Assad's acolytes in Jordan's parliament

Assad's acolytes in Jordan's parliament
A large group of Jordanian MPs, lawyers and journalists maintain their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite the opposition of the majority of Jordanians.
6 min read
13 June, 2016
King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to call on Assad to step down [Getty]

Hind al-Fayez has a long family history with the Syrian government. The Jordanian member of parliament's father, Hakem al-Fayez, was a political prisoner of Damascus for 22 years during former President Hafez al-Assad's rule.

Despite the Assad regime jailing her own father, Fayez - from the influential Bani Sakhir tribe - shows only full-throated support for the current Syrian president.

"Assad is the best solution for Syria," she told The New Arab.

"During Bashar Assad's era, people did not feel that they were living under a dictatorship regime," the 'freedom-fighter' MP said.

While the majority of Jordanians oppose the Syrian government, a sizeable group of parliamentarians, lawyers, and journalists maintain their support for Assad.

The collection includes prominent Christians and Muslims, Jordanians of Palestinian descent and East Bankers.

Although Fayez commended Assad, other international officials are frequently critical of Damascus' treatment of its people.

UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay implicated Assad noting that there was "massive evidence of war crimes" in a 2013 report.

Human Rights Watch likewise wrote that evidence "strongly suggests" that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks killing hundreds of civilians, including children.

'90 percent right'

With a picture of Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah hanging from his office wall, Jordanian MP Tarek Khoury lavished praise upon the Syrian leader.

Khoury is a Christian lawmaker and president of the Wihdat football club, which receives backing from Palestinian communities in Jordan.

Popular on social media, the Jordanian parliamentarian dismissed numerous reports of government forces targeting innocent civilians.

"[Assad] is not attacking anyone and is only defending himself," Khoury insisted.

The lawmaker warned that any potential federalisation of Syria, would also lead to the division of Jordan. He credited the Syrian government for its strong support of Hizballah and Hamas in their fight against Israel - while refusing to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

Although prominent international officials accuse the Syrian president of war crimes, Khoury insisted that the Syrian leader has been the victim all along.

What Assad did since the Arab Spring is 90 percent right. Whatever he did to survive and protect his country was great
- Tarek Khoury

"What Assad did since the Arab Spring is 90 percent right," he said. "Whatever he did to survive and protect his country was great."

Despite the Damascus government's heavy bombardment of civilians, Fayez still believes that the Syrian leader is the best hope for the country.

"The only regime that can maintain Syria, in one part and with no more division is Assad," she said.

Linking the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq with the current situation in Syria, she noted: "We shouldn't repeat the mistake of Saddam Hussein through Assad."

When discussing the ongoing Syrian violence, the conversation shifted to the conspiracies surrounding the origins of Islamic State group. Fayez confidently asserted: "How come you will find [IS] in Libya, Iraq, Syria but you don't find them in Israel? Of course the Zionists are behind them."

While Assad won the 2007 presidential election by an astounding 97 percent - hardly a demonstration of vigorous democracy - MP Myasser Sardiyah insisted that the race was completely free and fair.

'Secular and advanced'

Sardiyah contrasted the Damascus government with other ruling parties in the region. "The Syrian regime is secular and advanced," she said.

With the pro-Hizballah Lebanese television channel al-Mayadeen playing in the background, Sardiyah recounted her meetings with Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

Sardiyah, whose brother fights in the Syrian military, claimed that Hizballah and Iranian forces battling in Syria were no different than NATO countries assisting an ally during warfare.

Dismissing the Syrian anti-Assad forces, Sardiyah insisted: "No opposition exists in Syria. Any opposition needs to be peaceful and similar to Gandhi."

In contrast to calls from ardent supporters, the Jordanian government has adopted a pragmatic approach in its relationship with the Syrian regime, explained Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to call for Assad to step down in November 2011. However, the Hashemite ruler had by 2013 changed his tone, acknowledging that Assad would not fall from power any time soon.

Syria's embassy in Amman remains open, but Jordan expelled Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman in 2014, following a series of critical comments by the Syrian diplomat.

King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to call for Assad to step down in November 2011. However, by 2013 the Hashemite ruler changed his tone, acknowledging that Assad would not fall from power any time soon

Although Jordan has supported the Southern Front rebel groups, Landis added that the Hashemite kingdom remained wary of Assad's downfall. Potential extremists controlling Damascus would be more dangerous for Jordan than a predictable dictator.

Samih Khreis is assistant secretary-general of the Arab Lawyers' Union. His passionate support for the Damascus government has led to controversy in his home country.

During a heated July 2014 debate on the Jordanian satellite channel JoSat, a speech by Assad was being debated. Journalist Shaker al-Johari threw a chair at Khreis and tossed a water bottle at the attorney as tensions rose.

Khreis - who has met freqiently with the Syrian president as part of Jordanian delegations - said that the 2011 protests across Syria and the region should really be called the "Zionist Spring" - claiming they had been manufactured by Israeli agents.

While Bashar al-Assad's forces have killed countless Syrians not Israelis, Khreis - like other supporters of the Damascus government in Jordan - moved the conversation to the Palestinian question.

"President Assad defends our legal resistance against Israel and defends Syrian land from the West," Khreis emphasised.

Attempting to evoke sympathy from international audiences, the attorney insisted: "As an American, would you accept if anyone would divide California from the United States?"

'10 percent sympathy'

Early in the Syrian conflict, activists launched protests supporting Assad in front of US and Qatari embassies in Amman.

However, during the past six months, Jordan's Interior Ministry has refused to grant backers of the Syrian regime authorisation for public demonstrations, according to activist Omar al-Tel.

Hasan Momani, professor of International Relations at the University of Jordan, cautioned that the vast majority of Jordanians continue to oppose the Assad regime.

He estimated that approximately 10 percent of the population sympathised with the Syrian government during the bloody five year conflict.

In an August 2015 New York Times op-ed, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote that Assad's barrel bombs, not IS, was the greatest threat to Syrians.

While Damascus regime supporters frequently point to Western bias, HRW, as well as other similar organisations, consistently criticises human rights violations whether allegedly committed by Saudi Arabian, Israeli or American figures.

The barrel bombs meanwhile "pulverise neighbourhoods, annihilate markets, schools, hospitals, and countless residences, and left broad swathes of death and destruction," said Roth.

The assaults by the forces of Damascus continue, but appear yet to have shaken support among Assad's allies in Amman. What devastation that might take remains to be seen.

Aaron Magid is an Amman-based journalist. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Al-Monitor, and Lebanon's Daily Star. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronMagid