Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a speech before parliament and the nation Wednesday, blamed foreigners and social media for creating a "conspiracy" to bring down his regime. His address came amid deadly opposition protests representing the most serious threat to Assad's 11-year-rule and the long-standing authority of his family. More than 160 people died as a result of a government crackdown on demonstrators in recent weeks.
To better understand what has been driving the apparent change of attitude toward Assad’s rule, we spoke to Syrian reform activist Ammar Abdulhamid, who has been meeting with members of the U.S. Congress this week in Washington. The interview, conducted by VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi, was recorded before President Assad’s speech.
Elshinnawi: How would you describe the situation in Syria today?
Abdulhamid: The situation is really both full of promise and a little dread as well. A promise, because the barrier of fear has been broken. The young people of Syria, the young demographic, have decided to take over the initiative and to dictate the pace of change rather than wait for the old establishment or the opposition or the government under Bashar Assad to reform. They decided to force the issue, to take to the streets and break the barrier of fear and make their demands known. That is really the source and the seed of the victory to come, because that’s inevitable. That is something that is going to happen; we have no doubt about that. It is a matter of “when,” not a matter of “if.” The dread is – how much will we need to sacrifice, how long will it take, how much blood will be spilled because of the regime’s entrenched authoritarian style and tactics.
Watch our interview with Ammar Abdulhamid
Elshinnawi: Does the announcement of the Syrian government’s resignation indicate that Assad’s government is weakening?
Abdulhamid: Of course. It took us two weeks to achieve what years and years of begging and petitioning did not accomplish. Two weeks of protests toppled the government, and I think that Assad staged these pro-government demonstrations [Tuesday] in order to put a brave face on a concession that he is making. But what he does not understand is that this is not enough anyway, and regardless of how [many] concessions he is willing to make, the only concession that will satisfy us is his resignation or he can stand trial.
He is no longer wanted. The people have said it, they have torn down his posters; they tore down a statue of his father. The symbols of power and legitimacy of the Assad dynasty are being scuffed and torn up in the streets in many cities. We have two cities in full rebellion right now. And they are staging [their protests] peacefully. The only violence is coming from the direction of the authorities, but it is not working….
Elshinnawi: Do you think that the Syrian opposition is strong enough to continue and to reach the level of regime change?
Abdulhamid: What you have to understand, the people that began this are not the opposition. They are young people, activists and revolutionaries in the streets. And, so far, this movement has proven to be very contagious. And the current [pro-Assad] demonstrations that the regime has orchestrated, we know how they happen. They force students, university students to take part, they force public sector employees to take part, but on the day after a lot of anger takes place. A lot of people feel really sickened by being forced to do things like this…. People are producing an alternative not only to the regime, but an alternative to the stale opposition. So now, the opposition that has been existing for a long time in the streets wants to have some relevance, they have to play “catch-up” with the people.
Elshinnawi: You have been busy meeting [members of Congress] and discussing the situation in Syria. What kind of feedback and responses are you getting? Positive? Negative?
Abdulhamid: So far we are getting very positive [feedback]. I think the idea, the image of Assad as a reformer to which [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton referred is actually changing. Things change on a dime sometimes in Congress. The reality of revolution is really making a lot of people in Congress taking a moment to think. Even when [Senator] John Kerry said a positive statement about Assad, I think he said them basically because the full impact of the revolution and how serious it is had not yet hit home. But now that it has, I think a lot of people, including Kerry himself, will begin to look and say: we need to be on the right side of history and to reexamine our entire relationship and image of [Bashar Assad] and his regime and whether they are indeed that important to our interests or not. So I think, right now we are going through a moment where a lot of people are going to re-chart America’s vision for its role in the Middle East. And I really believe that neither this administration nor the Congress, whether it's Democrats or Republicans, want to be caught again on the wrong side of history….
[Listen to the soundfile above for the full interview]