Most discussion of the revolution’s early days deals in sentiments that our current circumstances can ill withstand. Four bitter years have passed and our situation today appears extremely harsh. The war dominates and the map of the conflict is excessively complex: “the war of all against all” as an English friend described it, writing to me to explain his failure to comprehend this map and its constant fluctuations. The truth is that his attitude represents the majority opinion of not only observers in the West, but also of Syrians left drained by displacement and poverty. Between the dominant Western media outlets and the literature of international organizations, all these individuals find themselves besieged by narratives of a “bloody war”, one we have no idea how we ended up with! an “armed conflict” where fundamental responsibilities are rendered impossible to gauge; discourse about “inevitable destinies” that lie in wait for in our countries, and which turn our liberation from the grip of totalitarian military fascist regimes into no more than a trap, leaving us tangled in the snares of ”Daesh”, also known as ISIS and nascent religious fascism. In all these narratives, ISIS is at the forefront of any discussion of the rootless, context-free Syrian “crisis”.
However, Syrians and their supporters who continue to cling to hope and believe in the justice of this revolution—that they still insist on calling a revolution— have other narratives which tell us that behind the map of warring fascist ideologies lies the truth that our country has never in its history done anything better than entering into this revolution. We still cling firmly to these narratives, to stories that tell us everything about our circumstances and the pulsing, ever-changing reality that these revolutions liberated from the control of authoritarian power.
Early in the summer of 2011, downheartedly leaving a mosque in Damascus’s Midan neighbourhood after an intensive security presence meant no demonstration could be held, a group of recently-acquainted friends met together. “O” was the oldest of those present and the most politically active: a Marxist intellectual who found no shame in coming out of mosques to hold Friday demonstrations. When the Free Syrian Army was formed he tried to make contact with the brigades in the countryside around Damascus, believing that initiating a political discussion with these fighters was his obligation. However he was quickly arrested and martyred in prison. “A”, on the other hand, came from a conservative family in the capital and was uncertain whether to welcome the militarization of a revolution he was already critical of. He was detained two years ago and is still missing. “N” was from the neighbourhood of Midan neighbourhood and worked in the family business. He was detained and tortured and left prison determined to take up arms, but the arrest of his younger brother and the resultant pressure from his suffering mother forced him to leave the country. The anger he felt after leaving prison brought him into the orbit of Jihadist Salafism, though these days he does all he can to reason with those of his friends who have fallen under its influence. Mohammed and Malek, both from the Damascene countryside, never missed a demonstration. Later, during the siege of East Ghouta, Mohammed dedicated his time to relief efforts but became a citizen reporter following the chemical weapons massacre there. Malek, a barber, first fought with a local unit of the Free Syrian Army before joining Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), with whom he fights to this day. Mohammed isn’t in contact with him much: he regards him as working for a group that is imposing a new tyranny in the name of religion. Both are besieged.
In the Idlib countryside I met Abdallah who had taken part in peaceful demonstrations in his village, then took up arms during the battles against regime forces that were attempting to stamp out the revolutionary movement in the area. At the start of the summer of 2013 Abdallah put down his gun and since then has dedicated himself to civil society work in the liberated rural areas, tirelessly criticizing fighters. Even after ISIS detained and released him he refused to go back to war. His younger brother, meanwhile, was killed a few months ago in the battles in Wadi after pledging allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra and fighting for them. Previously, he had been a non-violent demonstrator, then joined the Free Syrian Army. Dr. “S”—also in the countryside near Idlib—was a young medical doctor who had been detained at the start of the non-violent protest movement. When I met him he was full of pride at joining Ahrar al-Sham. He would subsequently become disgusted with the group for failing to stand up to ISIS in battles that raged from rural areas around Idlib to Aleppo all the way to Raqqa. His brother, a deserter from the regime’s armed forces, stayed on with Ahrar al-Sham after the Free Syrian Army unit he was affiliated with became absorbed into surrounding Islamist groups and was killed fighting regime forces. Dr. “S” left Ahrar al-Sham and today devotes all his time to medical work.
These accounts, a mere drop in the ocean, are not set down here in order to excite feelings of nostalgia . These narratives show that the revolution is all these people too: Syrians from every region and walk of life, whether dead, or missing, or still active to varying degrees in various different fields. Their visions of deliverance from tyranny differ in approach and means but all have been liberated from the clutches of stagnant despotism: they are interacting with, and trying to make an impact on, the world around them. They don’t always succeed—indeed, to date they have failed overall to produce any all-encompassing project for change—but they themselves are always changing. Some have taken up arms then laid them down. Others will take them up in the future. Some have left the Free Syrian Army and joined the Islamist movements that are growing ever stronger in an increasingly abandoned Syria. Some dropped out of these movements or will do soon. Syrians are infected with change, especially those who believe in it. Is it possible to deny this? The narratives that reduce memories of the revolution solely to the war deny this.
Commenting on the January revolution in Egypt, Asef Bayat recognizes the strength of the counter-revolution and the current dominance of its narratives, but reminds us that any new dictatorial regime has, “to rule a group of citizens who have passed through a great transformation. Large sectors of the urban and rural poor, the impoverished middle-classes, marginalized youth, and women, have experienced precious—albeit fleeting—moments of liberty and accessed untrammeled spaces of self-awareness and mass hysteria. As a result of this, some of the most entrenched parts of the pyramid of political power are now under threat.” In Egypt as in Syria, we continue to defy despair. We do so, first and foremost, in order to contest narratives that knock down the revolution as if it had never existed. Yassin Al Hajj Saleh states that, “Syria is the best place to understand the world today”, an eloquently intensified response to narratives that reduce Syria to ISIS or opposed binaries of “the military” and “Islamic extremism”. Those who voice these narratives seek, for instance, to understand ISIS by attributing it to qualities that are somehow inherent in our societies, societies which appear to them essentially obscure and based around on immutable traits. Unfortunately, some of us repeat and reproduce these narratives, searching for ISIS’s origins in the religious text itself and no further, ignoring the fact that ISIS is itself the product of modernity’s brutality and a world in which social justice has been persecuted out of existence, where the center controls the margins through inequitable economic relationships and alliances that have, and do, support the rule of the margins by dictatorial elites, republican or royal, military or religious. The cruelty of our birth pangs in Syria is a reflection of the cruelty of the world in which we live and a door to understanding its terrifying moral and ethical decline. For this reason, too, it is imperative not to surrender to narratives that absent the revolution and reduce understandings of our country to nothing more than treatments of the war, as though nothing else existed before or after it.
As the fourth year of the Syrian revolution came to an end, another open-ended confrontation is imposed on those Syrians who believe in the necessity of the revolution. It is the narratives of revolution confronting narratives of the counter-revolution and others that hang all our stories on the peg of war. It is a battle of documentation and writing to protect our memory and remind ourselves of the justice of the battle of freedom in Syria. It is far too early to run up the white flag in this confrontation: to do so would be a great betrayal of all those who lost their lives chanting for freedom and for the revolution, too.
Translated from the Arabic by Ribin Moger