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A normal life and a hidden hand | Syrians living in Malta

Abdul Dibo and Nidal Binni, Syrians long resident in Malta, offer their insights on the war and urge Malta’s government to intercede – on one hand, irrespective of the weapons used to kill civilians and on the other, through diplomatic means

james
James Debono
12 September 2013, 12:00am
Abdul Dibo (left) and Nidal Binni
Abdul Dibo (left) and Nidal Binni


Abdul Dibo yearns to return to Syria to live a normal life.

The 40-year-old construction worker hails from a village near Aleppo. He first arrived in Malta in 1996. He returned to Syria with his Maltese wife in 2007 with the intention of spending the rest of his life there. But barely four years had passed before he was forced to come back to Malta. He recalls how in 2011 most of his countrymen were shocked by the violent repression in the town of Dera'a.

Dera'a was the scene of the first non-violent protests after 15 children, aged between nine and 15, were arrested for writing anti-regime slogans on the wall of their school. Protesters ended up facing live ammunition from soldiers deployed by the regime.

"It was when people saw those scenes... that the protests started... I participated in the protests because we aspired to a better life and as a reaction against the brutality in Dera'a."

He recalls being arrested three times during the protests.

"Once the police came to arrest me at six in the morning... I did not even have time to change clothes. Luckily I was interrogated and sent back after two hours... Others were not so lucky."

His brother, for example, was detained for a whole month. He also met people who were tortured with electrical instruments.

The situation continued to deteriorate and Abdul escaped to Turkey.

"My wife is Maltese and I have a Maltese passport, and we returned back to Malta... The two million refugees living in camps in Turkey and other countries are not so lucky."

But despite returning to Malta he is constantly troubled by news from Syria.

"Many people from my village have escaped... many have died and some had their homes razed to the ground... My brother, who is a doctor, also lost his home."

Abdul's reaction to the revulsion of Western nations at the use of chemical weapons is mixed.

"This is not the first time the regime used chemical weapons... There have been 50 recorded instances when these weapons were used... Moreover despite the fact that 100,000 people have died, the world did not move to protect us."

Abdul cannot understand the distinction between deaths caused by chemical weapons and deaths caused by other weapons, and suspects that the real fear of the West is that these weapons could one day fall into the hands of the rebels and be used against Israel.

"Their real fear is that these weapons might be used against Israel... otherwise they would have intervened a long time ago."

He laments that the West was very quick to intervene in Libya because of its interest in oil but very slow  to act on Syria.

Still, nobody can claim ignorance of what is happening. One major problem for the regime is that it can no longer hide or cover up its crimes because of the widespread use of technology.

He recalls how Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, razed Hama to the ground in 1982 in a three-week siege which left 20,000 people dead.

"When Bashar's father committed other massacres in 1982 he could cover up his crimes and nobody moved. Now he cannot lie anymore because people have mobile phones which can record these crimes.

Although sceptical of Western motives Abdul would like the world to intervene to protect civilians.

"The best thing they can do is to create a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from using the air force to strike against civilians... Innocent people are dying every day because of indiscriminate shelling and bombing, which targets normal people stuck in their own homes."

He warns that if nobody intervened the Syrian people would still continue to fight.

"Surely they do not have airplanes and other sophisticated weapons which the regime has... but they are determined."

Abdul disagrees with the idea that what is happening in Syria is a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites allied with the dominant Alawites. He claims that Iran is to blame for stirring sectarian passions.

"They do want the Sunnis, who constitute 80% of the population, to have a say in government."

Moreover he blames the regime for concentrating power within the ranks of the Alawite community.

"Since 1973, the year of my birth, I always lived under an Assad... Since they took over in 1971 they filled all positions with Alawites... they have a monopoly on all the top positions in the army, and all business is in their hands."

But he also makes it clear that minorities like the Christians and Alawites have nothing to fear if the rebels win.

"I grew up in Aleppo, a city full of Christian churches... we lived next to each other for centuries and we never had big problems. If Assad goes away and power is given to the people there will be no problems for anyone."

He also blames Assad for moving troops into Christian areas to give the impression that the rebels are attacking Christian villages, when in fact they are attacking army positions.

He regrets that by taking so long to intervene, the West has left the situation to deteriorate.

"It is only Israel which benefits from a prolonged civil war, which leaves a great nation like Syria weaker and weaker."

Abdul's appeal to the Maltese is to urge their government to take a stance in Europe to "stop the massacre of innocent children, irrespective of whether they were killed by chemical or other weapons".

He also believes that the majority of Syrians are clamouring for a US intervention.

Abdul praises the Maltese for welcoming him twice in Malta and their solidarity towards him and immigrants who seek shelter in Malta.

"But I miss the life in Syria... I love that life where families are closely knit with relatives living next to each other in the same village. If the war ends, both me and my wife wish to return. We simply want to live a normal life."

