Syria’s Delicate Transition: An Interview with Ammar Abdulhamid

On November 19, 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views interviewed Ammar Abdulhamid. Ammar is a Syrian dissident and founder of the Tharwa Foundation. He is currently a fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

SGV: On your Website, the Syrian Revolutionary Digest, you are described as “a liberal Syrian pro-democracy activist.” How do you define liberal with respect to freedom, democracy, human rights, minority rights and women’s rights?

AA: I believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international conventions on human rights, such as the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Inspired by my liberal values I started my “career” as an activist by launching the Tharwa Project in Syria as an initiative meant to facilitate the processes of democratization in the country and the wider region by addressing the issue of minority rights and improving inter-communal relations in the country.

My liberalism also includes a belief in the free market system, albeit my faith is balanced by an equal commitment to union rights and universal healthcare among other checks on the system.

SGV: Can you tell us a bit about the Tharwa Foundation. What is the inspiration for its creation and how do you help raise awareness for your cause? How is it received within the Syrian community?

AA: The Foundation was launched in Syria as the Tharwa Project. The official launch, including an office and a paid staff, happened in early 2004, but we have been operating quietly since 2001. Although I was forced to leave Syria in 2005, our network of activists simply went underground and became far more effective as a spearhead. Tharwa also had supporters and affiliated in many countries throughout the region, in the hope that maintaining such contacts will allow us to learn from each other’s experiences.

The inspiration for Tharwa with its focus on diversity issues came from observing the prevailing social and political realities around us. We lived in a country and a region where these issues were quite sensitive and were used by ruling regimes to deprive us of our civil liberties. They did so by fostering and playing on mistrust between the different communities and by precluding work on any programs that can help ameliorate the situation. So obviously, by embarking on our project, we were in fact butting heads with the system, and we gradually came under increased scrutiny, paving the way to my exile in 2005.

As part of our program, we focused on training young Syrian and regional activists from diverse communal backgrounds on citizen journalism and on how to best use the resources available through the internet, especially social media.

We started small and we remained small. We were all too “liberal,” and I was all too Americanized for the prevailing tastes to aspire to be too big. But we were always aware of these handicaps, and that’s why our modus operandi was to inspire imitation not to acquire following. We never aspired to become a movement. We just wanted to be catalysts, catalysts for a change from which, we knew, we cannot benefit for generations to come. Still, we were willing to play our role because, to us, transition to democracy was a generational undertaking indeed, one that needs to begin with a revolution today. We wanted the revolution to be nonviolent of course, a Jasmine Revolution. In fact, I was probably the first to use the term in the Syrian context when I did so back in late 2005. But not all things go as desired. There is so much one could do as a catalyst.

Personally, I believe Tharwa was somewhat successful in its efforts. When we started, we were the first to work openly on citizen journalism and social media, not to mention minority rights, the first to speak of a coming revolution, and the first to undertake a major effort to document realities in the suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs were we believed the situation was ripe for revolution. We produced hundreds of YouTube videos between 2007 and 2009 at a time when few were doing so, and we called for a revolution in a special six-part TV program that stayed on the air through an opposition satellite channel up until the eve of the Syrian Revolution.

Before that, we broadcast our messages through a variety of websites and blogs as well as social media sites. Our call for revolution was premised on living conditions, lack of genuine reforms, growing corruption, and the disintegration of the middle class. Eventually other groups started doing the same thing, by early 2011, there were networks of activists working as citizen journalists spread all over the country. These are the activists that started the revolution, and who keep playing an important role in infusing a civic spirit in the goings-on, despite the growing violence.

Right now, Tharwa is working quietly on enabling opposition groups and in-country activists to face transitional challenges.

(More info can be found at Tharwa.org, albeit this new iteration of our website is still a work in progress, and on my personal website in its new format ammarabdulhamid.com).

SGV: The Syrian Civil War has been raging for nearly two years with tens of thousands of killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people. What prevented the Syrian National Council based in Turkey from unifying ranks, forming a coherent strategy, and building international support to end Assad’s brutal crackdown?

AA: The Syrian National Council started out as an initiative manipulated by figures close to the Muslim Brotherhood and then by the Brotherhood itself. The Islamist tendencies of its founders were all too clear and served to turn many secular elements away, as well as a blindfold that made its founders unable to see that reaching to Syria’s religious and national communities required more than paying lip-service to diversity and equal citizenship or attracting some minority figures to their ranks.

A vision was needed, a vision emanating from serious dialogue on our regional and communal diversity and the nature of the state, a dialogue that can involve trustworthy representatives of all communities, provinces and political currents. Indeed, the dialogue would not have been easy. No one thought the situation could drag on for so many months.

Everyone was after a share in power, rather than a serious discussion on vision, and despite a variety of efforts, including a major project by the United States Institute for Peace, and a more modest one by Tharwa Foundation, it proved impossible to get people to address the issue of change in Syria in a manner commensurate with the unfolding realities on the ground, and not the ideologies and preconceptions in one’s head. That lack of maturity on part of most opposition figures, compounded by ideological limitations, petty squabbles and attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to manipulate the process, made an already reluctant international community even more reluctant when it came to intervening in Syria, and undermined the SNC’s efforts at acquiring recognition, eventually leading to its fall from favor with the US and Europe.

SGV: On November 12, the Gulf Arab states recognized a new Syrian umbrella rebel group called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The following day, France became the first Western nation to officially recognize them. What do we know about this new Syrian group?

AA: We know that it includes many of the same old faces that have been responsible for the failure of the SNC, which is problematic. But the optimism that the National Coalition has generated in our ranks was premised on the involvement of a set of leaders that have much legitimacy inside Syria and in international circles. Mouaz Al-Khateeb, Riad Seif and Suheir Al-Atassy have been part of the civil society movement in Syria for many years and have been part of the revolution from the outset. They have important contacts with internal activists and enough appeal and legitimacy to help them establish contacts with the rest.

