North Africa, West Asia

Syrian activists are repairing the fabric of civil society, even as it comes undone

Syria has seen the emergence of a powerful culture of resistance, from subversive graffiti to makeshift hospitals, which continues to operate despite the violent and politically fractured terrain.

Hania Mourtada
13 November 2015

Demotix/Jacob Simkin. All rights reserved.With the advent of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the monopoly over political truth-telling shifted away from the established dissident man of letters, whose voice remained largely silent in the context of the revolution. Instead, it fell to the average Syrian, who has no impressive credentials to speak of, but is in possession of a laptop and a strong desire to transgress the arbitrary red lines drawn by the Syrian authoritarian regime.

When Bashar al-Assad took over the reins, the proliferation of cultural spaces operated as a safety valve that served to contain dissidence rather than to encourage it. An evident complaisance settled in; the emergence in the public sphere of poetry clubs functioned as an outlet for dissidence. For example, Bayt al-Qasid—the House of Poetry—a platform for young poets, used to host weekly readings before the uprising, but it was constantly under the surveillance of the "mukhabarat" (the security services).

This all changed the day Syrian masses took to the streets to protest against Assad’s oppressive regime. Since the popular uprising erupted, there has been an extraordinary move to reclaim the field of dissident cultural production initiated by civil activists. The nascent freedom movement that burst onto the scene in liberated towns in 2011 rid itself of all ambiguity and symbolism in the manner it now criticises power. Syrians no longer need to resort to metaphorical and opaque language in order to subvert or mock authority.

Syrians no longer need to resort to metaphorical and opaque language in order to subvert or mock authority.

Euphoric crowds took to the streets to chant their demands. The uprising revolutionised the field of political truth-telling, and civil society groups began to proliferate at an astonishing speed. What is perhaps most notable about the new civil society is its portrayal of the regime’s power as surmountable. The very presence of these groups on Syrian soil demystified the whole experience of oppression, imprisonment and torture in Syria. The usual sense of resignation and passive resistance, characteristic of prison narratives in the Assad era, were suddenly supplanted by a defiant spirit and 'triumph against all odds' rhetoric.

The grim, metaphorical truth-telling of 80s and 90s Syria was gradually replaced by a more optimistic, forward-looking language. Perhaps such a suddenly altered ethos, which no longer simply sought to expose and resist power but also to overcome it, was testament to the new political spirit characteristic of the Syrian uprising.

In the anonymous text "Fear of Arrest", having exposed the regime's power as surmountable, the revolutionary finds that he has entered the realm of 'realism' in the way he writes his experience: power can now be discussed as something banal. The anonymous writer then helps the reader demystify the prison experience. Remembering political violence is no longer enough—the way it used to be in traditional Syrian prison narratives. One must mock it, resist it, and overcome its mechanism. Hani Sayed, the translator of the text, informs us that: 

“The author of the following text is anonymous. But his deeds have rocked the foundations of our world in Syria. He is one and he is everyone. I don't know his whereabouts...The text is written in colloquial Arabic. I could tell that he is probably in his early twenties with a clear Aleppo accent. The text has this ordinary, almost technocratic, quality that makes it extra-ordinary considering the circumstances. It is not written for political propaganda. It does not theorise, it does not make too many claims, it is not poetic, or confessional. The author addresses his "buddies" to neutralise the effect of a paralysing fear of arrest that may have made some of them too cautious to participate in demonstrations. The rhetorical posture is descriptive. His goal is to demystify the experience of arrest as an antidote to fear. The premise of the text is that his destined reader should expect arrest and torture, and should therefore stop wasting time to avoid it. The fact that one is arrested has nothing to do with the relative strength of the Mukhabarat. It has also little to do with how cautious you are. A revolution is taking place, and if you are there in the regime's field of projections of power, arrest is a matter of time—an absurd game of probabilities. Knowing what an arrest entails will make it more bearable, and the fear of it less debilitating.” ( Sayed, August 2011).

Sadly, the international community has largely forsaken this freedom movement. Syrian civil society has been marginalised in international deliberations over the conflict, replaced by a binary discourse in which the conflict is reduced to one between Assad and ISIS.  

To remedy that state of affairs, we have established Planet Syria, a network that includes over a hundred Syrian civil society groups, in order to make our voice heard again.

