Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke's Speech at Connecticut College

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke Giving A Speech at Connecticut College

April 22, 2013

Thank you for inviting me to come speak to you today about the Syrian revolution. My perspective and involvement in Syria is a bit unconventional, so I’d like to begin with explaining a little about my background and what led me down this path.

In 2004 I graduated with a Masters’ degree in Security Studies with a Middle East Concentration from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Most of my classmates went on to work for the CIA, FBI, DoD, State Department, or Think Tanks. I took a slightly different course.

From 2007 to 2010 I traveled from Mauritania in West Africa, all the way to Afghanistan, across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia by motorcycle, to make two motorcycle adventure documentary films. Most of my time was spent in the Arab world, including in Libya and Syria.

In 2008, I paid a lot of money, most which went towards a bribe, to get a business visa to enter Libya. The visa stated that I worked for a company I had never heard of – it was a total sham, and it worked for six weeks before I finally irritated Gaddafi’s government by driving around on a motorcycle and filming all over Tripoli. I was given 48 hours to leave the country.

During those six weeks, however, I met some of the best friends I have to this day. I made friends throughout my travels in the region, but none were like my friends in Libya, and there was no country outside the USA that I felt more connected to during those years than Libya.

Three years later in February 2011 I was talking to my Libyan friends online and they were telling me that their family members, their friends, and their neighbors were being arrested, tortured, injured, and killed. They feared for their lives, but they were demonstrating and fighting Gaddafi in the streets everyday for their freedom, despite the danger.

One of my Libyan friends said to me, as their situation began to look increasingly dim, “will you tell your friends about me if I die?” This had a tremendous impact on me. A few days later he asked me the simple, powerful question: “Why doesn’t anybody help us?"

I made the decision that day to go to Libya and help my friends.

How could I sit back and do nothing while my friends and their families died in the streets of Tripoli, simply for their desire to live as free men? I could not abandon them when they needed help.

I went to Libya and joined the rebel forces very early in the revolution, before NATO became involved. I know how Syrian fighters are feeling because at that time, before NATO’s involvement, we had no support from the outside world and were actually in a worse situation than the FSA is right now in Syria because we weren’t yet getting supplies or assistance from outside Libya at all. We had fewer weapons, fewer men, and far less organization, in those early days of the Libyan revolution, than exists in the Syrian revolution today.

But the few of us who were willing to fight at that point went to the front lines, and I was captured by Gaddafi’s forces while on a reconnaissance mission. I spent nearly six months in solitary confinement in two of Libya’s most notorious prisons, Maktab al-Nasser prison and Abu Salim prison. In those months I got a personal taste of what prisoners of war and political prisoners have faced under these regimes for decades. I wasn’t told what I was accused of, I wasn’t allowed communication with the outside world, and at times I could hear men being tortured in other parts of the prison. The Gaddafi regime told the international press, NGOs, and the US government that they did not have me, wanting the world to think I was dead.

After nearly six months in prison, there was a prison break at Abu Salim prison and prisoners came to my cell and broke off the lock. We ran from the prison together and escaped. I waited in Tripoli for one of my Libyan friends to come from Benghazi, then I went with him back to the front lines.

I joined the new rebel army, the National Liberation Army, which hadn’t even existed as an organized military when I was captured by the regime several months before. I was issued a Libyan rebel military ID card and assigned a military jeep. I became a Dushka heavy machine gunner, and my Libyan friend, Nouri, whom I had known for 4 years, was the driver. We also fought as infantry, including in urban combat. During the war I had around 40 engagements with the enemy, mostly in the Battle of Sirte.

After the war was over, I returned to the United States, and turned my attention to Syria. Some Libyans soon went to fight in Syria, and I nearly went with them. The reason I didn’t was because the Syrian rebels had enough men at that time, they just lacked weapons and ammunition. I knew that before I would go to fight, I needed to do something to help get them more international support, and financial support from outside Syria. So I made the film that you will see tonight, which was made to show audiences in the United States and Europe who the Syrian rebels actually are, and why they are fighting the Assad regime. Most importantly, however, I directed it in a very calculated way to maximize its effectiveness for fundraisers and other events that can have a tangible affect on the ground in Syria.

