Whatever happened to peaceful activism in Syria? Lately, it seems that the non-violent movement has completely disappeared from the headlines. Long gone are the days when Ghiyath Mattar, a Daraya-based activist, would organize marches where protesters distributed water bottles and roses to the army. Long gone are the days when demonstrators in Deraa would rally around the chant “silmiyeh silmiyeh,” facing the bullets of the government forces with their bare chests. Peaceful activism was eclipsed by the repression of the regime initially and, subsequently, by both the regime and the rise of a multitude of anti-Assad militarized factions.
When some insurgents started to take up arms as early as 2011, activists strove to propose non-violent alternatives to defeat the regime. The Dignity Strike in early 2012 was an attempt to channel the forces of Syrians to take down the regime through civil disobedience by organizing coordinated sit-down strikes and encouraging the boycott of public services. While the campaign received wide coverage in the media and was followed up on the ground, it was not sustained and failed to reach a critical mass. On 9 April 2012, in response to the increased resort to sectarian rhetoric, Rima Dali staged a march carrying the banner “Stop the killing we want to build a homeland for all Syrians” in front of the Syrian Parliament. Her arrest launched a campaign of peaceful sittings in Damascus, breathing new life into the civil movement. From the witty banners of Kafranbel to the political movies of Bassel Shehadeh, art also proved to be a powerful vehicle for creative dissent. Underground revolutionary publications put forward by Oxygen magazine or the Local Coordinating Committees are yet another example of civilian activism that is too often disregarded by the media in favor of more sensational reports on violent fighting.
But despite the occasional successes of the peaceful movement’s campaigns, 2012 will be remembered by many Syrians as the year in which the uprising decidedly shifted from peaceful to violent: what began as a popular street mobilization calling for ‘dignity and a democratic transition’ transformed into a militarized movement seeking to topple Bashar Al-Assad at all costs. The calls for a non-violent revolution against the Assad regime felt increasingly untenable to many Syrians facing fierce repression, heavy shelling and gruesome massacres on a daily basis. As the fight pitting Assad forces against the Free Syrian Army spiraled into violence, the peaceful movement found it increasingly difficult to make its voice heard, giving credence to John F. Kennedy’s famous saying that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” While some blame the failure of civil resistance on Assad’s intended escalation of violence, other analysts such as Martin Shaw interpret it as the result of the external support to the armed movement, further antagonizing the actors of the conflict and pushing the country deeper into a civil strife.
Yet, amid calls for revenge, a new campaign defending what it sees as the core values of the revolution called Syria First has revived the non-violent movement. Claiming to offer “an ethical alternative to the Assad regime rather than a political one," the movement works to remind Syrians of the principles that inspired the early days of the revolution: the dignity and freedom of all Syrians, the condemnation of sectarianism and the call for a civic and democratic society. “Our Revolution is about dignity,” “The Syrian people are one” and “Our Revolution is for all Syrians” are some of the slogans written on the leaflets distributed by the activists. To avoid being caught by the secret services, activists print the famous slogans on the back of fake cash before doling it out across pro-regime neighborhoods and FSA controlled areas. The movement’s peculiarity lies in its line of thought: activists protest primarily against the Assad regime but spare no criticism on the excesses of the rebels, which they feel don’t accurately represent the values of the uprising. The campaign also targets Syrians who have lately developed a negative opinion about the opposition. Most significantly, the movement wishes to show the resiliency of peaceful activism to regime forces, in an attempt to resist their continuous efforts to push the revolution into an armed confrontation.
Described as a “revolution within the revolution," the Syria First campaign emerged from grassroots youth organizations in Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, before launching coordinated campaigns in other cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, Lattakieh and Qamishli. Leafleting is just one aspect of Syria First’s work: in addition to protests and newsgathering, the coalition also devotes a significant amount of its work in humanitarian relief and charity programs. “The movement derives its strength from the vast network and relationship of trust it built through the humanitarian and medical assistance that we provide,” says Abou El Nour, a member of the Syria First movement.
Generally speaking, however, the peaceful movement is still accused of being detached from reality on the ground. For many, the campaign has lost its relevance as little efforts are made to directly connect with rebels. In reality, the peaceful movement’s role is undergoing a fundamental change: its goal has evolved from toppling the regime through peaceful means to monitoring the revolution and defining the right path it should follow. By denouncing the human rights violations committed by the regime and the rebels, peaceful activists are keeping the revolution sane.
Activist Mohammad Al Bardan of the Syrian Nonviolent Movement says the peaceful movement’s horizon extends beyond the uprising as it seeks to build the foundations for a civil society in the long run: “For the last four decades, the Ba`ath party has tried to teach Syrians to solve all of their problems through violence. Syrians never had the chance to practice any kind of civil movement. From student clubs to charities, every civil organization was infiltrated by security forces. As a result, civil society has remained idle for decades. So the most important thing right now is to rebuild this movement, but you can’t activate it like a switch, it takes time.”
When asked about the impact of militarization on the peaceful movement, Al Bardan answers: “What I believe now and what many other nonviolent activists believe as well is that the armed movement is not going to stop, so trying to halt it doesn`t make sense anymore. The best way for us to be efficient is to work on the civil movement as a basis for a future Syria. For us, it is more important to liberate minds than liberate lands.”
Acting as the guardian of the uprising, the non-violent movement is willy-nilly learning to coexist with the armed movement. Activists continue to act through the distribution of humanitarian aid and the organization of awareness campaigns, with the hope that they will reap the fruit of their labor in the long run. For all the cynicism that surrounds the peaceful movement, it might play a crucial role in a post-Assad Syria. As many Syrians are worried about an Islamist takeover and minorities fear a cycle of revenge killings in the event of a regime fall, these activists might prove helpful by using their skills in efforts to promote post-conflict resolution and national reconciliation. Notwithstanding criticisms of him, Michel Kilo’s recent success in brokering a truce between Kurdish and Arab militias in Ras al Ayn is a testimony to the tremendous potential of peacekeeping efforts in Syria.
For now, it seems that peaceful activism continues to be clobbered by militancy on all sides, with the regime taking the lead. Some rebel factions too have been intolerant of any form of difference within the opposition and have not shied away from disciplining and punishing dissent within. The recent clash between members of Jabhat al Nusra and civil activists last January in Saraqeb in the northern province of Idleb does not bode well for the future of a pluralistic and diverse opposition. On the other hand, the government is far from being indifferent to what is wrongly described as naïve and idealistic principles. The security services’ will to clamp down on peaceful activists is all but waning. The recent death of Omar Aziz - a prominent Syrian intellectual who participated in the creation of the first local council in Barzeh, Damascus - in the Adra jail and the imprisonment of many other non-violent activists in the dungeons of the Assad regime are a stark reminder of that reality.
The road ahead for a peaceful opposition is increasingly precarious. Nevertheless, activists on the ground have refused to settle for the claim that they have outlived their purpose or utility. After all, most of those who oppose the Syrian regime have always been, and still are, non-militant - not carrying arms. They will prove to be instrumental in rebuilding a Syria that departs both from what existed before and from the worst manifestation of the opposition.