Volunteers of the international volunteer community InformNapalm interviewed a Turkish journalist working for «Timeturk» and translated the interview for our readers who are closely watching the developments in Syria and the Middle East. Our interlocutor, Ceyhun Aşirov revealed a number of interesting facts and spoke about real targets of the Russian troops fighting in Syria.
Your materials have long been used by the OSINT researchers of InformNapalm, collecting evidence of the crimes of the Russian regime, but this is your first interview for our website. Please tell us a little about yourself, where you come from, where you studied and how you came to Syria.
I mostly lived in Istanbul. I also got my education in Istanbul. After a medical college I studied at the Higher Medical School of the Istanbul University and also attended the School of Journalism of the same university. I wrote articles for various magazines, newspapers and websites. I had plans of an academic career, but in 2011, when the Syrian people rebelled against the Assad regime, I went there as a journalist. In 2012 and 2013 I worked in Syria as a journalist. When, during my stay there, ISIS insurgence broke out I went back home. After some time, I returned to the region. Since then and until today, I have put aside everything else, and I have been working only on Syria. I write articles on the subject, make reports and news.
When did you come to Syria for the first time? Tell us about your very first impressions.
As a journalist, I first went to Syria in March 2012. I have been to Syria before the uprising against the Assad regime. In those days, everybody was behaving very cautiously, apprehensive of each other. You could not say things against the regime. In parks, cafes, hotels, even taxis there were ubiquitous photos, monuments and quotes of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez. Before we talk of the present-day situation, it makes sense to look into why the people rebelled. Because without knowing the Syrian people, without understanding the history they went through, you can not make sense of the Syrian uprising, and you will not be able to adequately understand what is happening. The Assads have been “educating” the people of Syria for 50 years. The is such a saying there – “Assad’s education”. That is, the education by pressure and force. Previously, Assad-father tyrannized and butchered the population of Hama and Homs, which was the backbone of Syria. It was so because intelligent and conscientious people lived in these areas, and because they are mostly Sunni, and they never liked the union of the regime with Iran. For this, the population of these two cities was systematically repressed for 30 years. People in Syria were forced to live their entire lives by Assad’s principles. Through pressure and violence, people were forced to like Assad. Every morning all institutions and schools were forced to chant: “Syria, Assad forever,” meaning that Assad’s Syria will remain forever. Thus Assad was presented not as a human being, but as someone with supernatural powers. In their minds, he had to be like a great messiah, the Mahdi. You did not worship Allah. First, you worshiped the great Assad, and only then, with him, you worshiped Allah – that was the rule. Thus, Assad built an empire of fear. An example for you: a student is studying physics, chemistry or biology. But he can not do any lab experiments. Because Assad says: “You can learn, but you cannot use this in practice.” Because they think that the student can master something and turn it against the regime. Thus, Assad blocked all the scientific and intellectual development. Moreover, it is forbidden to read and keep Islamic literature at home. I came across a family here. Their child drew a weapon (a pistol) in his notebook at school, just from his imagination. Any child can do this. His teacher immediately informed on the child to the state security. And the state security arrested the child with the whole family. And then they were all tortured for the whereabouts of the weapons. There hundreds of similar examples. That is the kind of regime the Syrian people rebelled against. I apologize for talking about it at length, but this is very important to understand. When I first came here in 2012, I was just dumbfounded. These people were so afraid of the Assad regime, that finally broke the walls of fear, and there is no fear any more. Syria was a revelation, for the first time I saw people defeating their own inner tyrant.
How has the situation changed since your arrival to Syria? What drove the biggest change?
