Towards a democratic Syria!

In 1998, only 219 Syrians voted against Hafez Assad’s government. One of them was Ammar Abdulhamid. Now exiled and awaiting political asylum in US, Syrian opposition leader talks to Ynet in exclusive interview.

Yitzhak Benhorin

WASHINGTON – In a national referendum held by late Syrian President Hafez Assad in 1998, only 219 people voted against the government. One of them was Ammar Abdulhamid, 40, a Syrian opposition activist, exiled from Damascus in 2005 and currently awaiting political asylum in the United States.

“The security agents give you a paper with a circle saying ‘yes’ and a circle saying ‘no.’ I voted ‘no’, and the person in front of me was shocked. He said, ‘Look, you made a mistake. You said ‘no’ to the president.’ He thought I had made a mistake. We expected for some time that somebody would come and say, ‘Come with me’, but it didn’t happen. For 219 people, they didn’t give a damn.”

In his first interview with an Israeli news agency, Abdulhamid tells Ynet how he frequently took risks, wrote articles against the president and generally pissed off the Syrian administration, until they got tired of him and showed him the door. In Washington he serves as representative of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a Syrian reform group operating abroad against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

So why didn’t they show him to a prison cell instead of deporting him? Abdulhamid believes it is because his mother was superstar actress Muna Wassef, one of Syrian’s most famous TV celebrities. “It wasn’t easy to arrest the son of such a famous and popular actress,” he says.

Enemy of the regime

With long brown hair tied back in a ponytail and an easygoing demeanor, Abdulhamid isn’t exactly how one might imagine a Syrian reformist. His English is refined and he demonstrates impressive knowledge. He declares that he doesn’t believe in God and he has no qualms about talking with Israelis. The first time he left Syria’s borders was in 1986, when he came to the United States to study at the University of Wisconsin. He returned to Damascus in 1994, but after a decade relocated to the US again, this time on a research fellowship at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC. At the end of the fellowship, he returned to Syria – a rather surprising move considering the vehemently anti-Syrian articles he published while in Washington.

How did you become an enemy of the Syrian regime?

“They told me to leave, over a variety of issues. Apparently the project I was doing was a main issue. It was on majority-minority relations. So I am basically trying to create grassroots dialogue between different sects. I started in 2001, but officially in 2003.”

So what did you do that was so wrong that they told you to leave?

“We were accused of fomenting the very thing we were trying to combat, which is sensitivities between the majority and minority. But I think what they are afraid of is these issues being raised at the popular level and being resolved at the popular level because our regime survives by exploiting the fears between the sects.” In 2004 he left for Washington, where he wrote for the English-language Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star. He wrote a joint article with Israeli professor Moshe Maoz on the need to renew the Israeli-Syrian peace process. It was the first time a Syrian and an Israel had written something together which appeared publicly.

Hariri murder was last straw

Despite his severely critical writings, Abdulhamid returned to Syria. He said he didn’t want to make trouble, and even made a commitment to hold his pen and stop writing against the regime. The quiet lasted until the regime arrested a group of Syrian intellectuals, followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and Abdulhamid could no longer keep quiet. “I was a loud-mouth, I couldn’t control my tongue. When Hariri was assassinated a lot of people started pouring into Syria and asking questions, ‘Who did it?’ and whatever, I was very clear that I thought the the president was behind it. And I was very clear in calling him a moron in a number of interviews, and I think that was always not a good move. I was in Damascus calling the president of my country, which is a dictatorship basically, a moron.

Why didn’t they arrest you? 

“Arresting me would have really been problematic, I think. The person who made the decision not to arrest me was Assef Shawkat, head of the Syrian intelligence. You have two problems. One, you are arresting the son of a very famous actress who is very respected in Syria, and who said very clearly at one point, ‘I may not necessarily agree politically with what he’s saying the whole time, but if anything happens to him, you know, he’s my son.’”

After that meeting, Abdulhamid was invited to meet Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, who is suspected to have been thickly involved in Hariri’s murder. “I had a meeting with Shawkat – my wife insisted on coming with me, so instead of having an interrogation you have a social event, and he tries to sort of contain the situation. I was under a travel ban at the time, so they lifted the travel ban and I promised to stop writing and simply to work quietly.” But Abdulhamid didn’t keep his mouth shut for long, and the regime started getting tired of him.

