Partner with the Syrian Rebels


By Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai

In his speech on Wednesday, President Obama announced that the United States will increase training and arming for the moderate Syria rebels. Given the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), that is the correct move: Syria’s moderate rebels are as important as ever. Much like the Kurdish peshmerga in nearby Iraq, they could serve as a strategic partner for the Obama administration and its budding international coalition in Syria. In fact, since any serious attempt to counter the self-styled Islamic State will require sustained military action inside Syria. The moderate and militarily effective Syrian rebel groups, such as Harakat Hazm or the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, are uniquely positioned to be of assistance. And, importantly, they are eager to do so.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution, the opposition has sought a strategic partnership with the United States. But after years of broken promises, many are dubious of the Obama administration. They do not want to be used in the fight against ISIS, then left to fend for themselves against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the country’s other jihadist groups. Nor do they want to be latter-day sahwa fighters, the Sunni tribesmen in Iraq who aligned with the United States to oust al-Qaeda but were then left to confront the sectarian machinations of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time, on their own.

Therefore, in order to overcome this crisis of trust between the Syrian opposition and the United States, the Obama administration must view the rebels as allies in the battle to bring stability back to the Middle East — which is in the interest of the United States and other Western powers. The Obama administration could, for example, ensure that the rebels can protect their areas from aerial bombardment by the Assad regime, or perhaps provide them with advanced weaponry to push back against pro-Assad militias from Aleppo to Damascus and southern Syria. Absent such measures, Syria’s moderate rebels will continue to fare poorly on the battlefield. More concerning, however, is that defections from the Free Syrian Army to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate will continue unabated and may even increase.

However, if the Obama administration does in fact enlist the rebels in its newest effort to destroy ISIS, then this could swing the momentum on the battlefield in their favor. Once they start taking real control of areas — at present, the rebels hold comparatively less territory than the Assad regime and ISIS — then the Syrian Opposition Coalition can begin to carry out its political duties by working with local councils, helping provide social services, and eventually organizing local elections to bring some semblance of stability to rebel-controlled areas. Admittedly, that is quite a ways off, but the first step in stabilizing Syria is remembering that what is left of the moderate opposition is not a burden to America, but rather an important ally.

Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai is a research assistant in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. A political refugee from Syria, Oula is involved in the Syrian protest movement.


Fikra Forum The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 


Dutch priest dubbed ‘Syrian of Syrians’ is assassinated at his monastery in Homs

Oula Abdulhamid and Father Frans van der Laugt. The last time Oula saw him. Syria/2004

Oula Abdulhamid and Father Frans van der Laugt. The last time Oula saw him. Syria/2004

“He was always pushing us to move forward past our difference and to dream and coexist as Syrians,” said Oula Abdulhamid, 27, the daughter of a prominent Syrian dissident, who had known the priest since childhood and described him as a “grandfather” to her. “Because of him, I learned so much about my country.”

“He said he would be the last person to leave and would suffer the same fate as his people,” said Abdulhamid, who is now based in the United States. “And people are dying there, and now he’s dead too, murdered.”

Full Article: By Loveday Morris

 A Dutch priest who had steadfastly refused to leave the besieged Syrian city of Homs was assassinated by masked gunmen Monday, a killing that robbed Syria of one of its most high-profile interfaith figures.

The Rev. Frans van der Lugt, 75, a Jesuit who had lived in Syria for almost 50 years, was shot in the head in the garden of his monastery in a rebel-held area, according to colleagues and Syrian opposition fighters.

It was unclear who carried out the killing, as rebels and the government blamed each other. But residents said tensions have been high over a possible cease-fire agreement that would evacuate more civilians from rebel-held areas of the city, similar to agreements brokered in the Damascus suburbs in recent months. Extremist rebel groups had objected to further evacuations, said Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The priest was “a Syrian among Syrians” who refused to abandon his adopted people even when it meant risking his own life, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said. In a statement, the Vatican called van der Lugt a “man of peace” who wanted to remain faithful to the people to whom he had dedicated his spiritual service.

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Syrians must not let the extremists undermine their revolution



By Oula Abdulhamid 

Velvet revolutions are desirable, but a revolution, by its nature, is an extreme solution to an extreme situation. Revolutions often turn violent, igniting civil wars and attracting extremism – whether in individuals, ideologies or agendas – overwhelming moderate voices, the voices of reason.

This is our story in Syria today. The new hegemonic power emerging on the scene is political Islam in its most radical manifestation. Unless we can identify the reasons for this development and find ways to address it, the possibility of a return to peace and stability in the country and the achievement of communal reconciliation while respecting the democratic aspirations of the people will be next to nil.

The ongoing radicalization of Syrian rebels is in no small part a product of the violent crackdown initiated by Bashar Assad’s regime. It sought from the very beginning of the revolution to eliminate the young and moderate leaders of the initially nonviolent protest movement through detention, assassination and dislocation.

