The early days of Syria's uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.
Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya (protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.
What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks - even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa - that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria's revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital's historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were "peaceful, peaceful", "the Syrian people are one," and "God, Syria and Freedom." This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.
The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria's people and the decency of Syria's society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting - with a multi-party system and a free press - that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What's more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.
Against the odds
The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later - after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight - it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria's refoundation from a "state of nature" was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country's steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.
The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi'a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.
What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. "The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed", he laments, "it was a real wake-up call."
But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. "People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism - in that order." Now he explains, the order has been reversed. "A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them."
Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. "The change was huge", she says, "it was like Afghanistan." What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. "There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves." She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn't agree. She wanted to advise, "but no one was prepared to listen."
Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the "climbers" who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. "When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed", he says. "There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures."
Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition's ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.
In fact, though, the activists' fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).
The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists - from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities - gravitated towards the opposition's political or military wings.
Between dream and reality
This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.
The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.
Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. "Syria" and "Syrians" were, in Albert Hourani’s view - referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 - "ancient entities but very modern notions." The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.
Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.
This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.
The day after
Despite all this, it's not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.
The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.
In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.
To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document." It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising - as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way - will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called "a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion."
In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.