Soon he found himself on a plane from Damascus with a one-way ticket. That was probably Syria’s biggest mistake: Back in the US, Abdulhamid became the opposition’s intermediary between the Syrian opposition and the American administration. “There are about a 100 active dissidents in Syria. The ones who are well known are 15-20 maybe. And I was never one of them… My strategy was, ‘Look, I can get you the funding and support your activity so you wouldn’t have to deal with the Americans directly or the Europeans or whoever.’

” Together with his colleagues from the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdulhamid founded the National Salvation Front, an umbrella organization of opposition groups working for the democratization of Syria. Former Syrian vice president Abd Al-Halim Khaddam is apparently closely associated with the Front.

What relation do you have with Khaddam, who was part of the corrupt dictatorship?

“He knows a lot of secrets and they are afraid of him. He meets with King Abdullah, he has access to people in the region. He has contacts with people inside the regime as well. Khaddam’s joining is also meant to signal to the regime that we aren’t here for revenge. We aren’t involved in vengeance or in the past. We want to operate like (Nelson) Mandela: We’ll forgive, but we won’t forget. Our faces are to the future.”

What is your stance on Israel?

“The Muslim Brotherhood, by the way, said they prefer a negotiated settlement with Israel. They are not calling for Jihad to return the Golan (Heights). They went public on it, and I was very surprised nobody in the media picked up on it. And the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sadr Al-Din al-Banouni, said it very clearly in an interview on al-Jazeera. This is exactly why we decided we can talk to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We simply cannot ignore the Islamists. We are talking about change, about democracy, about elections at one point in time. So it’s really good to sit down to realize with whom we can talk and how much they can moderate their language, and what sort of deals we can arrive at. Because either we do this or we have two other options: Either we talk to the Islamists and find moderates and work together for change at the risk of being betrayed. The other options are to stick to the status quo but then the status quo cannot hold a lot with the Assads.

“The final analysis is that they are a minority regime, they are dictators, and they are not addressing any of the country’s problems … and had they been good, slightly enlightened, I would never be in the opposition. It is much better to work with a slightly enlightened regime than to risk the chaos that comes with change. So we either continue to cooperate with a regime that will continue to abuse the system or we resort to violence … All we want is support were do not want someone to do the work for us … As long as we are building networks, and we know we are creating realities on the ground, I don’t care if it takes ten years.

Why did you agree to do an interview for the Israeli media?

“Many Israelis are wondering whether they should talk to Assad or not. I said at one point they cannot deliver what he wants because sooner or later this regime is going to fall. Because it represents a very small group of people, because it is corrupt, because the economy in Syria is imploding, poverty is rising, the Kurdish-Arab divide is widening, the Sunni-Alawit divide is widening. So sooner or later it is going to pass either peacefully or violently.

“I hope for peace and if it is going to be violent I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I really want Bashar to become a genius overnight, I really do. Even if he killed Hariri, I believe that, I am willing to forgive so many things, just to save us a violent solution for the country and to have some sense of reform. We do need to begin tackling the Sunni-Alawit divide because the more they postpone it the more it is going to get violent.”

28 thoughts on “Towards a democratic Syria!

  1. Everything I do, regardless of its consequences, real and/or potential, and regardless of the intentions behind it, if people can have a feel them through my words, will continue nonetheless to be labeled as treachery until such time our entire culture is changed, which is a pretty toll order as you might guess. We have to live with the labels.

  2. At least you are making the interview in the open, not like the Syrian ambassodor and unlike the Syrian government who has been negociating the Israelis for two years behind closed doors. People have to know that enemy and wars are on the battle ground not all the times.

  3. Ammar hope you are well,Now it is out in the open! At least the Israelis will see there are moderate forces across the border. Dialogue however small and trivial from the begining fosters understanding and builds bridges.A good interview, very good. What is happening with the NSF? ny further developments? Specifically any strategy in place to target the SHAM presidential election?Now reading your earlier blogs before your exile, interesting reading! It gave me goose bumps, reminded me of my fathers words about the knock on the doors in the morning they all dreaded when living in the Middle East.Anonymous in Australia

  4. Good interview.I agree with most of what u said in said in there…didnt leave a good impression on Syria News nonetheless.. ;)

  5. “It is much better to work with a slightly enlightened regime than to risk the chaos that comes with change … I am willing to forgive so many things, just to save us a violent solution for the country and to have some sense of reform.”I would agree with these statements. I think these regimes see these reform games as zero-sum – any quarter given takes power away from their side of the scale. I support the notion that reforms can strengthen these regimes.

