Syria's activists: politics of anger

The hopes of Syria's opposition for external support are turning into bitter suspicion of the west's real motives in refusing to intervene in the war, says Vicken Cheterian.

Amer Matar is a Syrian journalist who was made into a dissident by what he witnessed. “When the revolution started we filmed the violations and documented the repression. We believed that the work of citizen journalists will have an impact, and that the world will come to our aid”, he says.

For his journalistic activism and involvement in demonstrations in Damascus, Amer was arrested by state-security agents on 28 March 2011. After release two weeks later he continued his activities, and was again arrested in September 2011 - this time by military security, another of the regime's several agencies. This time he was accused of “circulating false information, which weakens national sentiments”, and detained for over four months. After a second release, he fled abroad - as most Syrian political activists have now done.

Amer Matar's experience is emblematic of a wider story. The protests in Syria that began in March 2011 provoked severe repression from Bashar al-Assad's regime, raising the expectations of opposition activists that the international community would soon come to their aid. By the autumn, when a peaceful revolution was evolving into an armed insurrection, the question among many protesters was whether to invite foreign military intervention (as was happening in Libya) or merely ask for military support in the form of arms deliveries.

Almost two years later, a new and darker mood is evident, as the opposition's hopes of external help dissolve into anger at its apparent abandonment by the outside world. True, there is much rhetorical backing from the west, Gulf states, and Turkey; but the results on the ground fail to match the political declarations. Many anti-regime Syrians are searching for explanations of why they have been left alone to face the violence of the Syrian army and its militias.  

Today, Amer Matar feels betrayed by the "international community" - twice over. First, for not defending the peaceful movement that sought freedom; second, for not helping it when the conflict turned violent. The activists had hoped at least for a “no-fly zone” of the kind Nato offered to Libyan rebels; they also craved the arms and ammunition that would enable them to put up a fight against the regime's warplanes and Soviet-built tanks. But even when they documented the bloody repression they faced and distributed it widely - risking their lives to do so - the international community failed to act. Amer now says that the aim of Assad's repression “was to empty Syria of peaceful opposition, to have an armed conflict in which the regime is better equipped”; and that the world's indifference has played its part in allowing this project to continue.

The new mood

Many Syrian activists call Yassin al-Haj Saleh the “wise man of the revolution”. In 1980, when a student of medicine at Aleppo University, he was arrested for belonging to a communist group. He was held for sixteen years, and released in 1996. Today, he is in hiding inside Syria, his prolific and lengthy analytical articles being smuggled out and published in Lebanon's newspapers, such as Al-Hayat or Al-Nahar (see Yassin al-Haj Saleh & Rime Allaf, "Syria dispatches: Robert Fisk's independence", 14 September 2012).

When I asked Yassin al-Haj Saleh what he now expected from the international community, he answered: “If you do not want to help (the revolution) then fine. But do not stop others helping us. The pretext initially was that the opposition is disunited, then that there are jihadis. How can you say you want such groups not to emerge when tens of peoples are being killed every day for two years, and over a hundred people every day for the past six months?”

The logic of his position was seen on 11 December 2012, when the United States's department of state placed the Al-Nusra Front on its terrorist list. This act infuriated Syrian activists, for after twenty-two months of the revolution it seemd that the Americans were talking the same language as the Assad regime. “What justifies putting Al-Nusra on the terrorist list, and not the shabbiha?” (the notorious pro-regime paramilitary), one activist asked. On 14 December, in answer to the US move, the demonstrators raised a new slogan: "no terror in Syria but the terror of the regime”.

The arms question

Abu Fahr is a lawyer and a preacher in one of Daraya’s mosques. Daraya is located immediately south of Damascus; Mezze military airport and the presidential palace are a few kilometres to the north. The most horrible massacre of the Syria conflict took place here in August 2012, when activists estimate that more than 600 people were killed. From its original 275,000 inhabitants, only 10,000 remain. “The reason for this displacement is the daily shelling, air attacks, and the executions that take place once the army succeeds in entering some neighbourhoods. Luckily people left, otherwise the casualties would be several times that of the past massacre”, Abu Fahr says.

He describes the difficulties of daily life in Daraya's winter, with almost no food and medicine. "We are in pain to see young children in this cold, trembling like birds, without even understanding why they suffer”, he says, adding that “the pain is mixed with a feeling of joy of approaching victory, and we tell the regime we will not bow down. But the people of Daraya are asking their brothers in humanity whose duty it was to help them - what happened to all the laws and human rights?” His conclusion reveals the suspicion that now grips many activists: “One of the commanders of the Syrian Free Army, who had an insight into the sources of weapons, said that major states are permitting the passage of weapons only in quantities that permits the fight to continue. But they do not let quantities that could help win the battle.”

Khaled is a field commander and member of the Idlib Revolutionary Council. He took part in the conference of December 2012 in Antalya, Turkey, that aimed to unify most fighting groups under a new leadership, excluding the radical Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar Al-Sham. “They were all there”, he says, referring to the intelligence agencies of countries ostensibly supporting the Syrian opposition, “and they promised massive help. If they had given us all the weapons they promised, we would have reached Damascus." But when he was involved in preparing an “attack on airports” in northern Syria, the promised weapons were nowhere to be seen. “We miss ammunition of all types. Attacking now is going to be like suicide”, he says.

When Syria's people revolted, they wanted freedom, to make their claim to be part of the modern world. The regime refused, and the rest of the world did not rush to help them. Now, the Syrians are doing it their own way, with whatever help they can get. On 11 January 2013, opposition fighters - with some of the Islamist groups on the US's terror list in a leading role - succeeded in entering Taftanaz airport, a major pro-regime base in northern Syria of the country, and pillaging its arms caches.

The west's signal

The growing mood among Syrian opposition activists is that it suits the great powers for internal destruction and division among Syrians to continue. Michel Kilo, a leading dissident figure now exiled in Paris, wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in August 2012 that the west had created many pretexts not to intervene in Syria: from saying the opposition is not unified to arguing the regime's air defences are too powerful. A "new lie" is "the penetration of the Free Syrian Army by al-Qaida, as if [the west] did not pave the way between Benghazi and Tripoli with their planes to enable al-Qaida fighters to attack from eastern Libya. And those who were leading the fight against Gaddafi were formerly in Guantánamo.”

The position of western countries vis-à-vis the Syrian events is a complex one. But the idea that the west will accept a protracted conflict in order to weaken Syria as a state, exhaust it as a society, and reduce its ability to play a role in the region, is now widespread among the opposition. It is another bleak signal in a conflict without end.

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and is a research associate at SOAS's department of development studies. His next book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, January 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

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Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva; teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications; and is a research associate at SOAS's department of development studies. His books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)