The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.
Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.
What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.
The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.
Against the odds
The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.
The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.
What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”
But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”
Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”
Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”
Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.
In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).
The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.
Between dream and reality
This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.
The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.
Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.
Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.
This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.
The day after
Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.
The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.
In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.
To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”
In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.
Far from the five-star hotel opposition conferences, the real opposition in Syria is making its voice heard. In what is known as “rural Damascus” (Rif Dimashq), a Times reporter met with local protest organisers affiliated to the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union (SRCU), a youth organization that is leading the revolution in Syria.
The town of Zabadani and the nearby village of Madaya are tourist hotspots frequented by the Damascene middle class and Gulf Arab visitors who enjoy its cool mountain air and stunning views over a valley irrigated by fresh spring water. Now however, there are no tourists, just disillusioned young men who demand one thing: freedom.
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The report is very telling about the nature of the Syrian Revolution and who is leading it. It is not intellectuals in Damascus or in exile, nor even the much-vaunted Local Co-ordination Committees (mentioned by Hillary Clinton in a recent article), which the local youths accuse of “hijacking” their cause, but young Syrians who come from very ordinary backgrounds who have borne the brunt of mukhabarat oppression.
This is not a peasant revolt – these young men are very media savvy and very well-organized. But they are driven by an instinctive desire to live in freedom. Theirs is not a revolution inspired by ideologues or led by politicians, but it is the natural result of a system that has always viewed them as “germs” and which has denied them the opportunities to better themselves. In the words of the youth leaders in Zabadani: “They treat us like we are nothing. But now we are going to make something of this country.”
Syrians do not want “chaos”. The Syrian people all love their president. Syria was immune to change because of its anti-Israel stance. Syrians do not want “Western democracy”. Syria is immune to protest. Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt. Syria is a “sturdy house”.
Not true as it turns out. The democratic revolution has reached Syria, and a protest movement is beginning to gain traction there. The doubters have been proved wrong.
Not to get carried away, the demonstrations that have taken place in Syria have not been large-scale. We are talking about hundreds, not thousands. They did occur right across the country though, with protests taking place in Damascus, Aleppo, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli and Hassaka. The video above is for a demonstration that took place on Tuesday 15 March in the heart of Damascus. A second demonstration in the capital was organized by family and relatives of political prisoners the following day on Wednesday 16th March [pic below] opposite the Interior Ministry building. To put things into perspective, the last time an anti-regime protest took place in Syria was 31 years ago. These demonstrations, however modest, are an important ice-breaker and a harbinger of things to come.
Those participating in the demonstrations have not been the usual suspects. True, there were the pro-democracy activists that we know and admire like Suheir Al-Attasi, but from the list of those arrested, the vast majority have no political affiliation and are unknown to human rights organizations. They appear to be middle class Damascenes in their twenties and thirties who reacted positively to the Syrian Revolution 2011 page on Facebook.
Fahd Faysal Al-Nijris is a typical protester. He is a university student and son of a former MP who posted this video on 14 march urging fellow students to participate in next day’s demonstrations. He says he wants freedom of expression, a decent quality of life, an end to emergency law, constitutional reform and an end to corruption. Not much different then from what the Egyptians and Tunisians had been calling for when they first hit the streets.
The demonstrations have not been confined to the capital. This YouTube video was posted on 16th March of a tribal chief criticizing the regime and calling on Syrians to participate in the “Day of Dignity” demonstrations planned for on Friday 18th March. The eastern city of Deir az-Zour has long been a hot-bed of opposition, and the army’s elite Fourth Division has been stationed there since 2006 to quell any unrest. Hassaka to the north witnessed demonstrations, so too did Qamishli, and in the southern province of Dar’a demonstrations took place amid heavy security presence. Described as “Syria’s parched farmlands”, reports have been emerging for some weeks from the southern Hawran region of a concerted anti-regime graffiti campaign, and of isolated police stations being abandoned in the build up to 15 March.
The battle at this stage appears to be one of public perception. The Syrian regime is very keen to show its people and the world that the protest movement has no popular support and that it is orchestrated by “enemies of Syria”. With diabolical efficiency, plain-clothed men of the mukhabarat have dispersed protests as soon as they begin, often using brute force and confiscating mobile phones so that footage does not come out. Not only are they overwhelming the protesters with sheer numbers and arresting them, they are also resorting to staging pro-Assad demonstrations to give the impression that the protests were in support of the regime. Semi-official news websites like this one have released dozens of reports suggesting that the protests were tiny and that they were inspired by Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood. The young people on the streets however are hitting back on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and of course, on independent Syrian satellite channels Barada TV and Orient TV.
The protest movement in Syria has still a lot way to go. Following yesterday’s protest, 54 have been arrested, seven of whom have since been released. They included 12 year old Ricardo Dawud, the son of political prisoner Raghida Al-Hassan, and Tayib Tizini, an acclaimed professor of philosophy. Reports of deaths has so far been unconfirmed. Bashar Al-Assad’s men appear to be avoiding unnecessary force, preferring to smother the uprising than to smash it. The challenge now for Syria’s youth is to maintain the momentum of their protest. It will not be easy.
Revolutions are notoriously hard to predict. When they do happen, the experts are usually left looking silly. To illustrate the point, a university lecturer once told me of how he, the Soviet “expert”, published an article in The Times entitled “Why the Berlin Wall will not fall in my lifetime.” Weeks later in 1989, crash!
