Discover more from The International Correspondent
Is Assad here to stay?
"If the international community can issue an arrest warrant against Putin, the head of a nuclear state, it can surely issue such warrants against a genocidaire and a drug kingpin like Assad."
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian-American pro-democracy activist as well as a communications and public relations expert with more than 20 years of experience involving publishing articles and research papers, blogging, lecturing and public speaking, hosting TV programs, briefing government officials, and training other democracy activists. Over the years, he has been affiliated with a number of Washingtonian think tanks and is currently a member of the Leadership Council at the World Liberty Congress.
Faisal: Please tell me a little bit about yourself. What was your childhood like in Syria? How and why did you find yourself in the United States? What do you do now?
I grew up in a liberal artistic milieu in Damascus, where women played a major role in shaping the lives of all around them. Most members of my family were involved in creative endeavors, be it as actors, writers, filmmakers, folk dancers, etc. My mom herself is one of the country’s most famous actresses, and she remains active even at the age of 82. My late father was a filmmaker. I seem to have been the black sheep in the family; however, because I wanted to do something different, which is why I left the country for the United States in 1986. When I went back to Syria in 1994 and began traveling in the country, I began to slowly drift in the direction of political dissent and activism. There was simply too much negligence and corruption that I, along with many of my colleagues, realized the country was set for an implosion unless we did something. And that’s how my story as a public figure began. But after more than two decades in the field, I am now more inclined to act as a researcher, trainer, and advisor than be directly involved.
Faisal: You were the first Syrian to testify in front of the American Congress against crimes by the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—what was that experience like, and do you think it made a difference?
Indeed, that took place in 2006 and was a very mind-opening and empowering event. My testimony thought to elucidate that the country was boiling underneath despite the seeming calm at the surface. The idea of a man who was not yet a U.S. citizen at the time addressing the country’s top policymakers in the hope of influencing U.S. policy was a testament to the openness of this country, its strength, and its willingness to develop partnership with all those who share its values. That was very inspiring. I do believe I played a small role in shaping the U.S. policy towards Syria at the time, but not as much as I would have liked.
Faisal: Why is the Syrian opposition fractured? What's stopping the opposition from unifying?
Ideological differences, ethnic concerns, external influences, and the manipulations of unscrupulous individuals– but Syria is not unique in this regard. This is a situation common to most countries in the Middle East and the global South. Our problem seems to emanate from a mindset that still embraces a winner-takes-all mentality rather than win-win solutions. This makes compromises seem like a weakness, with compromises becoming temporary measures to be rejected at some point when one side feels empowered enough to do so. This breeds mistrust and makes all agreements irrelevant.
At the heart of it, this is a failure of the imagination, a failure to understand that a decentralized democratic state can indeed be stronger, fairer, and more prosperous than a highly centralized state controlled by one faction or another, a failure to understand that the modern state is not the right carrier of one’s individual or collective identity. I don’t see how this situation can be remedied except through continuous education.
Faisal: In 2014, you called for the United States to arm the Syrian opposition, enforce a no-fly zone and expand U.S. military action beyond Iraq. Do you still think these are steps that should be taken?
I wanted a no-fly zone to be imposed in early 2012 in order to prevent the country from descent, not civil war, as more and more people took up arms to fight against Assad’s violent and malicious crackdown. When that didn’t happen, and the country did descend into civil war, arming moderate rebels became the only viable option, despite the risks involved. We needed a force other than Assad and ISIS to be present on the scene. Indeed, rebels seemed to have had the upper hand by early 2015. Russian intervention changed all that and strengthened the position of the Assad regime to the point where Assad can claim victory despite the mass devastation he caused and the inconvenient fact that the country remains fractured while pro-Iran militias control vast swaths of the country and Russia controls the most promising economic sectors.
Today, we need to take all these facts into consideration while we tackle the Syrian crisis. It is important for the U.S. to retain and perhaps strengthen its small presence in the northeastern parts of the country, especially in the Tanf, in order to retain a say in any political solutions in the future. Sanctions should remain in place and should be continuously strengthened, for contrary to nay-sayers, they actually do not target the civilian population whose suffering is primarily the result of Assad’s policies.
