False Witnesses and False Representatives

Taken in Kafranbel on November 8, 2013. Posters by Raed Fares

The little town of Kafranbel (map) is located in the heart of rebel-held territory in northern Syria. Due to Kafranbel’s strategic location, it was destined to become one of the most important locations in the conflict. However, Kafranbel isn’t famous across the world because of its strategic location, any great battle that was fought there, or any massacre that has occurred. It is famous because of its artwork.

Each Friday since Marck of 2011, the Syrian people take to the streets to protest. In Kafranbel, however, the protests are in a league of their own. For each week, the people of Kafranbel unveil banners and posters, in English, that comment on the past week’s news stories. Often satirical and witty, always laced with a melancholy-yet-defiant hope, a large part of the story of the Syrian crisis can be told through their posters. 

Many often ask what the people of Syria think, but each week, the people of Kafranbel tell us. See banners from other weeks in our Voices of Kafranbel section.

This week Kafranbel’s posters have two main themes, both of which recall previous themes. The first is a reference to the Geneva II conference, which the international community hopes will be held soon and will end the crisis. The second  is about a Catholic Nun, Mother Agnes Mariam, who has helped foster a cease fire in Moadamiyah, near Damascus. Both posters, however, are more about betrayal than hope.

Mother Agnes helped bring about a ceasefire in Moadamiyah, a western suburb of Damascus that has been besieged by Assad forces for so long that its population is starving to death. The ceasefire allowed thousands of civilians to escape the suburb and flee. They were told that they would be leaving to someplace better. However, she secretly was working with Assad’s security forces to lead hundreds of civilians into Assad’s military bases and prisons, where many of them will likely be tortured for information, or killed.

In Moadamiyah, you are either starved to death, or you await whatever fate the agents of the regime have arranged for you. To voice their outrage at Mother agnes, the people of Kafranbel quote the Christian Bible, Proverbs 19:5, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will not go free.”

kafranbel 2013 11 08 mother agnes 2

kafranbel 2013 11 08 mother agnes 1


The other theme this week is about another Syrian, or a former Syrian anyway, who may be betraying the opposition.

Rifaat al Assad is the brother of Hafez, Bashar al Assad’s father and predecessor as President. Rifaat was involved in an attempted coup in 1983, when his brother was in the hospital after suffering from a heart attack. Rifaat, a high ranking commander in Syria’s army, removed those who opposed him from power, took the guns from pro-Hafez military units, and attempted to complete his takeover of the country, all before his brother was even dead. Hafez recovered, however, and as units loyal to him rehained control, Rifaat was eventually exiled.

But Rifaat is not viewed as an opposition candidate. Instead, he is viewed as a power-hungry tyrant. It has long been believed that he was in charge of the 1982 Hama massacre, a 20 day siege on one of Syria’s largest (and most rebellious) cities that left between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians dead. The Hama massacre has been a rallying cry of the 2011-2013 revolution, and Rifaat is still a villain among Syria’s opposition. But why is his name coming up now?

Hopes that the Geneva II convention will ever happen are falling apart. The Syrian opposition maintains that it was betrayed by the international community and it is unwilling to negotiate with Bashar al Assad, who has lied and broken every promise he has ever made to the international community, at every opportunity. The opposition also does not trust Iran and Russia, two countries which have orchestrated Assad’s war for survival by providing him with money, oil, arms, Hezbollah fighters, and command and control support.

In light of this, there are two rumors this week that Russia may be looking for a new person or persons to represent the Syrian opposition. One name that has been floated is Qadri Jamil, the Deputy Prime Minister of Syria who was fired last week. Editorials in the Russian media have suggested that Jamil may have been fired because he was challenging Assad on several positions. Beyond this, Jamil had suggested that a the war had become a stalemate and it was time to negotiate with the opposition:

“Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side,” he said in September. “This zero balance of forces will not change for a while.”  These statements were quickly rebuffed by the regime, however.

But there is another theory. Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov said this week that the United States did not have enough clout to unify the opposition and convince them to negotiate. (Ironically, he may be right, but one of the things that has undermined U.S. credibility is the fact that Washington was willing to negotiate the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons with the regime and Russia.) Gatilov also stressed that the “the widest possible range of opposition forces” should be represented at any conference.

All of this could suggest that Qadri Jamil, someone who worked with but eventually left the regime, could be named as a member of the opposition who could negotiate with Assad to bring about peace. Would this work? The Syrians I’ve talked to believe this is a plot to put a regime insider at the table as representative of the Syrian opposition. In fact, earlier this week the people of Kafranbel actually made a video of a play that addresses this very issue. Members of the regime, covered in blood, are given green opposition flags to cover the red flag of the Baath party. They are then led to the negotiating table to talk with the butcher, the official representative of the Assad regime.



There was another rumor this week, however. That Rifaat al Assad, as someone who once tried to overthrow the regime, would be championed by the international community as a representative of the Syrian opposition. How does the Syrian opposition feel about this? We turn to the last of today’s banners of Kafranbel:

kafranbel 2013 11 08 rifaat to geneva


All posters and videos were made by the people of Kafranbel and their artist Raed Fares. More posters, including ones in Arabic, can be found on his Facebook page.

As a side note, the nation-wide theme of this week’s protests:

For context, see my latest analysis for The Interpreter: Russia and Iran: Bashar al Assad’s Life Support

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