Syrian-American from New Jersey Returns Home to Support Bashar al-Assad

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, this is The World. There have been a lot of stories about western based Syrians going back to Syria to fight in the Civil War on the rebel side. We haven't heard as much about Syrians who returned support the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Anne Barnard has been covering the Syrian Civil War for the New York Times, she's just written about a Syrian American from New Jersey who's in Damascus now, supporting Assad.

Anne Barnard: He told me that he didn't feel right not being in the country during its time of conflict, which is actually something we've heard from Syrian Americans and other Syrians living outside the country, regardless of which side of the conflict they see themselves as being on.

Hills: What's your sense of this guy? Are there many like him, Syrian Americans or other Syrians from overseas communities who go back to Syria to actually fight against the rebels and support Assad?

Barnard: In this case he's not a fighter. I don't know if there are many people who go back to fight on the side of the government, I haven't' heard of that specifically, but there are a number of former expats who come back to Syria to help the government in one way or another. They're government connected, they may be business people, there's the famous case of PR people who were working with the government who were exposed on Wikileaks. So it does happen.

Hills: Anne was this, is this man from New Jersey, what's his background? Is he Alawite like the Assads, how do fit into the mosaic of Syria?

Barnard: Well, he's a member of Syria's very tiny Shiite minority, which is less than 1% of the population. And he spoke to me very openly about his fears towards the future of the Shiite community in Syria. And he spoke about how Shiite's from all around the region, if they felt the government was in trouble or the important shrine of [??] in a suburb of Damascus that's particularly revered by Shiites, if they felt that there was a danger to those things. But he felt that there would be more support coming from Shiites, not only from inside Syria but from outside Syria. And that has been borne out in the ensuing months.

Hills: And why does he continue to support Bashar al-Assad.

Barnard: Again, I'm not sure that he was telling me everything that's in his mind because one of the many hats that he wears is something of a public relations outreach person for the government, and he also makes documentaries. But what he said on the surface is believable, which is that he's from the old city of Damascus, he grew up there, it's the most diverse, one of the many diverse places in Syria. It's existed as a community as thousands of years, going back through successive empires. I mean, in recent centuries was a place where Sunni's, Shiite's, Jews lived and worked together. And people on both sides of the conflict lay claim to that legacy that the old city represents of Syria as a place where many different people could find room for themselves. And he sees himself as defending that against the rebels. Now you will also hear people on the other side saying that it's the government that threatens that.

Hills: Anne Barnard covers the conflict in Syria for the New York Times, she's been speaking to us from Beirut. Thanks so much Anne.

Barnard: Thank you so much.