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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.

Bashar Assad uses different tactics in terms of the crackdown. He apparently made a decision early on with his brother-- it's a family affair, they're always consulting -- and talked within the family on how to carry out the crackdown. And apparently with the Iranians playing a role as advisors to them based on their own experiences in cracking down against the Green Movement a couple years ago, so they came up with the strategy whereby they keep the killing to an extent, to a minimum, 20 people every day, 30 people, but not too much in order not to sort of-raise international suspicions and attention.

And they got away with it for a while. They killed by means of snipers oftentimes. They position snipers in key locations and around the streets and around the communities that are rebelling even though the protestors are unarmed completely, but they tell the troops that these are Salafis, are jihadi elements, they are terrorists, you know.

“You need to realize this is a conspiracy, a Zionist American imperialist conspiracy, you know” - all different sort of lies just to gain the loyalties of the soldiers and convince them to file at unarmed protestors. So they positioned snipers. The snipers kill a few people in every protest, just enough to disperse the protests.

But what happen is that people became bolder. They decided not to run away, even when they're facing guns. So yeah, the security people were sort of asked to open fire straight at the protestors now, and not simply snipers. They're relying basically on tanks. Sometimes tanks open fire. Sometimes, you know, they bombard with cannons, the city.

So the death toll began to rise. We expect that in four months of protests-- around 2000 people are killed and 20,000 people have been detained. But these numbers are expected to grow higher once we can actually have the ability to track every case.

It's really a massacre that has been taking place in Syria in front of everybody. We try to document everything on YouTube videos, by cell phones, social networking sites. This is how we get information out of the country. But it's really extremely difficult to give an accurate picture of what's happening. And no matter how much information we're giving you, they don't really paint the horrors that the protestors are seeing every day and have to confront with every day. 

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: Syrian Government Tactics Describing the Syrian government’s brutal tactics against Syrian protestors Ammar Abdulhamid: Federalist Papers The lessons he draws from U.S history.

Other videos from Ammar Abdulhamid

Ammar Abdulhamid: Price of Silence Describing the Price of Silence. Ammar Abdulhamid: Message to Dissidents A message to fellow freedom advocates. More +