The power of the state has already been contested, and we’ve seen the emergence of a powerful culture of resistance which continues to operate despite the violent and politically fractured terrain. When the uprising erupted, political truth-telling emerged out of the shadows and boldly re-entered the public sphere. People who once operated in underground meetings are now establishing organisations in broad daylight. In every town or village that fell out of Assad’s control, small civil society groups are working tirelessly to lay the foundations for democracy, justice and a pluralistic society.

Young people, in particular, are determined to show the world that they can build solid institutions from scratch and reinstate order in opposition-controlled towns. Centres concerned with women’s rights and women’s well-being have opened their doors, offering language courses to illiterate women and useful marketable skills to the young. Subversive graffiti, revolutionary pamphlets, magazines and radio stations, groups offering psycho-social support and makeshift hospitals are all initiatives made possible by Syria’s new and burgeoning civil society. Syrians are experimenting with what might be made possible. Areas that the regime has lost are filled to the brim with possibilities.

People eager to reinvent their towns and cities are working hand in hand. And in the midst of all this, the barrel bombs keep falling.

It’s true that many of the groups cited saw their work impeded by extremist militias and the warlords who rose to power overnight such as the infamous Zahran Alloush, head of the Army of Islam. But the main impediment and biggest threat to civil society in Syria today is the indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime, especially the aerial onslaught with barrel bombs.

Only Syrian civil society offers a clear alternative to collapsing state institutions.

It is no surprise that the Syrian regime wants to push these civil groups outside the country. The biggest threat to the regime today is from the progressive culture of political-truth telling embodied in newly empowered civil society. Only Syrian civil society offers a clear alternative to collapsing state institutions.

Syria’s most promising future could, without  doubt, emerge from these grassroots initiatives, instated and reinstated by unwavering activists in the face of a multitude of challenges. If the liberated territories which saw the emergence of these groups were to be given total protection, with anti-aircraft defences, from Assad’s daily onslaught of barrel bombs, this base would start to flourish, refugees would return and an alternative order to that of Assad would quickly emerge.

But, for now, the bombs continue to bury people under the fragments of their destroyed neighbourhoods. And if the world defiantly continues to insist that what is happening in Syria is too complex, too confusing, no one can blame the revolutionaries for this lack of clarity for they have obsessively documented every infringement on their basic rights in front of a largely apathetic audience.

Without advocacy and hard-headed activists, many of Assad’s inhumane practices would continue unchecked and corrupt warlords would be free to go on accumulating moral capital without scrutiny. Building a constructive rapport with key actors in our global society, and allowing them to participate in the change they wish to see, is the first step toward encouraging people to become more involved in issues of democracy and justice. Planet Syria was established to facilitate dialogue between the most prominent civil society groups in Syria and the international community.


Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.Total collapse of state services in certain provinces has paved the way for experimenting with self-governance. In those areas, civil society is not just protesting against the regime, it is also resisting radical Islamists, the corruption of local militias and ISIS. This new culture of resistance and political truth-telling cannot now be eradicated unless a large-scale massacre permanently wipes it out of existence. And this may very well be what Assad is striving for with his unguided indiscriminate bombs.

No one can guarantee that good impulses will win the day, but the world can do a great deal more to recognise and protect those impulses and the communities from which they derive.

Remarkable individuals in Syria have clung to the integrity of their initial struggle for democratic change and social justice even as the fighting has descended into sectarian and increasingly violent chaos. It is the voice of those civil activists trying to maintain a rapport with dangerous armed groups, in order to check their power and shape their code of conduct, that we need to listen to and amplify.

What is striking about coverage of the Syrian crisis is that, with a few notable exceptions, it seems to draw neat lines between communities, socio-economic classes, and sects while ignoring the processes of entanglements. We rarely see any accounts of the rapport civil rights activists are attempting to build with armed groups, and the delicate symbiosis that has allowed civilians and fighters to carry on side by side.

Systematic documentation, verification and the compulsive recording of atrocities will ensure that civil society groups are not roughly pushed aside once the state and the insurgency are ready to meet at the negotiating table.

The everyday struggles of civil society groups will pave the way for institutional transformation from within destitute communities.

