In a town market in Douma – a Damascus suburb under the control of the FSA – some local shopkeepers are seemingly reluctant to take sides in a conflict which has wracked the country for the past two years. Abu Abdo, an elderly shoemaker in his seventies told me his mind when I asked him his opinion: "I just want to live and work so I can feed my family. I don't care who rules because [whoever comes in] will always be a corrupt hypocrite. Both sides – the regime and the opposition aren't worth supporting as they both steal and kill. Death, homelessness and destruction is all that we've got from them".
Abu Hosam, a sixty year old grocer in the same market shared his assessment: "some of my nephews joined the FSA while others are still doing their military service in the official army, they may end up killing each other one day because of this conflict. The conflict has nothing to do with us. Syria will never progress at this rate and we don't deserve freedom". He added while drawing a puff on his cigarette – his voice quivering and full of grief.
Two years have passed since the out-break of the Syrian revolution and the jagged graph of violence keeps rising steadily – the regime’s violence reaching ever-greater peaks. The most recent extremity has seen scud missiles launched by the regime against civilian populations in Aleppo and Raqqa. Yet, lots of Syrians continue to cling to their position of not taking sides. Known here in Syria as "the third current" or "the greys", this section of Syrian society are perhaps the most representative but also constitute an ineffective block – a silent majority. Opposition supporters routinely accuse the third current of backing the regime. On the other hand, the regime classifies them as opposition sympathisers.
Simply put, the apathy of the “the greys” reveals the severe trust-deficit that exists between many Syrians and politicians inside and outside the country. Many people in Syria retain deep doubts about the intentions of political players. Their pessimistic outlook regarding the escalating violence stems from catastrophic political failures inflicted by both the regime and opposition formations alike. Together with the widespread corruption that nestles in political institutions and personalities, it is perhaps unsurprising that apathy is a feature of political life in Syria.
However, it was believed that the uprising in Syria had torn away the veil of indifference. And yet, despite the carnage, the striking reality in Syria is that the third current has shown little appetite or any willingness to act or to change what they criticize. They have no political or organizational plans, and they surrender to whatever the future brings. They even fail to bring themselves to condemn the continuing barbarity of the killing machine.
There are generational differences also in the whys and wherefores of adopting a ‘grey’ position. On the one hand, most young people indicate no real interest in what is happening in the rest of Syria – some of them carry on with their lives as they had done before the conflict started; partying, hanging out at cafes and lounging by swimming pools as a distraction from the misery only a few kilometers away from them. Rami, a student in Damascus University originally from the city of Sweida, south Syria, says: "The situation is out of control, and nobody can stop the bloodshed. Arms dealers have decided that now is the time to get rich quick from what's going on in Syria. I am helpless like everyone else. I just want to live as normal a life as possible".
On the other hand, those from an older generation – particularly the intellectuals among them – demonstrate an intense pessimism and grief; it is as though they have lost confidence in their people and country. We often hear them say things like: "our people don't understand what freedom means" and " this country will never ever get any better", reflecting how they see Syria.
Part of this pessimism has a historical origin which wasn't born of the recent conflict.
Our fathers' generation was defeated twice: once in wars and the other in the battle with the self. Catastrophic defeats, especially the ones against Israel in 1948 and 1967 left deep scars in the psyche of Syrians – known to be the standard-bearer of Arab resistance – and instead stole every hope they ever had of being bearers of change from them. Moreover, Syrian authorities over the decades have been adept in the art of rhetoric; changing the defeat into a simple setback in 1948 and into a glorious victory in 2006. I would like here to mention an old article by the Syrian writer Ghada Alsamman. In I carry my shame to London, which she wrote right after the 1967 defeat, she articulated the anaesthetizing effect of replacing the term “defeat” with "Naksa and Nakba" – setback and calamity. The ploy of name-changing has done little to reverse the facts which we all knew.
The uprising has been reduced to a bloody conflict which dominates all the other aspects of the revolution. Its peaceful beginning didn't last long enough to revive the hopes of our parents' generation. Jihadi and Islamic currents have played a significant role in pushing neutrals away through their unwise propaganda. At the same time, the regime's crimes and its violent suppression of the opposition has led them to distance themselves from it.
Abu Abdo and Abu Hosam are just two out of millions of Syrians who don't see themselves supporting any side of the conflict. They are waiting for nothing and see no light at the end of the dark tunnel we are in now. The revolution failed to revive them, and the regime failed to be fair with them.
I respect an individual's personal freedom to adopt the position she wants, I really do. But, I find it impossible to defend the political neutrality of the Greys when it has been accompanied with a complete absence of moral response. Whilst we can justify and understand political neutrality, distancing ones' self from the systematic destruction and daily massacres without a single reaction or condemnation is in fact a moral failure
Ghada Alsamman wrote the following words in The Body is a Suitcase more than forty years ago, yet I can find no better way of summarizing the crisis of the ‘third current’, while inviting them to act, instead of living a forever frustrated existence, doomed to disappointment:
“We want organization, work and action..
We want the frenzied demonstrations to be considered as more than manifestations of the mob. Yes, it is a scandal as the ‘intellectuals’ called it. But it reveals an even greater scandal. The scandal of an authority which ignores its people's true desires [...] and doesn't organize their powers into positive actions; so in the end they explode in its face just like this – a destructive tornado.”
A thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece