WASHINGTON, DC — As a member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Rima Fleihan speaks for the entirety of the Syrian people according to the U.S. government. Her message: don’t forget about the thousands of men, women, and children locked within Syrian jail cells, subjected to torture and other crimes against humanity.
Fleihan was in the United States this week to spread that message, taking part in events at the United Nations in New York highlighting these detainees plight. While in DC earlier this week, Fleihan took meetings with Human Rights Watch and other political and humanitarian groups, and attended a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the ongoing crisis. Sitting down with ThinkProgress in the Coalition’s Washington office, Fleihan made the case for an international commission to be deployed within Syria to truly document the horror occurring within the regime’s jails.
“We have 60,000 names that are documented, but we still have 200,000 detainees we don’t know anything about, because the regime is not providing information about their status,” she said, during an interview that took place both in English and through translated Arabic. As evidence, she cited photographs a regime defector had produced documenting thousands of instances of torture against jailed opposition leaders and civilians. A United Nations-commissioned report has confirmed the veracity of the 55,000 pictures of 11,000 Syrians who had been tortured, killed, or both within the government’s prisons.
To date, the closest an international monitoring group has been able to come has been the refugee camps among Syria’s neighbors, interviewing those who have fled the fighting or defecting from the regime. In its latest update, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry indicated that it has been compiling a list of possible war crimes perpetrators from all sides of the conflict, with the goal of bringing violators of international law to justice. Fleihan praised the work of the Commission so far, calling it both “practical” in its scope and useful in collecting thousands of testimonies, which have included details of summary executions, rape, and intentionally targeting civilians. But if a committee were able to enter Syria and visit all of the facilities, she argued, they could accurately depict the torture that occurs in Syria’s prisons and potentially end the practice.
The 39-year old opposition leader has a history of being a human rights activist, working to end so-called honor killings within Syria before the current civil strife began. Many of Syria’s political figures knew her through her writings, she told ThinkProgress, which includes both books and dramatic scripts. And her penchant for promoting women’s rights and other social justice issues has had her blacklisted for years now. As far back as 2008, she said, the regime had prevented her from traveling due to her work on social justice issues. When the protests against the government turned violent, Fleihan escaped to Jordan in 2011, illegally crossing the border. “They want to arrest me and kill me because I am a member of the peaceful revolution,” she said. Before her flight from Syria, Fleihan worked her way up through the ranks of the opposition movement, eventually becoming speaker of her Local Coordinating Council, and eventually joining the Coalition.
Filham was also pessimistic about the odds of a new round of talks, following the apparently permanent hiatus of political negotiations between the opposition and Syrian government. “We were really serious between the first and second round in presenting a vision of a transition period and move towards a political solution to solve the problem in Syria,” said Filham, who took part in the most recent round, known as Geneva II, as the head of the delegation’s human rights committee. “The regime was not serious about a political solution, because they knew that meant a change from dictatorship to democracy,” she continued, accusing the regime of deliberately “wasting time” as a negotiation strategy. A “Geneva III” is not in the works, she said, pointing to similar remarks blaming Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government for the talks’ failure from U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
When it comes to the difficulty aid groups have seen in reaching Syrians in desperate need, Fleihan defended the Coalition’s commitment to assisting civilians. She also dismissed a finding within the latest U.N. report on areas within Syria under siege, which states that while the vast majority of people being cut off are starving due to the Syrian government, about 45,000 people are being blockaded from aid by opposition groups. “The problem is that they name it as an ‘opposition group,’ it is not an opposition group, it’s ISIS” Fleihan said, naming the jihadi group born from an expanded Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“ISIS is a third party who came to Syria with their own agenda,” she continued. “Their agenda is against our agenda; we think about liberty, about freedom, about opportunity. They have no thinking.” Filhan pointed out that the Free Syrian Army is currently fighting against ISIS and that every place that was liberated from ISIS control became open to receiving humanitarian aid once more.
“The Syrian Coalition is working hard to provide aid to people under the control of the opposition and the Free Syrian Army,” Fleihan insisted. “You cannot ignore the role of the local Councils by providing humanitarian aid and taking care of people. You should always remember the people in these areas are the families of the revolutionaries and Coalition members. They are the families of Syrian activists working to deliver aid. It is for our benefit to provide aid to our families there.”
The U.N. Security Council met on Friday to hear a briefing on the implementation of last month’s resolution demanding all sides allow unobstructed access of aid workers to civilians in the Syrian conflict. According the report, which made its way to the press earlier this week, the Syrian government has in many instances violated the terms of the resolution, not just in denying aid to areas of the country, but also in launching indiscriminant attacks against civilian populations. U.N. relief coordinator Valeria Amos reportedly told the Council that Syria’s actions since the resolution’s passage have been “arbitrary and unjustified.”
“The facts are clear and demand a response from the Security Council As long as the regime is allowed to deny humanitarian aid to people in need, millions of Syrians will suffer,” Dr. Najib Ghadbian, the Coalition’s Special Representative to the UN, said in a statement after the meeting. “Recognizing the grave and worsening situation in Syria, the Security Council must show that it is serious and determined to stop the humanitarian crisis. The Syrian regime has for three years fundamentally failed to respect its obligations under international law. The Security Council must be prepared to use the considerable tools at its disposal to compel the regime to comply. Council action is needed now. The credibility of the international community, and more importantly, the lives of innocent Syrians are at stake.”