I also think that we should have an international tribunal established, perhaps under the auspices of the UNGA or simply in a country that adopts the principle of Universal Sovereignty, to look into Assad’s war crimes and try him and his generals even if in absentia, then, and issue international warrants against them. If the international community, through the ICC, can issue an arrest warrant against Putin, the head of a nuclear state, it can surely issue such warrants against a genocidaire and a drug kingpin like Assad.
As the transition into multipolarity proceeds apace, conflicts will proliferate, so it’s important to draw a strong and real red line in relation to mass murder on the scale we witnessed in Syria. In this complicated world, we may have justifications for ignoring the behavior of certain controversial rulers and states and for prioritizing certain vital interests, but we cannot afford to throw the entire rulebook away. Foregoing accountability for the war crimes in Syria that the Assad regime has perpetrated and the normalization of his regime is tantamount to setting the rulebook on fire.
In a way, that’s how Assad sees things. Indeed, in his recent address to the Arab League, he expressed the view that the transition to a multipolar world amounts to the end of the West as we know it. In other words, he now believes he and his ilk will survive, while the current global order won’t. What kind of world are we transitioning into if his prediction turns out to be right?
Faisal: What do American foreign policy experts get wrong about Syria? What’s something you wish everyone knew?
I want them to know that regime change is not a bad word when it comes to dealing with dictatorial regimes like Assad’s and that it’s the only way for Syria to have a chance at a better future. I am not saying things will be easy when Assad is no more. I am simply saying that Assad will never become part of the solution in Syria: he doesn’t want refugees to come back because he knows they all hate him, and they will all expect to get their property back (most of which has been destroyed or confiscated by Assad’s goons), and because the economy is barely functioning without them.
And Assad won’t control the flood of Captagon pouring into neighboring countries because that’s how he makes his own money and pays his militias. For all the devastation that took place in Syria, Assad is now richer than he has ever been, thanks to Captagon. So when people expect Assad to give up on Captagon and accept the return of refugees as part of a political settlement, they must be high on something, and it’s not their lofty ideals.
Faisal: What does the future hold for the Kurds in the U.S.-controlled area? Do you expect the US to withdraw and give it back?
So long as the U.S. is committed to retaining its minimalist presence in their areas (currently at 200 troops in addition to some equipment), they have hope. But should the U.S., be it under this administration or a future one, decide to leave, then all will be lost. Their territories will be divided between Assad and Turkey, and there will be slaughter and mass dislocation.
Faisal: What have been America's biggest mistakes in relation to Syria? How would you like to see relations with Syria play out in the future?
Not enforcing the red line in 2013 is a mistake that has been reverberating in international circles far beyond Syria and is actually beginning in earnest the current crisis that the global liberal order is witnessing. But as historians debate that, I want to see lawyers debating appropriate sentences for Assad and his aides.
Faisal: You're now a part of the World Liberty Congress. How do you see that being helpful to your cause and the people of Syria?
Now more than ever, it should be obvious that the cause of liberty cannot be advocated with each group of human rights and pro-democracy activists acting in isolation. Whenever they are in trouble, the corrupt elite act in unison. Witness Iran and Russia’s support for Assad since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. Witness the current developments at the Arab Summit. If we believe in freedom, we need to start working together, learning from each other, and supporting each other. We will have differences, but so long that we remain committed to dialog and to finding win-win solutions, we will succeed in building an edifice capable of working with democratic nations to reverse the resurgent tide of autocracy around the globe.
Faisal: What’s the best-case scenario you would like to see play out in the coming months and years?
Victory for Ukraine, the establishment of an international tribunal to try Assad and his war criminals in Syria, the recognition of Taiwan as an independent state by the U.S. and allies all the way to the UN, the return of democratic forces to the rule in Hong Kong, and if that’s not too much to ask, World Peace (tongue-in-cheek). On a more realistic side, I just want the worst-case scenarios not to come true: victory for Russia, international normalization of Assad, occupation, and annexation of Taiwan by China, etc.
Faisal: What gives you hope for the future of Syria and the Middle East writ large?
Nothing beyond my tenacious and unreasonable desire to remain hopeful. Sarcasm aside, and all things considered, the Abraham Accords are a good development. Let’s see if we can keep the momentum going.
The International Correspondent is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.