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.
But gradually I became involved in politics, especially after the death of the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, and his son [Bashar Assad] became president. That period was called the Damascus Spring, where many activists, many politicians start to sign and petition and ask for more freedom, more liberty. I was among the first of those who participated. We form democratic fora which have opened debate about the political reform in Syria, the freedom of press, freedom of assembly and all of that. I think it’s two things, the first one, actually, the death of the son of the former president [Hafez Assad]. He has older son called Bassel Assad.
He died in a car accident in 1994. And after that, the whole country was in fear because of what the dictator Hafez Assad will do for the whole society. And I saw the fear for the first time as an actual – you can touch the fear in the eyes of the Syrians at that time. Where we were in the university, we have to go every day in the morning having flags, pictures of the dictator Hafez Assad and his son waving on his behalf and saying that we are all the sons of the dictator Hafez Assad. And we have to repeat that every day. All schools been closed for 40 years. There are no weddings. There is no – any kind of activities because the whole country should be in sadness because of the death of the son of Hafez Assad. At that time, as I said, I touched the fear.
I understand the meanings of the fear. Then I decided actually to read more and more and more in politics and became gradually involved in politics after this event. And I discovered in the human rights as a very interesting concept, and I thought that it’s very important to implement the human rights points and concepts to have an actual implementation or for all of those words to the ground. And you cannot do that without NGOs, without the human rights organization, without the human rights movements. And this pushed me to work with others to establish the human rights organization I work for.
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.