Lessons from Ten Years of Syrian Revolution

March 28, 2021 | Political Education
Travis Sanderson

CW: sexual assault, rape, abuse, state-sponsored violence, descriptions of incarceration

Ten years ago this month, the Syrian Revolution began.

The spark was graffiti. The wildfire of the Arab Spring spread across the region in 2011, embers igniting from Tunisia to Egypt. Meanwhile, the city of Daraa was gripped in the iron fist of the corrupt cousin of the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. He forbade people from selling land without a security clearance but granted clearance only to his chosen favorites (Wendy Pearlman, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, 64). Then, in a local schoolyard, graffiti appeared: “you’re next, Bashar.” That was the first sign that the wildfire had reached Syria.

Immediately, school children younger than sixteen years old – chosen with no proof as to their involvement in the graffiti – were detained and tortured until they told officials everything they wanted to hear (Pearlman, 64). Ahmed, an activist in Daraa, described what happened next. Families assembled to demand the government release their children. The assembly grew, and the demands grew louder in Daraa. A security official responded to the shouts with resounding defiance, “forget your children. Go home to your wives and make more children. And if you don’t know how, bring your wives and we’ll show you how” (Pearlman, 62).

Patriarchal rape culture is not the only strand of fascism deeply baked into the DNA of the Syrian regime. The regime is constructed from an exclusionary nationalism that manifests in militarism, paranoia, and surveillance: “the private property of a dynasty” (Yassin al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, 152). The government’s ideology, a doctrine instilled in every student in Syrian schools since Hafez al-Assad’s consolidation of control in the 1960s, erases all diversity within Arab culture and sociopolitical beliefs to uphold the specific brand of Arabness that permits conflation of the Syrian nation with its government. Under this nationalism, any criticism of the government is naturally also a criticism of the nation, which is also the military, which is also the motherland. These are all the trademarks of fascism. It’s no wonder that slogans like “Syria First,” pre-empting Donald Trump’s use of the same phrase years later, and “Syria Is Above All,” which is explicitly inspired by the Nazi equivalent, were common in pro-government counterprotests (Saleh 118).

The enforcement of this ideology, and thus the reality of the Syria in which the movement began, was enabled by ethnic cleansings of Indigenous people – the Kurds – in the 1960s. The government adopted the “Arab Belt” policy to, in the words of activist Qamishli Mesud, “alter the demographics of Kurdish areas. [The policy] aimed to Arabize the population and change cities’ Kurdish names to Arabic names” (Pearlman 45). Shortly after the ethnic cleansings, dissent from Sunni Muslims also began to organize into a formidable movement. That movement was crushed in 1983. Tens of thousands of residents of the city of Hama, the nucleus of dissent, were massacred by the government’s military. The Hama massacre was mentioned in whispers ten years ago, described in code as just “the events,” since the language of Assad’s Syria is sealed and locked in euphemism.

Any dissent, however strong or faint, was incarcerated or killed in Syria. The legitimacy of the regime was carved above the corpses of dissenters and Indigenous people.

The regime relies on both security forces and brownshirts to enforce its existence. The fascist foot-soldiers of the regime, similar to Proud Boys and Border Patrol militias in the empire’s heartland, are the shabiha. They would routinely threaten to seize property, rape young women, arbitrarily humiliate cafe-goers, and kill people who objected to their insults throughout Syria (Saleh, 47). Much like Trump-supporting militants in the United States, the shabiha are weaponized by the regime to maintain its own power: “the poor and disadvantaged can be deployed as fanatical defenders of a wealthy political elite who disrespect them and care nothing for their well-being” (Saleh 53). These authoritarian militias expanded when the Revolution began.

Salah, a landscaper in rural Daraa, described Syria best: “we don’t have a government. We have a mafia. And if you speak out against this, it’s off with you to bayt khaltu [“your aunt’s house”]. That’s an expression that means to take someone to prison. It means, forget about this person, he’ll be tortured, disappeared. You’ll never hear from him again” (Pearlman 17).

One such dissenter who went to his aunt’s house was Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a leftist organizer who joined the Syrian Communist Party in the late 1970s, before the massacre in Hama. He was arrested for democracy advocacy and for protesting against the regime’s military intervention in Lebanon on the side of right-wing militants. Saleh was incarcerated for sixteen years in Syrian prisons for his organizing.

Saleh’s last year was spent in Tadmor Prison – the black hole of the Syrian regime. To understand the regime, one must understand Tadmor.