***

Syrian-born businessman, 47-year-old Nidal Binni, a household name in Malta thanks to his 'Made in America' trademark and his int taf xi jfisser ('you know what it means') mantra, has no doubts that "genuine protests for greater openness and democracy in Syria" have been hijacked by a "hidden hand" - that of the House of Saud and the ruling dynasties of other Gulf States, who, according to Binni, are backing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world.

"There was a hidden hand behind the Arab Spring, whose aims have nothing to do with democracy and human rights."

Two years ago in an interview with The Times of Malta, Binni supported the initial non-violent protests against the Assad regime.

"The time for dictatorships is over. This is the century of democracy," he said, fully convinced that revolutions would continue to spread and that most of the world's remaining dictators, including Bashar al-Assad, would eventually be ousted.

But two years on, Binni's views on the promise of the Arab Spring have changed. Behind Binni's conversion are the grim choices faced by Syria's Druze minority, of which he is a part.

Binni still yearns for more openness in the country in which he lived for the first 20 years of his life, but feels that the religious freedom guaranteed by the Baathist regime is now in the balance.

"I still firmly believe in democracy, liberty and human rights, but these are not as important as the survival of the nation..."

Faced with foreign intervention and the increased likelihood of US strikes, Binni thinks that the survival of Syria as a united sovereign nation is now at risk.

He acknowledges that the Baath party presides over a controlled pseudo-democracy where only parties loyal to the regime are allowed. He recalls that when living in Syria he was irked by censorship on theatrical productions.

"But even in democratic countries governments can use intimidation... albeit using different means," he observed.

The Druze community, which numbers 500,000 in Syria, follows a monotheistic religion which incorporates various aspects of Christianity and Islam and is found primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Historically, minorities - including the Alawites, Christians and Kurds - have served as the primary base of support for the Baathist regime.

He points out that under Assad, everyone had full freedom to choose his or her religion.

"The Christians were always safe in Syria. Now they are no longer safe. They had to flee their homes because of Al Qaeda and the mujahideen."

He also points out that unlike others in the region, Syria also grants full rights to Palestinian refugees and has hosted refugees from different countries, including Iraq.

Still, power in Syria has been concentrated in the hands of the Alawite minority. Has this not created resentment among the majority Sunni population?

"It is true. It is the same as Malta being led by the same party for 20 years."

He squarely blames Saudi Arabia and Qatar for financing the most extreme rebel groups.

"It was Saudis who created Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They still finance Al Qaeda to further their own foreign policy goals."

Over the past two years Binni has become more sceptical on the prospects of democracy in the Arab world because of the financial clout of the Gulf States, which support movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries, simply to further their aims.

"In Saudi Arabia, women cannot even drive, while in Syria our women not only drive cars but airplanes. In Saudi Arabia women have no political rights, but in Syria they can serve as ministers... Should we risk all that simply to become democratic?"

But is it not convenient for the Assad regime to present all rebels and opposition parties as allied to Al Qaeda, ignoring the fact that the internationally recognised Syrian National Council is not in any way linked to Al Qaeda and that the Muslim Brotherhood itself denies any links with terrorist organisations?

Binni recognises that some of the rebels are genuine.

"But am afraid that these do not amount to more than 10%. The rest are all foreigners coming to fight in Syria from other countries and are financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar."

It is elements like Al Qaeda, linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which have an established notoriety for brutal acts like cannibalism, which, according to Binni, are enflaming the region with sectarian hatred.

Binni also suspects that the motivation behind Western intervention in Syria is the vast offshore gas deposits and the prospects of a gas pipeline from the Gulf States, which would free Europe of its dependence on Russian gas.

He refers to the prospect of a gas pipeline linking Qatar's gas deposits, which would have to necessarily pass from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.

"For me all this talk on human rights and chemicals is bullshit aimed at diverting attention from these energy interests... Syria is literally located at the crossroads in a region which determines the future of the world's economy."

Yet the West was only prompted to act decisively after video footage showed the effects of an alleged chemical weapon strike outside Damascus, in which as much as 1,400 people, including 426 children, lost their lives.

But for Binni the video was part of a "conspiracy" and he suspects that the footage was doctored by the secret services of the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or Israel.

"I think by blaming Bashar al-Assad, they are underestimating his intelligence... Bashar is much greater than this. He would not stoop so low as attacking his own people with chemical weapons."

I ask him about his reaction to the graphic footage of the aftermath of the attack.

"What I saw were children. What happened to their parents? Why did not these die with them too? How is it possible that they were all children?"

One possible reason, cited in a BBC report on the prevalence of children and men among the victims of the attack, is that women were less likely to have been sleeping on the roof in the open air and therefore less likely to be exposed to toxic fumes.

If the attack did take place, Binni would say Al Qaeda, assisted by the secret services of another foreign power, was responsible.

