"Switzerland could do more for Syria"

A family flees fierce fighting between the government forces and the Free Syrian Army Keystone

For a year exiles have watched in horror the Syrian regime’s brutal efforts to crush a popular uprising, a Swiss-Syrian activist tells

This content was published on March 15, 2012
Susanne Schanda,

Opposition activists, including Sara A., are calling for more international pressure on President Bashar Assad’s regime to help end the violence which has cost an estimated 7,500 lives.

Sara has lived in Switzerland for 25 years. She studied science in Syria and came to Switzerland to complete her doctorate. She got to know her future husband here, settled down and started a family. At the beginning she had no political affiliations.

Every year she visited her family and friends back home –  until the beginning of the mass demonstrations on March 15, 2011. Since then it has no longer been possible. The extreme violence with which the Syrian security forces put down peaceful demonstrations drove Sara to speak out against the regime.

At first she posted comments on facebook, later she contributed to Swiss media coverage. To bypass state surveillance of phone calls Sara communicated with her contacts in Syria by facebook and skype – when the internet connection wasn’t down. You are speaking here under a pseudonym. Do you feel threatened by the Syrian regime, even in Switzerland?

Sara A.: I am not afraid for myself but for my relations in Syria. Some of my Syrian acquaintances in Switzerland have been threatened, and their family members suffered repression in Syria.

Thankfully nothing has happened to my family yet and I hope that it stays that way. I’m already noticeable enough through my speaking out, and don’t want to be more visible. What were your feelings at the start of the revolution?

S.A.: I was in Switzerland when the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt began. I would never have believed before that the dictatorships in Arab countries would fall. When so many people took to the streets in Egypt I started to hope.

Things hadn’t even started in Syria but I was already crying. We have been through so much fear. I am 50 years old, that means 50 years marked by fear, subconscious but always present.

And suddenly I realised that this regime could fall, that we would finally have access to democracy and free speech. I waited for the spark to light in Syria. Did you have any suspicion then that it would turn so violent in Syria?

S.A..: At the beginning I had great hopes. I said to myself, Assad is young and well educated. Having seen the developments in Tunisia and Egypt where the presidents were overthrown so quickly I hoped he would open the way to the peaceful transition of power.

I thought he would realise that the game was up for him, that the people would have the last word and that he would clear the way to spare himself and his family what happened to the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. When did you get involved?

S. A.: After Assad’s speech when he basically said there would be war if the people did not go home and stay quiet, but seek confrontation. That is when I gave up hope of a peaceful transition.

I have to make myself heard and publicly condemn the crimes of the regime. If I did not do this I would feel partly responsible, like an accomplice. How does the Syrian community in Switzerland stand on the uprising?

S.A.: The Syrian community in Switzerland is split as is Syria itself: There are those loyal to the regime connected to the consulate, people who are financially connected to the regime. And there are opposition supporters and many who say nothing out of fear of  repression.

They want to keep open the possibility of travelling to Syria to see their families. Even if they sympathise with the revolution, they don’t take part in demonstrations against the regime. The Syrian community is infiltrated by the regime. There are spies at every gathering. You are involved in a Syrian opposition association in Switzerland, the Syrian Democrats. What should Switzerland do about Syria?

S. A.: We are thankful to Switzerland for sending a signal to Damascus back in August when it recalled its ambassador and closed its embassy at short notice.

But Switzerland could do a lot more, for instance recognise the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, as the United States and European Union have already done.

We would like Switzerland to act to expel representatives of the Syrian regime from all international organisations. Because this regime is absolutely mafia-like and has no legitimate place any more in the international community.

Another demand would be the expulsion of the Syrian consul from Geneva. The president’s wife Asma Assad should also be included in the sanctions as it can be assumed that a significant share of the money has been transferred to her accounts.

On the humanitarian level the Syrian Democrats would like to see Switzerland commit to humanitarian corridors and the provision of medical care for the seriously injured in Syria. What is your vision for Syria?

S.A.: I hope that the 137 countries that voted to condemn the regime in the UN General Assembly will support the Syrian opposition, namely the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. My hopes lie in a change in the balance of power in the army.

Political support through the expulsion of Syrian representatives would also give courage to the people in Syria to turn their backs on the regime. I have great faith in the capacity of the population to hold itself together and not to descend into civil war.

Torture in hospitals

The World Health Organization has said it is appalled at reports of torture in Syrian hospitals.

“The neutrality of hospitals and medical personnel must be respected in all circumstances,” the WHO said.

British television’s Channel 4 last week broadcast pictures of injured people in a military hospital who appeared to have been tortured in their hospital beds, with allegations that medical personnel had carried out the torture. The authenticity of the recordings could not however be verified.

The WHO has sent a two-person emergency team to Damascus. Its mission in the next three months is to get help to civilians in the affected areas as much as they are allowed by the Syrian regime.

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The United Nations refugee agency says 230,000 Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of violence last year.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees' coordinator for Syria says 30,000 people have already fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and "on a daily basis hundreds of people are still crossing into neighbouring countries".

Panos Moumtzis told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent at least 200,000 people are also displaced within the country.

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