V. P. Haran served as India’s Ambassador to Syria from 2009 until 2012. He speaks to Fountain Ink on how sections of the media exaggerated the uprising as well as signs that al-Qaeda was a game player since the early days of the conflict.

What was Syria like when you arrived in January 2009?

Syria was a peaceful country and there was no undercurrent of tension. The Syrian economy was doing well, there was over five per cent growth rate on average. Unemployment was at about eight per cent but Syrians who were unemployed could find work in the Gulf. There was, however, a high percentage of educated unemployed. Syria also had a comfortable foreign debt position at 12.5 per cent of the GDP. Much of the debt owed was to Russia which wrote off much of the debt. The real problem was the drought in the north-east that had led to massive relocation to the south and south–west.

What was life like in Damascus?

As a diplomat you tend to live a secluded life but I’d go to the downtown area, sometimes in a cab, and have tea in a cafe and chat to the people. Those were wonderful moments and wonderful days. Law and order was never a problem. My female colleagues used to tell me they could wear jewellery and walk home alone at 2 in the morning and they would feel safe. In certain areas restaurants would stay open until 5 a.m. One never felt there would be trouble on the streets.

Those were wonderful moments and wonderful days. Law and order was never a problem. My female colleagues used to tell me they could wear jewellery and walk home alone at 2 in the morning and they would feel safe.V.  P Haran

Some say it was because of the mukhabarat (military intelligence directorate) but I sensed that people felt as though they were responsible for their collective security.

When I reached Damascus, I was told every other person is the mukhabarat. This is a gross over-estimation. There is an intelligence unit and they function very efficiently internally but I never had a direct encounter. In my four years I was followed once in Media in Idlib Province. A jeep tailed us but they weren’t intimidating.

Did you anticipate an “Arab Spring” in Syria? 

When the situation got tense in Tunisia and Egypt, President Bashar al-Assad appeared on TV and stated that the political and economic conditions were different in Syria. He said he was confident Syria would not go down the same path. This was also the general assessment of the diplomatic community.

Bashar al-Assad was a popular leader and this is partly why he is still in power. There is no adequate internal opposition and a lot of the problems in Syria have been created by foreign sources that are trying to get rid of an inconvenient regime. Sixty-seven percent of the entire Arab world had voted him the most popular Arab person in a poll in 2009. Even the diplomatic community was in agreement that he had the support of about 80 per cent of Syria. Western diplomats said so as well. He had begun reforms in 2000 but didn’t carry through because of opposition from the Baath party.

Also this is not just a Sunni-Shia fight. Look at the numbers. There are over 50 per cent Sunni Muslims in Syria and there are Kurds, Druze, Maronites, Assyrians, Alawites and others who make the remainder. Bashar al-Assad has the full support of the minorities and even a large percentage of the Sunni Muslims support him. But by the time I left, in 2012, Syria had changed a lot. While the first couple of years were like heaven, things started deteriorating by early 2011.

Do you recall the first protests in 2011?  

By February, when Bahrain experienced protests, there were attempts by some NGOs to organise protests in Damascus. Two had been organised over two weekends but hardly 20-30 people turned up. The number of journalists and members from the diplomatic community was far greater than the demonstrators. Then March 18, 2011 happened when the children wrote on the walls of the school and then there was a big protest. The following week there was a protest in Latakia and then with each passing Friday something happened.

Soon parts of Latakia, Homs and Hama were chaotic but Aleppo remained calm and this troubled the opposition greatly. The opposition couldn’t get the people in Aleppo to rise up against the regime so they sent bus loads of people to Aleppo. These people would burn something on the streets and leave. Journalists would then broadcast this saying Aleppo had risen.

A few things need to be said about this: some parts of the media went overboard in projecting Syria negatively. At times things that didn’t happen were reported. For instance I was talking to a prominent sheikh when my colleagues started calling me frantically saying that the sheikh would play a role in protests planned for that afternoon. But no such thing was happening. In fact I was sitting with him then having lunch.

There was a lot of exaggeration by the media.

There is one instance that stands out. In Idlib, hardcore Sunnis had gone to Aleppo and told the people to join the opposition. People in Aleppo started beating them and ordered them to leave. The crowd had been unruly and the police had to come in and control it. The hardcore Sunnis from Idlib had to be taken to a house and the police had to give them their uniforms so that they could leave without being lynched.

Did Damascus change much during this period?

I recall one incident on the April 14, 2011 when I went for my daily walk to the stadium which was about two kilometres away. On the way I passed the bakery I used to pass every day but there was a long queue at this usually quiet bakery. On the way back the queue remained and I enquired. People were stocking up on bread because they had heard that something would happen. The next day nothing happened despite it being a Friday.

As the situation worsened my walk to the stadium was replaced by a walk around the park in the Mezze area by the second half of 2012. One day a motor bike came at very high speed and turned a corner from where it revved its engine. Soon after, a security jeep followed but missed the turn taken by the bike. When they couldn’t find the bike they came to the park to see if people had seen what was going on. Then we were told that the people on the bike were planning attacks.

In Mezze, not far from the district where diplomats live, is a cactus field and rebels had gotten into it by a tunnel arrangement. They had established a camp there from where they threw fire rockets aimed at the PM’s office. After that the security forces went in and blasted the camp. This was a targeted operation and I spoke to a person who lived in a flat with clear view and he said they had targeted one building and destroyed it completely.  A huge cache of arms and ammunition was recovered from the building.

But parts of the country remained calm.

The external backers of the opposition could not digest this. They sent a group of people to the Syrian-Jordanian border and they overran two security posts. They killed all the people there. Some were killed in the most brutal manner in al-Qaeda style. The government didn’t report this immediately but a member of the diplomatic community confirmed it was al-Qaeda in Iraq who had done it. It was evident that al-Qaeda in Iraq were in Syria since April 2011.

Al-Qaeda was there from the very first week, and if not the first week then from late 2011 when al-Qaeda banners appeared. It was these groups that provided the opposition with support from across the border. In Raqqa the fighters came from the north and it was clear that it was al-Qaeda.

Assad has been saying that it was terrorists from the beginning. Why did no one believe him?

People’s minds were not open. Why would al-Qaeda in Iraq take interest in creating chaos in Syria? A lot of it was being directed by outsiders, namely the Gulf countries. Al Jazeera played a role, too. In April I had taken a guest to the amphitheatre in Bosra and then to Sweida for which I had to take the highway to the Jordanian border. We were in the car at about 9:30-10:30 am. That day an Al Jazeera correspondent was asked to leave Syria and was travelling along the same road. The correspondent reported check points every few seconds. My embassy called me in a panic because of what they saw on TV. I told them I had encountered just one check point.

Why did the Syrian government not present a better case about the present of terrorists?

We asked them about the lack of engagement with the media and they said that nobody believed them. They had very bad PR and handling of the media. Having said that, there were also excesses by the government. Syria has a very inadequate police force so when the problems started the government was forced to deploy security forces to handle problems that are managed by the police. Some of the army committed excesses and the government put a few under house arrest or into prison but they didn’t go public with this.

Bashar al-Assad was not just slow on enacting reforms but also slow on announcing changes that had been undertaken. For instance when they enacted a reform reducing the primacy of the Baath Party, the reform wasn’t reported until three months later. Their PR wasn’t wise. They didn’t handle the crisis well.

(Title image :“Al-Hamidiyah Souq” by Bernard Gagnon)

(This is Part II of the Fountain Ink series on the crisis in Syria. Read Part I here.)