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Deckchair protest for Syria's future

Can drawing attention to the regime's excesses force Spain and other countries to put pressure on the Syrian government?
Oliver Huitson
27 September 2011

Surrounded by handwritten signs and photos of the regime’s victims, Aliaa is sitting outside the Syrian embassy in Madrid. This is the eighth day of her hunger strike. Holding a small carton of apple juice, she tells me she feels drunk from lack of food: “I have to drink to not feel drunk,” she laughs. Still chatty and buoyant she tells her daily visitors of the horrors that brought her to this point.

Attempts to spread the Arab Spring to Syria have met with a brutal reaction. Aliaa takes me along a string of photographs hanging from a line next to her deckchair. She slips between English, Spanish and Arabic as she hands around jarring images of the effects of the torture and beatings that characterise the government's crackdown on the opposition. We struggle at times with language but she is determined to make me understand what they show. One depicts the broken hands of political cartoonist Ali Ferzzat, targeted last month for his caricatures of Syria’s leaders. Another shows a boy who looks no older than 10, shot and killed. Next to that, the corpse of a three month old baby.

As we sit together, a friend of hers brings another pile of photos they have just printed. She receives regular updates and photos from inside Syria via email. As she flicks through the photos she stops, gasps and puts her hand over her mouth. She explains to me what she is looking at: the badly beaten face of the mother of pianist Malek Jandaly. His crime, she tells me, was to compose a popular protest song.

She has a pile of photos like this an inch high. For every one she can tell me in detail what happened. Resolute as she is, at times she struggles, often resorting to a joke to calm herself: "I laugh not to cry". One picture shows six or seven babies, dead, laying in a container. Aliaa tells me they were born prematurely: their life support systems switched off by regime security forces that had entered the hospital. 

Aliaa came to Spain a year ago to pursue a PhD in genetics, something she hopes to finish 'after the revolution'. She doesn't fear returning to Syria, but feels she can do more from Europe, that if actions such as her current protest succeed in drawing attention to the regime’s excesses this will force Spain and others to put pressure on the Syrian government. 

At the moment, Aliaa is frustrated by what she sees as Spain’s cosiness with the Syrian regime. “It should be a point of principle for the Spanish people to oppose this.” Have Syria's revolutionaries been inspired by the wider Arab Spring? "Of course!" she smiles, "But every uprising is unique." 

I ask if there are similarities between Syria and Gaddafi's Libya. “It’s incomparable. In Syria they target young people and children. There is a lot of anger, a lot of fear in the people, and so much savagery from the government. But our coordination is progressing.” Aliaa briefs me on the past seven months’ protest and repression in Syria: “It’s more than a police state; the military police and Ba’ath party elites are very close, often the same families.” She claims there is no ideological battle, simply a united front against a brutal regime clinging to power. She’s optimistic, but cautious: “There is great confidence and belief. We can’t fail now: but there are real dangers."

Despite the inequality of arms, those rising up in Syria have been hesitant to call on foreign military intervention. Aliaa shares their ambivalence: “Such intervention if it does happen needs to be so specific.” Instead, she calls on Spain to cut all diplomatic, political and economic ties with the country while the Ba’ath party stays in power. And the regime itself? "They need to be on trial, at the ICC."

 So far Spain, a leading importer of Syrian oil, has been reticent in its response to the brutal crackdown. Last month, Al-Assad was reportedly offered political asylum in the country. The hypocrisy of western human rights rhetoric is not lost on Aliaa: “Of course it angers me. But not for long," she grins, "We know we can’t rely on their help. But it would be nice. We need help.”

Some days ago, as she began her hunger strike, she confronted the Syrian ambassador as he entered the building only to be roundly insulted. The embassy promptly called the police who tried to move Aliaa on. She has so far defied them. To Aliaa, the police response confirmed her belief that Spain is “shy” about condemnation of Syria. "Spain doesn't want to take responsibility".

Speaking last week, David Cameron called for "a credible resolution threatening tough sanctions", a move meeting resistance from Russia and China, both of whom, Aliaa claims, are supplying substantial arms to the Syrian regime. While the international community sits on its hands, Aliaa fears for the future. But her aims are clear enough: 

"We just want liberty and dignity. After the revolution we will have real democracy, real equality".

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