The origins and gradual development of the Syrian problem is very complex. Much has been written and and lots of facts are widely known. If we talk about the recent developments and the situation in recent years, the areas of Hama and Latakia have been of particular importance for Assad. Latakia is home to a dense Alawite community, there is oil in the area, as well as seaports giving it access to the world, and there is the central airport of the regime in Hama. Airplanes taking off from that airfield bombed villages around Hama, Idlib and neighboring areas that are under the opposition control. Also Hama is a hub for the production and transportation of arms. Prior to the Russian invasion, such opposition groups as the Jaish al-Fatah, Free Syrian Army, Ahrar ash-Sham were closing in on this strategic area from two main directions. One group – from the Al-Ghab Plain, and the other – from the Jurin area, advancing in the direction of Hama and Latakia, which are the heartland of Assad. If opposition had captured these areas, it would have spelled the end for Assad. In the course of these events, Assad made a deal with Putin and passed the control of the coastal area to the Russians. Thus Russia got a foothold in an area, very important area for the entire region. At the moment, it is the factor that has changed the course of the war.
Please tell us a little bit about how you work. I’ve seen a lot of your posts on Facebook, made directly from the scene. How do you manage to collect information and get to the desired locations?
In fact, practicing journalism in Syria is very, very tough. Here in Syria, we capture and turn into news all the grief, hardship, human rights violations, bombings and killed children with the sole purpose of taking the message to the world, to tell the world about the situation here. But now, as we are filming people, travel around the bombed places, they are already starting to grumble. We tell them that it is very important that the world should know. But people tell us with a bitter smile that for the last 5 years, about 400 thousand people were bombed and killed, 30 to 40 thousand children died, and it was all filmed and documented, and given for the world to see. So what? What did the world do? How did it react? If you film it all now, what will it change? So they say. And, frankly, we are in a bind here. Before our eyes, people are being bombed, and we can not do anything. In addition, if the number of casualties in a given bombing is less than 40 people, it will not attract international attention, such news have no value.
Russia claimed that it brought its troops into Syria to fight ISIS. You see the situation from the inside, what is your opinion – who is it that Russian soldiers are fighting?
You, like everyone else, know that the world in which we live now, is not the binary world of the Soviet era, known to the Russians. Finding something out, accessing the information is easy nowadays, nothing remains hidden and secret. If you talk to any child in Syria, you would get a very straight explanation that Russia kills the people of Syria, not ISIS militants.
If you look at the areas where Russians are active, there will be no ISIS. ISIS-controlled areas actually are much farther to the east, near the border of Iraq. That would be Raqqa, Al-Bab, Dayr az-Zaur, bits of Homs and Aleppo. ISIS has no common front with the Assad regime, except in the area of the airfield El Qusayr and near Palmyra. This basically means that ISIS is fighting the opposition. Therefore, Assad’s regime and Russia definitely do not fight ISIS. Out of 30 bombs falling on the territory of Syria in a day, 28 are directed against the civilian population and the opposition. All locals know and see it.
Please rate Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict; does it help to stabilize and improve the situation, or vice versa?
As I said, the Assad regime was in a tight corner, the opposition was closing in on Latakia and Hama. The regime was about to fall. And at that moment Russia ud in the conflict, stole the revolution from the people of Syria and returned the power to Assad . Today, Assad controls only 25% of the territory of Syria and the Assad regime (Alawites) account for only 8-10% of the population of Syria. And this minority has been manning all controls for 30 years, consuming all the country’s wealth. That is, 90% of the population served this minority for over 30 years. Therefore, the population of Syria clearly does not want to tolerate the Assad regime any more. And to support this minority, Russia bombs and represses 90% of the country’s population day after day. Mind this, Assad regime is providing coordinates for the Russian airstrikes. And these coordinates, as a rule, cover cities, neighborhoods and villages inhabited by civilians. Assad’s regime wants to make sure that the population has left these areas, that there’s no one left. If people leave areas controlled by the opposition, then there will be no point in the revolution. It means that Russia gave nothing else to Syria’s population, but more chaos and more death.
I admire the degree of self-organization of the Syrians, who, in spite of such ordeals, selflessly engaged in rescue operations. Please tell us about your impressions of the work of the White Helmets and examples of the civil mutual assistance.