“Tadmor Prison is a name, or a crime scene, which resonates terribly in the Syrian imagination,” notes Robin Yassin-Kassab (Saleh xiii). “Faraj Barraqdar, a fellow prisoner, called Tadmor ‘the kingdom of death and madness.’” The prison, built by French colonizers, was reappropriated by the Assads when they came into power. This is revealing. A regime that has no problem in using colonizers’ weapons against its own people is no different than the colonizers that preceded the regime. Salameh Kaileh, a Palestinian writer who was detained in Tadmor from 1998 to 2000, has reported that “in Tadmur you have nothing. You’re only left with fear and horror.”

Faraj Barraqdar, a former prisoner of the regime, described Tadmor in his poem:

High walls of cold cement
Control towers
Mine fields
Check points
Barricades and special military forces
Finally… A space of pure patriotic fear
If the whole of Syria falls
This prison will never ever fall

Tadmor Prison was ground zero for the Hama massacre. Hundreds of political prisoners were shot to death in their cells as Assad’s brother, Rifaat, ordered his soldiers to kill one dissenter after another at gunpoint in 1983.

After sealing its legitimacy in blood, the Assad regime began to explore new methods of control over the people. The government transformed itself to don the coat of neoliberalism, becoming an outpost of the global financial empire of Washington, as Bashar inherited Syria from his father. The internet entered Syria. Reform was in the air. But much like Mao Zedong’s period of reform in 1957, reform was smoke and mirrors.  “A new class of crony capitalists, at their fore Assad’s extended family, became conspicuously rich,” Wendy Pearlman describes. “As power and wealth became concentrated in a narrower elte, the regime increasingly abandoned its traditional working-class base”.. Bashar al-Assad spearheaded the consolidation of power in this “neo-bourgeoisie that… owes everything to the regime and has a lot to lose were the revolution to emerge victorious” (Saleh, 18).

The creation of an elite, capitalist oligarchy that owed their existence to an exterminationist and paranoid regime also changed the societal fabric of Syria. “Development… favoured cities at the expense of rural areas, city centres at the expense of outlying neighborhoods, and wealthy suburbs at the expense of the crowded traditional suburbs” under the new neoliberal authoritarian model favored by the Assad regime (35) In other words, Bashar al-Assad utilized economic violence through forced displacement and gentrification to destroy traditional communities and defund Syrian homes.

This neoliberal turn had another consequence, one that also emerged in the West as a result of austerity: privatization of higher education. Adam, a media organizer in Latakia, said that “universities used to be free. But by the time I went to college, I had to pay for it… the regime had no willingness to reform the problems in public universities. Instead, their answer was to open new private universities, which charged people thousands of dollars” (Pearlman, 40). And when they graduated, similarly to countless students in the US today, they entered a workforce devoid of job offerings with degrees that felt worthless.

Then, schoolchildren painted the walls of a Daraa school with graffiti. Then, families were turned away and sexually harassed by security forces. Then, people started mobilizing – particularly in the traditional communities that a decade of neoliberal development had neglected and destroyed as gentrifying high-rises were built in the preferred neighborhoods of the oligarchy. Every Friday, people went to the squares and protested. Rural villages started assembling. A political movement was beginning in Syria – in the shadow of Kurds’ ethnic cleansing, in the shadow of Tadmor Prison, in the shadow of the Hama massacre, in the shadow of new skyscrapers, in the shadow of fascist gangsters arbitrarily attacking people in old cafes.

At its heart, the Syrian Revolution unfolded as a secular, feminist, and radically inclusive movement wherein a popular front of liberals, conservatives, and socialists of all sects and ethnicities within the heterogenous diversity of Syria all participated in confronting the regime. Many key organizers were millennials, the same generation that would reinvigorate and lead a new era of Democratic Socialists of America an ocean away. And many of the key leaders of the Revolution against the fascist, masculinist government were and continue to be women.

Students were some of the first protesters in the Syrian movement, with female students leading the charge. In demonstrations at the University of Aleppo, a former student named Ghaysh described how “women who wore headscarves would hide papers and signs in their long coats because they wouldn’t get searched” (Pearlman, 40). Male dorms were shut down quickly, but female dorms remained open, because security forces, in their sexism, conceived of maleness as the only potential source of resistance. Quickly, the center of organizing became the suites and dorm rooms of female students at the University of Aleppo. Sometimes, female students would even physically block police from attacking male demonstrators in the same way that anti-fascist organizers blocked police from attacking protesters during the George Floyd uprising.

