The Syrian revolution undeniably belongs to the street. It’s rooted in the public realm where masses of physical bodies occupy the squares and real voices fill the air with defiance against the brutality of a relentless regime. The virtual realm of the revolution is a strong, second line of defense. Communities of online activists in Syria tirelessly spread the voices and events from the street as far and wide as possible, while the activists outside Syria continue the ripple effect, transferring what is happening inside Syria across the world.
Supporters of the regime like to demeaningly describe the Syrian revolution as iftiraadiyyeh, hypothetical, “a virtual revolution,” fueled by outside forces far from Syrian streets (thus, Syrian interests). They mark the protesters as traitors falling prey to a “universal conspiracy” against Syria’s sovereignty. These accusations start with the head of the regime himself, Bashar al-Assad, as he declared in his last speech: “At the beginning of the crisis, it was not easy to explain what happened. Emotional reactions and the absence of rationality were surpassing the facts. But now, the fog has lifted, and it is no longer possible for the regional and international parties which wanted to destabilize Syria to forge the facts and the events. Now the masks have fallen off the faces of those parties, and we have become more capable of deconstructing the virtual environment which they have created to push Syrians towards illusion and then make them fall. That virtual environment was created to lead to a psychological and moral defeat which would eventually lead to the actual defeat.”
During the early months of the uprising, the president called dissidents “conspiracies” and protesters “armed gangs.” In his last speech he claimed if real protesters really existed, he would have joined them, “This is not a revolution. Can a revolutionary work for the enemy – a revolutionary and a traitor at the same time? This is impossible. Can revolutionaries be without honor, moral values or religious principles? Had we had real revolutionaries, in the sense we know, you and I and the whole people would have moved with them. This is a fact.”
These sentiments have been repeated by people inside Syria and out, Syrians and not, who consider the thousands of “unable to verify” videos documenting Assad’s atrocities as mfabrakeh, fabricated. They say the clips exaggerate the number of people actually protesting, while the pro-regime demonstrations are deceptively reduced or not declared as massive as they really were, or not covered at all by the biased Arab and international media. The YouTube clips are described as “pictures” by some journalists like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn. “Pictures,” a carefully chosen, archaic term that alludes slyly to the reel not the real; directed, acted, cinematic. Were they not real even when these videos were made in front of the Arab League monitors? Were they not real even when filmed by independent journalists who have finally entered Syria (albeit on extremely short visas and even shorter government-controlled leashes)?
Recently, debates have been occupied trying to understand the nature of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Does this army exist or is the FSA “a fax machine in Turkey”? Maybe the pundits have not seen the wide-spread protests on the Fridays christened, “We support the Free Syrian Army”, and “The Free Syrian Army Protects Us.” Rania Abuzaid’s excellent report explains the nuanced composition of the FSA. While it is true the FSA is separated into various groups defending different parts of the country and lacks a traditional central command, the thousands of men who fight and die every day in its name make it very real.
The president explains these discrepancies in reports emerging from Syria, “However, all the media fabrications, and the whole political and media campaign against Syria, were built on that phase of forging and distortion; and there is a difference between distorting the truth then giving it credibility as being presented from the inside of Syria, on the one hand, and distorting the truth from the outside of Syria where less credibility tends to be given to such misrepresentation. That is why we took a decision not to close the door to all media networks, but to be selective in the access given to them in order to control the quality of the information or the falsification which goes beyond the borders.” So the regime decided to be selective about who was allowed access to Syria, to combat the masses’ fabrications and control the message. Is that the definition of propaganda?
One of those “selective” moments is the now infamous Barbara Walters’ interview. Assad was apparently shocked at how poorly he was portrayed in the interview, declaring the fabrication so convincing, he almost believed it himself. But recently, while activists combed through the hacked email accounts of government officials, they uncovered an email by Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari’s daughter, Sheherazad. She prepped the president for the interview by studying, in her mind, the typical American viewer, “It is hugely important and worth mentioning that ‘mistakes’ have been done in the beginning of the crisis because we did not have a well-organized ‘police force.’ The American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’” (Her “quotes.”) Staging and gaging for American likability, American sentiments, and American sympathy. Later, in his speech to supporters, Assad spins the unflattering interview into an American media conspiracy.
The president, joined by his small but growing public relations army of Arab and Western journalists/supporters and backed by “most Syrians” according to Jonathan Steele, would like you to believe the following scenario: In Syria, a minuscule number of mythical (yet sectarian/extremist/Salafi/violent) protesters repeat make-believe chants supporting (and protected by) a fictional army, while being filmed by faux cameras, made into fabricated films, to be tweeted by virtual activists, and watched by millions of fake people on their conspiratorial Arabic satellite channels and consumed by a biased Western media engaged in the “propaganda” war, in order to cover the “real” Syrian crisis in, as Cockburn says, “a fog of disinformation pumped through the internet.”
And why should the world believe Assad’s scenario over the people’s reality? Because, according to the Syrian regime, the country faces a universal conspiracy designed to validate foreign intervention which will destabilize the region, strengthen Israel, weaken Iran, declare Qatar a regional superpower, and push Syria into a civil war fueled by “inherent” sectarianism that the Assad regime has protected its citizens from for the past forty-two years.
