Dateline gets close-up access to Syrian opposition leader Haitham Al Maleh, as he tries to defeat the Assad regime from exile.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 21:30

Haitham Al Maleh is preparing himself to be the next Syrian president, but he says he's also number one on the Syrian regime's hitlist for assassination.

Al Maleh is a leading figure in Syria's opposition, known as the country's father of human rights, who's spent many years in prison for his work.

Yaara Bou Melhem gets close-up access to him in exile in Cairo, as he works to arm and finance the Free Syrian Army in its fight against the Assad regime and its violent crackdown on opposition.

But at the age of 81 and constantly fearing for his life, will he ever see a free Syria?

WATCH - Click to see Yaara's story, which subsequently won a United Nations Australia Media Peace Award in October 2012.

BLOG - Yaara writes for the Dateline blog about the huge task ahead for Haitham Al Maleh and Syria's opposition.

INTERACTIVE - Use our interactive guide to get the latest situation in countries across the Arab world, including Dateline's coverage of the recent unrest.

REPLAY - See Dateline's previous stories from Syria, including Yaara's award-winning report, Freedom's Call, from February 2011, which also featured Haitham Al Maleh.

PHOTO GALLERY - Look at some of the confronting images of events in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011.

WORLD NEWS AUSTRALIA - SBS News has a special section looking at the unrest in Syria and the turbulent times over the past year.

Photo (Syrian flag): AAP


Yaara Bou Melhem writes for the Dateline blog about the huge task ahead for Haitham Al Maleh and Syria's opposition...

Tucked away down a quiet street in the centre of bustling Cairo is a rather unremarkable, half-finished building where people are working on something quite extraordinary... the downfall of the Syrian regime.

The building is a hub of Syrian opposition activity. Politicians, lawyers, journalists and activists meet, work and a few even live here.

Each time I visit the building I am struck by the parallels of this unfinished construction to the Syrian opposition itself, a group still half-formed and struggling to display a cohesive front.

When I ask the anti-regime activists there about the building they say 'It’s new". The same can be said for the Syrian opposition.

'The Opposition in Syria has been like a desert for the last 40 years," says Haitham Al Maleh, one of the leading opposition figures.

81-year-old Al Maleh was Syria’s first human rights lawyer and is now on a worldwide mission to raise money for the rebels fighting inside Syria.

So what’s a human rights lawyer doing supplying guns and money to the rebel forces?

'The times have changed. I’m a lawyer in Damascus, now I am out, supporting the revolution. The only way to finish the regime is to support the Free Army," Al Maleh tells me.

The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970. In a coup that year, the late Hafez Al Assad and his Baath Party came to power. His reign saw bloody crackdowns on dissent, intolerance of any form of opposition and wide-sweeping powers for intelligence and security services. When Hafez Al Assad died in 2000, his British-educated son Bashar Al Assad inherited power in Syria and the regime apparatus that came with it.

Under the Assads, Syria has always been a police state. I travelled there many times before the uprising and never felt threatened by petty crime or assault as I walked the streets of the capital Damascus. There was a policeman on almost every street corner. I was once in a minor car accident and an officer was on the scene before I had a chance to unbuckle my seatbelt.

The flipside to that is, of course, that many would-be opposition figures, human rights advocates and journalists were jailed or exiled. My first report from Syria for Dateline, Freedom's Call, was on just this issue. Haitham Al Maleh featured in the story but I couldn’t interview him. He was in jail at the time for comments he made about corruption in a media interview. He was eventually released last May.

'I am preparing myself to be the next Syrian President," he tells me when I catch up with him in Cairo.

Al Maleh has spent the last nine months flitting from continent to continent on a tireless international lobbying campaign for action on Syria.

When I saw him in Egypt two weeks ago, he had just left the Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group, and was fielding more phone calls and interview requests than usual from the media.

'The Syrian National Council has just been doing media speeches and has done nothing to help the people inside Syria," Al Maleh says in interview after interview the day after his resignation.

In a savage critique of the SNC he calls them 'undemocratic’ and even likens them to Syria’s ruling Baath Party. He bemoans their lack of financial support for the Free Syrian Army, a loose collective of rebel fighters made up mostly of army defectors inside Syria.

Al Maleh has created his own group which he says already boasts 1,000 members. It’s called the National Group for the Free Syrian Army. Its sole purpose is to arm the rebels.

'We have no way, no political way to finish this problem in Syria and the only way to finish this regime in Syria is by force. To fight, by force," he tells me.

When an 81-year-old man, who pioneered human rights law in his home country, ditches diplomacy for weapons, you know the time for talking is long gone, despite the best diplomatic efforts of people like Kofi Annan.

