Khaled Abu Salah is a Syrian political activist currently living in Turkey. Born in 1988, Abu Salah is considered one of the most prominent faces of the Syrian revolution after leaving his studies at the Department of Arabic Literature at Al-Baath University in Homs in 2011 to become a full-time activist.
Just days after his brother was assassinated in their neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs, Abu Salah was wounded in a missile bombardment launched by the Assad regime’s army on the same neighborhood on February 6, 2012. Nevertheless, he continued to be a prominent member of the Revolutionary Coordination Committees while still in Syria.
Since leaving Syria he has achieved a high rate of academic success at Mardin University in Turkey, with a score of 95% in the Department of Political Science and International Relations. He also recently obtained a MA in Conflict Studies from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies with distinction.
This week SYRIAWISE interviewed Khaled Abu Salah from his home in Turkey.
Q: Do Syrians need to master the arts of politics and diplomatic language to communicate their cause to the world? Is this what prompted you to study international relations and political science?
Syrians need these sciences today more than ever before in order to communicate with the world and explain the essence of the Syrian issue, which the world has been dealing with only through the perspective of civil wars. Because world governments are always changing and variable in nature as new parties rise to power and others leave, this leads to a change in the priorities of these governments. This in turn weakens the sympathy of the international community and its governments with the Syrian issue and makes it far from their areas of interest, especially in light of the presence of dozens of civil wars in the world. Hence, as Syrians, we must strive to emphasize the basis of the contemporary problem of Syria and that is the Assad regime and the fact that no real peace can be obtained in Syria under the continuation of Assad and his regime. But if peace were to prevail in Syria, it would in turn affect all regional and international arenas, especially Europe, which is very close to Syria and is separated from it only by the waters of the Mediterranean, as well as the United States of America and its efforts to combat terrorism in the region.
The entry of Syrian activists who experienced the Syrian event, into the academic space, refines their tools of communication and understanding and makes their speech more audible as it combines the scientific approach with the political approach, field testimony, and coexistence with the phenomenon. There is also a large gap between the academic field that deals with the study of Syrian issues, and the political field, and here our role must be to bridge this gap which simplifies the process and confirms the right of Syrians to a decent life, freedom, and democracy while at the same time communicating with the international community in a language it understands and providing a convincing argument seeking to establish a dialogue based on common interests and move away from the language of sympathy and complaint.
Q: You had a very close relationship with Abdul Baset al-Sarout, one of the icons of the Syrian revolution. Were you friends before the Syrian revolution began? Were you involved in coordinating the demonstrations he led in Homs? Are you still in contact with his mother?
I met Abdul Baset al-Sarout at the beginning of the Syrian revolution and my relationship with him deepened from those early days on. Abdul Baset was a Syrian revolutionary voice and a talented young man at the football level, and he used to move between the neighborhoods of Homs and its demonstrations. We attended and coordinated many demonstrations together in Homs as well as in the north of Syria after Assad displaced us from our city of Homs.
As for Abdul-Baset’s mother, she is a great mother who raised six children, five of whom were martyred in the Syrian revolution, and how could I not be in contact with her for her voice and her belief in the justice of the Syrian cause is an incentive for every person who seeks to serve it and knows the extent of the responsibility placed on him in the shadow of the diaspora and what has befallen the Syrian people due to the repression of the regime.
Q: Your name was associated with the most important media coverage of Syrian revolution activists during the events in Homs. You used your private phone for coverage and documentation as well as promotion of the Friday demonstrations. In the beginning, every weekly demonstration had a theme and a unifying slogan. Were you part of the committee that came up with those themes?
I was with a group of activists who worked on establishing coordination for the Syrian revolution, and at an early stage, we established the Baba Amr Media Office. What pushed me towards media work at the beginning of the revolution was the Syrian regime’s prevention of the media from entering and covering the events taking place in Homs. The role I played along with my friends is what exposed the Assad regime and its crimes against the Syrians early in the life of the revolution, and made us trustworthy. The Baba Amr Media Office turned into a destination for all the international press.
