In a café in the heart of the old city of Damascus, where my friends and I used to gather and plan for the following day's protests and campaigns in support of those who had been arrested by the regime, I met one of my very few remaining friends left inside Syria. It wasn't like the old days but rather to say goodbye following his decision to leave the country. "I have nothing left here to do, no work, no study. Even our revolution, it has changed into something I don't recognize and it is only destroying us. I have seen with my own eyes how the revolution was stolen and everybody let it down", he said mournfully, admitting to having withdrawn within himself.
Activists inside Syria
But this particular cafe and this very same table have been witness to lots of animated discussions, fights, dreams and even the arrest of peaceful activists before many of them were scattered to the winds. Nowadays, few still remain in Syria and are spread out far and wide between the different provinces. Recent changes in the revolution and the escalation of violence have outpaced and overshadowed Syrian activists, profoundly challenging them as to how best to respond.
Some have unreservedly adopted the logic of the armed revolution maintaining that peaceful movements alone will not help if you are up against such a brutal regime. Some of them were engaged in media and journalism work with the FSA, but others have been squeezed out as moderation gave way to the weapons-obsessed pandemic invading Syria.
Another kind of activist has withdrawn into their shell accusing the whole world of letting them down while watching Syrians being killed on daily basis. According to these activists, Islamists and Jihadists stole the revolution and implemented their slogans and ideas in a very clever way but against the will of most of the Syrians. Unfortunately, they are wasting their breath and their skills on criticizing Islamists instead of facing up to other urgent issues or even finding a way to start up the secular movement once more.
The third kind of activist can still be found beautifying the Syrian street with humble movements and small protests under the same slogans of those at the beginning of the uprising. Although they are the fewest, they are the most vulnerable to brutal arrests, executions and torture given that they are considered the most dangerous by regime.
Ayham Ghazoul was one of them and always believed in peaceful change for Syria. Whenever he saw hope fading from my eyes to be replaced by the dull shadow of depression, he would try to raise my spirits by reminding me: "We are the luckiest generation of Syrians because we have lived through an exceptional experience. We have experienced revolution, arrest, torture and betrayal and we have lots of stories to tell our children. We shouldn't be sad whatever happens because we have triumphed over our fears."
Ayham is no longer here to say his hopeful words as he was killed under torture in a secret-police detention centre. So far, security authorities haven't confessed to causing his death or delivered his body to the family. The regime's security policy is that these activists should simply disappear: and it is, for example, more common to simply release FSA soldiers rather than release them from detention. As an observer on the in-out detention movement in Syria, I can say with confidence that many go in, but especially when it comes to peaceful activists, few ever leave, except to be released for a mass grave.
Activists outside Syria
Many activists got a one-way ticket out of the country. They have done this for a number of reasons: many are wanted or were threatened by the secret police – they left the country under the cover of night, smuggled through the borders. Some could no longer stand living with the horrors of this war and have lost their coping mechanisms. The unprecedented jump in prices is not the least of their ills. Others have left Syria to take the many chances given to them due to their revolutionary history and personal connections. Continuing education in prestigious European universities or working with humanitarian NGOs or even securing political asylum represent irresistible temptations for Syrians who have long dreamed of travelling to Europe and beyond. Before the conflict such opportunities were few and far between.
Outside vs. inside
Whenever activists outside Syria try to comment on what is happening inside the country or even organise relief or send donations to Syrians, they are faced with resentment, anger and negativity from activists inside.
For a Syrian living under bombardment without being able to pay for her children' food or shelter or for an FSA fighter who takes his life in his hands all the time, activists on the outside are seen to be living in warm and secure environments – they left the country so what right do they have to comment? Such an attitude fails to consider the hardship of alienation that many feel abroad and the work that some activists are doing for refugee communities in neighbouring countries.
In Lebanon, considerable numbers of activists who fled Syria established networks and beehives working particularly on providing relief to refugees. Some of them don't sleep or rest, suffering from home sickness and working continuously. But they are still considered here as ‘hotel revolutionaries’ (Thowar Al-Fanadeq) compared to those inside Syria who are seen as the revolutionaries in the trenches (Thowar Al-Khanadeq).
This resentment is not only applied to activists on the outside but appears also between those under siege in so-called “hot areas” and those living in "safe" neighbourhoods. When a mortar fell inside the café of Damascus University's school of architecture there were two polar reactions. The first showed deep grief for the loss of innocent lives and sorrow for the families of the martyred students. However, some FSA members and supporters were angered because the fifteen causalities were very few compared to the daily number of victims in hot areas. They even went so far as to blame people for sending their children to universities and having the luxury of a "normal" life while they – FSA supporters and members cannot afford to do so.
The workshop activist is one that becomes an expert in every field by virtue of attending and organising a workshop. You can find them in every kind of workshop: media, humanitarian aid, human rights, documentation, technological support and even political. They make a steady living from attending these workshops continuously no matter what the subject is. They are the "jack of all-trades" activists – but usually with no real insights into any of the fields they claim to have expertise in. Unsurprisingly, the same faces can be found in these sessions which almost always result in no actual plan to implement this newly acquired knowledge on the ground.
The rising star of the Islamists
After Syria had been emptied of most of its peaceful activists, Islamists emerged as the main players on the political scene and secularists rapidly lost ground. According to rumours not yet proven, prominent figures in the Muslim Brotherhood played a role in enticing activists out of Syria in return for material compensation and political promises. M.A. is an activist from Aleppo who left Syria for France to participate in some "national project", but he later discovered that he had been used as a secular cover for an Islamic organisation funding armed militias.
The role of secular activists was never meant to be left standing empty. The new brand of activists in Syria are Islamists who generally support the FSA and have relations with the leftist wing of the revolution. Mohammad used to attend every meeting of peaceful activists two years ago being supported by his communist father. Eventually, he chose the Islamist side and joined the FSA as a spokesperson for one of the battalions: "Islamists are the most trusted because they didn't leave Syria for any benefit but are rather fighting on the front line."
Is it to be expected then that this revolutionary social transformation will now take the form of an armed conflict with a clear and almost complete Islamist colouring? How necessary was it to lose the energies of our secular youth to the four winds? Will any shift in the balance of power or a tipping of scales in this moribund stalemate we now find ourselves in, lead to a return of those activists who are now abroad? I sincerely hope so.
Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece.
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