Meanwhile, some organizers began to coordinate across the country in a massive digital organizing drive using Skype. Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer and organizer, created the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) to coordinate regionally and nationally. Organizers from one town could coordinate with organizers in another town entirely by using anonymous pseudonyms in Skype rooms. Many of the leaders of the LCCs would spend up to 12 hours together organizing online, according to feminist organizer Zaina Erhaim, who was a close comrade of Zeitouneh in maintaining the LCCs ten years ago. The LCCs were ”anti-sectarian, committed to nonviolence, and opposed to foreign intervention.”

That progressive ideological unity within the LCCs did not last the year. When the regime brought in tanks and released violent right-wing terrorists from its prisons to infiltrate and discredit the Revolution, as well as garner Western sympathy as the Assad regime posited itself as a key in the War on Terror, the secular and nonviolent Local Coordination Committees splintered. Zeitouneh was detained and disappeared within two years. Zeitouneh has not been seen since.

Meanwhile, Yassin al-Haj Saleh and Samira al-Khalil, his wife, both organized together as dissidents committed to democratic socialism, free from the Assad regime’s chains. Samira established women’s centers and small income-generating projects. As Yassin aimed to meet up with her, Samira was abducted and disappeared along with Zeitouneh. They are suspected of abduction by one of the patriarchal, terroristic militias in the opposition.

Many organizers began to lose faith as the regime violently suppressed one assembly after another, and their friends turned to more new authoritarian ideologies. Instead of envisioning an abolitionist approach to uprising, many adopted the regime’s authoritarian tactics – an eye for an eye. Countless joined and built violent, terroristic militias, which were either infiltrated with terrorists from Assad’s prisons, or filled with military officers disillusioned from the regime but still loyal to the toxic militaristic culture of sexual assault and targeted violence. Some dissident militias adopted prisons from the Assad regime, just like the regime had adopted them from the French colonizers: “at these sites the treatment of prisoners (who are not necessarily associated with the regime) does not come close to complying with basic human dignity” (Saleh, 182). The most infamous of these were the Daesh prisons in Raqqa, given that Daesh is a death cult of horror.

The violent suppression of the political movement carried on as “many initiators of the revolution and civil society activists [were] detained or assassinated, while armed resistance has been emphatically on the rise, with militants being recruited from the most disadvantaged ranks of society” (Saleh 166). One of the leaders of the Local Coordination Committees, Yahya Shurbaji, a pacifist whose commitment to nonviolent political tactics never wavered, was killed under torture in prison in September, 2011.

Invariably, the left-wing and non-sectarian organizers were targeted by the regime as the greatest threats. Lina Sergie Attar, who is the founder and CEO of the Karam Foundation serving Syrian needs in the diaspora, described a scene that unfolded as the Revolution slipped away into violent mayhem: “so many years ago, at the time when we felt the hope of the revolution slipping away into the ugliness of war, my friend, activist Rami Jarrah, told me, ‘The people who started the revolution will not be the ones who finish it.’”

In 2017, other refugee justice activists and I organized a symposium of Syrian revolutionaries at Middlebury College in central Vermont. The symposium contained two primary elements: speeches and workshops on activism. One activist-turned-journalist that I had the privilege of working with was Loubna Mrie. She became an activist between nineteen and twenty years old, smuggling medicine and food to families in Homs, as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) emerged as the armed element of the movement in its initial stages. Even though she was an organizer in the opposition, Loubna was targeted by her community in Latakia because her family was so deeply connected to the regime: “my father’s family is well known in Latakia—my uncle, my cousins and my dad founded the shabiha there.”

When Loubna was identified with a mask on in a Youtube video, her mother, who had always supported her daughter as she participated in the Revolution, was kidnapped. Her father cursed her and hung up the phone when she called him. But one day, Loubna said: “one of my friends, someone that I trust, told me that the dead body had been seen. I called [my father] and told him that he killed her. He said OK. He told me that he wished he could do the same to me.” Eventually, she fled to Turkey and has sought asylum in the United States.

Ever since those first few years, the country has been engulfed in immense violence and civil war. Syria is a theatre of death where the twisted features of Bashar al-Assad in his business suit continues to direct the show, presiding over a country filled with corpses and ruins, the wreckage of his war on his own people for daring to dream of a better world. In 2013, Saleh described Syria as “a playground for ghouls and terrifying, faceless beings” (210)

And yet, even as names like Eastern Ghouta and Idlib erupted in the flames of horror, some places of incredible lived resistance continue to survive. Most notably is the political project of western Kurdistan, on land that once the Assad regime ethnically cleansed, spearheaded by Indigenous people. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, often called Rojava, persists as a political experiment as the “most feminist revolution.”

