Smithsonian Magazine: Syria at a Crossroads

A peaceful protest in Hama, July 22, 2011.

The Syrian Revolution is the first major popular revolution of the 21st Century. Like most popular revolutions, the erstwhile ideals of its early leaders, a group of secular nonviolence activists, were soon set aside as the violent crackdown unleashed by the Assad regime, with the support of its regional and international backers, most notably Iran and Russia, produced a similar violent backlash among its opponents. Consequently, the country was plunged into a civil war in which various regional and international players cultivated their proxies along sectarian and ideological lines. The indifference of the international community and the unwillingness of major powers to push for a quick political solution, or to at least back moderate rebels at a time when they formed the majority of rebel fighters, have called into question the very legal and intellectual foundations of the new global order that seemed to be emerging following the end of the Cold War and the formulation of such legal doctrine as the Responsibility to Protect. The Syrian Civil War has so far claimed close to 250,000 deaths by conservative estimates, dislocated more than half the country’s population of 23 million, with an estimated 5 million becoming refugees in neighboring countries and the European Union, and destroyed the majority of the country’s infrastructure. The result is the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st Century, so far.

By Stephen Glain, July 2005.

Two months after the publication of this feature, my family and I were forced into exile with my family. The article itself was not the problem, at issue were the activities and statements to which the article referred. The entire article can be read at this link. These are the paragraphs that related to me: 

Now the green shoots are back, nudging their way through softened terrain. Ammar Abdulhamid is founder and general coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to increase awareness of the living conditions and aspirations of religious and ethnic minorities throughout the Arab world. He is also a thorn in the Syrian government’s side, having written columns harshly critical of Assad for Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper. Abdulhamid, who is in his 30s, once compared the president to Fredo Corleone, the youngest and weakest of the brothers in Mario Puzo’s Godfather. (The Godfather films are hugely popular in Syria; I have met young Syrians who can recite Michael Corleone’s best lines with unsettling conviction.) Unlike most NGOs in Syria, Tharwa is not registered with the state and is operating extralegally. Abdulhamid has said he wants to see Syria’s blue-collar workers unionize—an activity that could result in his detention, if not arrest. “I have been under a travel ban,” he says. “They could conjure up a number of things against me. I live at their whim.” Abdulhamid studied astronomy and history in the United States, then dropped out of college to preach his own brand of Islamic fundamentalism from a mosque in Los Angeles. Disenchanted with orthodox Islam after religious leaders issued a fatwa against the British writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his allegedly heretical writings, Abdulhamid finished college and then returned to his native Syria. He now writes novels and poetry.

But he remains an iconoclast. “Here, I am a Westernized liberal in a place where even liberals are anti-American,” he says, referring to widespread opposition to U.S. Middle East policy, especially the invasion of Iraq. “No one will admit things are softening up thanks to pressure from the United States. People speak of the pan-Arab dream, but the reality is we are not united and we are cut off from the West.”

Abdulhamid is pessimistic. “Bashar is an autocrat by predisposition,” he says. “Reform is not something his regime takes seriously.” Then why does the president tolerate criticism from an increasingly bold set of detractors? Abdulhamid frowns. “This is an autocratic regime that just happens to be in a benign phase.”

© 2005 - 2012, Ammar Abdulhamid. All rights reserved.


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