This Is What It’s Like When the Assad Regime Comes for You

You can’t imagine how angelic the Syrian girl on the other end of the phone sounds as she details the abduction of her father by the regime of Bashar Assad.

That’s often the case. The people of Cambodia, for instance, are among the gentlest you’ll ever know as they describe the genocide of the 1970s that wiped out one-fifth of their friends and family in just four years by way of the most gruesome methods imaginable.

Her name is… well, we can’t tell you her name because her remaining family in Syria are a hair’s breadth away from abduction themselves, but we’ll call her Alia. A 22-year-old business student, Alia came to the US in June as part of a six-week exchange program. She was away from her small village in northwest Syria for just two of those weeks when representatives — not employees (more on that later) — of the Assad regime stormed into her home and dragged away her dad in an abduction that is as commonplace as it is cowardly.

Not a word has been disclosed about his whereabouts since. That was early July.

“We are lucky that none of us were in the house,” Alia says of herself, her mother and her two sisters. “Thirty minutes later, my mother was supposed to be there, and it’s far worse for women to be abducted.”

That’s because, alongside guns and bombs and sarin gas, another handy weapon has gained popularity in the regime’s arsenal: rape. Reports are increasing in frequency of sexualized violence used to debase women in a culture that regards rape as a scarlet letter blamable, of course, on the victim.

“My mother didn’t have a key,” says Alia about her mother’s eventual arrival home, “so she went to a neighbor, who told her my father had been taken.” That’s the last time anyone saw or knew the status of Alia’s father.

The next day her mother went back to their home and found it thoroughly ransacked.

“They destroyed the place completely. They took whatever they wanted — laptops, phones, electronics, our two cars — everything. We could no longer return to the house because it was too dangerous.”

And, like the work of private contractors during the Iraq War, this activity isn’t technically recorded on the government’s books. The people who took Alia’s father were shabiha, civilian enforcers of the Assad regime who do a lot of the abducting, killing and raping that government employees can’t get around to.

“Anyone who supports the regime can volunteer,” says Alia. “Just say, ‘I want to protect my country,’ and they give you weapons.”

It’s unclear what — if any — limits there are to their power.

“There is no law. Everyone on the regime side acts with impunity. I never dressed well and was afraid to go out on the streets; if one of the men liked me, they could have ‘claimed’ me.

Well, at least they were considerate enough to lock the door when they left.

Alia calls the conflict that has plagued Syria the last two years “the revolution,” the way French and Americans in the late-1700s would. Only, those revolutionaries weren’t fighting this kind of tyranny.

“We are a political family, even before the revolution,” she says. “We are like this because of my parents.”

Alia’s father, a businessman who has volunteered as a mediator resolving conflicts between warring religious sects, is an activist focused on community peace building. Alia uses the word “was.”

The way she sees it, you’re a greater threat to the regime — and, therefore, more likely to be a target of its goon squads — if you’re a nonviolent objector, rather than a militant aggressor.

“If you’re doing something violent it’s better for the regime. They don’t want people to know that the Syrian people are peaceful — they want to show people acting violent.” So they deliberately target nonviolent demonstrators.

“All activists are arrested. I have more than 20 friends in jail. They did nothing. People in the Free Syrian Army are free, but people who demonstrate are in jail.”

There’s been a chill effect on protesting as a result, explaining why you don’t read many reports anymore of demonstrations in Syria. Well, that and the sarin gas explain it.

Taking cues from Europe’s former Eastern Bloc, Syrian intelligence has had its tendrils in every part of society since the early-1970s, turning neighbors into informants and countrymen into shabiha militiamen.

“The regime campaigns for volunteers and offers money,” Alia says. “We don’t know who [her father’s abductors] were. We don’t know how they found out. They get their orders from Syrian intelligence.”

Syrians aren’t safe anywhere. Even — or perhaps especially — in college, where Alia spent the last four years in Damascus with her sister, who’s 23 and is studying for a career in media. Or was, anyway. She stopped attending because the dean of the university kicked her out of school. Why? She participated in protests and he rats for the regime.

“The universities are full of intelligence officials and informants, as are the Internet cafes,” Alia says. “Since the revolution, we are sure that everyone there works for the regime.”

Again, it could have been worse. One friend of Alia’s was taken from the university and hadn’t been heard from in five months when regime henchmen came to his home, handed his ID to his mother and told her that he’d died from a virus in jail. In actuality, Alia says, he died after two months from torture.

“They never even gave the family the body.”

Within days of her father’s abduction, Alia’s mother and sisters set forth on the long road out of Dodge by every means necessary. With a single bag packed between the three of them, they walked, bussed and drove a beater across the border into Turkey until it broke down for the last of several times during their journey.

With her father locked up Allah-knows-where and the rest of her immediate family seeking refuge in a third country, Alia now finds herself lost in America. The next step for her is to apply for political asylum in the US, a process that requires a lawyer she can’t afford.

Thankfully, friends — and friends of friends — stateside have chipped in with room and board and free representation, compliments of Human Rights First, an advocacy group that holds feet to fires in the US government and private industry to preserve human rights. Eventually, she hopes to complete her studies and apply them to community development.

“My big dream is to work building civil society and future leaders in Syria. We need it very much.”

As for Alia’s father, she’s been told that the regime was in the process of moving him and other detainees to the areas most likely to be targeted by US strikes, when the plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program was hatched last week. That comports with September 4th testimony by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to Congress.

So what kind of action do Syrians think the US should take? “It’s conflicted,” Alia says. “My family in Syria asked me what I think. I didn’t tell them I’m with the intervention because I don’t have the right to say this since I’m [in the US now].

“People from the Damascus suburb who were hit by chemicals don’t mind US intervention; they already lost everything. (Meanwhile), others don’t want this because they want to stay safe. There is concern that if the US gets involved, it will end like Iraq and Libya.”