The Federation is a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous de facto nation based on a model of Kurdish democratic confederalism. Since Rojava explicitly rejects centralized statist models for social progress, calling the Federation a state would be inaccurate and disingenuous. Indeed, decisions are made democratically through local communal assemblies where women co-chair every meeting and assembly. As Carne Ross describes, “in terms of historical comparison, this project resembles most closely the short period of anarchism witnessed by George Orwell in Republican Spain during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s.”

The anarchistic model of governance in the Federation has created one of the most progressive, democratic models worldwide. Not only are decisions made subject to the opinions of every resident, but residents who belong to ethnic minorities in the context of the Indigenous-led region, specifically Arabs, Assyrians, and Syriacs, are given priority on the speaking list for assemblies. In other words, Rojava uses a progressive stack structure for all conversations nationwide throughout the Federation. Interpreters are also mandated for anyone with linguistic differences from the common language of the assemblies.

The Democratic Federation exists in a region where every surrounding force is deeply hostile to the Federation’s existence. Beyond just the Assad regime, Turkey and Daesh are constant threats to the livelihood of this radical experiment in Kurdish-led, anarchistic self-governance. The Federation is heavily armed in the same style and philosophy as the Black Panthers were, but are elevated to the position of a national army. The People’s Self-Defence Units are composed of male and female soldiers defending the collective from the imperialist and fascist forces that surround its oasis.

In March, 2020, JM Lopez reported on a women’s commune called Jinwar that can be found inside the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. In many ways, Jinwar functions as a haven for Arab, Kurdish, and Yazidi survivors of sexual assault perpetrated by fascist forces of both the Assad regime and the patriarchal militias and death cults found in the opposition. Jinwar was created by feminist organizers as an eco-village that officially opened on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2018. The town is arranged in a triangle of thirty houses, all of which function as “a shelter for those who suffer abuse, a home for widows with children who lost their husbands during the war, and a place for women who want to get away from a capitalist society.” Some women are survivors of child marriage – explicitly, a form of rape – and shelters that functioned more like prisons than shelters in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Jinwar is also based in Indigenous Kurdish culture. In Kurdish, “jin” is related to both the term “woman” and “life”; the term “war” signifies “space,” “land” or “home.” Essentially, Jinwar is a Kurdish name that can be loosely translated to “Women’s Home.” As one Jinwar organizer noted in the village’s construction, “the village will be an autonomous space, a space of women to live freely and to regain the confidence, strength and creativity that have been undermined in the long historical process of an ever deeper and broader systematization of state, capitalism and patriarchy.” The village is a safe space for women who have survived immense oppression and is one type of socialist feminist community.

The construction of Jinwar was done on explicitly eco-socialist lines. The houses were built only through materials that do not pollute the environment mostly by Indigenous women, powered primarily through solar power, free from market influence. Decisions for Jinwar are made by monthly assemblies of the residents of the village; tasks are distributed by them as well. There is a children’s park, a bakery, a library, a medical dispensary, and a communal kitchen – all administered by women who trade off jobs every month. Visits to Jinwar by men are allowed, but they are not allowed to stay overnight. Jinwar is a far more progressive community than any Western society has been able to create in our era, located in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria produced by the Revolution, even as terror seized the rest of the country.

The Revolution increasingly seems to survive only in Rojava, but the Revolution also lives in the consciousness of its participants worldwide. A social movement is an animating force, injecting life into the blood of every individual. “We had gotten used to oppression. It was part of our life, like air, sun, water. We didn’t even feel it. Like there is air, but you never ask, “where is the air?”… and then – in one second, in one shout, one voice – you blow it up. You defy it and stand in front of death,” said Cherin, a mother in Aleppo (Pearlman 88). Yassin al-Haj Saleh captured the energy of the Revolution and its organizers further: “for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the Syrian popular uprising has been an extraordinary experience, ethically and politically: an experience of self-renewal and social change, an uprising to change ourselves and a revolution to change reality” (29).

The Revolution can never die when it lives on in participants’ memories. The movement may have been forced into the bloody hold-outs of deeply corrupt and patriarchal rebel militias, or into the feminist collectives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. However, as the people who dared to dream are forcibly displaced into refugee camps and resettlement programs, the movement lives on as a human revolution in the soul and mind of each Syrian displaced far from Aleppo or Damascus.

