In December 2011, a group of Syrian activists released 2,000 ping-pong balls onto a steeply sloping street in Damascus. On each one, they had written a single word: freedom.
The activists belonged to Freedom Syria Days – a collective of revolutionary groups dismayed by Syria’s slide into war and desperate to hold on to the nonviolent, subversive spirit that had marked the first months of the uprising. Insisting that Assad’s regime could be crippled by civil disobedience, they instigated a general strike, closing shops and disrupting transport networks. They covered credit cards with glue and stuck them into ATMs. They poured red dye into the fountains of Damascus.
There was nothing frivolous about this. The activists knew that Syrians had been tortured and killed for acts of creative resistance. What they could not have known, though, was that while they were releasing ping-pong balls, Assad was releasing known Islamist militants from Syria’s jails.
The regime tried to disguise this within a general amnesty, to pass it off as part of a package of ‘reforms’. But Assad’s real intention, many analysts believe, was to transform a civil uprising into an Islamist insurgency that would both legitimize the crushing of the revolution and discourage the US from any thoughts of regime change.
It took a long time for Syria’s revolutionaries to take up arms, and longer still before they were eclipsed by the ferocity of the Islamist 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 the article ‘Proxy War’) 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 Assad registered the growing alarm of the West, he must have been thrilled. He had always said Syria was dealing with terrorists, that his regime was the only bulwark against fanaticism. By 2014, with 200,000 people dead and the country in ruins, it was starting to sound plausible.
The regime’s willingness to set Syria ablaze was a desperate strategy, but not an irrational one. However frightening the prospect of a jihadist insurgency, Assad seemed even more terrified by the nonviolent uprising from which the ping-pong activists had emerged.
What really worried him was the erosion of the fear which, for 40 years, had sealed Syria’s lips, suffocated its talent, and stifled its imagination. Fear was the mortar that held Assad’s Syria together. Now, under the pressure of the uprising, it was crumbling.
As it disintegrated, Syrians found a voice that had been silenced for decades. They sang songs that mocked Assad and laughed at the fawning servility of those who surrounded him. (See ‘Singing in the kingdom of silence’ for our gallery of revolutionary art.) They tore down portraits that had intimidated people for years, and raised banners that gave voice to the hopes of ordinary Syrian men and women. Most important of all, they began to articulate a Syrian national identity in terms of opposition to the state. The regime had spent years weaving the cult of the Assads into the fabric of Syrian patriotism. Suddenly, this whole scheme was unravelling. Without firing a shot, the demonstrators had undermined the psychological basis of Assad’s rule. It was too late now to placate them with reforms or higher wages. ‘We don’t want your bread,’ the crowds chanted, ‘we want dignity.’
Fledgling civil society
Wherever the regime was pushed from power, this outpouring of energy was converted into something that had never been allowed to flourish in Syria: a civil society. The people who had marched for freedom now ran hospitals and schools, documented violations and reported news. Some joined local councils. Others set up projects to train journalists or treat traumatized children. 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 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. (See ‘Rushing towards death’ for the civilian humanitarian response). 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 was not 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 some 11,000 corpses bearing the marks of starvation, pipe beatings, cigarette and acid burns, electrocution, fingernail extractions, strangulation and stabbings.
The arrest of so many lawyers, journalists and doctors has deprived the country of some of those who had the most to contribute to the creation of a more humane and open society. Many other have fled Syria. The optimism of 2011 and 2012 has been crushed by the sheer scale of destruction.
Despite all this, though, 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, 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, advancing the notion of transitional justice. ‘On the news you see only blood and destruction,’ one woman told Human Rights Watch in 2014. ‘You don’t see that behind it, there are civilian groups doing things peacefully. We are still here.’
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 ignores Syria’s democrats and depicts Syrians as passive victims in a bloody game between Islamists and autocrats. After the fight that these people have put up and the sacrifices they have made, it is hard to imagine how dispiriting this must feel.
No-one, at this stage, is naïve enough to think that a stable and prosperous democracy is about to bloom from the rubble. Half the country’s people are displaced, thousands have suffered or committed acts from which they are unlikely to ever fully recover, and a whole generation is growing up traumatized and illiterate in the refugee camps that cluster along Syria’s borders.
In the early days of the revolution, a group of friends from a village called Kafranbel in Syria's northwest began to paint appeals for freedom and solidarity onto cotton banners and to draw satirical cartoons about the lack of international support. Written in English as well as Arabic, Kafranbel's weekly messages had a mix of idealism and snark that made them perfect in a social media age. They have now been seen by millions of people all over the world.
Worse than naïve, though, would be to abandon the brave men and women who are still fighting to keep alive the hopes that were expressed so forcefully at the start of the uprising. To ignore these people, as the international community continues to do, is to deprive them of solidarity, to limit their access to funds and training, and to make sure that their voices are sidelined at the international negotiations on Syria’s future.
In these pages we have space for only a few examples. Many heroic people cannot be featured here, and thousands more remain unknown. But despite these omissions, this edition of New Internationalist attempts to recognize and amplify the voices of some of the best and bravest revolutionaries in Syria. Many of them, 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.
Beyond this specific appeal, these voices bear witness to the humanity, creativity, and imagination that has marked the Syrian revolution from its first day. ‘The Syrian people,’ wrote journalist Mazen Darwish in a letter smuggled out of a Damascus jail cell, ‘are children of life, capable of constructing a state built on dignity, freedom and justice.’ That is a judgment illustrated by every one of the contributors and interviewees here. Together, they offer a rebuke to any suggestion that the Syrian people might be receptive to the death cult of ISIS, or are better off under a dictator.
This feature was published in the September issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe