“Take me instead,” Yusuf’s mother pleaded, as he and his twin brother were hustled off a bus by Syrian security forces, handcuffed, and lined up against a wall.
They heard the men reloading their guns.
“I thought they would shoot us,” Yusuf recalls some three years later, now safely hunkered down over pizza in a bustling Amman café.
Instead, the brothers were taken down five flights of stairs. Through their thin blindfolds they saw blood on the floor. For eight hours they were beaten, insulted, and interrogated about the “terrorists” in their home province of Deraa, the epicenter of the Syrian revolution, which had begun a few months earlier in 2011.
“They forced you to get rid of any hope, to let go of your dreams,” says Yusuf, speaking through wafting shisha smoke as the Arab Idol singing contest played out on TV.
He never again saw his home. But he is one of many of the more than 3 million other Syrians, who, despite being forced to leave their country – and the fight for freedom and democracy – still hold on to hope for the revolution from the sidelines.
They are on the edge of their seats now, fearing that US-led airstrikes on the Islamic State are helping the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and weakening Syrian rebels more than the jihadists.
Nevertheless, the refrain heard from Syrians ranging from a former air force colonel to exiled protesters, is simple: “We must hope. Without hope, we cannot live.”
A country of institutions, not intelligence services
Awad al-Hamed pads barefoot across his cold Amman apartment to retrieve a heavy black briefcase. He sits down and puts it on his knees, opening the lid on past days as a respected lawyer in southern Syria, and retrieves a nametag.
In February 2011, after uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had ousted two of the Middle East’s longstanding rulers, and protests had broken out in Syria, Mr. Hamed was invited to a regional conference in Deraa organized by the ruling Baath Party.
“Syria is going to hell, and we want to know all your suggestions, because we want to find a solution,” he recalls the head of the conference saying.
He responded, “We have one request: that this be a country of institutions, not mukhabarat (intelligence services).”
The man asked what he meant.
“If you are mocking me, this is not good,” Hamed remembers saying. “And if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, this is a disaster.”
The protests spread quickly across Syria, and Mr. Assad’s regime turned increasingly violent. Hamed fled via an official border crossing the next year, his wife Zeinab following weeks later on foot with relatives, bullets whizzing through the cold night air around them.
While his immediate family made it across safely, Hamed recently lost his 65th relative to the fighting, and struggles to keep his four university-aged children in school. Still, he dreams of the day when harmony will return to Damascus and the sound of church bells and the shouts of “Allahu akbar!” from the mosque will once again be heard together.
“The most important motto of this revolution is, ‘God, you’re our only hope,’ ” says Zeinab, who insists on turning on the heater for her two guests, despite the cost.
A long drive in the snow for 180 bullets
In six hours of talking about his role in the revolution, kneeling on the floor of his family’s spare apartment outside Amman, M. al-Khalil speaks in calm, measured tones – even when discussing the deaths of two of his four sons in the fighting, or showing where a bullet passed through his bicep.
But when it comes to what he sees as the failure of other countries to support the revolution, he breaks down.
“I don’t cry for food when I have an injured man at the border of a neighboring country, and they won’t let him in, and he dies in my arms,” says the weathered fighter, a respected leader in Hamed’s hometown of Busra al-Shams, where he has remained except for brief respites to see his family in Salt, Jordan. Busra is some 22 miles from the city of Deraa.
Has that happened more than once?
“Many times,” he replies, almost in a whisper, abruptly leaving the room as his eyes brim over.
While Arab countries have provided some weapons and cash to Syrian rebels, it wasn’t nearly as much as promised, he says.
“From the camel, we got an ear,” says Mr. Khalil, who in the early days of the fighting would forage for ammunition, once riding a motorbike through deep snow to buy 180 Syrian army bullets from a middleman.
“Freedom is so expensive,” the patriarch says, adding that the US-led airstrikes against Islamic State, the strongest jihadist group, have emboldened the Syrian regime. “We feel the regime starts to act freely and she controls a lot of areas which we won with our blood.”
“But,” he adds, “we believe God will give us the victory in the end, whether you help us or not.”
US aerial campaign against Assad is possible
As a colonel in the Syrian Air Force, it was his dream to get an order to bring down an Israeli plane.
Instead, he found himself stuck in a job where he had to pay bribes to go on vacation and lived in a closely guarded compound.
One of only seven Sunnis among 300 officers, once the revolution broke out he was detained seven times and accused of encouraging soldiers to fight the regime.
Fifteen months into the uprising, he says, he and his family were separated during a spate of regime shelling in Damascus, and he sent them to stay with family near Busra. Speaking from his basement apartment in southern Amman, he requests anonymity because he is considered a traitor by the regime.
After he defected to the rebels, he got caught in a Damascus suburb under siege, where he found a woman sobbing in the dark. A female neighbor on the regime side of the square had killed her last child with an ax, she told him.
He secured a civilian ID card from an Assad supporter who had been killed, shaved his beard to match the photo, and sneaked through the checkpoint on the road south to join his family.
As an officer who specialized in anti-aircraft missiles, he is highly skeptical of US claims that imposing a no-fly zone over Syria or launching airstrikes on regime forces – as NATO did in Libya – is difficult here because of Syria’s air defenses, saying the US has the technology to fight such defenses effectively.
He, like many Syrians, is deeply frustrated with President Barack Obama’s failure to take decisive action in Syria as some members of Congress have advocated, at one point kissing his fingers and shouting, “I love you John McCain!”
“Obama always said, ‘If Assad does this, this is a red line.’ I’m trying to invent a new color for Obama, because red is not enough for him,” he says, criticizing the limited airstrikes on IS as ineffective and tangential to what he sees as the real need: removing President Assad. “If you have a disease or a pain in your head, should I come and treat your arm?”
Convinced that right will prevail
But despite the widespread feeling that regional and global powers have abandoned or even hijacked their revolution, Syrians are urging the rebels on from the sidelines.
“The Syrian revolution is one of the greatest revolutions in all of history,” says Mohammed, Yusuf’s twin. “We paid a lot, we paid blood, we paid a whole generation, and at the end, the right will have the victory. Because this revolution [was fought] against injustice, corruption, and dictatorship.”
And they are willing to hold on until the end.
“Even if we don’t live [to enjoy] the results of our revolution, our kids will,” says Yusuf.
If he gets married, that is. He worked two jobs for three years in Syria to save up for marriage, and then spent it all to bribe his way out of compulsory military service for a year. His sweetheart married someone else after he fled to Jordan.
Now he’d rather go join the rebels.
Ahmad Bayer provided translation.