What Kind of Support Do Syrians Want?
Beneath layers of complexity and political wrangling, we should not forget that the Syrian revolutionaries are fighting for their basic rights to dignity, equality and a respectable standard of living. More than a political decision, supporting them is first and foremost a humanitarian and moral duty.
Since the start of the Syrian revolution fourteen months ago, there are still many people outside Syria asking the same question: How can we give our support to the Syrian people without becoming part of regional and international political coalitions which we do not support?
Some of those taking part in the uprising consider the question as idle. They believe it conceals a fundamental reluctance to engage on the part of governments and popular will. At best, it means foreign powers are doomed to lag behind events in the country. Despite these doubts, there is a pressing need to address this dilemma with greater patience and understanding.
During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked:“How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”
Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.
For many reasons—more, indeed, than we have room to go into here—it seems evident that Syrians are paying a high price for having to explain what should be completely obvious, in an effort to drum up support for their revolution.
One of the main reasons is the experiences of the countries that went through what is known as the Arab Spring. On the one hand, many people found the rise of Islamist political forces hard to stomach, even though it took place through the ballot box. On the other hand, there was the equally worrying Libyan example of what direct military intervention could lead to. Even Europeans who found themselves compelled to admit at the time that only a military solution could save Libyans from being wiped out have reconsidered its wisdom. At this juncture, of course, we should mention Iraq’s bitter tragedy, which is always with us, as a reminder of hidden foreign agendas pushed through with false claims about spreading democracy.
All these reservations are essentially generalizations that do not take into account the political, economic and cultural differences between the different Arab Spring states, differences that play a decisive role in defining how the social protest movement in each country takes shape, as well as how regional and international powers perceive their interests to be affected.
More importantly—more dangerously—these reservations have obscured the core reason for why these revolutions started in the first place: the desire of the people to bring an end to corrupt, totalitarian and despotic regimes. Furthermore, they give undue weight to fears influenced by shaky comparisons and predictions, prioritizing them over the right of people to reclaim their freedom and dignity.
Thus Syrians have been forced to deal with arguments and concerns that were never of their making.
I have recently paid two visits to Berlin and on both occasions I sensed a genuine sympathy for the Syrian people. That said, the same old question came up again, though this time, in different forms:
Here we should point out that the increasing prominence of such questions is due to the Western media’s growing tendency, either to reduce the Syrian revolution to its recently developed military component and thus portray it as no more than a dry run for fully fledged civil war, or otherwise, to describe it as the political plaything of international powers.
On 26 March 2011, Der Spiegel published a report by Ulrike Putz, which generated a huge response. The article gave an account of inexcusable transgressions committed by members of the Syrian Free Army in the Bab Amr neighbourhood in Homs. Debate raged over the report and the credibility and veracity of the people interviewed, particularly the way one person - called “Hussein” - spoke about himself and what he had done (he even described himself as “insane”).
The article reinvigorated debate over the complex situation in Syria, the uncertainty of its future and the high price of its political transformation. As a consequence of this, perhaps, it also prompted a greater reluctance to support the revolution and once again we find ourselves back to the beginning: How can we support change that seems devoid of any stability?
Of course, we can respond to this question in a number of ways. For example, we can say that reluctance to support the revolution and its legitimate aims is exactly what is causing this complexity on the ground. It is making the future even more unpredictable in a country whose social fabric is weaker than at any time in the past: a direct consequence of policies enacted by a regime that only has faith in a military-security solution to its problems.
Or we could reply that it was the regime’s policies that, instead of working to stem the flow of blood and recognize the legitimacy of the protestors’ demands, it instead opened the door to foreign intervention in Syria.
