Supporting civil resistance in Idlib

An interview with Ziad Khayyata

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Ziad Khayyata is part of the Syrian civil society organisation Kesh Malek. This interview was conducted in Berlin in January 2019 as part of our Syria Notes project on the legacy of the Kafranbel activists Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid.

Ziad talked to Syria Notes about his memories of Raed. He outlined the current crisis in Idlib following the killing of Raed and Hammoud, and the subsequent forceful takeover of most of the Idlib pocket by the jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS).

Ziad discussed what can now be done to help civilians in Idlib threatened by aid cuts, and how to support civil resistance against extremism in northwest Syria.

We began by asking Ziad to introduce himself.

Ziad Khayyata: So my name is Ziad Khayyata. Originally I’m from Aleppo. I was born there. I studied applied chemistry at the Faculty of Science. I had a very good time in university, but I can’t say that I liked it so much, because it’s not that good a space to express yourself and your opinions, but anyway, it was a stage that is ended.

In 2011, I came back from working in Saudi Arabia. I came back on the first of March, so ten days before the revolution started. I worked in a personal job not related to the revolution, but this personal job was really flexible to give me the time that I needed to do the activities that I wanted to do. So I tried to not miss any demonstration that happened in Aleppo as much as I could. And in one way or another I succeeded in that.

I was part of a small revolutionary coordination group called Flowers of Freedom. This coordination group was responsible for organising the demonstrations in the western part of the city of Aleppo, which has always been under regime control and has never been liberated. I was in a small team within this coordination group responsible for covering the demonstrations that took place in several locations in Aleppo, so usually two people went to cover it, film it, and send it immediately after trying to cover the faces with the programmes that we used at that time.

Later in 2012, after the liberation of the eastern half of the city, most of us were wanted by the regime, so I had to move. So first I travelled to Istanbul, then to Egypt for one month, and then I returned to Turkey. Ten days later I stepped back into Syria, but I lived in a place called Shekh Ali which is near Atareb and Orem, and I used to come and go to the eastern part of the city, maybe twice or three times a week.

During 2012 I joined Kesh Malek. It was not an organisation then—it was like a small group of people who were doing some voluntary activities, and I liked them because we were similar in our way of thinking on how we saw the future of Syria. For example, we’re all secular. The motto that we use from that time until now is to have Syria a republic again, referring to the era where Syria was a republic before its unification with Egypt.

And later on, in 2014, we took the decision to establish Kesh Malek as an organisation. Part of us were moving to Turkey, so we registered it there. I was staying in Syria, but I was coming and going—each week I was going five days to Syria, and the weekend I spent in Turkey—until 2015, in March, when Turkey closed the borders, so then I stopped moving and settled in Turkey.

In 2015 I decided to leave my job with Kesh Malek but stay on the board, because I didn’t want to mix that role with executing these policies and stuff that we were agreeing on, so I decided that I had to work outside, but have this strategic role with Kesh Malek.

So I moved to a position of programme manager with PILPG—Public International Law and Policy Group. They were the implementer of DRL, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the US State Department. They had a very interesting programme to support nascent Syrian organisations working in the field of transitional justice. So in this almost year and maybe ten months I got to know this atmosphere of organisations and their work, and it was really interesting. We’ve met really amazing people.

At that time I was introduced to Raed Fares by a friend. We hadn’t worked together back then, but we were aware of one another, exploring ways of collaboration on advocacy messages, as I was related to Kesh Malek and Raed to URB—the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus.

We met in our friend’s home. He was really passionate—this was the first time I saw him—I knew him before from Facebook and media and stuff, and also from friends, but I hadn’t met him, and I hadn’t seen him speaking. He was really passionate and interesting to hear, because he brought a perspective that I had missed in Turkey, which is someone living inside Syria, meeting with people from inside, bringing their thoughts and ideas to the people outside—to the Syrians outside also, the Syrians who have been away for awhile.

So yeah, he was really, really interesting. In time our relationship got better and better, and when PILPG finished its programme, another programme was being implemented by DT—Development Transformations—which is also another implementer to the US State Department, but to NEA, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. Their work was also to support civil society, but in general in stabilisation programmes, and also in CVE, countering violent extremism.

