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Syria’s Revolution: An Interview with Ammar Abdulhamid

(Ammar Abdulhamid has been the most articulate and credible voice of the Syrian opposition and the movement to overthrow the current regime. Barry Rubin interviewed him to get a clearer view on what’s going on in Syria and on what the future prospects are for the bloody conflict.)

What should we know about the Syrian regime that we don’t already know?

That it is not reformable and that its key leaders can never be part of the solution.

What are the causes of the uprising?

Lack of developments when it comes to basic services and infrastructure along with increasing poverty, absence of any accountability on part of the leadership, the sense of impunity that corrupt officials on the local and national levels exhibit on a daily basis, the failure of President Bashar al-Assad to show himself as a true reformer, and his increasing involvement with the corrupt practices of his family and friends.

Can you describe for us the Syrian opposition, both within the country and outside?

We have two types of opposition: the traditional and the new. The traditional opposition is made of old parties and figures who have been around for decades, and the new one is made up of the activists who started and continue to lead the revolution.

The arrogance of the traditional opposition and their inability to provide effective representation and guidance to the revolutionaries created a problem of mistrust between the two, and does not augur well for the ability of such coalitions as the Syrian National Council (SNC) to provide effective leadership either now or during the transitional period. The new opposition is pragmatic, goal-oriented, and open to new possibilities as far as relations with the outside are concerned, or how the state should be administered in the future. The traditional remains ideological, dominated mostly by Leftist and Islamist elements, and unable to be proactive or to come up with actual strategies and programs for effective communication and representation.

So, the real dichotomy is between these two types of opposition groups, not between those inside the country and those outside.

You have often been critical about the organization and strategy of the leading opposition groups. Can you tell us more about your view, and also provide a description of the main opposition organizations? 

Traditional opposition groups keep thinking along ideological lines, and they fail to listen to the protesters and their demands. They keep seeing leadership as a right rather than a responsibility. They keep confusing making policy with making pronouncements and confusing coming up with strategies with academic research. This is why they can never be effective leaders.

For this, the international community needs to conduct outreach efforts to identify leaders and forces on the ground. They need to work with existing traditional opposition in order to make them better at the task of communicating with grassroots protesters and enablers of the new emerging leadership. Many believe that the regime will never negotiate its way out of power, but it seems the same applies for traditional opposition figures and parties. They will never accept giving their positions to the new emerging figures; they seem incapable of coming to terms with the failure of their ideologies at inspiring this mass moment.

Many observers are concerned that the Syrian opposition might be dominated by Islamists who would institute an even worse government for Syria, at least in international terms. How would you respond to that view?

There are Islamists, that’s for sure. But Syria’s ethnic makeup is simply too diverse to allow for the kind of dominance we saw in Egypt or Tunisia. However, since winning elections is about organization and not just demographics, and since Islamists are better organized and funded, there is definitely a need for domestic and international players concerned about Islamist influence to begin preparing themselves with all seriousness for the transitional period ahead.

What is the strategy of the Assad regime in trying to survive?

Transforming the crisis into a sectarian conflict; play on minority fears about the Sunni Arab majority in order to bring these minorities to the side of the regime or at least to neutralize them. Use overwhelming force and foster the expansion of pro-Assad militias and death squads to terrorize and punish the population of restive communities. Play on the fears of Western powers toward Islamists by trying to cast the revolutionaries as Salafist. Rely on support from Iran, Hezbollah, the Maliki government in Iraq, and Russia to keep the international community at bay and incapable of adopting strong policies toward the situation.

What are the main debates in the opposition over strategy and tactics, including armed struggle?

Most people still favor unarmed struggle, but, by now, the majority have reconciled themselves with the need for resorting to some orchestrated defensive tactics in order to protect pro-revolution communities from the activities of Assad death squads and loyalist troops, which at this stage include ethnic cleansing.

Describe the Free Syrian Army.

The driving force behind the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is actually the civilian population that realized that a measure of armed struggle is needed in order to protect themselves and their communities from the crackdown championed by loyalist troops and militias. They are doing so, however, in cooperation with the increased number of defectors from Assad’s armies who are trying to provide an element of professionalism to the movement. The high-ranking generals who fled to Antakya, Turkey, are trying to provide for a command structure using the legitimacy acquired from their ability to provide advice and material support to the groups on the ground.

The greater the level of international engagement with and support of the FSA, the greater the possibility of providing an effective command structure for the local resistance groups inside the country which will empower them to provide effective leadership of the transitional process ahead.

What does the opposition want from the West and why hasn’t the West been more materially helpful to the opposition?

I think it’s best in this regard to review our Six Point Plan, which I drafted myself following conversations with representatives from all major opposition coalitions.

Why should the world support the Syrian opposition’s struggle?

Besides the geopolitical gain of weakening Iran’s grip over the Middle East and containing its rise as a major source of instability there, there is the added humanitarian advantage of preventing a rapid balkanization of our troubled region. The Assads are driving the country and the region to the brink of implosion into warring ethnic enclaves. The world needs to stop them and to help the Syrians in their search for alternatives.

What do you think is likely to happen in Syria?

Irrespective of my wishes, the inability of the Obama administration to move quickly on this matter has allowed for the situation to turn into a proxy war involving all major regional players as well as Russia and China. This is going to be a longer-term struggle and the humanitarian cost will be too high. I will keep up my activities meant to support the local resistance and empower the more pragmatic and representative elements to emerge as the true leaders of Syria down the road, but this will not be an easy task.

We were let down by the leaders of the international community and the leaders of the traditional opposition, not to mention our intellectual elite, and it’s clear by now that we have no true friends. Still, we have no choice but to soldier on, as we transform from a protest movement into a more complex resistance and liberation movement.

(For more on Ammar Abdulhamid: he is a liberal Syrian pro-democracy activist whose anti-regime activities led to his exile in September 2005. He currently lives in the United States. He is the founder of the Tharwa Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to democracy promotion, and is a fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He writes Syrian Revolution Digest, a blog dedicated to following events and monitoring trends related to the Syrian Revolution.)