  6. it is a killer interview to the syrian ruler. the crackdown will be greater soon i think. in syria-news, all the agents of the Mukhabarat are now working on posting comments…enjoy!!!!!

  7. Ammar, my friend, I support you 100% and you have the right to express your opinion to any newspaper you want. Talking to Israel or Israelis should be a personal choice and not monopolized by the Syrian regime.As for the disgusting comments on Syria news, I can only cry for the cultural level of Syrians these days…sometimes I wonder why try to do something positive when people don’t deserve it. But we always have to try…it is not their fault, it is the system and the impovrished societies who took away any freedom of thinking. My best wishes and your efforts will not go in vain.

  8. It’s a good thing I am not running for office in Syria. It’s a good thing that I have no such ambitions. I sometimes believe that all that I have been doing so far is a process of spontaneous combustion. I am left with no option but to embrace my own fire.

  9. Why doesn’t Al-Baath newspaper interview the Israeli opposition?Oh, sorry, I’ve forgotten, there are no such things as exiled Israeli opposition or free-thinking newspapers in Syria.

  10. Ammar:Although I’ve been reading your blog for sometime, I did not know that you are the son of the legendary Mona Wassef! I still remember her series “الجرح القديم“ and her role الحجة أمونة was one of her defining roles, at least in my mind. Mind you I was probably 8 years old (I am close to your age). Later, we were all captivated by your mother’s performance in أسعد الوراق و دليلة والزئبق I haven’t watch new series for her, but I hope she is still doing well.I also did not know is that you are seeking asylum in the US. I thought you are an immigrant like many of us with US citizenship! How’s your application going, any troubles?Your passion and articulation of the issues facing our beloved Syria is always inspiring. We all, I guess, hope to have a seamless and peaceful transformation of the country into a real Democratic Republic. It is certainly doubtful, however, that an existing force, group or coalition of the same is capable of moving the country step by step into such future, as there is really none! The looming question, as we all struggle to answer, is how then can we move forward?Be well.

  11. I think we Americans have learned that it’s a fine thing to bring democracy to a country, but the citizenry has to be ready for it. Has Syria even gotten as far as the Mayflower Compact, which calls for “just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices” – i.e., a government accountable for serving the common good, not just the will of the family/tribe/group in power? This is a necessary social advancement that needs to precede the political one.

  12. When asked:What is your stance on Israel?You replied:”The Muslim Brotherhood, by the way, said they prefer a negotiated settlement with Israel…I do not see any where in the interview your position on Israel…I suppose you think they are a wonderfull democray!!!What constructive results did you accomplish by talking about the Syrian regime to the Israelis? Why did’nt you use your “famous courage” and enlighten the Israeli public about the brutality of their own goverment?I am no friend of the Syrian regime, but you are at best “a joke” and at worst the Syrian version of Shalabi bringing more disaster on the already suffering oridnary Syrian citizens.Please get your American citizenship, settle in the American dream…and find your fulfillment is some other project other than bringing more distruction on Syria.

  13. Actually, I’d rather go back to Syria, and if I am a joke then you don’t have to be so worked up over what I have to say, and should be far more concerned about what the jokers in Syria are doing, they are doing far more damage than even the Israelis can do to our homeland at this stage. No wonder the Israelis want them to stay. Be that as it may, thanks you for sharing your feelings and your thoughts, and feel free to do so any time. By the way, the comparison to Chalabi and Ghadri is somewhat inaccurate, if not downright unfair, I don’t head any political party, nor do I seek to be the president of Syria, or to occupy any political position therein. The Syrians deserve someone who is slightly less heretical than I and far more appreciative of their traditional values. What I do I do for me: I deserve to live freely in my country, and I deserve to have a better government representing me and speaking in my name as a Syrian citizen.