Q: In your opinion, should the Syrian revolution and its youth share any responsibility for the political and humanitarian situation that has become of it?
This question in itself is a dilemma. If we say that they do not bear some responsibility, we remove the potential from them. And if we say that they do bear, then we may have wronged them because of the context of the Syrian cause. Syria is a country that, before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, was similar to North Korea, where it is ruled by a dictator, and there is no political life or civil society. Fear was the effective tool of the regime in ruling Syrian society.
Syria’s strategic location also prompted many countries to engage in the conflict, but not in order to resolve or cool it, but rather in order to achieve political interests far from the main goal of the revolution which is to establish a state of citizenship and freedoms.Khaled Abu Salah
At the outbreak of the revolution thousands of young Syrian men and women demonstrated peacefully and were met with live bullets. After the regime forced the Syrian revolution to take up arms, most of them joined the civil and military activities of the revolution and Syria lost more than half a million young men. After turning towards violence, regional countries sought to invest in the Syrian conflict, filling the void left by the weakness of the Syrian regime and the loss of its control over many areas. Syria’s strategic location also prompted many countries to engage in the conflict, but not in order to resolve or cool it, but rather in order to achieve political interests far from the main goal of the revolution which is to establish a state of citizenship and freedoms. Because of the clash of these international and regional interests, and the continuation of repression and displacement, most of the Syrian youth in the countries of the diaspora, or at home, are facing the personal challenges of daily life in addition to their public concerns. Can we say that they are responsible for what happened? Confusing question! But more important than this question is that they already bear responsibility if they cannot change this current reality. The responsibility is now doubled on all Syrian youth inside and outside Syria. It is necessary to follow the path of their struggle to bring peace to their country and get rid of tyranny.
Q: The families of the victims, the disappeared, and the detainees will not give up their rights and will continue to demand that the International Criminal Court try Assad and his aides. What is your opinion of the inclusion of the term “restorative justice” in the United Nations documents on Syria?
In conflict contexts, and in countries that witnessed conflicts similar to the Syrian conflict, international legal scholars developed the term transitional justice, and the application of this principle was the only protector of the continuation of peace. This is the principle that we, as Syrians, are looking for. Justice is an absolute value shared by all human races, and it is the only guarantee that conflict will not resume in the future. As for restorative justice, it is a broad term, subject to political settlements, and accepting it means leaving the Syrian wound open, and the possibility of renewed conflict exists after any political settlement in which transitional justice is sacrificed. Whoever seeks to establish lasting peace, and transcend the painful past of the Syrians, must adhere to justice as the basis for any political settlement that leads to real peace in the future.
Q: You have consistently been a voice for foreign and Syrian journalists who were arrested or killed in Syria. At the global conference, Defend Media Freedom, you had sent many messages to the regime regarding its brutal history of targeting journalists, yet dozens are still unaccounted for. What would your message to the Assad regime regarding journalists be in 2022?
The Assad regime knows that the word is stronger than bullets, so it sought to kill those who carried it such as Marie Colvin, Remy Ochlik, Rami al-Sayed, Muhammad Masalmeh, and dozens and hundreds of other Syrian journalists. The regime knows that we will not succumb to this oppression and that we will continue to defend freedom of the press, and justice for the victims.
As for the real message, it is for the international community, and for all the free peoples of the world, that adopt general human values common to all human beings. Justice, freedom, dignity, equality, and democracy are the basis for building modern societies. This is what the Syrian revolution sought, and the young Syrian men and women who believe in this cause continue to this day in their right to reach a future Syria that adopts these values. We need the voice of every human being in this world to hear us and know the essence of our cause. The Syrian issue is more complex than a civil war, or a war on terrorism, and that is enough. Rather, it is a humanitarian and political issue that seeks to transform Syria into a real state that respects its citizens and respects common human values.
