A small church in Bethesda, Md., is protesting a proposed development atop a plot believed to be the site of a former African American cemetery.
There’s a movement afoot inside Syria to topple President Bashar al-Assad – a movement that’s triggered a violent and prolonged pushback from the ruling regime. But many of those giving voice to the opposition are doing so from locations far away from Syria, including Washington. We talk a local voice of the Syrian opposition movement based in the D.C. area.
- Mohammad Al Abdallah Activist, Spokesperson, Local Coordination Committees
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, history lessons from the fall of the iron curtain. What Russia's experience over the past two decades spells for the future of the so-called Arab Spring, but first, local voices leading the push for democratic reforms in Syria.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's an uprising and a crackdown that has taken place largely outside of Western view. For the past several months, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been ratcheting up the pressure to crush an insurgent democratic uprising inside his country. Few Western journalists have witnessed the turbulence firsthand, which activists claim already has resulted in thousands of deaths and detainments.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut Syrians living in Western cities, like Washington, D.C., have been working furiously to influence events on the ground and the international responses to them. Joining us this hour is a Washington-based voice of Syria's opposition movement, a voice that has recently been heard by audiences that include the U.S. Secretary of State. Mohammad Al Abdallah joins us in studio.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is a Syrian human rights activist and writer based in the Washington area. He's a U.S. spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of activists challenging the ruling regime in Syria. Mohammad Al Abdallah, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. MOHAMMAD AL ABDALLAHThank you. It's good to be with you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. To what degree do you think the United States should be involved in the escalating unrest in Syria?
NNAMDIMohammad, for a lot of Americans, Syria is a black box, a place where journalists are mostly banned, where we can mostly or only follow events through YouTube videos and tweets, even when the government is allegedly marching in tanks or maneuvering naval forces to crush protests. But, for you, it's home.
NNAMDIIt's a place where people you care about are living through waves of violence. What's been the most challenging aspect for you of communicating Syria's story to audiences in Washington?
ABDALLAHThe first thing is the lack of English speakers -- a lot of English speakers in Syria. That's the main problem. Lots of media calling and contacting and asking for e-witnesses, and we have lots of numbers and lots of people who broke the fear wall and ready to talk to media to tell what's happening. And they are firsthand witnesses, but they don't speak English. So that's limiting the chance to talk to media.
ABDALLAHThe second thing, when the government besieging cities and bombing those cities, they're shutting the Internet, and even they're cutting the -- cutting of the electricity. So we lose communication and contacts with those people for days. And Hama case, we lost this communication for five days. Nowadays, the videos about Hama attacking, which happened two weeks ago, is start leaking from the city after the government reconnected the communication.
NNAMDIAnd according to today's edition of The Wall Street Journal, you have yet another challenge: intimidation against Syrian activists in this country or Syrian activists abroad. Tell us about that.
ABDALLAHYes. I had a call from the FBI almost two months ago, telling me about concerns about my safety among other activists here in the U.S. And we discussed this with the FBI. Apparently, the Syrian embassy here and diplomats were involved with spying activities. They were filming protests in front of the White House, and they were filming the protests in front of the Syrian embassy here in Washington, D.C.
ABDALLAHAnd they're sending these pictures and films back to Syria where the government can find the families and relatives of those people who's working here -- the activists -- to intimidate their families just to silent them. And one -- and the -- one famous case where a lady, Hala Abdulaziz, she filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government after she saw her dad being killed in the checkpoint in Daraa, in Syria, early in April this year.
ABDALLAHShe received threatening calls, saying you're not going to see your daughter again, and we're going to kill your family. And then she disclosed to the Homeland Security where the FBI and Homeland Security start an investigation. I believe it's a serious concern since Department of State called the Syrian ambassador and talked to him about this issue and issued a statement publicly about this concern.
NNAMDINevertheless, here you are today. So, apparently, it has not served to deter you from continuing with your activism. But are you concerned about members of your own family?
ABDALLAHMembers of my family, they went to prison, all of them almost. I met my father in prison. I met my brother in prison, 2006. We were in military prison together, and then we went -- we were in different prisons. So, personally, myself, I don't have this fear. But for the average activist, yes, some of them, they were scared.
ABDALLAHRecently, we had a musician, Malek Jandali, who played music right in front of the White House two days after pro-government thugs in Damascus attacked his family. And they abused his dad, and he was taken to hospital. Such activities, they're trying to silence our voices. But, no, we're not going to be silent.
