Hayat Tahrir al-Sham detains pioneer activist Yasser al-Salim
On Sept. 21, 2018, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) detained lawyer and non-violent activist Yasser al-Salim in the city of Kafr Nubl in Southern Idlib, Northern Syria, after Yasser demonstrated to demand the release of the al-Suwayda women who were kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS).
Yasser al-Salim is known for speaking out against sectarianism and division. On his Facebook page, he demanded the people of Kafraya al-Fu'ah to be allowed to return to their homes. The post led to a negative reaction from the HTS, according to Yasser’s brother, Muhammad. Yasser’s friends asked him to delete the post to stay safe, but he refused, saying that the post did not offend anyone, including the HTS. Yasser said that the post only expressed solidarity with Syrian civilians who were forced to leave their homes.
Yasser’s brother said that the post on Facebook led the HTS to detain Yasser for expressing solidarity with the people of Kafraya and Fu'ah. Most of the people from Kafraya and Fu’ah are Shia Muslim, unlike the HTS, which is Sunni. Yasser's choice to express solidarity with the women from al-Suwayda may have also led to the HTS' decision to detain him, as most of the people from al-Suwayda are Druze (a non-Muslim ethnoreligious minority in Southern Syria).
Muhammad says that the HTS stormed his brother's home at 1 a.m. after a demonstration on Sept. 21, 2018, and detained him and one of his guests, Abdul Hamid al-Bayush. The HTS confiscated Yasser and al-Bayush’s cars, and al-Bayush was released the day after, while Yasser stayed in detention.
Ahmad al-Jalal, an artist and close friend of Yasser, said that Yasser was one of the organizers of the first demonstration in Kafr Nubl in 2011, and that he was the head of the Kafr Nubl Coordination. Yasser was also the head of the first revolutionary council. Al-Jalal added, "Al-Salim always criticized deviations from the Syrian Revolution's path, and confirmed the Syrian minorities' rights and (the importance of) integration. Over the past few years, al-Salim criticized al-Qaeda and its actions in Syria. For this criticism, the al-Nusra Front (the former name of the HTS) detained him."
Yasser’s activities at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution
Yasser Abdul Rahman al-Salim is from the city of Kafr Nubl in the Idlib countryside; however, he was born in the al-Demas area of Damascus on November 27, 1971. Yasser obtained a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Law at the University of Aleppo, but stopped practicing law after years of witnessing corruption in the law firm, according to his older brother Ahmad.
Ahmad al-Salim said that Yasser started his political activity five years before the Syrian Revolution, and he created the Kafr Nubl Public Forums website in 2006, aiming for a forum away from the Syrian government’s strict authority.
Yasser followed the news continuously after the Arab Spring in Tunisia began in December, 2010. When the revolution in Tunisia succeeded, Yasser was convinced that a revolution in Syria might succeed to get rid of the tyranny and injustice of the Syrian government, according to Ahmad.
Ahmad added that his brother went to Damascus in February, 2011, after he received an invitation to participate in demonstrations against the Syrian government, but the demonstrations did not succeed at that time. Yasser returned to Kafr Nubl and after the demonstrations in Daraa, Southern Syria, he coordinated the first demonstration in Kafr Nubl. Yasser and his friends succeeded in organizing the first demonstration on April 1, 2011, two weeks after the demonstrations in Daraa.
Ahmad said, "Yasser took a great risk when he coordinated the first demonstration. He printed and distributed flyers, and later he filmed the demonstration and broadcasted it on media channels abroad. Then, Yasser helped create a coordination and revolutionary council. He had many other ideas, some of which succeeded, some of which failed."
Yasser's brother added that their family was afraid because the Syrian government was preparing to oppress the revolutionary movement; however, Yasser was serious, happy, and strong, and he had been waiting for the day of the first demonstration for a long time. Yasser always said, "If I die now then I die free, which is better than dying in my home due to humiliation."
