“There are 15 people killed already today,” he says, “and we have heard nothing from Hama [Syria’s fourth-largest city] because all the electricity, telephones and Internet have been cut off.” After putting the numbers he considers reliable into his database of the death toll, he updates journalists and human rights groups.
Since the uprising in Syria began five months ago, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on communications as well as public protests, Ziadeh has gone from an obscure rights activist and academic to a full-time and prominent advocate for a vociferous opposition-in-exile. As part of a group in Washington that could play a key role in Syria’s future, Ziadeh dreams of returning to his homeland and forming a democratic political party. But he fiercely rejects comparisons with American-backed exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi, who returned to a political role in Iraq, the country he once fled.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who presides over Near Eastern affairs on the Foreign Relations Committee, has met several times with groups of dissidents, including Ziadeh. Like State Department officials, Casey is keen to see the exiles form a coherent opposition group that can function as an alternative government — not easy in a country where political activity has been effectively banned for more than four decades.
“We have got to provide them with as much support as possible,” the senator says. “There’s much work to do in preparing for the next phase.”
Assuming that phase is reached, Syrian activists in Washington could have a more direct impact on the course of Syrian events. They include Ammar Abdulhamid, who was a fiery Muslim religious leader in Los Angeles in the 1980s before becoming a secular, ponytailed rights campaigner today. Ahed al-Hindi, a confident student in his early 20s, says he was far closer to his American friends than the Syrian community until the uprisings began and he joined the campaign. Mohammad Abdullah works in technology, and his background as the son of a famous and often jailed political activist in Syria lends him credibility with the activists back home.
For now, they protest, campaign and brief lawmakers about the uprising that has left at least 2,200 dead. But in terms of political influence, it may be Ziadeh who has the most leverage. “He is not so much a person as an institution,” Abdulhamid says.
Ziadeh counts the dead, helps smuggle satellite phones into his homeland, publishes videos of protests and — because it is hard to reach people in the country — puts himself forward to explain Syria to everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to members of the U.N. Human Rights Council and politicians in Russia, Brazil and India.