On top of the back-to-back media interviews and meetings with politicians and advocates, Al Maleh is determined to raise as much money as he can to buy weapons for the rebel fighters.

Thus far he’s received large amounts of funding from rich Syrians and Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The rebel fighters are already turning to Al Maleh. I was granted rare access to meetings he had with Free Syrian Army envoys. They discussed weapons buying, and how to smuggle their purchases into the Syrian rebel strongholds. There seemed to be no shortage of wealthy benefactors willing to fund the rebels.  

Despite this, the rebel forces are so far no match for the might of the Syrian military. Haitham Al Maleh and his colleagues will need all the help they can muster if they hope to win this long and bloody struggle.


You can also click here to see all of Dateline's stories on the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.

Replay: Freedom's Call

Replay Yaara's previous story from Syria, Freedom's Call, which also featured Haitham Al Maleh and went on to win Walkley and UN Media Peace Awards.



Activists claim that dozens were killed in the Syrian city of Homs yesterday. It's a battle that shows no sign of abating - certainly not if the rebel group the Free Syrian Army get the weapons that they're looking for. Yaara Bou Melhem has been covering the rise of the Syrian opposition since last year. In recent weeks, she has gained extraordinary access as they gather the funds to buy the weapons they need - all under the leadership of a former human-rights lawyer. Lawyers, guns and money - all in her fly-on-the-wall report.

REPORTER: Yaara Bou Melhem

Cairo's Tahrir Square is again echoing with freedom's call. This time, for Syria. Just across the city, a building which is a hub of Syrian opposition activity in Cairo. I've come to meet Haitham Al Maleh, a leading opposition figure now in exile. He's someone that Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad probably wishes he had never let out of prison. The building is a work in progress, much like the opposition's plans to oust the Assad regime. Al Maleh tours the world lobbying for action on Syria.

HAITHAM AL MALEH, FREE SYRIAN ARMY COMMITTEE: Their business cards. People's business cards.

REPORTER: They're all the people you've met on this trip or in Cairo in general?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: In general, visitors. I'm preparing myself to be the new president of Syria. Do you think I will be? Or not?

The 81-year-old was Syria's first human-rights lawyer.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: I feel pain inside myself when I see the women and children killed by this - by the army of the Syrian regime, or by intelligence service. Sometimes I cry - myself, I cannot see the picture on the TV sometimes because it is so hard. For that, I ask God to protect me.

Driving past the Adra Prison, just outside Damascus - I first reported on Haitham Al Maleh just weeks before the uprising in Syria began. He was jailed for a third time by the Assad government over his comments in a media interview. In these rare images in the interior of the Syrian military court, the 80-year-old is under heavy guard. Al Maleh is granted a few moments to comfort his wife. It's their last embrace before he's yet again sent behind bars. Since being released last May, Haitham savers his freedom, but his opposition to the regime in Damascus comes with a heavy price.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: I fear that I'm in dangerous situation. But I don't care for that. The Syrian regime sends some hunting people to kill the opposition. Not only in Cairo - everywhere. I am number one in that killing bill.

REPORTER: You're on a hit list?


His office is downstairs, where the meetings, phone calls and media interviews never stop. He's just announced his resignation from the Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group, saying they're undemocratic.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: They do not want to work as, really, a democracy situation. They want to keep everything for themselves. So I found myself must leave.

And now, he's created his own group - its sole purpose to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: And in the end, to finish the Syrian regime.

And he wants to raise $1 million.

REPORTER: Why do you need $1 million?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: I want to buy weapons to send to Syria.

REPORTER: Where do you think you're going to get $1 million from?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: From some Syrian people.

REPORTER: Where do you buy the weapons from when you get these donations?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: This is not good question from media, because it's secret. I get weapons from everywhere. I have several sources - One of the sources inside Syria, from regime - from the army.

Al Maleh has already been funding some of the rebel fighters, and they've sent him this thankyou from the front.

REPORTER: You're a lawyer.


REPORTER: A human-rights lawyer. But now you're arming the revolutionaries.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: The time is changed. I'm a lawyer in Damascus, in Syria. Now I'm out. Now I'm asking for support in the revolution. Now only the way to finish the regime in Syria is to support the free army.

Getting money is one thing, but using it to buy guns is another. Haitham's German bank won't release his funds to Egypt. He's making a trip to his local bank to sort the matter out.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: They refuse to do it because the Syrian problem - they want to know what I will do with this money. I have no political way to finish this problem in Syria, and the only way to finish this regime is by force, to fight.

REPORTER: How did it go inside? How did it go?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: It's good! Yeah.

REPORTER: Are you getting your money back?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: No. I will send a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Germany to give me back my account. So this is the game now.