Yes you are right. Syrian people revolted for justice, freedom and equality, against the dictatorial regime of thieves. Their motto is “Revolution or death”. What is more, the people of Syria are believers, therefore they are ready to fight to the death. The White Helmets you mentioned are also called the “Civil Defense”. Indeed, even when books are written about them – it will not be enough. When the first Russian bombs fall, they immediately rush to the place. Although they are short of equipment, they do their best to get people out of the rubble.
We were told that Russian pilots used such criminal tactics – having bombed a certain area, they would fly away, letting the rescue workers rush to the aid of the people, then the plane would return and deliver another strike on the same object. Have you seen it?
The opposition has no arms threatening the Russian jets. Russians are very well aware of it, so they are bombing the people as they please. In addition, sometimes they would fly over a city just to intimidate the population. Imagine you’re sitting at home, you hear Russian planes flying over, and you do not know when they would drop a bomb on you. Russia is also waging a psychological warfare this way. For example, the Russians bombed a farm in the Idlib area. Dozens of people were buried. When a civil defense team came to rescue people, Russians delivered another strike to the same spot, and there were many people killed, including rescue workers and medics. On this occasion, there were protests in Germany and other countries.
When asked by a BBC correspondent – “You claim that in 6000 sorties, not a civilian was injured?”, a smart press general responded without a wink or a blush “None.” Before this, he went on and on about their favorite topic – “You have no proof, why don’t you prove …” -report. You must have seen the civilian casualties of the direct action of the Russian air force. Could you give us any proof?
On this issue, and I am not exaggerating, there are hundreds of proofs, and I am also a living witness. Russia is only bombing the civilian population of Syria. The opposition has even shot a video entitled “Who is targeted?”. It tells of a bombed-out farmhouse, which Russia declared an ISIS site. And there were only civilians there. Yesterday, Russians bombed Bab al-Hawa, Sarmada. Everyone knows that Sarmada and Bab al-Hawa are on the border with Turkey, and there are no armed forces there. People that fled to the border from the war-torn areas, such as Aleppo, Hama and Homs is the main population of these areas now. However, Russians bombed these areas, there is documentary evidence of the death of 50 civilians. In addition, Russian media every day broadcast news about ISIS camps hit in Latakia and Idlib, although there is not a single ISIS militant in Latakia and Idlib.
One of the most important dimensions of this war is information. Russia and Assad regime aptly use information technology to distort the situation, discredit their opponents and justify their role in the conflict. Can you tell us about these cases? Did you manage to expose the lies of Assad’s and Russian media?
You know better than me that the media are a great force, and are of great importance. However, members of the Syrian opposition were ordinary people before the revolution, craftsmen, doctors, teachers, engineers, etc. Not even the middle class. Actually there is no middle class in Syria. These people do not know how to wage an info war, how to do propaganda. Also, the opposition can only have exposure on social networks, there is no media power in their hands. Whereas, Russia, Assad and Iran have at their disposal thousands of salaried journalists and television agencies, reporters, etc. Every day, they broadcast lies to the world. For example, in a recent video, Russian channel RT talked about strikes on an ISIS camp in Idlib region and published its coordinates. Then the opposition made a documentary, showing the location at these coordinates, proving that there were only children and civilians there. This video was released in English and Arabic.
You communicate with ordinary Syrians in the course of your work, they are likely to express their assessment of current events. Can you tell me from your observations, how does the nation see Assad and Russia?
Every day we communicate closely with the Syrian people. The people of Syria hate Russia and Iran even more than Assad. There is a lot of anger towards Russia and Iran, people say that if Russia and Iran did not support the Assad regime, it would not have lasted even a month. In fact Putin’s regime is gambling with the future and the fate of the Russian people. Assad’s regime is already considered to be a lost cause in the Arab world. And Russia has made itself the enemy of the Arab world, the Muslim world and even the Turkic world. I wonder if Assad was worth it. It looks like Putin is setting himself against the whole world and all oppressed peoples.