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However, the ability of the Coalition to appeal to extremist elements will be limited. But then the Coalition was not designed for that. In fact, the Coalition was designed in order to sidestep the extremists and save the revolution from their ongoing attempts to hijack it. The reluctance of the international community to intervene in the situation earlier had unfortunately strengthened the hand of extremist elements. The sooner the international community supports the Coalition the sooner we can get the revolution back on the right track.

SGV: With Turkey following suit, how will this change the tide of the Syrian conflict?

AA: With more support to moderate rebels and the Coalition, we will hopefully be able to create a no-fly zone which will allow for the emergence of local government structures in liberated areas, and for launching the relevant political processes that can bring this conflict to resolution down the road. Without moving the political process inside the country and allowing it to develop grassroots following and relevance, the possibility of holding any kind off serious dialogue between rebels, activists and politicians over the future of Syria and its diverse communities will be quite limited.

SGV: There exists a paradox regarding the role of Muslim nations in the Syrian conflict. On the one hand, the international community recognizes Assad’s regime is committing crimes against humanity and demands some type of humanitarian intervention. Why, it must finally be asked, should the United States be expected to intervene when Muslim countries who spend a disproportionate amount on military defense like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Morocco are perfectly capable yet refuse to institute their own no-fly zone over Syria?

AA: Each one of the countries you noted has internal problems of her own, including problems that pit regions and communities against each other. For this, the idea of intervening in the Syrian situation on their own must be terrifying. An international umbrella is needed. At least, this is the argument that interlocutors for these states quietly offer.

SGV: Enormous challenges lie ahead in any post-Assad scenario. Particularly, how can the international community be sure that if the Syrian opposition succeeds, religious minorities and regime loyalists won’t suffer in reprisal attacks in score settling?

AA: By waiting for so long, the international community created a void that was filled by many of the wrong elements, so managing the transitional challenges will not be easy. The best way to avoid retribution killings is to work effectively on stabilizing the country on a region by region basis, and use the Coalition as a way of identifying and engaging the more moderate elements in the rebel movement in each region. This is not going to be a speedy process, and will involve problems and possibly clashes between moderate and extremist elements in the rebel movements, further complicating the situation.

But the main idea is to give opposition groups territories in which they are safe from Assad’s MiGs and where they can work on a shared vision that can be enticing enough for Assad supporters to endorse down the road. My main point is this: there are no easy fixes, and a purely military solution is not possible, especially due to Russian and Iranian involvement in support of Assad, and the presence of WMDs in the picture.

SGV: What are some of the challenges and opportunities for the Syrian opposition and for Damascus if and when Assad falls?

AA: All depends on how this matter is accomplished. Assad could lose control of Damascus, but then what? He does not have to leave the country, he could still go barricade himself along the coast, threatening to use chemical weapons if attacked there. In this scenario, only prolonged negotiations can get the Syrian pieces back together. Also, an internal coup can take place, but then, we will be stuck with the coup leaders who could be equally unacceptable to the rebels, especially if they included members of Assad’s inner circle.

In short, there are many scenarios and variations to consider here, each bringing its own complications. The main challenge, however, is for opposition groups to realize that a new Syria will have to be a truly decentralized entity in order to better accommodate regional and communal concerns and expectations, and prevent a prolonged civil war pitting not only rebels against pro-Assad militias, but also regions against each other. We can already see a showdown looming between moderates and Islamist groups, we need to avoid further complicating this matter, by allowing pragmatism to prevail not ideology.

SGV: How does the Syrian opposition view Russia and China who have consistently vetoed UN resolutions which would have enforced a cessation of violence and reprisal attacks? If the Syrian opposition succeeds, will the new Syrian leadership expel Russian and Chinese diplomats for abandoning them in their time of need?

AA: Relations with Russia and China, especially Russia, will be strained for a long time to come should the revolutionaries have anything to say about this. That’s why the Russians want much of the ancien regime to survive in the upcoming period of transition.

SGV: What is your vision for Syria’s future?

AA: A decentralized entity with a bicameral parliament, a strong system of checks and balances meant to preserve the civilian and civil nature of the state including separation of powers and quotas for women and minorities in the parliament and government institutions, a small professional stand-in army, supported, for a period at least, by regional police forces meant to ensure regional stability and security, a constitutional court, strong union, universal healthcare, and massive investment in infrastructure and education.

SGV: Finally, what is your message to the Syrian people and to the United States?

AA: To the Syrian people I say: This revolution was necessary. Rule by a corrupt and authoritarian clique can never pave the way to development and progress. Assad has had ample time to prevent such a development by undertaking genuine reforms, but he didn’t, because he obviously was not interested in genuine reforms. The sacrifices that have been made over the last few months will go to waste if Syria is allowed to implode. By committing so many crimes and losing so much control, the regime has already fallen, we should now be focusing on finding ways and visions that can allow us to put the state back together again. For this, we should resist the natural urge to seek revenge against those who supported the regime, and should listen more to the rational and moderate voices in our midst. We also have to be patient, because the transition ahead will be longer than we had originally hoped for.

To the United States I say: It’s about time you undertook a more proactive attitude towards the crisis in Syria. While intervention fatigue is understandable in some respect, in reality, the US does not have that luxury. Its inaction has already empowered the enemies of liberty. While each intervention by the US will bring with it its fair share of mistakes and might not necessarily help the US cultivate new friends, failure to act in time will surely pave the way to disaster and will surely make America many new enemies. The simple truth is: the world is impotent when America fails to lead. The world has had twenty months to tackle the Syrian crisis on its own, and what did it accomplish except for making the situation worse.

SGV: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.