By embarking on a violent campaign against the early protesters and their host communities, Assad created an environment of anger and despair that by its nature was conducive to the emergence of extremist elements. The regime, as it has done since the 1970s, ensured that chaos would survive. Previously, it had done this regionally in such places as Lebanon and Iraq, but it now applied this in Syria. Hundreds of extremists were released from regime prisons, and Assad exploited the negative consequences to his advantage, re-engaging with the international community with Russian and Iranian backing.

The negligible support that moderate rebels received from the international community, often in the form of nonlethal aid such as communications equipment and night-vision goggles, at a time when Gulf donors were busy supplying cash and weapons to more extreme factions, proved another crucial factor in the ongoing marginalization of moderate elements from the scene, allowing for the effective hijacking of the revolution by extremists.

The choices confronting pro-democracy activists are now harder than ever. Discrepancy, confusion, loss and a deep sense of betrayal tend to color the view of most at this stage. What is happening in their circles is not a clash of ideas, however.

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The Struggle for Syria’s Soul  

Syrian students in Damascus arrive for the first day of school. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Syrian students in Damascus arrive for the first day of school. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

By Oula Abdulhamid 

A personal account of Baathist and Islamic indoctrination in Syria’s schools

Mine was not a normal childhood with clean schools, happy classrooms and unbiased education. But like ninety percent or more of Syria’s students, my personal education experience in Damascus was very similar to a military camp experience spent in soviet-style buildings that felt like prisons! Indeed, we were prisoners inside our classrooms. But our prison-guards had agendas that at their heart were irreconcilable, and seem to have been united only in their belief that we, the embodiments of the future and its true heirs, needed to be subjugated.

Growing up under the Baath Party system, all that we really learned was how to obey the authorities, because they were in control of every aspect of our lives. We were not treated as individuals with unique personalities, but as objects that needed to be subjugated, controlled and even militarized. We were all brainwashed and pressed into the service of our de facto masters, the Assads in their holy resistance against enemies near and far. Our educational system was never meant to liberate and empower, but to shame, humiliate and make us all conform to the dictated norms of obedience without question! Fear and humiliation were our school curriculum!

There is no way out! Systematic dehumanization and brainwashing under Assad regime begins at a very early age. Indeed, our indoctrination began in the First Grade. Rote memorization was the essence of our education. Any deviation from the rules could result in expulsion; we were always threatened. There was no place for discussion or critical thinking. In elementary school, most of us were pressed irrespective of our will into the Baath Vanguards Organization (Talae’a al-Baath), founded by Hafez al-Assad in 1974. Whether the child was enrolled in a public school or one of the few remaining semi-private schools catering to the elite, he or she was subject to Baath indoctrination. “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” is the Baath Party motto that we needed to memorize “exactly like we memorize our names” Military Studies teachers told us. We had to write it down on our notebooks, on the top of the chalkboards, and repeat it every morning at the beginning of the school day as well as at the end of some long and boring lectures often delivered by our Baathists. “Unity” referred to pan-Arabism, while “Liberty” and “Socialism” came as expression of hatred towards the imperialist capitalist West.

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Live Web Discussion on US/EU Role in Middle East, focus on Syria

My participation in a  discussion on Syria and the Chemical Weapons issue hosted by The New Discussion, a live and a global conversation between key leaders and young activists. The discussion focused on the US and EU’s role in the conflict in Syria.

Key leaders included:
– Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter: President of the New America Foundation and former Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department
– Mr. Marwan Muasher: Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment and former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan
– Ambassador Andreas Reinicke: EU Ambassador for the Middle East Peace Process

Yale University, New Haven, CT

SUMMER SCHOOL FLENSBURG – Eine bedrohte Demokratin

All rights reserved by European Centre for Minority Issues

All rights reserved by European Centre for Minority Issues

My Interview with the German Newspaper Flensburger Tageblatt (German Language)

Oula Abdulhamid is a Syrian asylee in Washington. In Flensburg, she learns from the German-Danish border region, as she visited the Summmer School of  the European Minority Center (ECMI) and the University of Flensburg for ten days. The theme was :”National Minorities and Border Regions”.

The Complete Interview in German:

Die Syrerin Oula Abdulhamid hat Asyl in Washington. InFlensburg lernt sie vom deutsch-dänischen Grenzland, als sie für zehn Tage die Summmer School des Europäischen Minderheitenzentrums und der Uni Flensburg besucht. Das Thema: „National Minorities and Border Regions“.

Wenn sie über ihre Familie in der Heimat spricht, steigen ihr die Tränen in die Augen. „Meine Großmutter und Cousins sind immer noch dort, aber sie wollen ihr Haus nicht verlassen“, sagt Oula Abdulhamid. „Falls ich sterbe, sterbe ich in meinem Haus“, zitiert die Syrerin aus Damaskus ihre Oma.