Syria Notes: What do you think Raed stood for?

Ziad Khayyata: Well, Raed brought Kafranbel to the whole world. Before the revolution nobody knew Kafranbel. I knew it, because I lived in a place in Aleppo which is close to Idlib countryside, but for other people that I knew from other cities, they didn’t know about Kafranbel. They didn’t know how to say the name. Until now you will find people who mistake the name—it’s Kafranbel. So Raed, and the work of those in Kafranbel, it was amazing.

I remember maybe in 2012 I shared one of their banners. I can’t remember what was written on it, but I remember that I posted it, and I said, ‘This small town in the countryside of Idlib, it contains only geniuses and brilliant people, and that’s it.’ And I said, I remember, that if the next president of Syria was not from Kafranbel, then this revolution maybe will not be a success. Yeah, this is something that I thought at that time.

So in my work with DT I got introduced more to the work of URB and Raed Fares, because we were discussing in detail what URB was doing, because there was an opportunity where we could provide support to URB.

So I remember the discussion with Raed was all about how we can do two things: first, to prevent the youth from being attracted to armed groups and carrying arms, let’s have them in places that can provide an alternative, that can help these youths to maybe build the skills, polish their talents, help them find a purpose in life better than joining armed groups; and the other thing was having a voice of civilians through Raed and through the entities in the URB, to counter the narrative of extremism and Jabhat al-Nusra and all of its entities, especially when the Salvation Government (a governance body formed by jihadist group HTS in 2017) was established there.

Raed started also to think about service provision because he knew that maybe the local council cannot confront the Salvation Government, so he thought, let the civil society do it. Why have the government structure or the formal structures that are related or affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra do it? Why let them gain legitimacy? We are the civil society—we have all of the legitimacy that we need because we are the people, at the end of the day. We are sons and daughters of Kafranbel, so let us do it. And I guess in one way or another he covered some of these services in Kafranbel.

The project that he presented to us was an interesting one. He wanted to establish a transportation network between Kafranbel, Maarat al-Numan, and Saraqib, and rent a number of buses that would be covered with the revolution flag, and to put inside them some flyers and brochures talking about the values of the revolution, and also he would have their radio on inside of the buses, because they have their own programmes to spread their ideas and thoughts to counter the narrative of extremism.

It was a very brilliant idea, actually. Unfortunately, unfortunately, it didn’t come to light because of Trump’s decision, back in late February I guess, beginning of March 2018, to suspend all the support that the US was providing to northwest Syria. And because of that, most of our work got affected, including the work of Raed.

And I guess that was one of the main root causes of having HTS spread around in Idlib, and now taking over all of Idlib, and having the Salvation Government control many parts—I won’t say all parts of Idlib or the countryside of Aleppo, but many parts of that.

And because of that, now the international community decided to withdraw, and to freeze their activities there, and we found ourselves now having the Directorate of Health for example, they have cut their support, they have cut the salaries of the people there working inside the hospitals that are related to the Directorate of Health, and all of the medical entities that are really important and really provide a very important service to people.

I don’t know what will happen next because of that. Maybe people will go for anyone who will provide the service, and this is something dangerous. But also, because of the suspension of this support and funding, HTS, or Jabhat al-Nusra, they found themselves having the upper hand in the area, and they started to target all the civil society symbols in that area.

And they succeeded by having Raed killed, by assassinating him, he and Hammoud. So when you think of it, the decision of the US was the cause at the end of the day of the killing of these symbols, including Raed.

I do blame the international community and the US on what’s happening in Syria, even if they think that they are trying to fix things—no they’re not fixing things. They are taking dumb decisions, stupid decisions, and because of these decisions we are suffering until now, after eight years. And we have our country ruined, we have our country demolished because of their inaction.

Syria Notes: So from information you have from the ground, from activists there, how do you predict the effects of HTS taking over, the Salvation Government taking over? What do you think is going to happen to the civil society there?

Ziad Khayyata: Well, part of the civil society I guess will prefer not to work in that area, because of their fear of getting accused of cooperating with terrorist organisations, which is a really easy accusation for anyone to make, even if it is false, because HTS do some corrupting activities to our work, for sure.

