Ammar Abdulhamid has emerged as the “unofficial spokesman” and most visible face of the Syrian revolutionary movement.
One of the great weaknesses of the protest movement sweeping Syria has been the absence of any recognizable leadership. Syrians have been asking, “Shoo al-Badiil? – What is the alternative [to Bashar al-Assad]?” Today, one of the faces behind the extraordinary revolutionary movement sweeping the Middle East and driving the social media protest movement has emerged in an extended profile by Eli Lake in the Washington Times.
The Syrian regime has stated that the protest movement centered in Deraa is driven by Islamists, an accusation that scares the moderate middle of Syrian society. No one in Syria wants to see a return to the dark days of the early 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood led an insurgency movement in Syria that nearly dragged the country into civil war and ended with the regime’s brutal suppression of an Islamist uprising centered in the city of Hama. Thousands were killed.
Ammar Abdulhamid is no Islamist. He did flirt with Islam and the notion of going to Afghanistan during a difficult period of introspection after dropping out of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but pulled away from the lures of fundamentalism.
“It gave my life structure, but it enslaved the hell out of me,” he told the Washington Post’s Nora Boustany. Eventually he abandoned Islam for atheism and ultimately became an “agnostic.”
The son of Syria’s greatest actress, Mona Wassif, he is secular, liberal, handsome and represents the qualities cherished in the West. He was appointed a visiting fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, shortly after he had established the Tharwa Project, which I wrote about on Syria Comment in June 2004. Here is a 2004 bio in the Washington Post by Nora Boustany. He is the author of a prize winning novel, Menstruation: A Novel, that depicts how the culture of Islam in Syria is sexually and morally repressive.
In 2005, Ammar was expelled from Syria for, among other things, calling President Assad a “moron” in a number of interviews and arguing that he was behind the Harriri assassination in a Daily Star article. He successfully appealed for political refugee status in the US and has become an American citizen along with his wife and two children.
Like a number of other liberal critics of the Syrian regime, Ammar has built up an impressive web presence and has employed a number of researchers and assistants both in and out of Syria to help him.
Following the 2005 defection of Syria’s long time Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who founded the National Salvation Front in cooperation with the long-time leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Bayanuni, Ammar decided to join opposition politics directly. Abdulhamid worked to gain the NSF a place in Washington and recognition from the Bush administration. It was successful in opening an office in Washington DC, largely thanks to Ammar’s connections and support, despite considerable reluctance on the part of US lawmakers to support any organization associated to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ammar quit the National Salvation Front in 2007 shortly before it was dissolved at the time the Obama administration took office. Here is the article by Eli Lake about Ammar and the opposition.
Syrian rebels don’t want U.S. aid, at least for now
By Eli Lake, The Washington Times, Sunday, March 27, 2011
Syrian rebels who have shaken the regime in Damascus do not want U.S. assistance, at least for now, a Syrian dissident in close touch with the network of protesters told The Washington Times on Sunday.
Ammar Abdulhamid, who has emerged as an unofficial spokesman in the West for the activists organizing the Syrian protests, said, however, that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was wrong to refer to Syrian President Bashar Assad as a reformer on CBS News on Sunday.
“It was ridiculous to call Bashar Assad a reformer. She should not have done that,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the United States for now would not come to the aid of Syrians demonstrating against the rule of Mr. Assad.
When asked about Mr. Assad’s now-deceased father’s decision to wipe out Sunni protesters in the city of Hama in 1982, Mrs. Clinton said the current Syrian president was different from his father.
“Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer,” Mrs. Clinton said of Mr. Assad.
“What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities and then police actions, which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.”
Mrs. Clinton also indicated that the Libyan intervention was backed by several international bodies, while no such international support exists for U.S.-led action in Syria.
“If there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal,” Mrs. Clinton said in response to a question, asking whether the United States would intervene in Syria.
“But that is not going to happen, because I don’t think that it’s yet clear what will occur, what will unfold.”
Mr. Abdulhamid said Mrs. Clinton’s words were “calibrated to different audiences.”
“I don’t think many Syrians wanted to see the Americans taking too strong a line on these developments, because the regime is already saying it’s an American conspiracy,” he added.
“That is important. On the other hand, she did not rule out that there could be assistance in the future if there were more massacres.”
Protests spread over the weekend to the seaside town of Latakia, and on Sunday local press reported that at least 12 people had been killed by pro-government militias. At least 60 demonstrators have been killed in the protests this month.
Buthaina Shaaban, a spokeswoman for the government, said last week that the regime will lift the emergency law that has been in place since 1963, but it was unclear what that would mean. That law gives the government nearly unlimited authority to detain, imprison and interrogate Syrian citizens.
Mr. Abdulhamid said, however, that this step would likely not quiet the protests.
“It’s too little, too late,” he said. “It will frankly not satisfy anybody.”
The Arab cable news network Al Arabiya reported Sunday that the government in Damascus will resign, a move similar to Hosni Mubarak’s last-ditch effort in February to save his regime.
Mr. Abdulhamid said the protests in Syria are organized by a group of social-media-savvy activists inspired and in contact with other Web activists who brought down the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes.
“It’s a diffuse leadership at this stage,” he said. “The people who are leading this uprising are youth activists in their teens and 20s. They have taken to Facebook and are networking with each other and others in the Arab world, asking for advice from others who have had success in other places.”
Mr. Abdulhamid said he initially thought the best time to call for protests would be in the summer, but the date was changed to March 15.
“I was hoping to push this to the summer, but the young people wanted to move now, and we agreed on March 15,” he said. “Lo and behold, this happened, and it is happening.”
One tactic the demonstrators are using is Web-based video. A particularly popular video that was put online late last week claims to show Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, walking over the corpses of political prisoners who were killed in the 2008 crackdown in the Sednaya prison in Daraa.
“This has made its way throughout the Internet,” Mr. Abdulhamid said. “One of the soldiers who was there took the video. It has been blocked because it is so graphic, so we changed the accounts, and we put it on Facebook, too.”
Mr. Abdulhamid said Mrs. Clinton was correct for now to tone down the uprisings in Syria, but not all observers agreed.
A senior Republican Senate aide said, “This is an opportunity to get rid of an enemy of America. And this administration is playing a repeat of their inaction on Iran in 2009.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” cautioned against comparing the uprising in Syria to the anti-government actions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
“Every one of these countries is different,” Mr. McCain said. “Let’s give moral support to these [protesters] in Syria, but let’s not take our eye off Egypt. Egypt is the key.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said the events transpiring in Libya should send a strong message to the Syrian dictator.
“If he turns his weapons on his own people, he runs the risk,” Mr. Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“There is a precedent now. … We’re not going to allow Assad to slaughter his own people.”
c David Eldridge contributed to this report. © Copyright 2011 The Washington Times
Bronwyn’s Note: We are pleased to introduce Dr. Joshua Landis to NoQuarterUSA readers. Dr. Landis, a widely-known expert on Syria and the Middle East, is a frequent guest on NPR, PBS (Newshour), and CNN, and contributor to numerous news articles. Director for the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, Landis posts regularly at his blog, SyrianComment.com. See Dr. Landis’s first post: “Clinton Calls Bashar al-Assad a “Reformer” – Syria Lifts Emergency Law.”