Once on friendly terms with Syrian President Bashar Assad, exiled Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat became a regime target and eventually a symbol of its brutal tactics after an attack by security forces left him beaten and broken in 2011.
“It was indeed an assassination attempt,” Farzat said in a June 2 interview with BBC Arabic translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “They reported in the news that “the armed gangs killed the artist Ali Farzat.'”
After the attack that left both of his hands broken, Farzat went on to win numerous awards, including the European Parliament Sakharov Prize, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012.
But even before those accomplishments, Farzat was already an established cartoonist and satirist known for award-winning works that skewered dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi when they ruled Iraq and Libya respectively, and even Syrian security forces.
Despite his work, Farzat maintained a friendly relationship with Assad for many years. In 2012, Farzat told BBC that he first met Assad at an exhibition in 1996, before he became president in 2000.
“He actually laughed at some of the cartoons — specifically at those targeting security personnel — he had a bunch of them with him and he turned to them and said: ‘Hey, he is making fun of you. What do you think?’
“He took my phone number and we met often — twice a week, at times. He admired my courage. He wasn’t used to listening to opposing views and wanted to listen to me.
However, their relationship began going downhill in 2001, the year after Assad assumed control, following the launch of Farzat’s satirical, independent “Addomari” publication, which he said he actually pitched to Assad first, telling the new president that it could help “get the country back on its feet by means of satirical criticism,” and received instructions to produce a pilot issue.
In the issue, Farzat published an open letter that was critical of the regime.
“The next day, [then Assad right-hand man] Manaf Tlas called me and said: ‘What exactly do you think you’re doing?! You might find yourself before a firing squad,'” Farzat recalled in the interview. Tlas later defected from the Syrian regime in 2012, reportedly over frustration with the violent crackdown on protesters.
The chummy conversations with Assad ceased afterward and the regime shut down “Addomari” in 2003 under the pretext it “was attacking the Iraqi people, because I was criticizing Saddam Hussein,” according to Farzat.
But even afterward, Farzat never took aim directly at Assad until the Syrian uprising, when he “began to criticize the president, the secret services, the Baath party and the mafia gangs operating in Syria,” he said. “This coincided with or slightly preceded what happened in Daraa. My criticism against the president was against the backdrop of the events in Daraa.”
On March 18, 2011, at the very outset of the uprising in Syria, Syrian security forces killed four people with live fire during a protest in Daraa, and two days later killed fifteen more.
The war in Syria has claimed some 165,000 lives since its outbreak in March 2011 and forced millions of Syrian’s to flee their homes and their country. Lebanon, for instance, has been radically altered by an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees who currently constitute 25 percent of the Lebanese population.
As the uprising began to take shape and the regime attempted to suppress it, he published several cartoons critical of the regime, including one of Assad whitewashing the shadow of a security officer instead of the actual officer accompanied by the caption “Lifting the emergency law;” and another of Assad wearing a military uniform and flexing his muscles in front of a mirror, which shows a muscular reflection of Assad’s actual slight frame.
Around this time, the Libyan revolution was also in full swing and by August the capital of Tripoli from Gaddafi. Shortly afterward, Farzat published a cartoon depicting Gaddafi speeding away in a getaway car while Assad, carrying a briefcase gave chase.
Less than a month later, on August 25, Farzat was driving in Damascus when a car struck him in “in the middle of Umayyad Square,” and three masked men carrying “black anti-demonstration clubs, of the kind they imported from Iran,” got out of the car, entered Farzat’s car and started beating him.
Then “they put a sack over my head and handcuffed me,” he said. “Then they began to beat me on the head, on my hands, on my back.”
After five minutes, they put him in their vehicle and began driving away before beating him some more, berating him for criticizing his “masters” and eventually targeting his hands.
“They said to me, ‘you worn-out shoe, show respect for Bashar al-Assad,” he recalled, adding that at that point he could no longer really feel the pain from the beating. “They said: ‘You dog, we are your masters. How dare you criticize your masters? Break his right hand. Break his left hand.”
The attackers broke three fingers on his left hand by bending them back “all the way to my forearm” and his right hand in two places. And once his assailants saw that he was unconscious, they attempted to throw him out of the car, but his legs got stuck in side and he was dragged along the road while the car was going 20-25 kph (10-12 mph).
The next day reports in Syria claimed that “the armed gangs had killed the artist Ali Farzat,” as the regime, apparently believing the security forces had killed Farzat, attempted to pin the blame on anti-government elements.
Farzat said that he does not know if Assad ordered the attack personally.
However, Farzat survived and he now lives in exile in Kuwait and told BBC in 2012 that he would never stop his work.
“I was born to be a cartoonist, to oppose, to have differences with regimes that do these bad things,” he said. “This is what I do.”
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.