Oula Abdulhamid ist eine der 29 Akademiker aus aller Welt, die Flensburg heute wieder verlassen nach der zehntägigen „Summer School“ des Europäischen Minderheitenzentrums und der Uni Flensburg. 14 von der Robert-Bosch-Stiftung geförderte Wissenschaftler vom Balkan und aus dem Kaukasus sowie weitere aus Deutschland, Spanien, Tunesien haben unter dem Titel „National Minorities and Border Regions“ Vorträge gehört und diskutiert. Die 26-jährige Abdulhamid wollte erfahren, wie andere Länder „mit ihrer Diversität und Komplexität umgehen und koexistieren“.

Oula Abdulhamid wird nicht in ihre Heimat Syrien zurückreisen können. Denn ihre Familie werde gesucht. „Das Regime kennt mein Gesicht“, sagt die Studentin, die in den USA den Abschluss in internationalem Recht anstrebt. Sie, ihr Bruder und ihre Eltern haben seit acht Jahren in Washington Asyl. Ihre Eltern haben Ende 2001 die Tharwa-Stiftung gegründet, mit der sich die Familie und ein großes Netzwerk für die Demokratisierung Syriens, für Menschen- und Minderheitenrechte einsetzen. Tharwa sei arabisch und bedeute Reichtum – im Sinne von Vielfalt, erklärt Oula Abdulhamid. Sie wird über Berlin in die Türkei an der Grenze zu Syrien reisen und dort auf andere Tharwa-Aktivisten treffen. „Ich glaube daran, was wir tun“, obwohl es riskant sei, lebensgefährlich.

Wieder werden ihre Augen feucht. Wenn sie von der Lage in ihrem Land spricht, vergisst sie alles andere um sich herum, rührt ihr Mittagessen kaum an. „Sektierer“ ist noch ihre harmloseste Bezeichnung für Assad, der die Bevölkerung einschüchtert und zur Loyalität zwingt; sie nennt ihn auch „Diktator“ und „Teufel“. Seine Reformen seien oberflächlich gewesen, unnütz für das Volk. Assad habe den Mittelstand zerstört. 250 000 Menschen hätten ihr Leben verloren, nicht 100 000, widerspricht Abdulhamid den offiziellen Zahlen. Immerhin sei sie „erleichtert“, dass die Welt endlich erkannt habe, wer die Verantwortung dafür trägt. Eine internationale Intervention sei zwar „kostspielig“, „aber der politische Weg funktioniert leider nicht“. Natürlich habe sie Hoffnung, auf lange Sicht: „Ich glaube an die Jugend in Syrien.“

Source :


The European Center for Minority Issues in Flensburg, Germany

ECMI hosted 29 young scholars and practitioners from 21 different countries for the Summer School 2013 between 19-29 August. The participants were awarded diplomas at the Flensburg City Hall by the City President; and I was honored to be one of them as the only participant from Syria.

As a Syrian asylee in Washington, I traveled to the city of Flensburg in Germany to learn about the German-Danish border region and their experience dealing  with minority issues/disputes. I participated in the Summer School of  the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) and the University of Flensburg for ten days in August. The theme was: “National Minorities and Border Regions”. As a Syrian democracy youth activist, I was very much interested in participating in the program because I believed that I can learn tremendously from the European experience regarding national minorities, their rights, border regions’ issues and territorial changes.

In Syria we have been struggling the hard way with this particular matter when it comes to the rights of the Syrian Kurds for example. I am also concerned about the future of the rest of Syria’s minorities as the county is going through a civil war at this stage. As a Syrian activist who comes from a Sunni background, the oppressed majority in Syria, I believe that protecting minorities and assuring them their rights is the foundation for a successful transition to democracy in our country.

Syria is a diverse country, and multiculturalism policies do not exist there unlike the rest of the world due to being under Assad family dictatorship rule for more than 40 years. Yes, the Assad family comes from the Alawite minority in Syria that is about 8% of Syria’s population, but that does not mean that the Assad family represents the Alawite community. In fact, the Alawite minority is also to a great extent a victim like every other Syrian living under oppression and fear no matter what his/her background is (Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Kurd, Druze and so forth).

The make-up of the Syrian population today is sophisticated and rich. One cannot ignore the diversity and the colorful culture in that land, whether I mean by that the multi-religion or the multi-ethnicity backgrounds starting from Muslims, Christians, Jews, to Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and others. However, the important question here is whether these different groups enjoy their basic human rights and/or minority rights or not. To learn how to protect my country, to raise awareness, and to ensure its successful transition to democracy where every Syrian is protected and equal under the law no matter what his/her religion or ethnicity is, was the goal of my participation in ECMI program.

My group project; Ethnic Rhetoric in Political Elections: 

As part of the Summer School 2013, participants were divided into four groups prior to their arrival. The students submitted summaries within their topics which were discussed during the Summer School among the groups. The group members presented jointly on the last day of the summer school.  My group summaries  and  my group’s presentation  were about ethnic rhetoric in political elections in Syria, Japan, USA, Russia, Spain and Slovakia.

Me in the German mediaECMI Summer School participant Oula Abdulhamid interviewed by Antje Walther, Flensburger Tageblatt

Visit Our Photo Gallery during the summer school.

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