Silencing the Conscience of Syria: Are Rebels Mimicking the Regime?

February 14, 2016 , , 0 Comments

Marie-Sophie Roeder- More than two years have passed since the kidnapping of a group of secular opposition activists in Syria known on social media as the #Douma4. Yet unsettling questions emerging from this  isolated event in the grand Syrian tragedy have not been answered yet. Though several rebel militias had full control of the area of their abduction, none seems willing to admit any knowledge of their current whereabouts and conditions. The area of Douma, which was hit with chemical weapons in August of 2013, has been increasingly consolidated by the Jaysh al-Islam militia, which is vying to be part of the negotiations for Syria's future. Were these activists targeted due to their work of documenting human rights crimes, or perhaps merely because they were well-known secular intellectuals, or were they were merely victims of the general chaos of the civil war? Answers to such questions are more complex than they would appear at first glance.

Razan Zaitoneh, her husband Wael Hamada, and their colleagues Samira Khalil (married to Syrian writer and intellectual dissident, Yassin al-Haj Salih) and Nazim al Hamadi, human rights campaigners and central figures in the Syrian unarmed secular opposition, were abducted from their office of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) on December 9, 2013 in the Douma, a suburb of Damascus. It was reported that masked gunmen stormed the office, stole computers and documents and abducted the four staff members.1 The activists worked together in the VDC on reporting human rights violations in Syria and had established several centers aimed at empowering women. Several of the staff members of the VDC had been awarded for their efforts in peaceful protest against the Syrian government and the armed rebel factions.

Their kidnapping is only one example of abductions over the past three or four years in Islamist jurisdictions of Syria that seem to target prominent intellectuals. Such kidnappings fall in between two more typical types of kidnappings: one that is the domain of all sorts of criminals seeking to gain some ransom fees, and the other being a sort of political kidnapping aimed to stop or intimidate a direct political opponent. In the context of the civil war, labelling abductions of famous people is in itself tricky, since the difference between a kidnapping and an arrest depends to some extent on how one perceives the legitimacy of the ones doing the abduction. For supporters of the Salafi agenda in the Syrian context, perhaps the disappearance of these four activists represents something other than a kidnapping. Perhaps it is an arrest or a legitimate silencing of "secular" voices. If this is the case, as Yassin al-Haj Salih has pointed out, why were the Islamist factions, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the hard-core Salafis so quiet?2 Why did they fail to own up to the crime? And moreover, why did they blow off the moderate civilian Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul, and its appeal for the immediate release of the kidnapped prisoners?

These are not purely rhetorical questions, but rather, they speak to the heart of the crisis, which is the fact that civilians have almost no influence on the actual events in Syria and some of them desire to bring about a different system based on transparency and openness above all. This is less a matter of moderate versus extremist, secular versus religious, and more a problem of the cycle of violence that has besieged Syria since the beginning of 2012. Since the Assad regime decided to target civilians with violence and intimidation and certain external elements seemed to support an armed uprising as a reaction to the regime’s actions, civilians were immediately caught in the aforementioned cycle of violence without a choice. No matter how benevolent the militias that wrested control from the regime—they had to be ruthless and powerful above all. Otherwise, they too would have been crushed and the revolution would have been lost altogether.

Activists calling for the release of these and all other political prisoners have blamed the Sunni-Salafist rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, a central militia in the Islamic Front with strong ties to Saudi Arabia, for the kidnapping.3 Jaysh al-Islamhas increasingly gained control of Douma and its larger area of Eastern Ghouta but has, however, repeatedly denied any connection to the abduction. At the same time, early statements appeared to be unconcerned with the particular abductions of the activists, who came to be known as the Douma Four, or by the hashtag #Douma4. Among factors that pushed this incident to the side, the civil war itself was already at a deeply chaotic and violent stage, particularly following the regime's chemical weapons attack in that area in August of that year.4 Indeed, a more recent Syrian air force strike killed the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Aloush, known for his obscure statements on democracy and the construction of a military junta in Ghouta to the east of Damascus.5 There is no confirmed information about the current whereabouts of the human rights activists, although there has been speculation that they are being held in a jail under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra.6 If this is the case, they may be in particularly acute danger, since Russian air strikes have targeted known detention centers held by that group in recent weeks.

Looking at the history of Syria, one can draw similarities between this kidnapping and regime strategies over the past half century, since the concept of silencing opposition voices is not a new phenomenon within the country. The previous regime of Hafez al-Assad notoriously imprisoned numerous opposition leaders and prominent intellectuals such as Riad al-Turk, Jamal al-Atassi and Michel Kilo. Samira Khalil and Wael Hamadeh, two of the Douma4, were imprisoned for their opposition activities before 2011, and Razan Zaitoneh was forced into hiding after being accused of being a foreign spy by the Assad regime. While the Hama massacre of 1982 and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s is well-known today, it is less known that the regime simultaneously targeted intellectual elites and professionals with arrest and long-term imprisonment.  
Assuming that the opposition group Jaysh al-Islam bears some responsibility for failing to properly investigate and aid in the release of the Douma4 activists, it appears as if they are complicit in regime-style crimes. Through these old methods, the kidnappers operating in rebel-controlled areas aim to silence new opposition voices. More recently, Jabhat al-Nusra arrested a radio DJ in Idlib, whose equipment was damaged, accusing him of corrupting morals through secular music.7 One source mentioned that this may have come in reaction to anti-Islamist graffiti.8 Arresting individuals following a graffiti incident, of course, brings to mind the 2011 arrests of a number of youth in Dera ͑a by the regime, which set off a storm of protests leading to the anti-regime uprising in the first place.
Whether one calls the abduction of the Douma4 an unfortunate kidnapping or an intentional arrest depends on whether ordinary criminal gangs are responsible, or whether one of the militias under the auspices of Jaysh al-Islam played a role. Either way, the disappearance of the voices calling for transparency, participation and the empowerment of women in particular, prevents their potential criticism and political activism against militia leaders. If indeed Jaysh al-Islam carried out the arrest of the Douma4 for political purposes, or knows where they are and refuses to negotiate their release from kidnappers, one must conclude that cooperation between secular and Islamist factions of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad may not appear soon, despite the December 2015 agreement of 34 rebel organizations including Jaysh al-Islam to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in formulating a negotiating platform against the regime. Moreover, the Assad regime benefits from the silencing of secular intellectuals, which was made clear last summer when the regime symbolically declared the death penalty was due to Michel Kilo, and the journalist Faisal al-Qassem, both of whom live outside of Syria.

Marie-Sophie Roeder is currently pursuing her B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Politics at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg with a focus on Radical Islamic Movements and International Relations.  This semester, she is on exchange at TAU and conducting a research internship at the MDC with a primary focus on the Syrian Civil War and its conflicting parties as well as on Women in the Syrian secular Opposition.

1 The Syrian Human Rights Committee, December 10, 2013,

2 Yassin al-Hajj Salih, "The Issue of the Kidnapping of the Douma Four and the Position of the Political Opposition Organizations," [Arabic] al-Hayat, June 10, 2014.

3 Human Rights Watch, April 28, 2015,

4 See for instance, YouTube video from May 18th, 2015,


6 Syria Untold, May 27, 2014 retrieved from




Diwaniyya Contributor