My participation in the Libyan revolution was very personal because of my Libyan friends I had known for years who I went to help overthrow Gaddafi. I had been to Syria 3 times before the Syrian revolution, but I did not have good friends there (although I have some there now). Libya was personal and ideological for me, but Syria is mostly ideological.

Yes, of course I care about Syria and Syrians. But I don’t have any real personal connection to Syria. I don’t have close friends there. I am not a Syrian-American, I’m not even an Arab-American. I’m a Christian white guy.

Syria doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it means to Syrian-Americans, and I’m not going to pretend that it does. Perhaps that will change if the time comes that I fight and shed blood for the country, as I did in Libya, but as of now I fight for an idea.

The idea that all men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or where they live in the world, are entitled to liberty. I believe in this so strongly that I have joked with my Syrian friends that I am the Jabhat al Nusra of liberty, that as strongly as Jabhat al Nusra believes in their interpretation of Islam and other beliefs that motivate them to fight in Syria, that is how strongly I believe in the concept of liberty.

We need to take a moment of self-reflection, something I became very good at while sitting in a prison cell for six months, and ask ourselves why in the 21st century we’ve abandoned so many people around the world to live under authoritarianism, including 20 million of them in Syria. We’ve put a man on the moon, yet all around the world we still have people living under medieval forms of government.

It is a moral imperative that we bring them into the 21st century with us. We cannot leave anyone behind. They’re waiting on the front lines. They’re waiting in the prisons. And they’re waiting in their homes, old men who have spent their entire lives under oppression, who just want to know before they die that their children and grandchildren won’t suffer the same fate.

They’re waiting for us. In Syria, in Iran, in other countries of the region, in Africa, in Asia, all around the world. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer. They shouldn’t have had to wait this long. I’ll be ashamed if my grandchildren grow up in a world where leaders put their own faces on the money, or put people in prison for their thoughts or words. I’ll be ashamed if my grandchildren grow up in a world where they know of authoritarianism from anything other than history books.

We’re at a pivotal moment in history. Just as civilization started in the Middle East, just as many of the world’s major religions started there, so has the final wave of revolutions that will finally liberate mankind. They’ve called it the Arab Spring, but it isn’t an Arab Spring, it’s a Human Spring. And like dominoes the regimes will fall, one after another, each one weakened by the fall of the one before it, and each people inspired by the victory of their brothers in the revolution before theirs.

This is why Syria is so important to me and important to the world, and why it should be important to you as well. Libya was the first domino, where we showed the world that armed revolution is a path to liberty in the 21st century, as it had been for America and much of Europe in the past. Syria is the next domino to fall.

Now the term armed revolution might bother some of you. It doesn’t sound nice. But we aren’t fighting nice people. When people in Libya went to protest for their rights, Gaddafi responded with gunfire. When people in Syria went to protest for their rights, Assad also responded with gunfire.
Most of the regimes won’t fall because of peaceful protests. They’re going to have to be kicked out, one by one.

And the regimes are going to call those fighting them terrorists. When I was in Aleppo a few months ago making the film, the regime called me a terrorist and broadcast my name and photos of me on the Syrian State TV channels, telling millions of Syrians that I was a terrorist who had come to join the FSA.

They call us terrorists, we call them terrorists, it doesn’t matter. The vast majority of Syrians fighting in the revolution are fighting simply for freedom and liberty, to choose their own leaders and determine their own future. I talked to many fighters in Aleppo when I was there, and virtually all of them said the same thing – they simply want the fall of the regime, freedom, and democracy.

Most of these men were civilians before the war. They didn’t know how to use weapons, and they couldn’t imagine that one day they’d be forced to pick one up to defend their families and fight for a better future for their country. People had protested, the regime killed them, and these men stood up to defend the people. It is that simple.

