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For Syrians, a Sense of Collective Identity Emerges Amid Battle for Reform

April 22, 2011 at 6:32 PM EST
The U.S. called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop the use of violence after government forces attacked protesters with live ammunition. Judy Woodruff discusses protesters' demands and the government's crackdowns with the International Crisis Group's Robert Malley and democracy activist and blogger Ammar Abdulhamid.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We get more now on today’s protests from Robert Malley. He’s former special assistant to the president, and director for Near East affairs at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. He now heads the Middle East-North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. And he recently returned from a trip to Syria. And Ammar Abdulhamid, a liberal democracy activist who left Syria in 2005, his blog, Syrian Revolution Digest, has been closely covering the democracy movement there.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Ammar Abdulhamid you have been talking to people on the ground today. What is the latest you’re hearing and about why they are continuing?

AMMAR ABDULHAMID, Syrian democracy activist: Well, basically, there were protests everywhere. And everyone was expecting violence because the kinds of security preparations that took place yesterday were very clear that the army was deployed to certain parts, like in Homs and (INAUDIBLE) and some other suburbs in Damascus.

And it was very clear that tanks were involved, heavy security presence was involved. So the intentions were clear. But the protesters have a lot of reasons — reasons to push forward. The reality is, Bashar al-Assad gave in too little concessions, too few concessions.

I mean, the protesters had already reached the conclusion that he is no longer legitimate, even before he lifted the state of emergency. The kind of crackdown they had suffered in the first few days of the revolution…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: … the fact that it took them 10 years to even enact the first concession we wanted 10 years ago, it’s really delegitimized him in everybody’s eyes. So it was very clear that the process would continue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Malley, it is almost as if they feel emboldened by what Assad has done. Is that a good reading, a correct reading, or not?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: I mean, it could be.

My sense is, there really are two processes taking place today in Syria and they are both completely disconnected. One is the president and others are giving some of these reforms, as we just heard, probably too little, too late, but they are trying to do things.

But on the other hand, you have this dynamic which takes place weekly of demonstrations, violence, funerals, demonstrations, violence, funerals, and that’s the one that they simply — the regime simply can’t stop, almost no matter what it says, partly because people don’t trust what it says anymore, but also because they see what happens every week and that’s what people are paying attention to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are saying the movement has taken on a life of its own…

ROBERT MALLEY: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and very difficult now to stop.

Who are — Ammar Abdulhamid, who are these protesters? How well organized are they?

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: We are a country where 62 percent are below the age of 30. Most of the protesters come from that age group. They are really people in their late teens and early 20s.

They have no memories of the repression of the ’80s, which a lot of people, you know, even my generation are — you know, they still remember it and afraid of. These people have no reason to be that afraid. And at the same time they really realize that, if reform didn’t happen now, if change didn’t happen now, if they miss this opportunity, it means the rest of their live perhaps in enslavement under Assad they will have.

So the reality is we have people who can — who are full of hope, full of aspirations. They have waited 10 years. And that’s a lifetime for them, basically waiting for Bashar al-Assad to reform. And nothing has happened. So they have started to take matters and initiative into their own hand. And they are out on the street now trying to make history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Rob Malley, this is a cross-section of society, I mean, all of — middle class, educated, not educated?

ROBERT MALLEY: It is the sense we get. And partly, if you look at the geographic spread and the mapping of the country over the last 10 years, the sources of grievance are basically national.

Even though people are expressing it in different ways in different places, there is virtually not a place in the country where some group is not — has not some reason to be upset at the regime, which again is why it is so hard for them to contain it, because it’s now emerging virtually across the country and across ethnic and sectarian groups as well, which is significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So no one group is dominating over another in terms of…

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: No, I mean, the numbers — I mean, if you want to look at the numbers, supposedly, 70 percent of the Syrian people are Sunnis, but there is really no Sunni identity in Syria.

There is a Damascene identity, a northeastern Syrian identity, Arab Kurds, Muslim Christians. But there is no Sunni identity. So, as such, Syria is a country of minority, it seems to me. All of them sort of have their own different sort of subcultures.