NNAMDIHow do you go about following events on the ground in Syria from Washington? And what concerns do you have about the security of people there who may be passing along information to you, whether it's from sharing videos or tweets or photos?
ABDALLAHFollowing the information mainly happening with talking with e-witnesses. Mostly, we use Skype in conversations and email. The most concern about the safety of those people when they're getting arrested. And I talked to a huge number of people who got released after they witnessed or experienced such thing where the security intelligence beat them up to get the passwords of Skype, Gmail and Facebook.
ABDALLAHAnd then they accessed their information and see the communication they have done with people abroad, in terms of sending videos, information. And some of those people get killed. And they're tortured. And we get, like, significant numbers, more than 73 documented case killed under torture mainly because they were e-witnesses and they agreed to talk to media and deliver what's happening live there.
NNAMDIHe's -- joining us in our studio, Mohammad Al Abdallah. He's a Syrian human rights activist and writer. He's based in the Washington area. He's a U.S. spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of activists challenging the ruling regime in Syria. We're inviting your calls. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is at stake for the Middle East region in the rapidly escalating violence in Syria? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHere is Mohammad in Alexandria, Va. Mohammad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOHAMMADHi, Kojo. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for Israel to have a game-change opportunity. They could go into -- up to Damascus and back without (unintelligible) freeing people and going back. That's all. And that would upset the power structure. It would also change the dynamics in the Middle East. As (unintelligible) says, there's always opportunity in a crisis.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that...
MOHAMMADWhat would Syria (unintelligible) an opportunity -- a response to that?
NNAMDIMohammad Al Abdallah?
ABDALLAHNo. I think that what's happening is a domestic issue where people were fighting and still has been fighting for their dignity, for their freedom and their rights. And that has nothing to do with foreign policy regarding Israel or the Western countries in general. And let's remember together how this started in Daraa where the government arrested 11- to 14-years-old children, and after they wrote and sprayed in wall of their schools.
ABDALLAHPeople want to topple the government after they get inspired by this changing in Egypt and Tunisia. And I cannot believe somebody still believing this protest or freedom -- protesting for freedom and dignity could be supported or backed by outsiders, allegedly Israel or Western countries.
NNAMDIYour colleague, Radwan Ziadeh, couldn't join us today because he's in Geneva talking with U.N. officials. Exactly what do you want to see from the U.N.?
ABDALLAHMainly, Dr. Ziadeh is in the U.N. Human Rights Council because the U.S. and other countries, they called for another special session on the Human Rights Council. They did call for a special session in April 16 after the videos of the mass graves leaked in Daraa after the Syrian army attacked Daraa. So far, the U.N. Human Rights Council issued a statement forming an investigation committee to go to Syria.
ABDALLAHSyrian government did not allow the committee to enter the country, however. And we want them to say what they have been doing the last four months regarding documenting and talking to people. They've not managed to enter the country, but they talked to the refugees in Turkey and Jordan and in Lebanon.
ABDALLAHAnd they gathered enough information. As well, they contacted a huge number of activists inside the country, and they've been working on videos. And we help them a lot in translating some of those videos and sending firsthand e-witnesses' numbers and email.
NNAMDISo you want to know what they're doing with that.
ABDALLAHWhat they're doing with the report -- they came out with the result and finding for their research work four months. And now, we want the Human Rights Council to say it's a crime against humanity or not, which is we believe, highly believe it is crimes against humanity. And then they can ask the Human Rights Council to refer the case to the U.N. Security Council.
NNAMDIWe mentioned your colleague, Radwan Ziadeh, earlier. It's my understanding that he told Secretary Clinton that you were upset about the lack of unanimity at the United Nations about Syria. What response, as far as you know, did he get from her? And what evidence are you seeing that anything is different at the U.N.?
ABDALLAHIt's not quite upset. But we were surprised to see the U.S. is not taking a lead in the U.N. Security Council. U.S., apparently, they assigned or outsourced the European countries before to do so in the U.N. Security Council. And now, they're assigning Turkey and Saudi Arabia to play a key role in the region. We really believe, highly believe if United States did not take a lead in this U.N. Security Council and the international community efforts, these efforts is not going to lead anywhere with respect to France, U.K.
