01.11.12

Syrian Actress Becomes Star of Protests Against Regime of Bashar al-Assad

Syrian actress Fadwa Soliman has become a star of the protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, even though she is from Assad’s own dominant Alawite sect.

She was disowned by her family after speaking at an antigovernment rally in the opposition stronghold of Homs. Now she has gone into hiding and is on the run from Syrian security forces.

Fadwa Soliman, a Syrian actress and mother of one, has become a poster woman for activists up and down the country following her passionate condemnations of the dictatorial government of President Bashar al-Assad. In doing so she has become one of Assad’s most prominent bêtes noires—a position that she says has made her a marked woman.

“I’m wanted dead or alive,” said the 39-year-old Soliman, speaking from an
undisclosed location in Homs during a recent phone interview with The Daily Beast. “But I refuse to leave this city. Whatever happens to other people will happen to me.”

What has made Soliman’s stance against the government so unusual—and
part of the reason she was publicly disowned by her brother during a broadcast on state TV—is that she is a member of the Shia Alawite sect, the Islamic offshoot that counts Assad as one of its members.

“I want Syrian ambassadors around the world to be kicked out,” said Fadwa Soliman. “I’m wondering if all of them are scared of Bashar al-Assad.”

The Alawites constitute only around 10 percent of Syria’s total population, yet large numbers of the community are recruited to fill the top posts in the military and intelligence services. Most are often assumed to stand squarely behind the president, but Soliman’s vociferous criticism of the regime has pulled the rug from beneath this snug assumption.

“We cannot define Syrians as Alawite or Sunni,” she said. “Syrians accept the other and respect the other, and we cannot define each other as being on our own.”

Soliman was born in the northern city of Aleppo, an ancient merchant city that has yet to be convulsed by the kind of large-scale demonstrations that have engulfed other Syrian towns. She later moved south to the capital, Damascus, to pursue an acting career, appearing in a range of plays and TV shows. Though relatively unknown before the Syrian uprising, the aspiring stage star soon found a different kind of fame after appearing on a platform in Homs and chanting antigovernment slogans in front of a large crowd of protesters.

“What has happened here is shameful to humanity,” she told The Daily Beast. “The Syrian people are appealing to the politicians and the international community and the whole world to stand up and take a position. To stand up and be against tyranny and massacre.”

There have been reports that Homs is currently in the grip of a vicious bout of sectarian killings, with scores of Alawites and Sunni Muslims being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in recent months, according to the New York–based rights group Avaaz. Soliman said it is the regime that is responsible for stoking cross-community hatred.

“They have used the media to promote the idea there were Sunni gangs shooting Alawites,” she said. “They also made up stories that gangs of Sunnis were shooting soldiers at roadblocks. In fact it was shabiha [the militias loyal to the government], who were trying to make it look like there were sectarian problems. The fact is the Alawites will get screwed either way. If they are in opposition to the regime, the government will kill them and be much harsher on them. But if they follow the regime, then they will end up killing their brothers.” Soliman made plain her contempt for media attempts to portray the Alawite community as a single, homogeneous whole. “The Alawites are human too!” she said, laughing. “Many of them take part in demonstrations and are protected by the Sunni, because people know the government will be harder on them.”

She is also keen to downplay accounts of sectarian violence in Homs, saying it has become a thing of the past. But such talk is belied by other accounts of the situation in the city. There were further reports of protesters being wounded after gunmen opened fire on civilians yesterday—this despite the presence of Arab League monitors who are visiting Syria to ensure that the regime makes good on a promise to halt its bloody crackdown, which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 civilians since last March. According to a retired Alawite army officer from Homs, certain areas of the city remain no-go zones for civilians who fear being singled out as a member of the “wrong” sect.

“I know a military pilot who was killed in front of his home,” said the man, who asked not to be named. “He was my neighbor. Five guys from the neighborhood came and shot him. They were Sunni.”

It is a situation that has made Soliman, the actress turned revolutionary, despair of her country’s future. “Sectarianism is painful,” she said. “It’s a humiliating and inhuman feeling. Before this we lived in harmony and we never had sectarian problems—we had a beautiful life together.”

Yet she remains hopeful that Syria can still be yanked back from the brink. “I want the international community to look again at the way it is handling things. I want Syrian ambassadors around the world to be kicked out. I’m wondering if all of them are scared of Bashar al-Assad. Can’t they do anything about him?”