  14. Dear Ammar,I do not think you are joke but you are the most courageous person in the opposition and the most honest one to himself and to his beloved country which been occupied by local clans. Your posts and thoughts are always advocating that we do not need anyone to slave our thoughts, ideas, speech and expression. I think the previous anonymous has exactly done like the regime trying to shut your voice in the name of patriotisms using your podium. If anyone from the regime meets with Israeli’s press or officials it is OK but if even an immigrant communicated with Israelis then he is a conspirator. Please keep the good work and keep writing at least for the one idea that you have the right to speak your mind and you have the right to be heard. By the way the reaction to Saddam iron regime created Shalabi and this is like chemicals reactions have a fate and destiny in it. The failing state of the State of Syria on all levels, the sectarian divide and control for the last 40 years no way is going to last. Closing the voices of the elites and the civil society is closing to the last door which can transfer the situation peacefully. It is a shame on their faces when you get your American Passport and you are most welcome in America. The big shame is on all those big shot of the regime echelons starting from the president have western Passport including President Son, what a shame. Writing comments as an anonymous because of fear from the regime is not only the dissents and ordinary citizens it is also by regime faithful like previous anonymous, what a state disaster we have reached? even Shakespeare can not describe!

  15. What I do I do for me: I deserve to live freely in my country, and I deserve to have a better government representing me and speaking in my name as a Syrian citizen.What do you have to offer to your countrymen so they can hope that your approach is any better than those of other Westernizers who sucked in foreigners’ money and weapons only to feel a heavier yoke across their necks?

  16. Thanks new Anonymous, I really appreciate your kind support, and I definitely do need to hear words like that every now and then, it keeps me going. Solomon, good question. My approach is based on the necessity of having an open continuous and free dialogue on every issue until we reach an agreement or a workable arrangement for settling our differences or, more likely, for living with them while respecting each other’s basic rights. My commitment to this matter is evident in my willingness to take part in a coalition that includes Islamists, communists and Baathists, despite my own heretical views and stances.

  17. My approach is based on the necessity of having an open continuous and free dialogue on every issue until we reach an agreement –And until then, who is the boss? And why should the boss want anyone to “reach an agreement” that could only result in him losing his cushy position? A small dollop of funds ladled to negotiators to keep them arguing is cheap job security.More details, please.

  18. I am not sure I understand, Solomon. If you are afraid that we will be caught up in our incessant argumentations and discussions while other people are busy running the show, that is indeed something we should be wary of. But then, this is why the arguments should be focused on certain proposed or taken actions, and their potential usefulness or consequences. In other words, the arguments should be related to certain actions, and not take place in an operational vacuum.

  19. Perhaps Solomon is asking what incentive there is for those in power to engage in a multilateral discussion. In other words, Islamists, communists and Baathists may have different designs for Syria, but it is clear that the incumbent regime’s intentions are to maintain power and status quo. Settling in for negotiation may keep up the appearances of an open dialogue, but what do the other voices have to offer the regime?

  20. I see now. I did not mean to say that we should negotiate with the regime in general. The regime is made up of different power centers, led by different figures, some of which are not exactly happy with the way the country is currently being ruled. These can be encouraged to aid us in the opposition as we try to mount a popular challenge to the regime one day. Meanwhile, the thrust of the discussions should be aimed to achieve two things: coordinate between opposition groups, establish networks of communication and understanding with the grassroots.

  21. So a two-pronged assault: subversion through engagement / coordination of dissident elements within the regime, and creating a network for popular opposition?

  22. Yeah. That’s the usual tactic in these cases, but in order to be successful at subversion, you have to show strength in the street, otherwise you won’t be taken seriously.

  23. Syrian Prisoners support Lebanon’s IndependenceLeading Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo, who has been in custody since May, was brought before a military court on Tuesday on a charge on inciting prisoners to support the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, his lawyer said.Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, a communist activist, were brought before a military court “on a charge of inciting prisoners to support the Beirut-Damascus declaration,” Khalil Maatuk told Agence France Presse.The petition, which both men have signed, calls for an overhaul of ties between the two states and for Syrian recognition of the independence of Lebanon, where Damascus was the major powerbroker for three decades until 2005.They are charged with “publishing a political article or making a political speech with the aim of serving the propaganda of a party, an organization or a political group,” the lawyer said.It carries a possible five-year jail sentence.The two men are also standing trial in a criminal court for “damaging to the image of the state,” according to the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.They have been accused of provoking religious and racial dissent, insulting official institutions, trying to “weaken national sentiment,” damaging the image of the state and exposing Syria to the danger of aggression.The two trials will now run in parallel, said the lawyer.Kilo and Issa, who were rounded up with eight other opposition figures, three of whom are still being held, lost appeals in December for charges of publishing false information and provoking dissent.In court on Monday, Kilo defended the Beirut-Damascus declaration, which was signed by about 300 intellectuals and artists from Lebanon and Syria, as serving the interests of both countries.(AFP-Naharnet)

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