Would you call the situation in Syria a genocide? Please explain your position on this issue.
Yes, it very much fits the definition, there is no doubt. We have documents and images, showing with certainty that Assad, Iran and Russia are engaged in a genocide here. There are reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the topic. Documents were leaked last year evidencing about 200 people tortured to death in Assad’s prisons, the whole world saw them.
Do you report on the situation in the blockaded towns and villages, where people suffer from hunger?
Areas of Madaya, Homs, Husseiniye, Zabadani and Eastern Ghouta, are being blockaded by the Assad regime, a true disgrace for the 21st century. Imagine, in these days of winter no food is supplied to these areas, there are no supplies of infant formula, medicines, etc. Cities are completely surrounded, and in addition, the Assad regime is bombing them every day. The Assad regime hates the population of these cities, because they have supported the opposition and rebelled against the regime. For example, such cities as Zabadani, Eastern Ghouta, Duma, were the first areas that rebelled against the Assad regime, and he revenges on them now.
One more humanitarian problem we’ve heard of is the presence of mined areas and a large amount of unexploded ordnance that threaten the lives of people. Do you have information on this?
In Syria, there are few mined areas. Since the opposition has no air defense, the regime strikes at will from the air. Snipers and minefields are mainly in the areas that I’ve mentioned before.
Probably the most difficult aspect of this war is the suffering of children. Have you encountered Syrian children in the course of your work? How do they endure pain and suffering, how does it reflect on them?
Syrian children are affected the most by this war. One day I met one of those kids who actually were the first to start the rebellion in Daraa. He was about 16 years old. They saw in the Arab newspapers this inscription “The regime must be overthrown” and wrote it on walls, not even knowing the meaning. This teenager said to me: “We did not even know what we were writing”. Then the Mukhabarat saw the inscription and arrested them. Many of them had later their nails pulled out and then killed. And when their families came to inquire about their kids, they were said: “These children are displeasing our state. You better make some new children, and forget about these”. This triggered the events in Daraa, in which hundreds of people were killed. Today, children do not sleep at night, their eyes are constantly looking up. In addition, incontinence is now common among children in Syria, they need to regularly take medications, they live in constant fear.
There are big problems the shortage of adequate medical care. I know that the regime has long been targeting the doctors, many of them fled from Syria. And the Russian air force distinguished itself by bombing hospitals in different areas. In these difficult conditions, doctors and nurses showed themselves true heroes selflessly helping people. Have you seen such examples of medical work?
In Syria, there are very few medical professionals. Those physicians, whom we met, had not been doctors before the revolution. But when the war started, and as they saw people dying of diseases, injuries and bombings, they mastered this profession to some degree. Nevertheless, in the vast Aleppo it is very difficult to find a doctor to perform an operation requiring professional medical knowledge, because doctors, hospitals and any institutions providing services to the public are deliberately targeted. The Assad regime is bombing hospitals, bakeries, water storage cisterns which serve the opposition, so he openly punishes the population. As far as I have seen, in Syria, many hospitals operate in the basements of houses. Selfless doctors founded these literally underground hospitals and work there to the best of their capabilities.
How do you see the future of Syria?
At the moment, the Syrian issue is very complex, especially after the Russian intervention. There are a lot of actors on stage, and none of them thinks about the interests of the Syrian people, except Turkey and Qatar. They think only about their own interests, and their gain tomorrow, after the victory of the revolution and the departure of Assad. Therefore, the way to a solution is getting even more complicated. However, we believe that no power can withstand the people and in the end, the Syrian people will win.
Katerina Yaresko translation Oleksiy Bereznyak
Photos courtesy of journalist Ceyhun Aşirov and his colleagues. Furkan’s Publications on Timeturk portal. Translated by Artem Velichko
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