But my prediction is that they cannot last—HTS cannot last. Why? Because, first, people do not regard them well everywhere. Yes, there might be some places, some small places, that might regard HTS in one way or another, because of their conservative nature, because sometimes they’ve been under really harsh circumstances, so they would accept anyone, anyone who would at least let them be, okay? So it doesn’t matter if it was HTS, or even the Israeli army, the important thing is to have some kind of stability for them to live, and that’s it.

Yes, I know that some people wouldn’t resist, but other people would resist, and that happened, and we can see it if we look back to history, for example people in Maarat al-Numan who demonstrated for more than one hundred days when HTS—or Jabhat al-Nusra back then—detained many of their sons in Maarat al-Numan, and they succeeded actually in this kind of civil movement.

And Atareb is the same thing. Atareb succeeded in keeping HTS out until recently, two months ago, they entered forcibly, and they used really intense violence on Atareb, so they got in. So it was not easy for HTS to go inside these areas, because of the civilian resistance of the local people there. So yes, maybe nothing now will happen in Atareb or Maarat al-Numan or such areas, but in time they will explode again. They won’t accept to have these people, these factions, over them for a long time.

Syria Notes: What can we do to help? For example, if you wanted to tell a UK politician, what would you tell them?

Ziad Khayyata: Before moving to this question, just let me say something about the Salvation Government. The Salvation Government itself, they don’t have enough capacity to run things in these areas. So in time they will find themselves facing a hard situation.

And I guess providing the needed support for the civilian entities to stand there and—I will not say confront the Salvation Government, but at least not find themselves in a weak situation where they will have to affiliate with the Salvation Government just so they can continue to provide the operational services that they have to. The minimum support can be enough for these entities to continue, so even the Salvation Government they cannot rule all over Idlib and all over the western countryside of Aleppo.

And now moving back to the question of how we can help them. There are tons of ways of helping them, but definitely not cutting the support for them. This is not going to help for sure. So how can we help them? First of all, in all of these areas, there are groups of activists who can do really powerful activities.

For example, there was a group that conducted a campaign on the marriages between Syrian girls and the foreign fighters. It was a really successful campaign, and everyone talked about it inside Syria in the areas where they conducted it. It’s really, really important to know about such civil action, even if it is done in secret.

They would go by night, paste brochures on the wall. They would go use some radio platforms broadcast from Turkey to talk about the issue. They had one-to one conversations to convince people, and they succeeded to prevent cases where the parent, after they knew what are the risks in having their girl married to a foreign fighter, they stopped the engagement of their daughters with these fighters.

So such civil movements can be supported. They are there, and they have tons of ideas. We don’t need to come up with ideas, we only have to bring resources, capacity, and that’s it. That’s everything they need, because they can manage themselves very well. They are the best placed to know what is going on there. They are best placed to know the solution, so we don’t have to bring in solutions, but we do have to bring support to back them up.

Syria Notes: And what is your dream for Syria?

Ziad Khayyata: My dream for Syria?

So my dream for Syria is a place where my children would receive a very proper education that others in other countries are receiving, where I envy them that they have such circumstances, that they have good colleges, good universities, a good atmosphere to do what they dream about.

When I meet many of my foreign friends, I know that they finished their university at twenty-two, but the way of thinking that they learned in university, it’s different than ours. We have learned by experience, by sweat and blood; they have learned in university without paying any cost. That’s really a very, very great privilege that they have compared to us. I would like my kids to have the same. I would like them to have the space to be brilliant, to be creative, to express their opinions without any oppression.

I would like, yes, for Syria to be a republic, as Kesh Malek said it in their motto, but it’s not only about a republic and participation in democracy, it’s also about human rights, and caring for the people and the new generations to come, to be able to express themselves and have this free space so they can do whatever they want.

Syria Notes: Some people are writing the Syrian cause off. They are saying, it’s over, why are you fighting? What do you tell them?

Ziad Khayyata: Yeah. Well, it’s over for you, for sure, for two minutes maybe, two months, two years, twenty years, but at the end of the day it cannot be like this. Syrians have great will and great resistance.