A Syrian Dissident's Perspective

By Ahed al Hendi

July 13, 2010

On March 6, 2010, Suhair Atassi, one of Syria’s most prominent democratic dissidents, was given an ultimatum by General Zuhair al Hamad, head of Syrian State security: either shut down her Facebook discussion forum or face two and a half years in prison.  “I feel an internal peace,” Atassi told me by phone as she packed her bags for prison.

As a former political prisoner jailed and tortured in Syria for dissident activities, I know all too well what Atassi is feeling.  That this 37 year old single mother will leave behind a small child and sick mother makes her case even more heart-breaking.  In 2000, this brave woman established “Montada al Atassi,” a discussion forum for democratic debate.  Syrian activists would gather once a month to talk about peaceful change in the country.

The Syrian regime saw this group as a grave threat and immediately started cracking down.  The salons were banned and Atassi spokesperson, Habib Salih, was arrested.  Intelligence agents tried to infiltrate the group.  Security forces would sometimes surround the Atassi headquarters in Damascus.  Against all odds, the forum expanded its activities and established a youth movement.  “The public stopped being involved in any civic activities after decades of tyranny and cruelty,” Atassi told me “but we saw that youth were very interested in this vital issue.”

In 2005, Atassi was forced to close her doors for good but two months ago the discussion forum found refuge on the internet.  Last Friday, she was summoned and interrogated by General al-Hamad who represents Ali Mamlouk, head of Syrian intelligence.  Having faced similar interrogations myself, I shared my story with Atassi and admitted that I was weak and eventually fled the country.  “No,” she said defiantly, “Young people should not be in this situation at all. We must work for you and if I closed the forum I would be too ashamed.  We must break this wall of fear.  Otherwise we don’t deserve our freedom.”    

“Why not close the forum and open another one in a few years?” I persisted.  

“This case is about a lot more than the forum.  It is much bigger than me.  It is about our freedom and whether we deserve it or not,” she said.

President Obama recently appointed Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria after years without a US ambassador in Damascus.  I asked Atassi how she and other dissidents felt about diplomatic engagement.  “America should stop any deals that occur at the detriment of the people.  Stability will only be an illusion without democracy, freedom and justice.”  In this she echoes my feelings precisely.  At a time when the Syrian dictatorship should be isolated by the most powerful nation on Earth, America is sending a message of appeasement and weakness.  Syria, meanwhile, is engaging with America and avoids engaging with its own people.

Atassi was told by her interrogator that she would be “treated like a queen” if she simply did what he wanted.  She interrupted the general and said, “If each one of us only thinks of his or her life, then who would care about the future? My work is to bring about a better future for you, for me and for all of society.”  I know the terror of such interrogations and few people can speak out with such courage as Atassi.

The West must do everything possible to aid brave dissidents like Suhair Atassi.  It is she, not thuggish autocrats, who are the future of the region.

Ahed al Hendi is a contributor to CyberDissidents.org and the founder of Syrian Youth for Justice.