Today, Syrian civil society groups desire and demand attention from the international media. Kafranbel, a small town in Idlib, has garnered fame through its media-savvy slogans and leaflets which provide witty commentary on global events and popular culture. Those Syrians are begging to be noticed and supported in their journey from their former selves as passive subjects of an authoritarian state to self-actualised citizens in charge of their destiny.

We are tired of foreign commentators projecting tired and well worn assumptions onto the uprising—warning that any intervention by the international would encroach on Syria’s national sovereignty. We are tired of being warned that so-called political engineering by the west will achieve nothing beyond exacerbating sectarian and ethnic cleavages.

Where are all those journalists who once attempted to convey the pulse of the Arab street?

This young generation’s anticipation of the challenges ahead demonstrates a striking awareness of the dark forces that could sabotage the freedom movement.

This new movement is driven by a newfound dignity and a shared sense of citizenship. While the mainstream media chooses to fixate on military developments, Syrian civil society is building a network of resistance in the shadows. Analysts have reiterated time and again that there is no foreseeable military solution to the conflict yet the world continues, obsessively, to monitor military gains and losses by the plethora of armed parties taking part in the conflict.

Is it so inconceivable, to the international community, that most Syrians have been organising along common interests rather than tribal and kinship ties? The idea that ‘interfering’ in a situation as complex as Syria’s could cause further harm to the country presupposes that the west is approaching a society whose social and political makeup it does not understand. It presupposes in Orientalist fashion, a reversion to visceral tribal loyalties and a requirement for the west to engage in damage control.

In fact, what is happening in Syria is very simple: civil society has been largely forsaken,with the exception of a few grants from international NGOs. Instead violent warlords have stepped in to fill the political void.

There was a moment of great promise in 2011 that has now been relegated to the past. Where are all those journalists who once attempted to convey the pulse of the Arab street? Why is the media no longer interested in what regular people have to say? Why are we falling prey to media-savvy violent groups and not paying attention to civil activists labouring in the shadows to establish a modicum of human rights and pave the way for transitional justice?


Flickr/Freedom House. Some rights reserved.While we don’t need the western gaze to validate or document the struggle of our people, we do need media outlets to hear our experiences before western experts decide how best to proceed. We need a far greater and concerted effort to stop the deluge of barrel bombs raining on our best and most driven activists, who to stay alive are forced to flee in droves.

Bashar al-Assad, the Arab autocrat still standing, has been able to engage certain key elements of the mass media to convey his version of events to the world while the parallel counter-narrative that civil society groups are eager to reveal has been largely overlooked. Mainstream media remains fixated on military developments.

A meaningful discourse with Syria’s nonviolent community needs to take place before it’s too late. These civil activists struggling for justice and democracy have experienced every conceivable tragedy first-hand. Their scattered accounts are, however, buried in social media posts long forgotten. They have subverted and mocked everything that the Syrian regime stands for, and they have done it without resort to violence. These civil society groups spread across Syria’s provinces had been, for a very long time, in dialogue with each other without necessarily being aware of it.

A meaningful discourse with Syria’s nonviolent community needs to take place before it’s too late.

Planet Syria is now providing a broad umbrella under which this dialogue can move from fractured, disparate communications to effective and coordinated engagement. Planet Syria exists so that we, the country’s civil society become visible again, so that our voices become louder than the slick productions of ISIS, so that our ambitions for a future Syria become as viral as the brutality of ISIS and Assad.

The testimonies of civil activists, collated by Planet Syria, will bring into the mix of overarching political and academic 'informed' analyses circulating in the media, the personal stories, sentiments, and aspirations of real individuals. Such personal testimonies have the power to unsettle certain strands of reporting. Despite the general militarised narrative, the allegiance of Syrians does not operate solely along sectarian lines. Committed activists from various sects are working together behind the scenes to stitch the country’s fabric even as it comes undone.

The well-known risks of external political engineering must not lead us to dismiss the struggle of the Syrian people as pointless and doomed. It does these brave activists a great injustice to characterise their popular uprising as a scheme managed by imperialist forces.

Syrian revolutionaries cannot afford to give up on what they started, even if they wanted to. If they give up they will be living on borrowed time, until the regime locates them and tortures or kills them. Syrian civil society is alive and well, and growing despite the most inauspicious conditions. It needs the support of the international community and an accompanying narrative which privileges civil activism over the militarised binary of ISIS and Assad.

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