“Bashar Al-Assad is a refined cannibal like Hannibal Lecter”

SOFIA LORENA IN GAZIANTEP | 03/11/2013 – 00:00

Below is a rough English translation made using Google. The Portuguese original can be found here: http://www.publico.pt/j1752052

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident living far away from Damascus since 2005. He says that no one anticipated how violent a response the Assad regime will employ against his opponents, and explains that “the first mistake was thinking that Bashar would not be allowed to go this far.”

The dissident and human rights activist Ammar Abdulhamid has not been in Damascus, his city, since 2005 when he had to flee the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But that does not prevent him from having strong feelings for the revolution for which he has helped open the door.

At 47 years of age, he knows well that Syria will not rise from the ashes in a day or a year. That’s why he wants to look after children, to teach kids of all refugees. He wants the United States or any international organization to finance a major project to give a chance to the Syrians of the future – there are over a million refugee children. But for now, he and his wife Khawla, who together have initiated several projects in the past 14 years, will focus on training activists who come from Syria to attend their workshops in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey where this conversation took place in October.

What kind of training do you offer Syrian activists these days?

We focus mainly on providing them with tools and skills that can help them with peacebuilding, mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution, with focus on the local level, because national level processes are beyond our control at this stage. There have been some successes in our efforts, and the program has gone well so far. The problem is that developments on the national and international scene often scuttle our efforts. Every decision or lack of decision by world leaders, especially President Barack Obama, has undermined any progress we have made so far.

But your hope is that they are going to survive and to have an effect beyond the current phase, and it’s that that makes your efforts worth it?

I hope so, I hope so. I always remind myself of what we did before because that helps me stay motivated and able to believe. When we used to say, long ago, that a revolution is coming, people laughed: “What? Syrians revolting? Impossible.” But some of the people we trained, and some of the things we said, are at last having an impact, even if on a small scale, even if our overall contribution was no more than 1%. One day, we Syrians, we will find a way to re-glue the pieces back together. Not in a year or two, national are not rebuilt in this way, it’s probably going to take a generation. But at least now more and more people are beginning to understand this.

This has been my message since the beginning of the revolution: don’t rush things, don’t hurry, don’t think that victory will come quickly. Actually, I wanted a different date for the revolution. The geopolitical conditions did not help, and the opposition was not prepared, that was the problem.  Syrians were ready [for the revolution] for a while, but the opposition was not. If we had been more patient, if we had developed a strategy for the long term, we could have anticipated what might happen.

Nobody anticipated the level of violence the regime was willing to unleash. Our first mistake was thinking that Bashar [Al-Assad] would be allowed to go this far.” After what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syrians were hopeful and they believed that President Obama would not let a dictator kill his people, killing the dreams of democracy and a better future. Also, I knew that opposition politicians had many problems, but I still did not expect them to be so hopeless, so sectarian, so fanatical.

Why did it happen?

Identity problems, ideology, too many egos, inability to seek better understanding, to build… There is resistance to everybody who knows how to build [institutions], who can plan for the future. That is why our strategy [at Thawra] is to develop roots, build something new, we look to the next generation and work from there.

It is as if the opposition is unable to produce good leaders, and if these leaders emerge, they soon quit.

Indeed, and in part this is really normal. Revolutions do not necessarily bring out the best [in us], on the contrary, they often bring out the worst. I blogged about his years ago, and my son helped me put together and publish my posts in a little book. It’s ridiculous to see how much of the issues I debated years ago are now playing out in the battlefield. Anyway, my point is that while revolutions might bring about the worst in us, they don’t just happen: they happen when they are necessary to destroy the social and political deadlock, and this is critical. And so, this revolution is necessary, for all the deaths involved. The future cannot happen without it.

Now, we have ideologues on both sides, some are described as leftists, but in fact they are all fascists. But it’s a religious fascism, and this war has become a religious waged using religious codes. It’s becoming a war that pits Sunnis against Shiites. Even those who present themselves as secularists, as defenders of secularism and modern ideologies are not what they claim to be. Secularism is a thin veneer, but minds and hearts are immersed with something that happened 1,400 years ago. The extremists, the suicidal, Al-Qaeda members, whatever you want to call them, the problem is all too visible now, and the current problem is much bigger than Syria.

The rest of the world says so. But have you already figured out what that means?

It’s very strange really. Over 200,000 are dead, chemical weapons have been used, hundreds of thousands are in prison, millions are refugees, and yet, the thing that grasped global attention is an idiot who bit into a man’s heart. Yes, the thing is sensational, but it’s an act of madness by an idiot surrounded by deaths. Is what he has done any different from Bashar al-Assad is doing? I think that Bashar too is busy consuming the hearts of his enemies, but he does it like Hannibal Lecter [character in the movie The Silence of the Lambs], he is a refined cannibal that takes the trouble to cook the heart before eating it.

Did you expect the regime’s propaganda to be as effective as it proved to be?

It is an impressive propaganda machine because it is not Syrian. It is Russian and Iranian, and it’s fascist. Now, we realize what we are dealing with.

Do you believe the recent theory that the chemical attacks were orchestrated by some in the regime in order to force the fall of Assad and save the regime, as happened with Egypt, and pave the way for negotiations and the Geneva conference?

No, I don’t believe so. The Russians and Iranians still need Bashar, he may not be smart, but he plays an important role, and serves their interests well. When they no longer need him, they will drop him, but that moment hasn’t arrived yet.

The revolution still exists in parallel with this war. Something was done well.

Yes, and perhaps we have contributed to this in some way. [years ago], we had a television show that advocated democratic values. If geopolitical conditions and the opposition’s lack of preparedness are very troublesome, this does not mean that there are no Syrians who have launched valid projects and who are doing remarkable work. The revolution happened because even when people like me were forced to leave the country, many remained, and many in the regime’s own support base joined in and made the revolution unstoppable. We expected Damascus or Hama to be first to rise up, we did not expect Deraa [the southern city where the first large outbreak in March 2011 and which used to be a regime stronghold].

What do you wish you could do now?

I want to help launch a major educational effort, a major project for teaching refugees.  There is a place for this project in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. It must be an independent project funded by the United States or the UN, but we have to make sure that it could reach all refugee children and provide an open quality non-sectarian educational environment.

We have to reach consensus on the need for these programs, then, teach, teach, teach. If we lose all these children things will be even more difficult, and not only in Syria, the consequences will be felt in all the countries where refugees are currently located and all the countries to where they will eventually go, like Europe. But if we could accomplish this, then things will be better. We will not give up. This is not an option.