closer to Assad, even though that could mean thousands of additional deaths of innocents at the hands of the regime. Some days, I wonder how the ambassador and I could have reached such radically different conclusions. But I will never regret my decision to seek the Assad regime’s overthrow, regardless of how many times I must face its hard-fisted brutality again.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington and board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.

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