The current issue (#485, September 2015) of the New Internationalist magazine is devoted to the nonviolent civilian activists of Syria’s “forgotten revolution,” still trying to do their work despite the carnage of four years of civil war.
Rajif Jouejati writes in one article that “when the Arab Spring began several years ago, Syrians looked with envy at the freedom movements sweeping Tunisia, Libya, and Eygpt. Change seemed unthinkable in Syria, where everybody knew that you could be imprisoned for merely criticizing the president. And yet the unthinkable happened: in March 2011, Syrians began protesting against more than 40 years of tyranny. The revolution began peacefully, with Syrians from all backgrounds and walks of life calling for freedom, dignity, and democracy. Peaceful Syrian protesters – often numbering in the hundreds of thousands in a single demonstration – demanded change.”
In December 2011, as Daniel Adamson reports, fellow nonviolent activists got creative, doing things like releasing 2,000 ping-pong balls, each inscribed with the word “freedom,” down a steeply-sloping Damascus street. “Insisting that Assad’s regime could be crippled by civil disobedience, they instigated a general strike, closing shops and disrupting transport networks.” At the same time, however, Assad let hundreds of known Islamic militants out of government jails, hoping, “many analysts believe, to transform a civil uprising into an Islamic insurgency that would legitimate the crushing of the revolution. It took a long time for Syria’s revolutionaries to take up arms, and still longer before they were eclipsed by the ferocity of the Islamic militias. In the end, though, Assad’s selective release of prisoners, the army’s murderous assault on peaceful demonstrators, and the meddling of foreign powers [see below] ensured that Syria was engulfed in a full-scale civil war.
By 2013, the Sunni jihadist movement that had plagued Iraq for years had bled across the border and morphed into ISIS, a group even more nihilistic and vindictive than its progenitors.” As Adamson suggests, this was just what Assad wanted, since “he’d always said Syria was dealing with terrorists, and that his regime was the only bulwark against fanaticism.” Still, “wherever the regime was pushed from power,” the nonviolent revolutionaries continued their work, now trying to build a new civil society. The people who had marched for freedom ran hospitals and schools, documented human rights violations, and reported news. These initiatives were often shut down by fighting, or hampered by lack of funds or experience. But for all its flaws, the revolutionary movement was [and still is] lit up by the courage of the Syrian people.
Assad’s assault on this fledgling civil society is perhaps the saddest chapter in the tragedy of Syria’s war. In rebel-held towns, schools and hospitals were hit by a rain of barrel bombs that killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions more. In areas under regime control, security services detained anyone who showed too much independence of mind – web developers like Basel Khartabil, who campaigned for the freedom of information online; lawyers like Khalil Ma’touk, who defended Syria’s prisoners of conscience; humanitarians like Raed al-Tawil, who volunteered with the Red Crescent in Damascus. All three men vanished into the regime’s jails in 2012. None has been heard from since.
No one knows how many languish alongside them – perhaps as many as 150,000, and few can imagine the horrors these people endure. It wasn’t until 2014, when a forensic photographer defected from the Syrian military with 55,000 images on flash drives, that the world got its first glimpse into what goes on in these jails. The photos showed 11,000 corpses bearing the marks of starvation, pipe beatings, cigarette and acid burns, electrocution, fingernail extractions, strangulation, and stabbings.
But Syria’s nonviolent resistance is still alive. Much of its energy has, by necessity, been directed towards emergency relief – pulling the wounded from the rubble, keeping clinics supplied, and distributing food in areas under siege. But even under these conditions, there are activists working on the longer-term challenges of state building: creating a free press, educating women, and advancing the notion of transitional justice.
In its neglect of these activists and its lurid fascination with ISIS, the media has played along with Assad’s narrative of a war against terrorists – a narrative that depicts Syrians only as passive victims in a bloody game between Islamists and autocrats. After the fight that these people have put up and the sacrifices they’ve made, it’s hard to imagine how dispiriting this must feel.
Many of Syria’s nonviolent activists, when asked what the international community can do to help, converge on a single conclusion: Syrians need an internationally enforced No-Fly Zone to protect them from Assad’s barrel bombs.” As Hana Mourtada writes for planetsyria.com, “if liberated rebel-held areas were protected from Assad’s daily onslaught” in this way, “the nonviolent civil activism and self-governance that’s been established in Syria would start to flourish, refugees would return, and an alternative order to that of Assad would begin to emerge.”
The competing agendas of powerful nations have deepened the Syrian conflict. Iran and Russia have supported Assad with arms, Iran spending billions propping up the collapsing Syrian economy, and Russia has vetoing Security Council resolutions that might have led to military intervention against the Syrian regime. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are anti-Assad, with Turkey supporting the Free Syrian Army and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states funding Islamic groups. The United States initially pledged support for the rebels and in 2013 came close to military intervention against Assad. Since the rise of ISIS, however, it’s concentrated on attacking the jihadis.
Two Syrian Heroes
Ayham Ahmed is known as the piano man of Yarmouk, a densely populated neighborhood of southern Damascus that grew out of a Palestinian refugee camp in the 1950s. At the beginning of a government siege in 2013, Ahmed started playing a piano and singing in the streets to help children traumatized by the fighting. In April of this year, Islamists took control of the camp, banned music, and burned Ahmed’s piano. Risking his life now by playing outside on a keyboard, he says, “I’m sad that my piano has been burned, but I’m more sad at the lack of help from a limp world that looks at our suffering without lifting a finger…Still, I’m going to sing for love and peace, even if no one helps us.”
The White Helmets are Syrian civilians from all walks of life who search for and rescue survivors in the rubble after bombing and shelling. Ninety-three of them have been killed, while others have lost limbs and been blinded (the government often bombs the same area again after rescuers have gathered). White Helmets leader Raed Saleh, a former electronics salesman, says, “Every day we pull people out, most of them children. This generation that we’re pulling from the rubble, these kids are going to build a new Syria…We need to finish off the first source of terrorism, which is Bashar al-Assad, and then the second source of terrorism, which is ISIS. I am certain that when we’ve got rid of Assad, the Syrian people will be able to finish off ISIS.” Saleh notes that even though the UN has banned the use of chlorine gas and barrel bombs, the Syrian regime is still using these weapons against civilians. (A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device used by the Syrian Air Force, made from a barrel filled with explosives, shrapnel, and/or oil, that’s dropped from a helicopter.)
Half the Syrian population (11 million Syrians) is displaced, 240,000 have been killed, and there are more than 150,000 prisoners of conscience undergoing torture in government jails. People trapped in besieged locations: 640,200. Syrians drowned trying to reach Europe: 2,157 (75% women and children). European countries are hosting only 4% of the 4 million Syrians who’ve fled the country.
Syrian ‘good guys’ like Ayham Ahmed, the “piano man of Yarmouk,” and White Helmets leader Raed Saleh need our help.
Also, read Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, 2015.