Many revolutionaries continue to live as they are reduced to the political status of “asylee” or “refugee.” Twentysomething organizers who spent 12 hours a day online coordinating protests from their bedrooms are in Istanbul, Berlin, Chicago, Copenhagen, New York City, Beirut, and San Francisco. Activists are community members in places like Las Vegas, working service jobs, or apolitical classmates in community colleges like the College of Southern Nevada. “Just a few weeks ago, I watched two Syrian refugee girls, Hawla and Rua, present their project to redesign the popular online game, Among Us, to become a more interactive game in real life,” said Attar in her recent article. “They were coding live on Zoom in front of their mentors, guest critics, and peers. Another young teen in Istanbul, Rouba, has started an Instagram baking business during the pandemic. And yet another teen who had lived through the starvation sieges in East Ghouta as a child became a young technology leader in his Turkish school, where he taught dozens of Turkish students design programs he learned at Karam House. These young people and thousands more are proving every day that Syrian refugees are much more than their tragedies and trauma. They are brimming with potential and endless possibility.” Syrians are here, among us, with us and alongside us, and their struggle and experience is ours, as well.

I met one such child in Atlanta, Georgia, at a school with a large population of refugee children. Eleven other students, activists, and I were volunteering with New American Pathways and the International Rescue Committee there. The children in the after-school program were all refugees – from Iran, from Syria, from Iraq, from Pakistan. One child, a boy in second grade, had an eyepatch. We learned that he lost his eye in the regime’s assault on the city of Aleppo. He was a natural at art.

Ultimately, there are a number of lessons we should draw from the Syrian Revolution. The first is understanding that the movement, in itself, is an energizing force. Whether or not a specific mobilization succeeds or fails, it will continue and persist in the heart of its organizers. We should not let our efforts be poisoned by opportunism or replication of the systems of oppression we seek to abolish, whether in the form of patriarchy or racism. The forces of counterrevolution, the institutions with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, will not yield without force, but that force must always be driven by principles. Ends do not justify the means, because bad means are toxic to good ends.

The second is that, in the tumult of the Revolution, there have been models of progress in Syria worth emulating as goals of the global left. The highly accountable, progressive Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, perhaps more than any other society in the world, upholds values of social progress. Places like Jinwar present radical alternative ways of living – eco-socialist, Indigenous, multicultural – to the debilitating systems of oppression we breathe. Rojava proves that a better world is possible – a world that is full of interdependent care, where survivors can thrive in safe spaces. Rojava is the future we should strive for.

Further, we must remember that many regimes are wolves in the sheep’s clothing of left-wing rhetoric. Whether China or Syria, these “anti-American” authoritarian systems are toxic to marginalized people within their own borders and to social movements for greater progress worldwide. These regimes function as national bourgeoisies upholding the very imperialist system whose bedrock in the twenty-first century is the United States. As they participate in and propagate the finance system whose ultimate iron fist is Wall Street, they oppress their own people to maintain power. The Assads of the world are the cogs in the global empire. We must recognize the forces of oppression for what they are, regardless of what they say. No self-respecting abolitionist can support regimes that prop up their power through incarceration and displacement.

Finally, we must understand that relegating any conversation on Syria to the extent of Western intervention is a disservice to the organizers – young people, mothers, workers – who find purpose and life in the Syrian Revolution. The Syrian experience holds lessons in the nature of social movements today more than any French or Russian Revolution does, yet we place the latter two on a pedestal even as we only ever mention Syria when the President of the United States drops bombs on the country. Syria deserves to be thought of and treated on its own terms, as Syrians experience it. While presidents should be condemned for interventions that harm civilians, Syria is all too often treated by Western leftists as only a practice ground for recycled anti-war rhetoric and not a real place with real people. At best, positioning the West as the center of the galaxy of the Syrian experience is erasure; at worst, it infantilizes and silences Syrian people and gaslights survivors of war by informing them that the monstrous regime did not, in fact, murder their relatives or destroy their communities to maintain power.

Solidarity means addressing the lived experiences of workers and students, of revolutionaries and digital organizers, on their own terms – in all their flaws, in all their beauty. They are our comrades and fellow travelers. Now, as many have become refugees, they are our neighbors. The people of Syria are the people of the West are the people of Syria. Understanding that our future is the same and our struggles interdependent is the way to be truly internationalist.

Long live the Syrian Revolution. Organizers who have a world to win, unite.

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