For some, the “conspiracy” also threatens to kill what is called the last vestige of Arab “resistance.” Resistance against what? Most Syrians would say the Assad regime has never resisted anything but the Syrian people’s aspirations. (But most Syrians never understood or appreciated their country’s all-important “regional” political role. They were too busy enduring Assad & son’s domestic policies.) The Syrians on the street (the ones who matter) even chant: “Ya Bashar, you coward, go send your troops to the Golan.” No one in Syria or the Golan is holding their breath. Some people will disagree with blindly disregarding the Assad regime’s regional and international accomplishments, as a result of its historic stances of resistance. Those people should ask the families of the over 7,000 murdered Syrians if their loved ones’ deaths were worth this so-called resistance. They should ask Palestinians as well (also the ones who matter): What has the Syrian regime done for you lately? (“Lately,” is loosely defined here, but let us just say in the last fifty years.) They would probably answer: a lot; of damage. Critic Subhi Hadidi lists some of the damage, “As for the Palestinians, well, the regime did quite the opposite: It sided against the Palestinians, as well as the `national movement’ led by Kamal Jumblatt in the Lebanese civil war; it was involved in the 1976 Tal al-Zaater siege and massacre . . . it participated in the 1983 siege and shelling of Palestinian camps in Tripoli, Lebanon.” Poet and former political prisoner Faraj Bayraqdar says those who still defend the regime’s self-declared role of resistance, “are inflicted with ideological blindness.” He adds, “Those people don’t know the difference between resistance and desisting, between rhetoric and reality.”
The regime uses this mix of recycled ideological propaganda and media manipulations to confront the mass accumulation of evidence of their atrocities that have spread across the world. The regime continues to insist it’s fighting armed gangs while using real weapons pouring in from Russia on real ships to kill unarmed civilians and defected soldiers. After months of skeptics asking, “Just who are these ‘armed gangs’?”, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem ended a press conference in November with clips of the “armed gangs” in action. It was later discovered that those clips were filmed in Lebanon in 2010. In other words, mfabrakeh. When he was confronted in December, Muallem defended himself (beginning at minute 57:00) saying the clips were “correct in all their content, but they weren’t directed in a good way, only.” Directed? Like “pictures”? How real of him. He added, “If we wanted to expose the truth, the ugly images of what the terrorist groups are doing, I believe many of you will faint.” (Thank you, Walid Muallem for sparing us the truth.) When the mysterious yet conveniently-timed explosion rocked the Midan area in Damascus last month, state television channel, SANA, was on location ready to broadcast live coverage of the “surprise” bombing. They were so efficient that they captured on film, a man holding a Syrian TV mic planting white plastic bags near the pools of blood. Even the presenter was shocked into silence as she narrated the scene. Another case of bad direction. They should have called Jaafari Jr. to handle it.
Patrick Cockburn accuses the revolutionary forces of “engaging in black propaganda,” constructing a “fake” revolution using the regime’s tools of manipulation, while the old-school regime has become incompetent and sloppy. Assad has an explanation for those “mistakes” (in a 15,000 word speech, you can expect to find an explanation for anything): “In our quest to dismantle that virtual environment and to ensure the importance of the internal situation in confronting any external interference, we took the initiative to talk transparently on having a default here and a defect or delay there in some areas.” Maybe it’s a case of the students becoming more masterful than the master. Or maybe, it’s a case of one side being real and the other finally exposed as fake.
Syrian supporters of the regime know very well what it feels like to play pretend. It’s apparent in the new, popular chant, “We will be your shabbiha forever, ya Assad.” For decades, Syrians chanted “We sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, ya Assad.” I never thought I would feel nostalgic for that chant, but I am. As insincere it as it was, it meant that we were willing to sacrifice what we were, as we were, our souls and blood, for the leader. This new chant viciously takes subserviency to another level. It expresses the willingness of the people to become something criminal—the despised, ruthless thugs for the regime. To become something they are not.
Between treacherous chants and pseudonymous identities, Syria has become a web of deception, woven by necessity by both sides for protection against the entrenched regime. But Syrians have been unaccounted for as individuals for decades. Long ago, our features were erased in a sea of empty faces that mirrored only one face. We became a pixilated canvas that created a collage of the leader’s image. Our voices formed one unified mouth only capable of expressing (fake) declarations of love and devotion. We never really mattered to the regime, and so, we forgot to matter to ourselves. Today, the Syrian people not only fight every day for their survival, but to prove that they matter. They resist to prove they exist.
In a recent article by Robert Fisk, he referred to Syria as a symbol. For decades, Syria indeed was reduced to a symbol, sometimes of Arab unity, other times of confrontational and heroic resistance. Hafez al-Assad represented revolution, as we used to chant during mandatory demonstrations, “Hafez. Assad. Symbol of the Arab revolution.” For the last eleven months, the regime has proved everyday that they are far from being a symbol of revolution. Or a symbol of unity, or Arabism, or anti-imperialism, or even resistance. They have been an emblem of nothing but tyranny and oppression.
To conceal the reality of what they really are, the Assad regime fabricates every kind of conspiracy possible: political conspiracy, media conspiracy, military conspiracy, an Arab conspiracy, a Western conspiracy, an imperialist conspiracy, an economic conspiracy, a sectarian conspiracy. And according to Jaafari Sr., Syria now faces a Google conspiracy. Every conspiracy is legitimate except the one conspiracy the Syrian people have endured for four decades: the illegitimate rule of the Assad dynasty. The regime would rather erase every citizen’s existence than admit they are the universal conspiracy that plagues Syria.
For such a virtual, hypothetical, fictitious, mythical, conspiracy-based revolution, its heavy weight is tangible with real blood, real corpses, real tears, real intimidation, real scars of real torture dug into real flesh.
The Syrian people, like their revolution, are not hypothetical, mythical, or fictitious, they are real. They are not a symbol of revolution, they are revolution. But as Elias Khoury says, "In their struggle and in their resistance, waging their orphan revolution, the Syrian people are alone." And it is wearing them out.