Meshaal Tammo: the Syrian rebel leader who might have been

Meshaal Tammo was everything opponents of Bashar Al Assad needed – politically experienced, well organised and driven by a desire for equality and justice. But his assassination brought those aspirations to a sudden end. Analysis by Phil Sands

Faris (left), the son of the Syrian Kurdish opposition leader Meshaal Tamo, who was assassinated in Syria the previous day, gathers with supporters outside the Kurdistan parliament in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, as his father's funeral takes place in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli. Safin Hamed / AFP
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The gunmen who murdered Meshaal Tammo walked up to the front door of the house where he was staying in Qamishli, knocked and asked if they could enter.

None of the four wore a mask or made any effort to conceal their identity, and they were let in. Inside, they asked Tammo if he was, indeed, Meshaal Tammo and, when he replied that he was, they opened fire, killing their target and wounding two other people in the house with him.

They then walked out, got into waiting cars and drove off.

That murder, two years ago today in Syria’s north-east, marked the first assassination of a major opposition figure since the start of the uprising, seven months earlier, and Tammo remains the highest-profile opposition politician to be executed in such a targeted, calculated manner.

Tammo stood at the confluence of the forces tearing at Syria, and in many ways he symbolises the struggle underway in the country, or, perhaps, the struggle as it was before his death and before it became an outright war.

He was a lifelong political dissident, and spent years in prison for his open defiance of Bashar Al Assad, the president. A Kurd from an influential family, his politics evolved from communism to a more orthodox Kurdish nationalism until he became convinced that only democracy and complete equality in a civil state, founded on respect for human rights, would give all Syrians, including its Kurdish minority, the lives they deserved.

Those views put him in tune with the young protesters who took to the streets in March 2011 calling for change in their ossified police state. They also ensured he had powerful enemies, both in the Syrian security services desperate to prop up Mr Assad’s rule, and in opposition groups – and the various backers standing in the shadows behind them – fighting to enforce their own agendas, not necessarily those of the Syrian people.

When the uprising began in the spring of 2011, Tammo was in Adra prison on the outskirts of Damascus serving out a three-year sentence for dissent. He eagerly listened to news of the spreading revolt, conveyed to him by prisoners who smuggled in short-wave radios and jerry-rigged the jail television so, at night, they could hear something other than the absurd state-run propaganda they were force-fed.

As soon as he was freed, he joined the uprising, travelling across the country, giving speeches and taking part in protests, including marches in Deraa, where the first demonstrations had erupted.

He also tried to weld Syria’s fractured opposition into a more coherent force that could challenge the overwhelming power of the state.

In July, Tammo was one of a group of opposition activists who planned a conference that would have broken new ground in Syria, crossing every boundary the regime had spent more than four decades brutally enforcing.

The venue, an otherwise unremarkable hall used for wedding parties, was in Qaboun, not far from the heart of Damascus, a normal, working-class neighbourhood that was by then a major hub for peaceful protests.

The conference sought to bring together members of established opposition groups inside and outside Syria for the first time and, crucially, link them to the new generation of youth organisers and protesters shaking the foundations of the regime.

The plan was to draw up a government-in-waiting and take concrete steps towards building a post-Assad future.

It was an unthinkable act of defiance to a system bent on self-perpetuation at any cost, and it never happened. Two days before the meeting, 14 unarmed people were shot dead outside the wedding hall by security forces during a peaceful protest march, at which they had been giving balloons to children.

The organisers, including Tammo, decided it was too dangerous for the opposition to openly gather in range of regime forces and called off the conference.

Instead the meeting was moved to Istanbul – a decision some activists believe to be a fatal mistake for the opposition, taking it outside of the country and dooming it to the irrelevance and foreign control that have crippled it ever since.

Three months later, Tammo was killed.

Threats had been made against him even before he left prison in June. During the mandatory debriefing given to political detainees when they completed their sentences, Tammo had sat before Ali Mamluk, one of Syria’s feared secret police generals. Family and friends said Tammo was warned to “watch his back”.

Less than three months later, assassins would target Tammo for the first time. As he, one of his sons and two other colleagues drove in northeastern Syria, a car blocked their path and men inside it opened fire, but the driver swerved past the roadblock and accelerated away.

The next attempt, much more professional, did not fail.

There has been no independent investigation into his murder, and no one has been held to account for it. Speculation has filled the gap.

Opposition figures still blame the regime, saying it feared the unity Tammo was trying to forge.

The regime blamed terrorists for the killing and vowed bring the perpetrators to justice, a promise it has not delivered on.

In the aftermath of the Qaboun shootings and Mr Tammo’s murder, many opposition activists fled from Syria. In exile, the opposition has floundered, struggling to retain close ties to those inside the country and, as a consequence, it remains weak.

It also remains divided. Mr Tammo’s unification efforts were never successfully followed through. If a date can be put on such things, October 7, the day of his death, can perhaps stand as a marker for when the peaceful Syrian uprising was irrevocably diverted into a violent rebellion, a final, desperate response to the regime’s appalling brutality and the unwillingness or inability of the international community to protect civilians.

No single leader has emerged to head the opposition. Tammo, known as a charismatic man, may have been the last real hope for such unifying, astute, and potentially popular figure behind which pro-democracy opponents to Mr Al Assad’s rule could have coalesced.

If Meshaal Tammo were still alive, would he have been able to help steer Syria down a different path? It’s hard to imagine any one person would have been strong enough to control the monumental forces at play. Perhaps he stands best as a symbol of a Syria that might have been – democratic, open minded, peaceful – a country that may one day rise from the ashes of war.