The day I met Syria’s Mr Big

One of the most feared men in Syria before his assassination, Assef Shawkat told me minority rights were a CIA invention., Tuesday 24 July 2012 07.58 EDT

“The country is not ready for revolutions and civil disobedience,” he told me.

“That’s your opinion,” I replied.

“We won’t imprison you and let your friends in America turn you into a hero.”

“Do whatever you want.”

“This country is ours,” he said, “and we will burn it down rather than give it up.”

“Those who built it in the first place will rebuild it,” I replied.

He yelled at me, I yelled at him. He cursed me, I cursed him. He stood up, I stood up. He sat down, I sat down. He pondered, I pondered, as silence reigned.

Then I said: “What if I left Syria?”

He smiled.

“But I will not stop what I am doing and I will not change.”

His smile grew larger. Then he embraced me and sent me on my way.

The man was Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad. His family relationship, coupled with his role as head of military intelligence, made him the second most powerful man in Syria and – until his assassination last week – probably the most widely feared.

That meeting in July 2005 was the last time I saw him; I left Syria with my family a couple of months later.

I had not wanted to leave, but I wanted to keep doing what I was doing – to keep agitating and tackling issues that very few wanted to tackle at the time, like minority rights, youth empowerment and citizen journalism – and I knew that distances would not matter much in the internet age.

My first encounter with Shawkat came in March 2005, two months after my return from a six-month fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington. I had been slapped with a travel ban on my return, and was interrogated – but not detained – by three different security branches until Shawkat finally decided to interrogate me personally.

His reasons for taking a special interest in my case were not entirely connected with politics. I am, after all, the son of Muna Wassef, Syria’s most celebrated actress, and Shawkat claimed to be “her biggest fan”.

In fact, he had met my mother a few days before our encounter to ask her permission to interrogate me. Such was his subtlety. She gave him her permission while reminding him that I was her only son, and should anything happen …

Her warnings notwithstanding, a lot of untoward things could have happened during that first encounter, had a second guardian angel – my wife, Khawla – not insisted on accompanying me. Khawla’s presence softened his attitude at certain critical moments, and allowed for some rational discussion between accusations and threats, albeit that his threats at the time were less direct than they might have been: he was trying to appear benevolent while exercising his authority.

There was plenty that he might have complained about. I had been outspoken in interviews with the international press, accusing Bashar al-Assad of being behind the Hariri assassination in Lebanon and calling him a Fredo Corleone. But Shawkat’s main gripe with me was nothing I had written or said about his brother-in-law; rather, it was my work on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

Minority rights, he told me, was a concept invented by the CIA in order to destabilise countries that stood in America’s way, and by raising this issue in Syria I was proving myself to be nothing more than a CIA agent sent as an agent provocateur.

“There are no minorities in Syria,” he said.

I laughed. He got flustered.

Khawla intervened to suggest that the issue could not be ignored. He relaxed a little. I explained that if he and his in-laws were truly reformers, they would see it as their mission to decouple the Alawite community from political authority and chart a process towards democratic rule.

If they really championed reforms, I said, they could still retain power through the democratic process: championing reforms would give them legitimacy and credibility and people would vote for them irrespective of their confessional background. They could become a legitimate political dynasty, I said, instead of one fearing for its survival from the mere mention of the word “minority”.

Assef was not convinced, nor happy. That much was clear. Still, he let us go with a smile and a promise that he would be keeping a close eye on us from that point on.