Are there individuals and groups fighting in Syria for other agendas? Of course there are. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care at this point as long as they’re shooting in the right direction, at Assad’s forces.

The fact is, victory is not guaranteed here, so it is not a time to be dividing the opposition by focusing too much on such things. The Assad regime remains strong, despite all the propaganda claiming otherwise. He has a larger military than the FSA, they are better trained, better equipped, better supplied, and at this point most of them believe they are fighting for their very survival.

There aren’t going to be many more defections unless the West gets more involved because that would signal the inevitable downfall of the regime and encourage more to switch sides. Assad knows that the opposition has difficulty uniting, and that some are becoming disillusioned with the revolution after 2 years of war.

He also knows that after 2 years of war, the world is starting to forget about Syria. He wants the world to accept the status quo of Syria being a fractured, or even failed, state. Survival of the regime is victory for Assad. He will never have Syria under his full control again, for once people taste freedom for the first time, it is impossible for them to ever stop fighting for it. But even in a fractured, divided, or perpetually unstable Syria, he can continue to rule, and he knows that.

There will be no negotiated solution to this conflict. There will be no peaceful political transition. Assad thinks he is winning, and the less the world cares and acts to help Syria, the more likely it becomes that he could be right, that he actually could be winning.

This is where you can help the revolution. Syrians on the ground in Syria need outside support, but so does the Syrian-American community here. It doesn’t matter that many of you aren’t Syrian. Countries are just lines drawn on a map by men who got here before we did. We’re all on this big rock, hurtling through space together, trying to live a good life and helping others when we can to live good lives also. This isn’t a Syrian struggle, it is a human struggle.

You need to keep the Syrian revolution alive in the consciousness of Americans, smack them in the face with it every day, through social media, letters to officials, protests, rallies, music, films, everything you can think of to make them care, to make them see the bigger picture, to appeal to them in whatever ways you can to not let our government off the hook for failing to support a people who are just fighting for the same freedoms we enjoy every day here in America.

Get creative with it, because after 2 years of war it will take creativity to get Americans’ attention about Syria.

And the revolution needs funding. Through the Syrian-American Alliance you can actually have a real, tangible affect on the ground. For example, they have a program where they purchase ambulances for use in Syria. Each one costs $11,000. When I was in Aleppo in October and November, wounded fighters and civilians were being transported in cars and trucks that were not only a rough ride, but lacked all the necessary lifesaving medical equipment that would be in an ambulance. In Libya we had real ambulances rushing to the front line all day taking the wounded to field hospitals. This saved lives, and almost as importantly, had a positive affect on morale. I’m confident that Connecticut College can partner with some other local schools and put together a couple of fundraisers to raise just $11,000 to buy an ambulance that can save many lives in Syria.

While you’re in college you come across many causes that you want to support. With most of these causes the fact is that while your participation is admirable, and it will make you feel good, it often won’t have much of a tangible affect because what you can usually do is just a drop in the bucket compared to the problem.

This cause, the revolution, is different. There aren’t many helping Syria, especially after 2 years of war. The Syrian-American community has given so much to the cause, and many of them have given all they can. This revolution needs a lot more supporters outside the Syrian-American community if it is going to succeed. It needs college students like yourselves to mobilize in support of this cause, to tap into that revolutionary, rebellious spirit that I know lives somewhere inside each of you.

Ask yourselves whether you really want to be part of this, and if you do, then commit to it.

During the American revolution, Connecticut was known as the Provisions State, because it supplied most of the food and cannons for the revolutionary army. I’d like to challenge you to put Connecticut back on the map as a revolutionary state in the history of mankind, by helping the revolution in Syria. You have an entire summer coming up to get started.

Thank you.

A working version (not the final version, which was saved for film festivals) of Matthew VanDyke's Syria war documentary film "Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution" was shown to the audience.