But today, more than ever before, I find myself unable to come up with an answer which is more honest and logical than the one I gave seven months ago to a British man at the Royal Court Theatre:
“The essence of the revolution is still alive and well beneath the layers of complexity and political wrangling. Nothing has changed when it comes to the core of our struggle against the Syrian authorities: the majority are still fighting to snatch back their freedom and restore their basic rights to dignity, equality and a respectable standard of living. The authorities, meanwhile, continue to respond to these freedom fighters with the same brutality, sectarian propaganda and attempts to provoke a violent backlash, which they have been employing since the very first day of the revolution.”
From the moment the uprising first began in Deraa over more than a year ago, right up until today, the protestors’ struggle with the authorities has been first and foremost humanitarian and moral. This is not a simplification, or a utopian imagining of the revolution: it is our ongoing reality.
The political complexities and gloomy prognostications are by and large the product of the regime’s repressive actions and its use of excessive force. I realise that this does not absolve Syrians of their responsibilities towards the challenges of the future, but neither should it be allowed to mislead those who truly want to support a people, who are fighting for their legitimate rights.
The revolution is not primarily a political battle between the regime and an opposition elite, or regional and international blocs: it is a struggle for human rights, justice and citizenship. Those who cannot, or choose not, to see this must take responsibility for their decision, but it is not a burden they share with the majority of protestors in Syria.
In July 2011 we gathered at the ‘Demonstration of the Intellectuals’ in the Damascus neighbourhood of Al Midan. As we marched along in full view of the security troops, a young man in his twenties burst into our ranks and began to abuse us. There were around two hundred of us and only one of him, but he knew that as a regime loyalist he could hurl insults and spit at us because a few metres away stood squads of security troops ready to attack us with truncheons and electric batons.
A few minutes later , this is exactly what they did, shouting, “You want freedom, you sons of bitches?” It was a horrific scene, an encapsulation of the injustice and mechanical efficiency with which the regime treated protestors. Naturally many prominent intellectuals were arrested that day: writers, directors, journalists and photographers. It scarcely needs to be said that none of them were armed. At that time the militarization of the revolution was not even considered as a possibility.
On April 12, 2012—i.e. eight months after the Demonstration of the Intellectuals—another group of activists stood outside the Syrian Parliament, the day that a fragile ceasefire pledge came into effect, unarmed save for slogans or signboards proclaiming “Stop the killing!” But how to deal with them? No surprises there: beatings, abuse and arrests.
Let us suppose for a moment that we believe the regime narrative of armed gangs suddenly popping up all over Syria, and that we accept the need to deal with them in a decisive manner. But has the regime’s response to peaceful opposition forces undergone any change since March 15, 2011? Has the regime come to tolerate demonstrators carrying flowers and signs? Does the regime make any distinction between the Marxist protestor and the liberal next to him? Between the secularist and the man of religion? The Muslim and the Christian? When all these disparate groups gather to bring down the regime they become equal in its eyes. This can be verified by a quick glance at the list of dead and detained.
As I write these lines I’m thinking of all those I know who have been detained. I see shadowy figures, beautiful as a rainbow, glorious as Syria itself. I see men and women, Muslims and Christians, Alawites and Kurds, engineers, doctors, writers, journalists and the unemployed. These shadows, like the shades of the martyrs, are the soul of the Syrian revolution and they must never be concealed from those who wish to aid its cause, but are now brought up short by political manoeuvring, plots and endless declarations and statements. The reasons for which the revolution started still exist; victory for the revolution will be a victory for freedom, a victory for human rights and a triumph for a people that have risen up in the face of a tyrannical regime.
Reservations over the transgressions of certain revolutionaries are quite legitimate. Indeed, correcting such behaviour is a duty. As for fears over the country’s future, these are shared by everyone. No one can offer guarantees, other than the promise to strive for freedom, a just political dispensation and the rule of law.
Supporting the Syrian revolutionaries in their quest to reclaim their stolen dignity and freedom is first and foremost a humanitarian and moral duty. This has been my answer during the past months, and will continue to be my standpoint in the future.The original article appeared in the German newspaper Die Taz on 28/04/12 It was translated to English from the original Arabic by Robin Moger for our website.