Who populates the Syrian revolution? The Syrian revolution has three core populations: urbanite survivors of the 2001 Damascus Spring, disenfranchised classes rural and urban, and the traditional opposition. Local histories—not dissidents abroad nor foreign entities—create and power this revolution. Yet, some international analysts remain blind to the people of our revolution.
One major engine of the Syrian revolution comprises those who began activism during the short-lived Damascus Spring of 2001—educated youth then in their late teens and 20s and 30s who are now young professionals. They are mostly secularists (and incidentally, in my experience, often three-or-four-pack-a-day smokers). These democracy advocates a decade ago formed groups such as the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms. For example, young democracy and Kurdish activist Jiwan Ayo was active on this Committee only to be imprisoned during the revolution on 4 September 2011. And now, these advocates have also brought in younger cohorts who had seen them struggle over the past decade. They are an extremely diverse grouping, in terms of sect and ethnicity, and include Alawite activists such as feminist Hanady Zahlout and long-time dissident Habib Saleh, as well as some of Syria’s most prominent human rights activists from the heavily Druze region of Suwayda.
The democracy-activist population of the revolution organized the Family Vigil for Prisoners in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus. There, almost two hundred kinfolk of political prisoners amassed nonviolently on Wednesday, 16 March 2011. Large numbers of women participated, along with children and men. The vicious response of security to the peaceful crowd, including against the ten-year-old son of a woman prisoner, grandmothers, and a late-term expectant mother (my friend Maimouna Alammar), turned this into a trigger for subsequent protests.
Four women planned that the 16 March Vigil in 2011. All four women are secularists. All four were Damascus Spring activists. One is a blogger, and three are human rights lawyers who have been defending prisoners of conscience in Syria for years. One of the four was lawyer Catherine Altalli who was imprisoned for two weeks in May and joined the Syrian National Council after fleeing Syria. I had a chance to review the 16 March event with her, and have been in touch with other women involved in organizing that event.
Two of the four women now lead core organizational coalitions in the Syrian revolution. Suhair Atassi, who was imprisoned for ten days in March because of the March 16 Vigil, leads the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, a coalition of local committees. She recently had to flee Syria after living in hiding for months. Lawyer Razan Zaitouneh heads the Local Coordinating Committees, coalition of fourteen to seventeen local councils, and has been living in hiding in Syria for ten months. Her husband Wael Hamada was imprisoned as a hostage for her for several months.
These women did not consult overseas men in suits about planning the revolution. (I am not saying all of them smoke, but Razan’s Facebook status on 15 January 2011 was, “Never mind the Little Match Girl, I cannot even find a lighter for my morning cigarette!” — a dilemma for which I deeply sympathize.)
The prime population of the Syrian revolution is the ideologically unaffiliated, economically disenfranchised rural and urban working and middle classes who experience the lack of social justice in Syria on every level. The abandonment of these sectors by some skeptics of the Syrian revolution on the global Left is astonishing. Members of these diffuse disenfranchised populations protested nonviolently in Damascus on Tuesday, 15 March 2011. The crowd of about one hundred-and-fifty citizens included short-order gyro chef Mahmud Dorayd, aged 49, along with his two brothers. Mahmud has been imprisoned four times since the revolution began; his brother Rashed was killed by the regime during a nonviolent protest on Good Friday.
These undespairing Syrian "Bouazizis" started this revolution in massive nonviolent demonstrations on 17 and 18 March 2011 in the southern province of Dara, where local Christians and Muslims were in solidarity against the regime from the start. Have critics of the Syrian revolution in the global Left heard of the fifteen schoolchildren of Dara who were tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti in February, then had their parents taunted cruelly by the security chief, for demanding their release? The parents of the Dara schoolboys who happened to become the spark of the revolution did not consult men in suits abroad to know they want as an accountable government.
Syria`s disenfranchised "Bouazizis" are also the largest population of this revolution. Incidentally, a lot of them are also three-or-four-pack-a-day smokers (which is to say, they do not fit the profile of Islamists). I met and shared a smoke with some of them this summer, after they had fled Syria into Turkey. One young man from the city of Binnish, a town near Idlib, told me in July 2011, “I was lost for twelve hours in the mountains. Never mind that I had no food or water. My agony was—I had no cigarettes!” It takes a smoker to appreciate fully the Syrian revolution. (This is, of course, not an endorsement of smoking.)
Other local populations, such as the Daraya Youth, a nonviolence study group begun in 1998 in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, pour into the Syrian revolution too. Their members straddle the above two groupings. Back in 2003, the Daraya Youth marched against the US invasion of Iraq—and, well, yes, conducted a local anti-smoking campaign. They also tried to open a public library called “Paths of Peace.” For such activities, group members were imprisoned for two years. The members of that since-defunct Daraya group were at the forefront of Daraya protest organizing, including imprisoned nonviolence visionary Yahya Shurbaji, nicknamed “Little Gandhi” by townsfolk.
