Syria lies in tatters five years on from Arab Spring – but anti-Assad protesters remain convinced regime will fall

This year, for the first time, the anniversary of the initial protests comes during a period of relative peace

Olivia Alabaster
Sunday 13 March 2016 21:36 GMT
Children playing in Daraya, near Damascus
Children playing in Daraya, near Damascus (Reuters)

Half a decade since the Arab Spring reached Syria, the country is in tatters, with at least 250,000 killed, infrastructure and national cohesion destroyed, and an Isis statelet rampant in the north. But those committed to the opposition remain adamant that their initial demand – to bring down the regime – will still be achieved.

This year, for the first time, the anniversary of the initial protests comes during a period of relative peace – despite ceasefire violations such as the regime’s air strikes in Aleppo on Friday that killed five civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The ceasefire was urgently needed,” says Mohammad al-Masri, an editor at the Syrian Mirror opposition news website, who is based in Turkey. “People are tired. Nobody can take that amount of killing. They needed a break, on both sides.”

Last year was the worst yet in the war, 30 human rights groups said last week, with the country further fragmenting and more people living under siege, with less access to aid. Russian air strikes, which began on the last day of September, have killed thousands of civilians, the groups say.

Mr Masri had already planned to leave Syria in late March 2011, just as protests were getting under way, to study in Jordan. But he volunteered to help the opposition reach out to journalists from around the world. “I dreamt that after five years, the Syrian passport would be one of the most powerful in the world. Like those of the US and the UK,” Mr Masri says.

“I was dreaming that our parliament would be like Turkey’s, our streets like Western Europe. Our schools and students like Japan.”

After the self-immolation of a disenfranchised street vendor in Tunisia in December 2010 sparked the Jasmine Revolution there, anti-regime protests soon spread to Egypt, then to Libya. In March 2011, schoolboys in Syria’s southern city of Deraa spraypainted “It’s your turn, doctor” on a wall, a clear reference to President Bashar al-Assad, who is a trained ophthalmologist. Their detention by security officials led to local protests, which soon spread to the capital, Damascus.

Muhammad Shehideh, an English teacher and aid worker in the currently besieged rebel-held city of Daraya, to the west of Damascus, remembers the first protest there. He himself penned the slogan that was used: “From Daraya to Houran [Deraa], one people who will not be humiliated” (it rhymes in Arabic).

Despite ceasefire, fighting continues in Syria

“We felt a mixture of fear, anticipation, excitement and hope,” he says. “Many people were eager to raise their voices.” At first, Mr Shehideh recalls, the resignation of Mr Assad was not even one of the demands made by the demonstrators. “We didn’t ask that Bashar would leave,” he says, “We just asked for more freedom, dignity, fighting corruption. Expectations were very high at the time.”

Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the opposition’s Local Co-ordination Committees, agrees: “We were all full of hope,” she says. “The fall of the regime seemed imminent; we could practically taste freedom.”

But then violence crept in, and escalated quickly. On that first Friday of protest in Daraya, Mr Shehideh says, officials gathered regime supporters for a counter demonstration near by. But by the following week, “they brought buses of thugs unfortunately, shabeeha as we call them. Some were military troops, but they weren’t in uniform. They held batons, sticks and they started to beat us.”

Anti-regime protesters tried to reason with the shabeeha, but they were not interested in a debate: “We tried to speak to them but they wouldn’t listen.”

Across the country, each protest was met by ever greater force. The regime has always denied initiating violence, and says it responded only because of armed infiltrators; whatever the truth of that, deadly violence reached Daraya on what became known as “Great Friday” a day of unified protest across the nation on 22 April.

“I believe more than 10,000 people demonstrated in Daraya … the regime brought military forces and riot police. They dispersed the protesters, they fired at them, and three were killed, and more than 20 injured.” Despite the clear dangers, and the regime’s willingness to use force, Mr Shehideh says the protesters were undeterred.

“At that time, people knew that they were risking their lives, but they insisted on going on. We used to exchange jokes about going and never returning; people writing their wills before going out to protest, telling their friends what to do if they were killed.”

In response to the increasingly bloody government crackdown, the Free Syrian Army was formed in July that year, comprising many defectors.

Osama Nassar, who founded the Syrian Non-Violence Movement, regrets that the opposition movement became militarised. “Yes, the regime started the violence, and it’s the first side to be blamed,” Mr Nassar says now from besieged Douma; he fled there from Damascus in 2013, when the regime issued an arrest warrant in his name.

“Violence has always been the regime’s only answer, even before the revolution. Violence is its court: it wasn’t wise of us to challenge it in its own court.” Having glimpsed the opportunity for reform after decades of repressive rule, his fellow revolutionaries were “in a hurry”, Mr Nassar says. “We were all longing for freedom.” He wishes the opposition had stuck to non-violent weapons of strikes and civil disobedience, even though this would have taken longer to have an effect.

Mr Masri believes that the early involvement of foreign powers weakened the opposition, as its competing factions looked to their backers overseas. “The opposition was so fragmented, all they cared about were the interests of the powers who elected them,” he says, pointing his fingers at Qatar, Turkey and Britain among others.

He believes the regime is now weakened beyond repair, but that it will not surrender until every other option is exhausted. “The regime is going to collapse,” he says. “Anyway, there is no regime any more … It’s now just become groups of mercenaries under the names of different security branches.”

Mr Assad was never the real issue for Mr Masri – it was the structures of the state that surrounded him. “Assad himself is an employee. Assad wasn’t the problem … it’s the construction of the regime.”

The regime is, of course, not the only enemy for the moderate opposition now, and the growth of Isis over the past few years appears to pose a threat to the sovereignty of any future Syria.

But for Ms Jouejati, the jihadist group is merely an extension of the regime, albeit of a different shade. “The ultimate goal is to effect regime change, and by regime change I mean the Assad mafia and all those other dictatorships Assad has spawned – groups such as Isis – that have adopted a deeply twisted version of Islam to further their political agendas.”

Ms Jouejati also admits the opposition has made mistakes, but blames that on the lack of a political culture in Syria, itself the fault of a regime that brooked no opposition. “No Syrian had been trained to serve in an opposition party,” she says. “Leadership was confused with dictatorship; healthy competition was non-existent.”

Having lived her life between Syria and the US, Ms Jouejati blames many failings on the international community. Asked to cast her mind back to 2011 and say what she then expected Syria would have looked like now, she says that she fully expected it to have become “a transitional state” and the regime to have collapsed.

But she says she did not expect the international community’s “relative indifference to human suffering”, nor its vacillations over declared red lines. “I did not expect the Obama administration to so blatantly turn its back on a people victimised by a Hitleresque regime wielding chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”

Yet in an example of the triumph of hope over experience, this fifth anniversary of the war feels unlike any other – according to “Marvin Gate”, the pseudonymous curator of the Humans of Syria Facebook page, which tries to put real faces to events. “This time something has happened, something has changed,” Ms Jouejati says.

The temporary “cessation of hostilities” brokered by the US and Russia – but which excludes Isis and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra – has allowed peaceful protests to resume again.

“The amazing thing is that after five years, people still have the strength to go back to the streets. They have survived bombing, chemical weapons and sieges – and still they are willing to ask for their rights and to protest, even though they are tired.”

And, she says, they are unified. “They are all using the same slogan, and the same flag once again. It’s not a civil war, it’s a revolution.”

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