Syria Unrest 'Cannot Be Contained'

Syrian dissidents tell Kate Seelye that even if the anti-government demonstrations fail to topple the Assad regime, things will never be the same in the country—and the no-fly zone over Libya is helping their cause.

03.28.11 10:53 PM ET

From the basement of his Maryland home, Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid is pulling late nights, trying to stay abreast of the fast-spreading anti-government unrest in Syria. The 45-year-old human-rights activist has been dreaming of this moment. When protests demanding democratic reform and the lifting of emergency laws began several weeks ago, he started a blog, the Syrian Revolution Digest, to aggregate information and mobilize international awareness about unfolding events.

Abdulhamid’s site features links to dozens of cellphone videos taken by protesters chronicling the anger, frustration, and violence erupting across Syria. Several show bloody demonstrations that broke out over the weekend in the coastal town of Latakia, the summer playground of Syria’s ruling Alawite minority. Another, from Daraa, where government forces shot and killed 61 protesters last week, according to Human Rights Watch, is especially powerful. A mob topples an outsize statue of Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s former president. His ubiquitous image long served as a reminder of his ruling Baath Party’s oppressive regime, and any assault on his authority meant a lifetime in prison.

“People are asking for their freedom,” says Abdulhamid. “We have to keep the momentum going.”

The ponytailed activist ran an NGO in Damascus that promoted democracy and minority rights. Now Abdulhamid, who fled Syria in 2005 after criticizing the current president, Bashar al-Assad, works from what he jokingly calls his “situation room,” surrounded by multiple laptops. He says he’s trying to help young protesters on the ground in Syria by sharing his experience and insight.

“We’re telling them to go out every day, even in small numbers… Keep the pressure on,” says Abdulhamid. “Syrians have to realize what’s happening is serious and cannot be contained.”

There is a new fearlessness in Syria, with Syrians reaching what Abdallah calls “a point of no return.” “Even if the revolution does not manage to change the regime,” he says, “it won’t be like before.”

Syrian journalist Mohammed Abdallah, who spent more than six months in a Syrian prison in 2006 for criticizing its human-rights record, says there is a new fearlessness in Syria, with Syrians reaching what he calls “a point of no return.” “Even if the revolution does not manage to change the regime,” he says, “it won’t be like before.”

The 28-year-old Abdallah, who was beaten badly in prison and confined with two others to a 5-foot-by-6-foot cell, says Syrians once lived in fear of another Hama, where some 20,000 opponents of the Syrian regime were massacred in 1982. But these days, he says, it’s different.

“I think people realize that there cannot be another Hama… Everything is being filmed on YouTube, and there’s a lot of international attention on the Middle East,” he says.

Abdallah adds that the no-fly zone over Libya has also helped: “The no-fly zone has confirmed people’s awareness… that the international community won’t sit and watch you be killed.”

Abdallah, who received asylum in the U.S. in 2009 and now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, is one of a group of a dozen or so Syrian exiles in Washington who have been using the few tools at their disposal to raise awareness of the growing government crackdown. Abdallah’s popular Twitter feed, @ Mohammad_Syria, provides daily updates, like one he posted Sunday alerting readers to a new Human Rights Watch study: “HRW: Syria’s authorities promise reform on TV but meet demonstrators with bullets in the streets!”

Other dissidents have been organizing protests in front of the Syrian Embassy and White House. Some, like Radwan Ziadeh, the founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, have been focusing on outreach to U.S. officials.

This week Ziadeh is leading a group to meet with members of Congress, urging them to support the Syrian opposition’s demands. It wants Congress to press the U.S. administration to back a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Syria, like the one held in February to denounce Libya. Activists are demanding that the U.N. send an international committee to investigate the recent killings.

Ziadeh, who left Syria in 2007 to work at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, has been threatened with arrest for speaking out against the regime. Like other Syrians unable to return home, he says this is their “moment to press for change.”

Ziadeh has helped draft the “Syrian Initiative for Change,” a document signed by 150 Syrian dissidents both inside and outside the country. The initiative, which Ziadeh says will be released at the “appropriate time,” sets out steps to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. Most notably it calls for the army, led by Alawites in a Sunni majority country, to play an important transitional role, as in Egypt.

“That should give confidence to the Alawite minority that they will be part of the Syrian future,” says Ziadeh.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government blames the unrest on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and other radical, armed elements. “These are not peaceful protests demanding accelerated reforms… What is happening in Syria now is an attempt to sow civil strife,” Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters in Damascus. Officials said on Sunday that the country’s 48-year-old emergency law would “absolutely” be lifted, though no time frame was given.

Ziadeh dismisses the concession as too little, too late, saying, “The problem is not in the offer, it’s in the trust. How can the people accept an offer by the president when they’ve seen the blood in Daraa and Latakia?”

Abdulhamid echoes Ziadeh, saying, “We must ask the people to take this struggle to its logical conclusion and not accept anything less than the collapse of the ancien regime. We need something new. New voices, a new system of government.”

Most dissidents anticipate that the government will continue its crackdown, despite concessions, so they are racing against the clock to build support for more international pressure on Damascus. Ziadeh says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments Sunday that the situation in Syria “could not be equated to that of Libya” were not well-received. Still, he adds, “We don’t want military intervention. We just want the people who have committed crimes to be held accountable.”

Though still cautious, there’s now a growing optimism among regime opponents that the Syria they have been banned from is on the verge of radical transformation. Mohammed Abdallah says he’s excited. At a protest this past Saturday in front of the White House, he says, “I was inviting people to a new Syria. I was inviting people to visit a new, free Syria.”

Kate Seelye is vice president of the Middle East Institute. She was a journalist for NPR and PBS based in Beirut from 2000 to 2009.