ABDALLAHAnd they've been doing a great job, giving great statements, on their partner with the sanctions, economic sanctions against regime figures in Syria, but they cannot bring the Russians and the Chinese in the U.N. Security Council. Only U.S. can do so. And that's why we urge U.S. government and Secretary Clinton to do so.
NNAMDIWhat sense did you get for whether Secretary Clinton's views on Syria were, well, evolving, and how they were affected by recent events on the ground?
ABDALLAHShe was fully aware about what's happening in Syria, and she took her notes by herself, which I believe she take -- like, she seriously took our comments and our views about what's happening in Syria. But she has legitimate concerns regarding the unity of the opposition, the Syrian opposition, which is another concern of our team as well.
ABDALLAHThe opposition is working to unify themselves. And one solid body can include -- be inclusive, include as much as possible key actors out and inside Syria. And the other concern was regarding minorities in Syria, why they are joining or not joining the revolution. And we addressed those concerns, and we heard good comments from Secretary Clinton. And we've seen lots of actions after that, mainly start working with the Arab League and the Arab allies to pressure Assad regime.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will pursue the notion of unity in the opposition and whether or not that's making significant progress. But you can call still call us at 800-433-8850. What stake do you see for the United States in the uprising that's consuming Syria right now? 800-433-8850. Go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast, what Russia's experience over the past 20 years spells for the future of the so-called Arab Spring. Right now, we're talking with Mohammad Al Abdallah. He is a Syrian human rights activist and writer based in this area. He is a U.S. spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees. That's a coalition of activists challenging the ruling regime in Syria. You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDITo what degree do you think the United States should be involved in the escalating unrest in Syria? Mohammad, I read a new story where Radwan Ziadeh said that a lot of people in the opposition are too busy fighting among themselves, particularly the older activists. Is there a generational rift, if you will, in the opposition?
ABDALLAHYes, there is. I believe that the old generation of the opposition, especially the opposition out of Syria. They spent long years out of the country, and they are not that connected to the country. And they are, like, still living with their ideologies, even with leftist or Nazis or pan-Arabs. Regardless of the ideology, they're fighting for their ideologies more than they're fighting for the unity of the opposition or for the future of the country.
ABDALLAHAnd that's making lots of obstacles, and I feel such people, they're just putting sticks in wheels in the opposition wheel.
ABDALLAHAnd I believe everybody is really sincere to the Syrian cause, but these ideologies and side fighting between or among each other, it's making the case even worse with the government cracking down. And its legitimate concern from the U.S. government, since we have a common enemy and we cannot unify our efforts together, what's the case going to be after this common enemy disappear?
NNAMDIThe opposition is a rather diverse group. It's my understanding that a Kurdish delegation walked out of the National Salvation Congress meeting last month. What concerns do you have about getting all these people on the same page?
ABDALLAHMostly, people agree -- all of them almost -- in the future of the country, which kind of country we want after the revolution succeed. And we want civic countries where everybody can -- has rights equal to each other, the rule of law, and accountable security agencies where there's a real election, a real parliament that can represent people. And we all agree on those. But how to get there is the problem. Some activists -- like last week, a group of activists, they gathered in Berlin.
ABDALLAHAnd they were -- have a view. They were against the economic sanction on the country because it's going to harm the people at the same time it's going to harm the government. People don't agree maybe in the vehicle we're going to approach this point, but we all agree in working to approach that point together.
NNAMDIAmerican leaders seem to be turning up the heat, at least with their rhetoric, about Syria. But there seems to be lingering concerns about the next steps here. Hillary Clinton, among others, has talked about the fact that there isn't opposition all that organized, and that there isn't an identifiable leader or a plan for what to do if Assad were to fall. How would you respond?
ABDALLAHThat's correct. And that's legitimate concern. And we tried to address this concern with Secretary Clinton. And we don't have a unified, solid group of opposition, but we do have a unified agenda that we are eager to see this civic country, democratic country in the area. However, after four to five decades of cracking down and not a lot of political life in the country, it's not that fair to ask the opposition within three or four months to come up with a great, unified, solid group of activists.
ABDALLAHThey're having the same -- it's the first time within decades that Syrians start talking in politics in the first time and start talking to each other. And we have to really understand this in the same time we understand the concern by the U.S. government. It is a legitimate concern, but, in the same time, the opposition leaders and the opposition figure, they're saying a counter-argument that we did not hear yet from the U.S. administration, specifically from President Obama, that President Assad must step down.
