Radwan Ziadeh is a Syrian dissident and democracy activist. He grew up in a middle class family in Damascus and became politically active after the death of President Hafez Assad in 2000. Remembering the struggles of his own family growing up, Ziadeh wanted to live in a free country and helped establish the Syrian Human Rights Association, a group dedicated to promoting human rights, in 2001.
Four years later, Ziadeh founded his own organization called the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. Through his center, Ziadeh acted as an international lobbyist for the cause of Syrian freedom. Speaking at venues like the United Nations Human Rights Council, Ziadeh raised awareness about the human rights abuses being committed by the Assad regime in Damascus. As Ziadeh intensified the spotlight on Syria, the government retaliated by placing a travel ban on his family, effectively imprisoning them in Syria, or stranding those traveling abroad in third countries. In 2007, Ziadeh fled Syria for the United States as the Assad government issued a warrant for his arrest.
Beginning in March 2011, the Syrian people revolted against President Bashar Assad, who had succeeded his father, challenging the government’s control over the country and resulting in a tense standoff between the remnants of the regime and diverse opposition forces. In 2012, Ziadeh seized the opportunity afforded him by the revolution and visited his homeland for the first time in five years. He continues to reside in the United States where he works through organizations like the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies to rebuild Syria into a free and democratic society.
Syria has a very rich democratic history in the ’40s and in the ’50s. Syria gets independent from the French mandate in 1946. After that Syria has very democratic institutions. You have free and fair elections. We have at that time more than 274 newspapers and magazines, very pluralistic society and political life, many political parties, from the left to the right to the center, liberals, Islamists, leftists, nationalists and all of that.
They exist, and they have seats in the parliament. More than that, Syria in 1951 – they adopt the first constitution in the whole region, which was very progressive constitution, which gave the right to the women to vote and participate, before many Europeans thought to do that [Switzerland (1971) and Liechtenstein (1984) did not allow women the right to vote until after 1970]. And that gives you a sense of how the progress and how the Syrian people – very civilized, open-minded and liberal. What happened all of this rich history swept away when the Assad dynasty captured the power in 1970.
Of course, before that the Ba’ath party, who’s now the ruling party, took the power in 1963. But from 1963 until 1970, still we have some little room for freedom, basic rights and all of that. When [former President] Hafez Assad came into power in 1970, he tried to build the whole state according to his personality. This is why it’s – he was able, after 30 years, from ruling – governing Syria to inherit the whole state to his son [current Syrian President Bashar Assad], even as we are a republic, the first republic in the Middle East region. We don’t have tradition, actually, for the father to deliver the power to his son.
That’s happened in North Korea. But then after that, to happen in Syria, it was a shock for the Syrians in 2000. But he succeeded because he built in all the state institutions, relying heavily on the security forces. If you need to get registered in the university, you have to get permission from the security forces. If you need to travel, you have to get the permission from the security forces. In 1998 I started to write to a leading Arabic newspaper called Al Hayat. This established in London and can distribute to the whole Arabic countries.
I wrote an article about the Arabic human rights organizations [the Arab Organization for Human Rights]. This organization was established in 1983, where the first conference was in Limassol, in Cyprus. I wrote the article, and I sent it by mail. At that time Syria has no Internet, has no fax. And the security opened the letter because they control the mail, and if they have any suspicious address, they say to me in the interrogation at the security, they have the right to open the letter. And they start questioning me about what I wrote in the article. This is a way that – how the Assad security forces control the country, censored not only the – at that time I wasn’t dissident. I wasn’t any human rights activist.
I was just a student at the university, the third year in my university. And even that, they interrogated me, they took me to the security. And this is the real life for all the Syrians. It became like the novel of George Orwell, “1984,” about the Big Brother. Exactly, we are living in Orwellian state under Hafez Assad and his son Bashar Assad. This is why when the revolution started everyone was hoping that this revolution would put an end to the Assad dynasty, the Assad family, after 40 years of living in fear and silence.
When the son started [current Syrian President Bashar Assad], the Syrians hoped that he would be different. He is not from his father’s age. He doesn’t belong to the military. He’s a physician, an eye doctor. And we hoped that he will make a change. But in less than a year, actually, they discovered that all of this was lies, even that he spent years in London studying there but then it was actually the genes of the family, of the Assad dynasty, are much more stronger than we thought. These genes, which we call it actually the killing genes.
His father killed more than 25,000 in the rebellion in Hama [a 1982 uprising organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama against former President Hafez Assad] the strike there, and now his son, he is killing more and more during the Syrian uprising. Until now more than 35,000 have been killed, and maybe the number is increasing day by day. And he makes the destruction, bombarding the city of Homs, the city of Aleppo, Damascus and all of that. We don’t see any differences between the father and the son.
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.