On Saturday, Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime, gave a speech at the Arab-Islamic summit in Saudi Arabia. His call for an end to the war on Gaza sparked anger among activists in northwest Syria, who saw the denunciation of Israel as hypocritical.
Al-Assad criticised the “vicious circle” of allowing Israel to commit massacres then being content with providing humanitarian aid instead of protection for the Palestinian people.
“A right cannot be restored when the criminal has become a judge and the thief has become a referee,” he said, referring to the role of Western countries in the Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza.
Since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict on October 7, Syrian activists have used the phrase “two sides of the same coin” to describe both the Syrian regime and Israel’s crimes against the Syrian and Palestinian peoples. They consider al-Assad’s accusations of crimes and impunity to also describe what he has done in Syria over the past 12 years.
Bombing under the radar
Munira Baloch, a 34-year-old journalist, said she believes that Assad was able to remain at the head of his regime despite his crimes because he obtained the “green light” to do what he wanted against the Syrian people.
She told Al Jazeera that the regime’s pattern of using flimsy pretexts to justify bombing and crimes, which the world condones, continues to this day.
During October, Gaza wasn’t the only area being bombed. Rather, Idlib witnessed the most intense military escalation in three years. Hundreds of sites, including civilian ones, were targeted by aerial and artillery attacks, leaving dozens of people killed and wounded, and causing a new wave of displacement.
“The policy is the same in both countries of using intense bombing to displace opponents,” said Baloch. She lived in Rankous in the Damascus countryside before being forced into repeated displacement then settling in Idlib six years ago. “We [Gaza and northwestern Syria] are both densely populated areas under siege and continuous bombing.”
Baloch still remembers the months she endured a siege by regime forces while living with six families in a two-room house with no electricity, water, or heating: “We ran out of bread crumbs until we accepted the displacement agreement to Idlib,” she said.
During the past few weeks, there have been many scenes of Palestinians being displaced, on foot, from northern Gaza to the south.
That brought back painful memories for Ali al-Dalati, who was displaced with his family, in search of safety, about six years ago. In January 2017, the 26-year-old activist and his family walked eight kilometres (five miles) from the village of Bassemah – which was being bombed by regime forces with chemical weapons, incendiary phosphorus, and napalm – to the village of Deir Kanon in the Damascus countryside.
“I can’t forget,” he told Al Jazeera, about the scene of people gathering together to reach the safe zone, which “seemed like the Day of Judgment”.
During their displacement, those alongside him were targeted by snipers, similar to the Palestinians being targeted by Israel. Al-Dalati recalled that whoever was walking towards the safe zone could not approach any of the dead on the road. “My neighbour who came with us was killed, and then her son was killed because he tried to drag her body to bury it,” he said.
Al-Dalati, who arrived in Idlib on January 31, 2017, viewed the invitations of al-Assad, who he described as a “war criminal,” and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose forces occupy four Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen), to the summit as hypocritical and demonstrating an absence of actual intention to provide assistance to Palestinians.
Al-Dalati said he believes the current “popularity” of the Palestinian cause and the rising number of deaths is what fuels international interest, adding that condemning one crime and not the other is not acceptable.
Talal al-Loush, a 61-year-old activist who was displaced from Homs to Idlib nine years ago, told Al Jazeera that he could not listen to Bashar al-Assad’s entire speech because he felt “nauseous”. He was astonished that the man responsible for the killing and arresting of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions would speak on behalf of Gaza.
“The killers are the same, but the one that pulls the trigger is different,” al-Loush said, recalling the crimes he witnessed in Homs between 2012 and 2013, when regime forces and allied Iranian and Shiite militias committed horrific massacres and forced civilians into displacement, similar to Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Al-Loush believes that Israel’s military superiority has enabled it to commit crimes within a shorter period than what was required by the Syrian regime. “The videos that show the extent of destruction and killing in Gaza are the same scenes we saw in Homs 10 years ago,” he said.
Torture in the name of Palestine
The crimes of the Syrian regime affected Palestinians and Syrians alike, according to Muhammad Taha, a 25-year-old Palestinian who lived through the two-year siege in the Yarmouk Camp neighbourhood, south of Damascus. There, dozens died of hunger.
Taha, who was born in Damascus and now lives in Idlib after being displaced, believes that the Syrian regime and the leaders of the countries surrounding Palestine are mere shields for Israel. He said he was not surprised by the similarities of the crimes committed against civilians by the Syrian regime and Israel’s attacks on Gaza, such as the bombing of civilians, hospitals, mosques, churches, civil defence teams, and ambulances.
Standing with the Palestinians is a false claim by the Syrian regime, Taha said. He points to the “Palestine Branch”, the notorious military intelligence division in Damascus known for its brutal torture of detainees, as evidence. “No Palestinian family in Syria was spared” having at least one of its members being detained at the facility, he said.