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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > April 2013 > Civilian Activism in Syria

Civilian Activism in Syria

Monday 1 April 2013, by Anne Guay

Civil war rages on in Syria. As the death toll reaches an estimated 70,000 Syrian civilians, over 1.1 million are refugees in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt and 2.5 million are internally displaced. The figures are astonishing, but numbers remain obscure. Disturbing social phenomena are ongoing within these statistics, such as the rape of women and children, who make up three quarters of the refugee population. People are being maimed and permanently disabled from the violence, left with barely adequate mental and physical healthcare. People are living in dirty, damp underground tunnels to hide from the war; sometimes as many as twenty families in one space. To add to the gravity of the humanitarian crisis, Western mainstream coverage unanimously portrays international intervention as the only solution or viable method to solving the conflict. This harrowing picture urges the question: how can civilian action contribute to peace in Syria?

The International Peace Initiative for Syria, an organization of high-ranking delegates, proposes and upholds a process towards a political solution to the conflict. Its mission statement holds that "any solution must be based on the sovereign will of the Syrian people" and that they "reject categorically any kind of military intervention, wherever it may come from." Other endorsed measures for peace include ceasefire and negotiations, as well as the de-militarisation of the land, where the Syrian people can live humanely, and afterwards democratically with the installation of an electoral system.
While such meaningful efforts for the establishment of a political solution are in progress, people on the ground are still dying and living in terror. Without knowing what it will take for Bashar al-Assad’s government to enter talks or even if it will, civilians are taking different approaches to the ongoing revolution.

The Syria First movement has revived the non-violent movement that seems to have been trampled in 2012 under the weight of an all-out armed conflict between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Army. It aims to remind Syrians of the possibility of peace, standing for ethics, not politics. Though such movements indicate that hope for peace is still alive within the people, spokesperson Mohammad Al Bardan for the Syria Nonviolent Movement admits that it is apparent that the fighting is not about to end. This group is about building a civil society for a future post-conflict Syria, rather than aiming for an immediate cease-fire. In Bardan’s words, "it is more important to liberate the minds than the lands" in order to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition after the revolution has removed Assad.

Video activist Rami Jarrah founded the Activists’ News Agency, running it in Cairo and connected to a team of 400 civilian journalists from within Syria. In Egypt, he is free to publish information while receiving international NGO funding, though openly admitting his support for the FSA. Playing this double whammy could be a new trend as other organizations in Egypt are benefiting from the same position; having the ’neutral’ support claimed by international NGOs and their funding, and the ability to directly contribute partisanship to the internal armed opposition. This approach works because public opinion within Syria largely supports the opposition, so Rami can openly support the FSA though he himself is choosing to act peacefully as a video activist.

In a press release statement, media activists based in Damascus and its surrounding areas discuss the urgent need for safe communications media because activists are being killed and imprisoned for such activities as uploading videos deemed dissident by government soldiers. They are asking for donations of communications equipment free of obligations towards the donors. There seems to be a strong feeling of resentment towards the external opposition for misrepresenting their voices and imposing conditional aid, such as praise for the organizations, as well as giving equipment to those without immediate use for it. Thus, these media activists who are contributing peacefully to the movement must face the dangerous reality of their work, the communications lines are under the regime’s surveillance.

There is even more evidence to support the claim that Rami’s case is far from isolated. In a Democracy Now interview with an anonymous activist in Damascus, she explains that grassroots activists condone international intervention, that support is needed in the form of weapons for defence against the government militia and that the strong sentiment of distrust towards anything regime-related is widespread. "What [the Syrian people] want is arms support... to defend ourselves...and to finish this regime."

Indeed, the relationship between civil society and the FSA is complicated and it is important to note that all the voices included in this article have not ignored the human rights abuses committed by FSA soldiers and that they must be held accountable just as the Syrian army should. Nonetheless, an article originating from the Damascus Media Office describes how the FSA is fulfilling a tacit social contract in the liberated areas by taking on public service functions that are not being provided by the government. These include, but are not limited to: electricity repairs, provision of clean water and flour or bread, price controls and security checkpoints for neighborhood safety. In other words, the FSA is catering to basic needs—which are arguably the main concerns of any population.

In line with the above-mentioned press release, the Damascus Media Office is demanding communications support from the external opposition. More specifically, they want a direct line of contact between the internal opposition; both media activists and FSA members; and the external opposition. They want to remove mediators who delay and muffle their message so that international coverage of the Syrian crisis can become representative of military operations’ consequences on civil society. There is also the need to establish hierarchies and administrations in liberated cities, in order to relieve the FSA of their public services so they can resume fighting the Syrian army.

It seems like peaceful forms of activism, like that taken by the Syria Nonviolent movement, works to lay the foundations for civil life in a post-Assad Syria. Usually, those commending immediate ceasefire and negotiations are ostensibly external activists, as is the case with the International Peace Initiative for Syria.

Government rhetoric in the state media claims that the regime is ready for talks as Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi "called on all faithful Syrians to participate in the political process... in order to expand dialogue." The problem with this statement is that there is no dialogue to expand and there is no political process by which Syrians would participate, because it entails the existence of a democratic system by which a referendum or elections can occur. Therefore, no true intention is shown, and even less intention of stepping down as the people would have it.

Perhaps the regime has to be at a military disadvantage for meaningful negotiations to become a possibility. With the recent proposition of opening a dialogue, maybe Assad’s militia is already at a disadvantage and realising it cannot win. As reporter David Enders put it," I think what we’re seeing is just the government crumbling under the weight of a massive rebellion. It simply can’t put it down." Syrians are taking matters into their own hands to topple the regime and to prepare for a post-conflict civil society.