Many Middle East specialists are now finding themselves in similarly uncomfortable situations. They have quite obviously failed to predict the democratic revolutions now sweeping the region. It is not difficult to see why this has happened. Kevin Brennan writes:
Sovietologists of all political stripes were given strong incentives to ignore certain facts and focus their interest in other areas. I don’t mean to suggest that there was a giant conspiracy at work; there wasn’t. It was just that there were no careers to be had in questioning the conventional wisdom.
The problem then is succumbing to conventional wisdom. To answer the question: “Where the next revolution will take place?”, Middle East experts should now start thinking unconventionally. They should be meeting with activists and youth leaders on the ground, researching what’s happening on the blogosphere, following youth groups on Facebook and Twitter, engaging with the political opposition, monitoring local news sources, looking at what’s happening in the provinces and not only in the state capitals, and generally developing a more nuanced approach than has so far been the case. Conventional wisdom, with its emphasis on Western security concerns and macroeconomics, has been turned on its head post-Tunisia. It is at the street level that the rumblings of the next revolution will first be detected.
You would think someone will take note. This week, and within a space of only 24 hours, two articles appeared on the prospects of revolution in Syria, both of which belong firmly in the conventional wisdom school of Middle East analysis. The first was this by Rania Abouzeid in Time Magazine in which she claimed that, “much-publicized acts by Assad that have apparently helped endear him to the public include his driving to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low-security profile.” Presumably like the impromptu appearances of Gaddafi in Green Square to thousands of jubilant supporters.
The second article was Michael Bröning’s piece for Foreign Affairs, describing Syria as a “sturdy house that Assad built.” This was a more substantial piece, but it contains the same clichés and conjecture that plagues much of what is written about Syria these days. Bröning essentially argues that, ”Despite various parallels with Tunisia and Egypt, a close look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime is unlikely to fall.” So it’s a Syria-is-not-Egypt argument. Sound familiar?
It was J K Galbraith who said, “The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” The problem with these analyses is that they demonstrate an unwillingness to challenge the underlying assumptions of the great debate on Syria in the light of what has happened in the region during the past three months. Tunisia proved that “performance legitimacy” was no guarantee against revolution; Egypt the extraordinary power of citizen protest; and who could trust a word of state television after Libya? Syria is as much immune from revolutionary change as Romania was in the summer of 1989.
To be fair to the Middle East experts, the Arabs themselves didn’t see what was around the corner. Now that we are on the corner however, it seems rather foolish to predict where a revolution will not take place when the same experts failed to predict the revolutions that did take place. Like the Soviet experts before them, the Middle East experts are good at many things; prophesying is not one of them.
Over the years Damascus has seen its fair share of pro-regime demonstrations and rallies of the kind that Kim Jong-il will find familiar. But not since 1980 has it witnessed unsanctioned demonstrations, let alone three in a space of one month! This is exactly what has happened.
It began on 30 January when a group of 100, led by youth leader and known oppositionist Suheir Al-Attasi, held a candlelight vigil in Bab Tuma in Damascus in support of the Tahrir Square protesters. The vigil was broken up by force by plain-clothed security men. When attempting to file a complaint at a nearby police station, Ms. Al-Attasi was physically and verbally abused by a senior security official.
Then on 17 February came the 4,000-strong spontaneous demonstration in the Harika district of Damascus. That was sparked by a policemen assaulting a local man. Read more about what happened here.
Then today on 22 February another vigil was held – this time outside the Libyan embassy in support of the popular uprising in that country. The protesters shouted anti-Gaddafi slogans and sang the Syrian national anthem, emphasising the peaceful nature of their protest. See video above.
What was encouraging was the turnout, which exceeded 200. An improvement on last time. Less encouraging was the response of the security men who broke up the vigil. Young women as well as men were verbally and physically attacked by leather-jacketed thugs. Protesters responded by shouting “those who attack their own people are traitors!” Several of the protesters were arrested.
Not an unsurprising response by the authorities who felt it safe to use force against the 200 or so attending the vigil. They were less keen to use force against the Harika demonstration which numbered 4,000 participants. Size then does matter.
Whether large or small, and despite being banned under the Emergency Law, protests in Damascus are becoming more common. A positive development in the “republic of fear.”
A YouTube video has been posted of a Syrian youth writing anti-regime graffiti on a school building in the city of Homs.
To the soundtrack of a popular patriotic song , the video showed still images of a masked young man using a spray canister to write “go away Bashar”, “down with the regime”, “Down with Bashar Al-Assad”, “we want freedom”, and echoing the slogan of the Egyptian uprising at Tahrir Square, “the people want the downfall of the regime.”
Although, the authenticity of the video cannot be verified, it does link in with what I have been hearing about activists’ desire to resort to a graffiti campaign to escalate the war against the regime following 17th February’s unexpected demonstration in Damascus.
The spontaneous demonstration in the heart of the capital’s business district came just two weeks after the failure of the 5 February “day of rage” called for by a popular Facebook page.
My reading of this development is that a graffiti campaign at this time may very well have the desired psychological effect of emboldening people to get used to openly challenging the authority of the regime after decades of extremely oppressive rule.
It’s a smart move by the activists. I expect more videos such as this one in the future, especially if towns and localities across Syria compete to create the most daring and eye-catching anti-regime graffiti.