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London’s divided Syrians in war of words

Stephen Beard Oct 7, 2013

London’s divided Syrians in war of words

Stephen Beard Oct 7, 2013

Malik al-Abdeh is one of several hundred British Syrians living in the west London suburb of Acton.

Not all of them are opposition activists like Malik. In fact, living  just across the road from him  is the Syrian dictator’s father-in-law, Dr. Fawaz Akhras.

“We used to say ‘hello’ to each other as good neighbors but not anymore,” says Malik. “Akhras’ failure to condemn what his son-in-law is doing in Syria, I think that, for me, was completely unethical.”

Having Assad’s father-in-law living across the road is all the more extraordinary since Malik has been a scourge of the Syrian regime. He was the founding editor of Barada TV, a London-based  satellite channel which began broadcasting into Syria long before the Arab Spring and — Malik believes — helped  fuel a national craving for freedom and democracy.

“Since the revolution began,” he says, “I met many Syrians from inside the country who would say they used to close the doors, close the windows, and switch on Barada TV because it was the only TV channel that said the truth.”

But two years ago, Barada TV’s credibility was seriously questioned. Wikileaks revealed that most of its funding came from the U.S. State Department.

Malik, however, does not feel compromised.

“I would argue that had the channel been funded by a Syrian businessman, or an Arab country like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, its credibility would probably be a lot more undermined than the fact that it was funded by the U.S.,” he says. “The U.S. had a very hands-off approach towards Barada TV.”

And, he adds, the American funding was crucial. When it was reduced last year, Barada TV folded. The  pro-Assad campaign in London is also feeling the pinch. These days  there are fewer protests in the British capital in favor of the regime and this is partly due to financial pressures.

Some  British Syrians who support Assad and oppose the uprising say they can’t afford to take any more time off work to demonstrate. Ammar Waqqaf*  is an exception.

“Being sort of self-employed rather than having a permanent job gives you the luxury of being able to dedicate man hours to follow the issue,” he says.

Ammar, who runs a small management consultancy in Britain, spends three-quarters of his working life  giving interviews and writing articles, promoting a cause that’s highly unpopular in Britain: Keeping Assad in power.

Ammar is kept afloat  financially by his wife, who works full-time. He denies that he gets any money from the Syrian regime.

“I am doing this because I wanted to speak up on behalf of millions of Syrians who don’t want to see the regime overthrown,” he says. “Do they want democracy? Of course they do. Do they want less corruption, less dictatorship? Of course they do. But they have other issues on their mind.”

And uppermost, he says is the  fear that the uprising may turn Syria into a failed state dominated by Al Qaeda. The propaganda war  in London continues. Both sides seem to accept it will be a long war of attrition. And a costly one.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article mispelled Ammar Waqqaf’s name. The text has been corrected.

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