Interviewed July 2011
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian human rights activist who in 2003 founded the Tharwa Foundation, a grassroots organization that enlists local activists and citizen journalists to document conditions in Syria. In response to his activities, the Syrian government subjected Abdulhamid to repeat interrogation and threats. In September 2005, he and his family were forced into exile in the United States. From his home in Maryland, Abdulhamid remains one of the leading bloggers and commentators on events in Syria through the Syrian Revolution Digest.
Follow Ammar Ahbdulhamid on Twitter @Tharwacolamus and on his blog, Syrian Revolution Digest.
And what really fed it was international indifference as well [referring to the government crackdown on Syrian protests that began in March 2011]. People in the international community said some of the right words. How are we going to ensure that Assad is out? How are you going to support the process movement? There was no real policy of support.
There were only talk of sympathy and words of sympathy, occasional words of sympathy. And that, in the due course of time, made people feel that they are abandoned and that no one really cares. And at the same time, it emboldened Assad. Because no red lines were drawn. So he used tanks, and no one said anything. Then he used heavy artillery, and no one said anything. Then he used helicopter gunships, and no one said anything. Then he used MiGs [Russian-made fighter jet]. In these kinds of conditions, you cannot sustain a nonviolent momentum.
The rebellion under these conditions turned violent. And that only increased the fears of the minority groups for change. Groups became more radicalized. The goodwill that people had in the beginning towards the United States and the West, because they hoped that they will come to their rescue and to their aid and to their succor, all of this goodwill evaporated.
So this is the unfortunate aspect. Because it started as a protest movement that wanted to open a new page with the rest of the world and especially with openness to the West. And now we are back, and so we fell back on the tendencies of anti-Americanism. It's unfortunate that the international community has played a very negative role in allowing this kind of deterioration. Nonviolence, as an ethos, does not work when there is indifference. And it does not work when the other side succeeds in demonizing you.
The ethos of nonviolence is aimed at striking at the human side of your enemies, basically, of the other side. You're rebelling against a dictator but yet, at the same time, you're trying to appeal to the human side of many of his supporters. And at the same time, you're trying to appeal to the human side of the observers, of those who are outside looking in and who have a stake in the matter or simply, out of a sense of decency, they will decide to back the nonviolent movement and try to put pressure on the dictator in order to help this movement achieve its goals.
But when there is international indifference and continued cold calculations that simply look at this situation and say, "We are not concerned with this," and when the other side, that you're trying to appeal to, the dictatorial side, looks at the situation and manages to demonize you and use a sectarian card and play out sectarian fields, then that creates an irrational mindset, where people simply don't care about your humanity anymore.
Syria is bordered by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea. It emerged from the Ottoman Empire in 1918 as a protectorate of France, reaching full independence in 1946. Its population of 22 million consists of many ethnic groups. Approximately 70 percent are Sunni Muslims, 13 percent are Shia Muslims, and 10 percent are Christians. Syria had a lower middle income economy prior to the civil war, where the state played a dominant role.
The Syrian Arab Republic originated as a secular, socialist state dominated by the Ba’ath party, an Arab nationalist movement. The state has since evolved into an autocracy headed by a single family and dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam.
The Ba’ath Party took power in Syria in a series of coups d’état in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the leaders of those coups, Hafez al-Assad, became president in 1971 and led the country until his death in 2000. Under Assad, Alawites assumed control over the state security forces. In 1982, Assad’s forces stormed the city of Hama to brutally suppress a Sunni rebellion, killing thousands of civilians.
Following the death of Hafez al-Assad, his son, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president by a referendum in which he ran unopposed, officially garnering 97 percent of the vote. He was reelected in 2007, again with 97 percent of the vote.
The Syrian government is one of the world’s most brutal and restrictive. From 1963 to 2011, the government operated under an “Emergency Law,” which suspended many constitutional protections of civil liberties. The government continues to use arbitrary detention and torture against political opponents, and operates through an extensive internal security apparatus, including secret police. The government controls most of the country’s media outlets, and access to the Internet is permitted only through state-operated servers. The minority Kurdish population has been continually discriminated against and repressed.
Influenced by movements in Egypt and Tunisia, large opposition protests took place across Syria in 2011. The government responded with a harsh crackdown. Security forces fired on protestors, killing thousands. The crackdown led the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership. The Assad regime attempted to appease dissenters through a series of low-level and largely inconsequential reforms in 2011 and 2012. However, the conflict has escalated into full-fledged civil war with both liberal and Islamic militias being formed to fight against the Assad regime. The Assad regime has continued to attempt to defeat the opposition using air strikes and heavy artillery to attack rebel-held neighborhoods. Freedoms of association, assembly, and the press were restricted even further as the government attempted to quell the uprising. Over a million people have been either internally displaced or fled the country as refugees.
In the summer of 2013, it was confirmed that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons to attack civilians. Over 600 people were killed in one such attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus using a nerve agent confirmed to be sarin. The Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons drew international attention and resulted in a renewed international focus on the nation and its civil conflict.
Freedom House rates Syria as “not free” noting that conditions even prior to the 2011 uprising and subsequent civil war were, at best, abysmal. It earned the worst possible ratings of seven in both the political rights and civil liberties categories. Conditions since the 2011 uprising have only deteriorated, and civil freedoms are restricted under the fear of violence. Freedom House has also expressed concern over rising sectarian tensions and massive displacement.