Local histories significant to the revolution include the Kurdish intifada of 2004 in northern Syria, in which Kurdish protesters—part of a particularly disenfranchised population—were killed and imprisoned. Assyrians, a Christian population, are solidly in the Syrian revolution too and joining from a deep-rooted history of activism. So is the city of Salamiya, featuring predominantly secular youth from Ismailia backgrounds, to name just one of the hundred-and-fifty communities that protested early, and continue to protest often. (As of 20 January 2012, the number is up to 588 communities). Palestinian Syrians form another protest population that has participated significantly in the revolution, beginning with the Palestinians of Dara, who marched in aid of the besieged city.
Some in the international Left appear utterly blind to these Syrian multitudes, and instead formulate a Western-centric, and often Islamophobic, critique of the Syrian revolution. They dismiss its rootedness in diverse local histories. For them, the Syrian revolution begins and ends in geopolitics outside Syria.
Trailing in as a third population in the Syrian revolution is indeed the "traditional" opposition. These dissidents, including their abroad components, have been trying and failing to effect change in Syria for years. They, and even the Damascus Spring dissidents, would be nowhere without the massive base of the revolution, those disenfranchised classes mentioned earlier. The traditional opposition cluster includes Kurdish parties, leftists, and Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s existence is mainly outside Syria, because belonging to the Brotherhood has been a capital crime inside since the 1970s. There are other sorts of political Islamists inside Syria too. They are distinct from the Brotherhood, and differences matter.
Armchair pundits opposing the Syrian revolution appear aware only of a third of that third grouping. That is, all they see in the Syrian revolution is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to negotiate a place for itself in this revolution. Also, they and other exiles and traditional oppositionists have paid high costs for their dissent. They have a right to be in this revolution and a right to contest in post-Asaad Syria like any other group. We will have to fight the Muslim Brotherhood politically, those of us Syrians who disagree with their platform, as well as the platform of other forms of political Islamism. We will also have to fight the repercussions of the fact that the United States seems to like this revolution as it is. And si we will do all these things in a POST-Assad Syria. This brutal dictatorship is on its way out, come what may; that much is certain.
What if it were just the Muslim Brotherhood?, which—in the interest of disclosure—is my family`s historical background though certainly neither my own affiliation nor a platform I support. Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders, at least, claim to have "evolved" over the years. They now say that they know how to behave democratically, after joining other oppositionists in the Damascus Declaration of 2005 calling for gradual democratic reform in Syria. Even more rightwing, and less politically experienced than the Muslim Brotherhood, are hardcore Salafis, typified by the extremist Saudi-based preacher Adnan Aroor who is all over dissident Syrian television stations. Aroor preaches sectarian hate and advocates for arming the revolution fully. Every revolution has many elements. So this extremism is certainly part of the picture but it is certainly not the mainstream of the revolution. While religious fervor has limited appeal among the broader populations of the revolution, political Islamists` support for the revolution nevertheless does appeal to some among the disenfranchised classes. It is on the rest of our revolution to get in there and contest this. And this contestation is happening—even amid the daily death wreaked by the Assad regime on all populations part of the revolution.
The Syrian people’s history has deeply felt pro-Palestinian and anti-imperialist sympathies, which cut across nearly all ideological sides. It is thus insulting to the Syrian people for anyone in the world`s intellectual community to expect these stripes to change suddenly once Syrians are free of a police state. No matter who tries to take advantage of the revolution, Syrians in the revolution have to work out any disagreements we may have with each other through an accountable, democratic contestation process like the one we aim for in a post-Assaad Syria.
Meanwhile, can the global Left rearrange its pencils and rulers around the fact that Syrians just do not want to live in a police state anymore?
The Syrian revolution since June 2011 possesses a small armed flank—the Free Syrian Army— made up of defectors who refuse to fire on unarmed civilians. Yes, many of the Muslim Brotherhood Syrians outside, and certainly the Aroorites as well, are among the FSA`s avid supporters, though not it is only they who support it. Also supporting it are significant numbers of the second group, the unaffiliated rural and urban disenfranchised classes. The revolution`s main body—dozens of local committees which began organizing from January through April, 2011, and the coalitions they have formed-- remains largely nonviolent. New nonviolent, secular groups continue to form, such as one in Tartus on February third.
Every revolution has its flaws and dangers, and every revolution has internal struggles. It is important to remember this. While the media loves a gunfight and tends to focus on violent hotspots, the real bulk of the Syrian revolution is slow and steady civil disobedience work. Achieving victory through widespread participation in nonviolent civil resistance is crucial to the kind of Syrian state we wish to create post-Assad—a secular, civilian, democratic, and pluralistic state that meets the best international standards to guarantee human rights equally for all its inhabitants.
[This piece was originally published on the Fellowship of Reconciliation blog.]