ABDALLAHAnd in Syria, if you lived in Syria for years, a country full of conspiracy theories by the government, everybody believes that the U.S. is still investing in the Syrian president. And they want him under the table with a deal, but they -- that's why they won't say he must step down. Saying these magic words, that's going to encourage the silent majority to join more the revolution.
ABDALLAHThat's going to encourage the opposition's leader to take more steps and to be more responsible in working and gathering each other in one united group. And it's going to encourage the businessmen and the elites to join the revolution. And it's going to encourage high-ranking officials in the army and in the government to defect from the regime. Yet we did not hear these magic words from...
NNAMDIIf there is, indeed, a lingering suspicion that there is in the Obama administration some lingering support for the Assad regime and the administration, so far, has not said Assad must step down immediately, Secretary Clinton saying that they would prefer to see more unanimity around the world before they get to that point, is there anything else the Obama administration can say right now that would satisfy you?
ABDALLAHWell, the first -- he has to step down. This is the magic word (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOh, the answer to that is no.
ABDALLAHYeah, yeah. The answer, yes. The U.S. can work more in the U.N. Security Council in issuing a resolution. We cannot still believe within five months now -- we approach five months of protesting, more than 2,500 get killed, thousands of detainees, thousands of refugees. And yet we do not have a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, just denouncing the crackdown.
ABDALLAHU.S. can work harder in this, and they can put Russia onboard by using the Saudis and using the Turks and using their allies and our allies in this battle against the Syrian government. And, again, the U.S. administration, if they play a key role -- now we're working in sanction -- to sanction the oil and gas companies in Syria. The central bank is going to be international issue.
ABDALLAHBut the E.U. countries is the key countries to sanction the oil and gas companies because the U.S. does not have such companies working in Syria. However, the U.S. can pressure more. And we heard these comments from Secretary Clinton, and we're glad to hear that E.U. countries should start consider not working in the oil and gas sector in Syria.
ABDALLAHHaving those sanctions to be -- U.N. sanctions, rather being U.S. and E.U. sanctions, it's a great step. Having a weapons embargo in the Syrian government after the Iranian weapons being shipped to Syria and confiscated in the Turkish border by the Turkish authorities, the weapons embargo is an important thing.
ABDALLAHFrom the same point, I believe -- I don't believe at all that President Obama or the U.S. administration is investing in the Assad president at all. They don't want him. They believe Syria is going to be a better place, and the area is better place without him. But they have some fears that they do not have a leverage in the Syrian government the same way they did have with Mubarak and with Zine el Abidine ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia.
ABDALLAHAnd U.S. believes -- and this is a serious concern that the last card the U.S. administration have is he must step down. And they don't want to play this card right now.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Olue (sp?) in Greenbelt, Md. Olue, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OLUEYes. I was just wondering what the rule of Hezbollah is? Is he on the side of the protestors or on the side al-Assad, one of his sponsors?
NNAMDIThe role of Hezbollah.
ABDALLAHYes. Hezbollah role was very bad in this battle, and we expected this bad role from them as they are -- we consider them one of the bad groups playing a negative role in the area. In general, Hezbollah supported al-Assad publicly and clearly. And there's report about sending weapons. I do not believe the reports about sending fighters and soldiers from Hezbollah, but we don't have any credible reports about this.
ABDALLAHBut I do believe that logistic issues from either Iranian sides, especially the technical and monitoring Internet and harassing people online, from the Iranian and from Hezbollah side were very great. And Hezbollah, surprisingly, were supporting 100 percent the revolution in Bahrain versus supporting the government against revolution in Syria. And they've been using their media and their propaganda machine and their allies in Lebanon.
ABDALLAHAnd that's one of the funny things in Syria revolution to see Lebanese people defending of the Syrian president in what's happening.
NNAMDIOn to Isaac in Fairfax, Va. Isaac, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ISAACOkay. I would like to ask your guest, if the president was thrown today, what would happen to him? And, secondly, do you envision a kind of truth commission for the generals and army who are going around and train people?
ABDALLAHWhat's the first question that -- what's going to happen to the president, if I understood the question, that's...
ISAACYes, (unintelligible) were thrown today, what will happen to him? Would you send him to exile? Or would you try him? Or detain him? What would you do to him?
ABDALLAHYeah, that's a good question. And in Syria now, there is an eager -- and everybody agree that we going to -- we're running for reconciliation for building the country, so -- which is better in favor of the country and the future of Syrians is going to be -- is going to happen. If seeing the president behind bars or holding accountable for his activities is better for the country, let's do that.
ABDALLAHIf seeing him being exiled with his family out of the country, just to give some guarantees to the Alawite minority that's we're not targeting them, we're targeting the regime and the government system, let him get out of the country, go out, get exiled in any county, just in favor of the reconciliation and in favor of the Syrians. And I'm not sure if I understood the second part of the question.
NNAMDII'm afraid the caller is no longer with us. But last week, the king of Saudi Arabia called on Assad to stop the killing machine. What's the significance of that country speaking out so strongly on this issue and basically putting out the same message as the White House last week?
ABDALLAHThe significant is it's the first Arab country to criticize Assad publicly after five months of protesting. Not like the Libya case, Qaddafi has no friends in the Arab area and the Arab League was taking lead in asking U.N. Security Council to act immediately to protect civilians in Libya. It's not the case in Syria, where Assad has friends in the area. And he has some allies, and he's relying on them heavily in keeping their nation silent about what's happening.
ABDALLAHHowever, the significant brutal crackdown against the people pushed this country to talk more. And they cannot keep silent about what's happening, especially with this campaign started with Ramadan month. And they're targeting mosque. They're targeting civilians. They're targeting almost everybody. The number of videos that leaked about the brutal attacks in the cities and towns -- it's significant, again, because Egypt is away now or absent.
ABDALLAHIt's busy with its own domestic issues. And only Saudi Arabia is the key power now on the area. Saudi and the Gulf are the key power now with absence of Egypt. And they can lead the Arab League against the al-Assad regime.
ABDALLAHAnd it's really significant to see one opinion or agreed -- everybody agreed in the Middle East that it's not acceptable anymore under any circumstances to see a government killing its own people and justifying that it's domestic issue and you cannot interfere. Human rights issue is international issue, and everybody should interfere to protect civilians any way.
NNAMDIHere's Eman (sp?) in Chantilly, Va. Eman, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMANThank you -- thanks for taking my call, Kojo. I just want to ask the guest. We see that U.S. ambassadors are going to where the people are protesting. It really makes me wonder this opposition (unintelligible) ? When we see these people are getting killed every day, I'm just thinking it will never stop. It seems to me that there's double-dealing going on here that some people are profiting about this killing, and, I mean, it will never stop.
EMANAnd it's very sad to see lot of women and children are the victims of this thing. And this country, which is one of the best countries in Middle East, is collapsing right now, basically.
NNAMDIYour suggestion, Eman, is that the people who are protesting are being paid to do so by...
EMANWell, it seems -- it just counteracts...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to ask Mohammad Al Abdallah to share some of his own history with you. It's my understanding that you did not exactly end up in Washington by choice, that you're a former political prisoner living in exile. What were the circumstances that led you to leaving Syria? And is anybody, as far as you know, paying you or anybody else?
ABDALLAHYeah, that's one of, unfortunately, the pro-government propaganda in Syria. And I'm sad to hear it here in D.C., as well from people who are based in U.S., and they believe in the rights of the people. I was in prison twice, mainly for criticizing the government on TV and only for that reason. I was sued twice by military tribe -- military tribunal. I was thrown in a solitary confinement, and I was tortured.
ABDALLAHStill now, I'm having issues with my left knee about the beating I had in the prison -- it's in a military prison. And yet when we get pushed by the Syrian government to leave our country and still receiving such accusation from people, hey, you're agent. You're paid. You're living abroad. Leave us and let us live in our country in Syria and practice and -- our rights and criticize the government peacefully and -- like any other democratic country.
ABDALLAHAnd we won't leave. And seeing the ambassador, U.S. ambassador, going to the Hama, that's happened after 120 days of protesting, and if we want to consider what you said about paying the protestors, we have half a million in Hama and half a million in Deir ez-Zor. We're talking about a million people only in those two cities. Who's paying whom and how much was paying? It's been going on for almost 200 days now.
NNAMDIMohammad Al Abdallah, thank you so much for joining us.
ABDALLAHThank you. It was good to be here.
NNAMDIMohammad Al Abdallah is a Syrian human rights activist and writer based in the Washington area. He's a spokesperson, the U.S. spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees, a coalition of activists challenging the ruling regime in Syria. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, history lessons from the fall of the Iron Curtain, what Russia's experience over the past two decades or so may spell for the future of the so-called Arab Spring. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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