But there are no money problems at this gathering - a fundraiser on the anniversary of the Syrian uprising. When the distinguished guest takes the stage, he lashes out at the ruling Assad family in Damascus by describing a conversation with a government minister.

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): This regime has mastered the art of lies and deception. He asked me when Bashar Assad came to power "œWhat do you think of Bashar Assad?" I said "œDoes a snake beget anything but a snake?" How can Bashar Assad be different to his father?

CROWD (Translation): The people want to support the Free Army.

And then, the money begins to flow.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: Assad and his family - they will face the same end of Gaddafi, because the blood invites blood.

REPORTER: What do you want?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: For myself, I want to arrest them all, put them in jail and start investigating them.

Back in the office, these men have turned up, saying they represent a rebel group and want funding. But in this murky world of arms dealing and spies, Haitham must tread very carefully. This is Zuhair Siddiqui, a man who gave false testimony accusing Syria of killing the late Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The killers are still at large, despite an international investigation. Haitham is immediately suspicious. The meeting is going badly, and Siddiqui starts getting edgy about my camera. The talk turns to Haitham's network that supplies the rebel Syrian fighters.

MAN (Translation): How can we become part of the equation?

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): With time, once I can distinguish truth from lies. Sorry, but I don't know you and the brother, sorry, but his reputation precedes him. I know you lie.

ZUHAIR SIDDIQUI (Translation): About what? Here is my ID. It's seven years sine I showed it to a camera. It's alright. Will I blacken your reputation? Why am I untruthful? Who assassinated Hariri?

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): I don't know.

ZUHAIR SIDDIQUI (Translation): Come on let's go. I'll make you laugh, I'm threatening you in front of everyone.

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): Threatening me?

ZUHAIR SIDDIQUI (Translation): Yes. I promise you'll hear from me Haitham Maleh! I'm Zuhair Siddiqui, you'll hear something you have never heard before!

Al Maleh is taking a break in his apartment. With reports of abuses committed by rebel forces, and after what's happened downstairs, I'm keen to know how he decides who can be trusted with his money.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: I know from the people who connect inside Syria.

REPORTER: It's quite hard to define who the Free Syrian Army is. Is there some sort of order, some sort of hierarchy?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: No connection between all, because there's several groups inside Syria. We are trying to create one union - Syrian free army.

Later, he receives more visitors seeking money - rebel envoys have arrived from the battered city of Homs. They're discussing how to smuggle weapons into the country. Al Maleh has never met them before, and it's not until late that evening that enough checks have been made to sit down and talk specifics. I'm allowed to film as long as I don't show the face of the envoy. It's a rare insight into the Syrian uprising. After the greetings, the talk turns to weapons.

ENVOY (Translation): All the guys in Homs send you their regards. They have all types of weapons. He said if you want men, we'll send you and he can deliver to us at any border point. The operation we are planning needs one million dollars, it will be a big operation that might bring down the regime.

They discuss how they'll run the country if the uprising succeeds.

ENVOY (Translation): We ask that the city councils be formed with a national council emerging from them within Syria exclusively and from that, a transitional government headed by Mr Haitham Maleh.

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): How will they form it that is the question, is it possible?

ENVOY (Translation): It is.

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): If they could actually form city councils that would control the action domestically. I am very concerned that we avoid lawlessness, lawlessness scares me a lot.

It's now very late, but the night isn't over for Haitham. He's ducking away for a TV interview.

REPORTER: How does it feel to always be on the run?

HAITHAM AL MALEH: What can I do?

This time, he's appearing in a special Al Jazeera discussion. He knows that, as well as funding the rebels, it's critical to keep publicising their cause.

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): The regime stops at nothing. It's not deterred by religion, by ethics or by law. It is a regime that is out of control. I've always said that Syria acts with no regard to the law, and I mean what I say. It's an out-of-control regime, criminal one.

We have reached the early hours of the morning, and the strain of the last few days is beginning to show.

HAITHAM AL MALEH (Translation): The old man keeps on working, never stops. I went to bed at 1am. 1am. I couldn't get up. I'm tired.

But the next day, Haitham has mustered the energy to continue his campaign. He's off to Germany, Poland and Vienna, with an equally hectic schedule.

REPORTER: You're not tired of this? This has been almost like a lifelong mission for you.

HAITHAM AL MALEH: No, no, I don't get tired, because I want to finish my job. I want to finish this regime. After that, I will retire.

MARK DAVIS: It's amazing they let her film some of those scenes, but I'm glad they did. Yaara Bou Melhem with the 81-year-old would-be president. She has written a blog for our website, and a photo montage of some of the most memorable images from the past year in Syria.











Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN

27th March 2012