Civil activists face difficulties after the spread of weapons
Later, a few opposition factions and battalions began to form. Their aim was to protect the peaceful demonstrators, but Yasser was not content. As his brother Ahmad reports, Yasser said during that period, “If we are losing between 10 and 20 martyrs today, and the world denounces that as a massacre, then tomorrow, after the spread of weapons, we could lose hundreds, or thousands, and the world would consider them numbers that died during a civil war.”
Ahmad said, “Despite despite the fact that Yasser disapproved of arms and abstained from military activities, the Syrian government still considered him more dangerous than the opposition commanders.” The Syrian government forces confiscated and looted Yasser's house, while he continued his peaceful activism. Yasser hoped to create a foundation for civil institutions to run a future state after toppling the regime.
As the Syrian government forces began to lose authority, and their bombings and massacres increased, the voices in favor of arming the revolution, as a necessity, increased as well. The increase in military action reduced the role of civil and peaceful action in the area. Armed activity grew more dangerous with the emergence of the Islamic State in the Idlib countryside.
During that time, Yasser focused on humanitarian and legal action; he worked with several people to document the Syrian government forces’ crimes and file a lawsuit against the Syrian government in the International Criminal Court. His brother Ahmed says that Yasser was shocked when he realized that the International Criminal Court was also politicized and controlled by the Security Council’s resolutions.
Yasser continued his activism and helped form the Free Lawyers Commission. He worked as the manager of the Orient Hospital and tried to improve his ability to deal with patients with kidney conditions, attempting to take measures to protect the safety of the hospital’s medical staff and patients.
After that, Yasser had to leave Syria and head for Turkey under pressure from his family, after he received death threats and suffered assassination attempts. Yasser stayed in Turkey for eight months, but his financial situation forced him to return to Kafr Nubl, despite the dangers he might face, according to Yasser’s brother, Ahmad.
During that time, demonstrations started again in the Idlib governorate, after the Syrian government forces announced their intention to storm the area. On the same Friday that the HTS detained Yasser, tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib governorates.
Yasser’s brother, Ahmad, says that Yasser is now “in prison, which the Syrian government forces have dreamt of since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution.”
Activists of al-Suwayda denounce the detention of Yasser al-Salim
Days after Yasser was detained in Idlib, dozens of civilians organized a sit-in in front of the Ayn al-Zaman religious monument in al-Suwayda, Southern Syria, to demand the release of the women kidnapped by the IS and denounce the Syrian government’s attitude toward the case, raising photos of Yasser al-Salim and denouncing his detention by the HTS.
Suhair, a medical student from al-Suwayda, told SMART that the “Al-Nusra Front (the HTS) is attempting to impose its barbaric views by detaining al-Salim, who was known for his support of a civilized urban state, and who, one time, raised a banner to highlight the case of al-Suwayda’s kidnapees. His actions demonstrated the essence of patriotism and unity between the Syrian people against all dictators’ ideas and policies.”
Suhair added that those who detained al-Salim do not want his peaceful views to be shown to the world, and do not want unity between the components of the Syrian people. Suhair said that solidarity with al-Salim is an action beyond dispute, “for we all are Syria’s children, who believe in a unified state that rejects forced division.”
Kamal, a retired math teacher, told SMART that detaining Yasser a-Salim is “considered one of the several pieces of evidence of the extremist movements’ intended, or unintended treason in favor of the al-Assad regime.”
Kamal added that having solidarity with Yasser means having solidarity with the Syrian individual, without regard to his faith or territory; it is an expression of the Syrian people’s empathy and hope of their future state, for which hundreds of thousands have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. Kamal also said that Yasser’s detention is equivalent to the Syrian government security services’ violations, saying that the “extremist forces and the Syrian government security services are two faces of the same coin.”
Over the years of the Syrian Revolution, peaceful activists have suffered from oppression, detention, assassinations and other practices, including physical torture that led to death in several cases. Tens of thousands of detainees were tortured to death in the prisons of the Syrian government, which is considered one of the bloodiest fighting parties in Syria today. However, the Syrian government is not the only party with bloody practices in Syria.