As for my fellow Syrian and Western journalists, I say to them: The free speech, the defense of the truth, and the loyalty to all journalists who were martyred for this noble cause, deserve us not to tire in confronting the criminal machine, or submit to it, but to continue the struggle, expose its crimes, and bring its criminals to justice.
Q: British photojournalist Paul Conroy says that you rescued him from the rubble of the Assad regime’s attack on Homs that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in 2012. He credits you with saving his life. Were you with them when it happened and how did you manage to get him out of the rubble in Baba Amr?
When the Assad regime targeted the Media Office in Baba Amr with missiles, a number of our friends were wounded, including Paul and Edith, as well as Wael al-Omar and Khader Shteiwi. Marie Colvin and Remy Ochlik were martyred. It was an unforgettable day.Khaled Abu Salah
Paul Conroy, Remy Ochlik, Marie Colvin, Edith Buffet, and dozens of other international journalists risked their lives to enter Homs at an early stage and report what was happening there to the world. We shared our homes and food with them, so how could we not seek to save and protect them? This is the least duty of hospitality in our Syrian tradition. When the Assad regime targeted the Media Office in Baba Amr with missiles, a number of our friends were wounded, including Paul and Edith, as well as Wael al-Omar and Khader Shteiwi. Marie Colvin and Remy Ochlik were martyred. It was an unforgettable day.
But the most difficult part of the task was trying to get Paul Conroy, Edit Buffet, and the rest of the international journalists out of Baba Amr, besieged by the regime, towards Lebanon. I worked with some friends in the Free Army to get them out, despite the great opposition of some other military forces inside the besieged neighborhood, which was subjected to military raids and artillery shelling. I used to visit them and assure them that we would take them out no matter what. They trusted us and it was impossible for us to fail that trust. At first, we transferred them to some safe houses and doctors supervised their treatment so that their health conditions would improve. In the end, we were able to get them to Lebanon after more than a week of traveling the countryside of Homs and hiding them from view, as the Syrian regime was stalking them and seeking to arrest them. They were our voice to the international community, and they were, and still are, to this day, among those who bear the most loyalty to the Syrians, and defend their cause.
Q: You were one of the first names added to the Assad regime’s most wanted list as you were a revolutionary, a paramedic, an activist, a media person, a coordinator, and a facilitator of the revolutionary movement. What is the secret behind your boldness in facing dangers since the beginning of the Syrian revolution? Is there still concern or fear for the fate of the rest of your family in Homs?
Like me, all of the Syrian young men and women who yearned for change risked their lives for it. There is no secret except that I was one of them, and I dream of a country in which no one is killed or hidden in prisons for tens of years because of one’s opinion.
When my family was in Homs, it was my biggest weakness, as we all know the extent of the regime’s brutality and oppression. They used to live in the Homs countryside and could not stay in the same house for more than a few days. But after we were forcibly evicted from our homes, the threat of Assad was no longer a concern for us. We are now scattered, like the rest of the Syrian families, over a number of countries. My family is distributed among four countries and has not been reunited for ten years.
Q: What do you want to say to your fellow Syrians today, those still inside Syria, as well as the displaced who are now living in various countries all over the world?
We must keep trying to explain our cause and gain the support of the people of the free world, to put pressure on their governments to undermine the Assad regime, and seek to change it.Khaled Abu Salah
I would tell them that we have paid, and are still paying, a high price for our freedom. We dreamed of a state that represents its citizens in the future, and it is impossible to stand in the middle of the road. Other people who went through similar experiences obtained their freedom, and they are no braver than us Syrians.
The only way to continue this long road is to adhere to our unity as Syrians, and to the common values that unite us with the whole world. We must keep trying to explain our cause and gain the support of the people of the free world, to put pressure on their governments to undermine the Assad regime, and seek to change it. This means that we need to demolish the structure of tyranny, and establish an alternative project that includes all Syrians, with their different sects and ethnicities, to build a new Syria that represents all of us.