Activism Abroad Can Mean Terror For Family Members Back Home In Syria

Exiled for the past 11 years in Germany, Syrian-born Sondos Sulaiman is an open critic of the repressive Bashir al-Assad regime. But her activism comes at a price. Sulaiman receives regular threats, and fears constantly – with good reason – for the safet

Critics of Syrian President Bashir al-Assadm protesting in Berlin
Critics of Syrian President Bashir al-Assadm protesting in Berlin
Lydia Bentsche

BERLIN -- Every day, she gets anonymous hate mail. Even in exile in Germany, Sondos Sulaiman faces intense pressure from supporters of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Despite the threats, Sulaiman, 33, continues to fight for democracy in her country from Berlin, where she's now based. She does, however, suffer permanent anxiety about her parents and seven siblings, 3,000 kilometers away.

The regime in Damascus is making this activist's life hell. Sometimes she gets up to 10 emails and Facebook notifications a day – and they're not from her family or friends. But the anonymous communications, which also include calls, aren't deterring her. Even though she fears for safety of her loved ones, she continues to work for the Al Hadatha party, which is fighting for freedom and democracy in Syria.

Sulaiman has been waiting for some sign of life from her family for months. So far, she's heard nothing. Instead, she receives messages from people she doesn't know and who she believes to be supporters of the autocratically repressive regime of President Assad, which forbids criticism. Others living in exile like Sulaiman have also received messages telling them to stop opposing the regime – or else their or their family's "health" is going to suffer.

A recent Amnesty International report records the experiences of 30 exiled Syrians living in eight different countries. They say that they are watched and pressured by Syrian "diplomats," apparently because they demonstrate for freedom and denounce the fact that for months, Assad's security forces have been firing on peaceful demonstrators in Syria who are perceived as a threat to the regime.

Some exiled Syrians collapse under the pressure. Sulaiman says she wants to stay strong. "Afraid? I'm not afraid," she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The pressure is tough, but I know that it's much safer in Germany than it is in Syria."

More than a decade in exile

Sulaiman left home 11 years ago. She was already anti-regime back then, in a low-key way – but it was enough to alarm Syrian authorities who bullied her until she applied for exile in Germany, where she ended up in Berlin.

A graduate in Arab studies, she at first earned a living teaching Arabic. In her spare time, she worked for the Al Hadatha party, which stands for a modern and democratic Syria. The party's roots go back to the Syrian underground in 2001, and it now operates out of Germany.

The longer Bashir al-Assad ruled, the greater the role politics played in Sulaiman's life. She ended up quitting her teaching job to work full-time for the party. She runs its website, demonstrates, meets with representatives of Germany's foreign office, writes letters to the European Parliament – she has even participated in hunger strikes.

In June, she posted a video on YouTube in which she urged the minority Alawites in Syria particularly to fight for their freedom. Al-Assad is an Alawite. Not only does the president justify his repressive tactics as necessary to protect his Alawite brothers, but he also insists if he, as an Alawite, were to lose power, ethnically and religiously diverse Syria might tear itself apart.

"That's why it's important for Alawites to state publically: I am an Alawite and I oppose the regime," says Sulaiman. The exiled activist says that after she posted the video, many Alawites contacted her to express support. That gave her courage. However, the regime reacted too – with intimidation.

Sulaiman's brother had to go on state television where "he was forced to say bad things about me," says his sister. "He was forced to lie. He said he had no knowledge of my activities until now, and that I was being paid by the German government and other European countries."

Sulaiman says that she and her brother used to talk often on the phone about her dreams for Syria's future. Then contact was interrupted. "Syrian intelligence knows everything, they were tapping his phone," she says. Her whole family was monitored and warned against having any contact with her. "The pressure just kept getting more intense," she says, and her family finally asked her to stop getting in touch – not by phone but also not by e-mail, because Assad's henchmen have their eye on all avenues of communication.

Troubling reports from home

The Amnesty International report backs up such claims. It cites the cases of exiled Syrians whose relatives back home have been intimidated, jailed, or even tortured – even when they themselves were not involved in any form of protest. Some were forced to make statements on state television discrediting family members or friends.

After months of having no contact at all with her relatives, Sulaiman asked an acquaintance in Syria to visit the family. In vain, because, she says: "Every few kilometers between the villages there are groups of police, so nobody can drive anywhere without being questioned."

However, after a while the acquaintance did manage to talk to Sulaiman's brother-in-law. To her relief, she heard that her relatives were okay. "But they are very afraid. It's gotten to the point that my sister is so scared she won't leave the house. The intelligence services have been spreading horrible lies about me. It's tough on my whole family."

Despite all this, Sulaiman isn't giving up hope. If she did, she wouldn't be able to carry on her fight for a free Syria. "A good life in a democratic country with the rule of law, where women and human rights are accepted and respected -- that's my dream," she says.

She knows there are going to be more than a few problems down the road. But at least the protests have started the ball rolling. Sulaiman says she was surprised at how many people in Syria are now anti-Assad. "I thought most people needed more time. The country's on the right track. We're nearer our goals than we were."

While waiting to reach those goals, Sulaiman just has to live with the threatening messages she receives, and keep hoping she'll get some good news from her family again soon.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Exezippdf

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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