The US insists that by using chemical weapons Bashar al-Assad has crossed a red line, but Binni suspects that Obama is bluffing and is playing a psychological game to gain more leverage with the regime.

"Syria is not alone. It has the support of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. What if Russia or Iran attacks Saudi Arabia and Qatar in retaliation to an attack on Syria? Will the US risk that? Will they risk losing the oil and gas in the region? If they attack, Qatar will no longer exist and Saudi Arabia will be ablaze."

Binni is confident that Russia will never allow the US to attack Syria.

Why should Russia, which did not even intervene in the Kosovo war, intervene in Syria?

"This is because there is more at stake for Russia than for America in all this... Russia does not want to lose its monopoly in the provision of gas to Europe. They do not want the West to attack Syria simply to pave the way for a gas pipeline linking Europe to Qatar."

What is Binni's appeal to the international community?

"Stop giving support to Al Qaeda, stop giving support to the mujahideen and work for more negotiations through Geneva II."

He is also optimistic that progress can be achieved in negotiations between the regime and those components of the opposition which are not linked to foreign countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

"But no negotiations can take place with murderers."

He is also convinced that if free general elections take place, Assad will still win.

He appeals to the Maltese to be wary of what they hear in the international media and warns the West of another blowback.

"How sure are you that the rebels you are arming will not one day turn against you, turning to Paris and London as their next target after being armed in Syria?"

Does he find it ironic that he runs a company called Made in America, now that he is firmly against US intervention?

Binni rejects any suggestion of changing his company's trademark.

"I love the American people. I disagree with politicians, but I admire many aspects of the American culture and way of life."

