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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.

Don't underestimate the power of small steps and small projects. Because small steps count at the end. This was actually one of the slogans we used in our project in the beginning. Small steps count.

You know, as long as they are in the right direction, and as long that you are doing them in a sort of a continuous pace and and a studied pace, then they will really count. And they will produce the desired results. So look at what your actual abilities are at a single moment. Don't look always at the bigger picture. You know, the final objective. Look at what you can do now and do it.

Don't say it's too small, this is not gonna make a difference. Just do it. And then do something else that's equally small, then something else. And the cumulative effect of that will amaze you. Don't fall into the trap of looking around you and finding everything quiet. The street is quiet, no one is listening. The reality is change is about reaching a tipping point.

And these small steps and small efforts you are doing and the small seeds that you are planting, they are not just going to mushroom gradually sometimes. Sometimes they just remain the same and then in one day they will blossom. And this is basically the tipping point that revolutions reach.

And I think this is how we really should measure success is if you really build something that lasting, then at one point you should be it should not need you. At one point, you should become a small thing, basically, on the side of it. Because then you'd know it's an institution.

When you think about posterity, when you think about institutions, then at one point you really have to also think about the end of your significance and relevance to the process. The process has to become far more important than you as an individual. And in order for it to be meaningful. In order for the institution that you're creating to amount to something, it has to become more important than you. And you have to become consigned to the margins. 

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.

More on this theme from Ammar Abdulhamid

Ammar Abdulhamid: Message to Dissidents A message to fellow freedom advocates.

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