But as — they are all united by living conditions and all united by grievances with the regime. They are all united by the fact that we have one central authority that has continued to fail us for so many years. And in a sense, if you have now an overarching sense of identity, it is of being anti-Assad at this stage.

And — but at the same time, I think there is a sense of — for the first time, you can see it, a sense of being Syrian that is reflected among all these different subgroups…

JUDY WOODRUFF: An identity, a Syrian identity.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: …A Syrian identity that is truly emerging. And it’s really — that’s is an encouraging aspect of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Rob Malley, initially, they were asking for reforms. Now they are saying they want Assad out. How — do you have a sense that their demands are organized?

ROBERT MALLEY: I think if you even look at what happened in the rest of the region, the demands sometimes get expressed in very concrete ways. I don’t think they are concrete.

I think at some level, they are existential, if you will, and they’re psychological and they’re emotional. So they may ask for the lifting of martial law, but when martial law is lifted, that is not really what they wanted.

I think — and this is a real threat for the regime — I think what they want now is nothing short of a change of the regime. And even if tomorrow they ask for something else that is as specific, and even if President Bashar gives it to them, I doubt that it will be enough.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: Actually, there are two developments just here, to get back to your point.

There was a statement issued today by sort of what they call the committees, the popular committees responsible for leading the protests in different parts of Syria. So, there is the — the statement was signed by the committee in Damascus, by the committee in Hama, by the committee of Homs.

These are now the local leaders of the protest movement. The protest movement has finally now given us leaders. We still don’t know the names, but we know they exist. We know these committees exist. And we know that these different communities now are beginning to find a voice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So a sense of an organization is growing.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: It is growing.

And I think, within a week or 10 days, we are going to have even names. And the demands now are becoming very clear. They want a new party law. They want the president’s terms to be limited to two terms. And they want the security apparatuses to be unified under one security apparatus with clear responsibilities.

So they are beginning now to give us specific demands. But they all amount to regime change really, if you apply them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And any — and the regime, any sense of any further give on the part of Assad and the people around him?

ROBERT MALLEY: I suspect they will continue to give, but again, it is what I said at the beginning.

I’m not sure that that is the plot that one needs to follow now. I think the plot that is relevant is what is happening on the street every week. And I don’t know — and this doesn’t mean that there is going to be a toppling of the regime tomorrow, but I think what it means is, you are going to live for some time at least with continued unrest, growing unrest, and further geographic spread of the unrest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a sense the regime is vulnerable?

ROBERT MALLEY: You know, I think every regime is vulnerable and this one as much as any.

ROBERT MALLEY: I think what we have to look for is the size of the demonstrations. And are there cracks within the security apparatus?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, U.S. policy. We heard the statement from the White House. We heard what Secretary Clinton has been saying: Cease and desist. We deplore the violence.

They’re not saying much more than that.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: At this stage really, I think the administration is still finding a policy.

It seems to me that the challenge for the Americans, whether this administration or the previous one, is to come up with an articulate policy vis-a-vis Syria. And this has been apparently a difficult process for some reason.

But I think we are really looking for some kind of consequences, if they can tell them, “Desist, or” — but, so far, they are not giving them that choice. And this has really given Assad much leeway to do what they want.

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think they have done more. That is what they need to do right now, which is, first of all, they’re following the rhythm of what is happening.

Every time there is more violence, they ratchet up the denunciation. And they have more that they can do, if need be, in terms of concrete action. They also don’t want to become part of the story. The first thing the regime would do is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. does not?

ROBERT MALLEY: Exactly. The regime would say, you see the protesters are in cahoots with the Americans and with the Israelis.

And the third point is, frankly, this is not a story that is going to be written here. The script, as I said from the beginning, is going to be written in Syria. What the U.S. does will have some impact but the main thing is for the U.S. to do no harm at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rob Malley and Ammar Abdulhamid, we thank you both.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: Thank you.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.