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
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Fwarjahraq If you are Maltese and have some teaching coming from the Gospel you realize that Jesus and Muhammad are like North is to the South. Jesus it is said teach us love your enemy. Muhammad it is said in his first part of the Koran respect those of the Book yet later he say kill the Jews and those of the Book. I think there is a difference. Now those fighting are Muslim and all calling Alla u Akbar, the question is Bigger to who to other pagan gods? What about they are willing to kill and die because they are promised a heaven full of greenery, running water, shady trees and the best dark eyes virgins at keep them company for ever. This is the problem Christians try to live in peace as Jesus promised and Muslims want to kill to go to meet those virgins. After all, all those displaces have been displaced by fellow Muslims.
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Stefan Cassar
All I know is that when I was in Syria, I encountered very kind people, a great atmosphere for all religions, huge historical heritage, and all in all a fantastic country. Although I am Maltese, my experience there makes my heart weep for what is happening to-day.....So with all to-days technology, and know how man builds and destroys senselessly which is worse than animals.So the question props up...have Christ and Mohammed failed in their mission to change the heart of man???????
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ruth mallia
Tassew ta' qsim il-qalb, ninghaqad maghhom fis-soghoba u nitlob kuljum ghas-Sirjani kollha, huma ta' liema fidi huma u wkoll jekk huma ta' fidi. Izda xieraq wiehed ifakkar: DT 2013-05-06: "According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas," del Ponte, a former war crimes prosecutor, said in an interview with Swiss radio late on Sunday. "We still have to deepen our investigation, verify and confirm (the findings) through new witness testimony, but according to what we have established so far, it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin gas," she added. She stressed that the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, which she is a part of, had far from finished its investigation* HAAR 2013-05-05: Former Bush administration official: Israel may be behind use of chemical arms in Syria; Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says Israel may have conducted 'false flag' operation. Describes its government as inept and Netanyahu as 'clueless.'* International Business Times UK. World 2013-09-09; SIRJA RIBELLI KIMICI Umberto Bacchi: A Belgian writer held hostage for five months in Syria has said that his own rebel captors denied that President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the Ghouta massacre. Pierre Piccinin said that he and fellow hostage Domenico Quirico, an Italian war reporter, heard their jailers talking about the chemical weapon attack and saying that Assad was not to blame. "It wasn't the government of Bashar al-Assad that used sarin gas or any other gas in Ghouta," Piccinin told Belgian RTL radio after he was released. "We are sure about this because we overheard a conversation between rebels. It pains me to say it because I've been a fierce supporter of the Free Syrian Army in its rightful fight for democracy since 2012," Piccinin added. "We were prisoners, stuck with this information and unable to report it," he said. However, his fellow prisoner said it would be "madness" to say that he knew for sure that Assad was not culpable. "I do not know if this is true but nothing tells me it is," he said. Quirico said he listened to a Skype conversation between three individuals, whose names he could not confirm. One identified himself as a Free Syrian Army general. The three contended that insurgents had used gas in Ghouta to trigger Western intervention. "I have no evidence to confirm this theory and I do not know who these people were or if they are reliable," Quirico said. "It is impossible for me to say if this conversation was based on real events or on rumours and hearsay. It is not my habit to hold true conversations overheard through a door."* U terga’: Why has no one as yet refuted what is claimed on the site “Before It's News”, that: ‘Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press journalist Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia’. They mention names and a major Press group clearly enough
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ruth mallia
Tassew ta' qsim il-qalb, ninghaqad maghhom fis-soghoba u nitlob kuljum ghas-Sirjani kollha, huma ta' liema fidi huma u wkoll jekk huma ta' fidi. Izda xieraq wiehed ifakkar: DT 2013-05-06: "According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas," del Ponte, a former war crimes prosecutor, said in an interview with Swiss radio late on Sunday. "We still have to deepen our investigation, verify and confirm (the findings) through new witness testimony, but according to what we have established so far, it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin gas," she added. She stressed that the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, which she is a part of, had far from finished its investigation HAAR 2013-05-05: Former Bush administration official: Israel may be behind use of chemical arms in Syria; Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says Israel may have conducted 'false flag' operation. Describes its government as inept and Netanyahu as 'clueless.' International Business Times UK. World 2013-09-09; SIRJA RIBELLI KIMICI Umberto Bacchi: A Belgian writer held hostage for five months in Syria has said that his own rebel captors denied that President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the Ghouta massacre. Pierre Piccinin said that he and fellow hostage Domenico Quirico, an Italian war reporter, heard their jailers talking about the chemical weapon attack and saying that Assad was not to blame. "It wasn't the government of Bashar al-Assad that used sarin gas or any other gas in Ghouta," Piccinin told Belgian RTL radio after he was released. "We are sure about this because we overheard a conversation between rebels. It pains me to say it because I've been a fierce supporter of the Free Syrian Army in its rightful fight for democracy since 2012," Piccinin added. "We were prisoners, stuck with this information and unable to report it," he said. However, his fellow prisoner said it would be "madness" to say that he knew for sure that Assad was not culpable. "I do not know if this is true but nothing tells me it is," he said. Quirico said he listened to a Skype conversation between three individuals, whose names he could not confirm. One identified himself as a Free Syrian Army general. The three contended that insurgents had used gas in Ghouta to trigger Western intervention. "I have no evidence to confirm this theory and I do not know who these people were or if they are reliable," Quirico said. "It is impossible for me to say if this conversation was based on real events or on rumours and hearsay. It is not my habit to hold true conversations overheard through a door." U terga’: Why has no one as yet refuted what is claimed on the site “Before It's News”, that: ‘Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press journalist Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia’. They mention names and a major Press group clearly enough
avatar
ruth mallia
Tassew ta' qsim il-qalb, ninghaqad maghhom fis-soghoba u nitlob kuljum ghas-Sirjani kollha, huma ta' liema fidi huma u wkoll jekk huma ta' fidi. Izda xieraq wiehed ifakkar: DT 2013-05-06: "According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas," del Ponte, a former war crimes prosecutor, said in an interview with Swiss radio late on Sunday. "We still have to deepen our investigation, verify and confirm (the findings) through new witness testimony, but according to what we have established so far, it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin gas," she added. She stressed that the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, which she is a part of, had far from finished its investigation HAAR 2013-05-05: Former Bush administration official: Israel may be behind use of chemical arms in Syria; Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says Israel may have conducted 'false flag' operation. Describes its government as inept and Netanyahu as 'clueless.' International Business Times UK. World 2013-09-09; SIRJA RIBELLI KIMICI Umberto Bacchi: A Belgian writer held hostage for five months in Syria has said that his own rebel captors denied that President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the Ghouta massacre. Pierre Piccinin said that he and fellow hostage Domenico Quirico, an Italian war reporter, heard their jailers talking about the chemical weapon attack and saying that Assad was not to blame. "It wasn't the government of Bashar al-Assad that used sarin gas or any other gas in Ghouta," Piccinin told Belgian RTL radio after he was released. "We are sure about this because we overheard a conversation between rebels. It pains me to say it because I've been a fierce supporter of the Free Syrian Army in its rightful fight for democracy since 2012," Piccinin added. "We were prisoners, stuck with this information and unable to report it," he said. However, his fellow prisoner said it would be "madness" to say that he knew for sure that Assad was not culpable. "I do not know if this is true but nothing tells me it is," he said. Quirico said he listened to a Skype conversation between three individuals, whose names he could not confirm. One identified himself as a Free Syrian Army general. The three contended that insurgents had used gas in Ghouta to trigger Western intervention. "I have no evidence to confirm this theory and I do not know who these people were or if they are reliable," Quirico said. "It is impossible for me to say if this conversation was based on real events or on rumours and hearsay. It is not my habit to hold true conversations overheard through a door." U terga’: Why has no one as yet refuted what is claimed on the site “Before It's News”, that: ‘Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press journalist Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia’. They mention names and a major Press group clearly enough