Note from LeftEast editors: We re-publish this text from The Brooklyn Rail. The English version was translated from the French by Janet Koenig. This text was published in French in the journal CQFD Mensuel de critique et d’expérimentation sociales 136 (October 2015).
We met with Salma, Hani, Majd, Oussama, Abou Selma, activists infused with the values of anti-authoritarianism and direct democracy. Formerly from Damascus and the surrounding areas, notably Douma (the city of sad renown) and Yarmouk Camp, they are now living in Toulouse, Paris, and Beirut, where they have come to “catch their breath” and prepare for the next round of struggles. For them, the conflict’s outcome will not be a choice between “Bashar or Sharia,” as the chorus sings, from the extreme left to the extreme right. The despot’s current rehabilitation, one that throws the Syrian opposition into the same bag as Salafist obscurantists, feels like a knife in the back to these activists. Crushed for the time being, they don’t give up. This would be self-betrayal. By publishing their testimonials, CQFD wants to help give these invisible combatants back their voice.
—GLAMMOUR: Groupe de liaison et d’action
Méditerranée Moyen-Orient utopie Rojava
“They stole the Revolution from us!” exclaims Majd, an early actor in the Syrian Spring, now a recent refugee in France. Since the popular uprising in March, 2011, networks of resistance have formed in the continuum between militants in exile and those working in Syria’s liberated zones. Ignored by the media that favor endless geopolitical analyses, these networks have had to endure ferocious repression and to cope with the rapid militarization of the uprising, caught between the development of Islamist and jihadist movements backed by Western and regional powers. Finally, they see themselves betrayed by an official opposition of stay-at-home, corrupt, and disembodied notables in exile. Despite all this, these networks try to hold on to the revolutionary spirit they had at the beginning. Even when they find themselves driven back to struggling for survival in the beseiged zones, not surrendering is their last hope of one day seeing the tyranny fall.
From popular uprising to clandestinity
In the summer of 2012, a little more than a year after the beginning of the Syrian Spring, the social movement that had emerged out of the first weekly demonstrations after Friday prayers found itself forced into clandestinity by the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s orchestrated repression. Networks of civil resistance formed in Damascus and its surrounding towns. Salma, who lived with her family in a “loyalist” neighborhood in the center of Damascus, remembers: “The tipping point came in Damascus in July, 2012 when four top generals were assassinated. Large defections from the army occurred and the climate turned towards insurrection. The regime then changed its tactics. The Friday demonstrations became blood baths. I no longer went. There were no longer popular gatherings but clandestine activities to provide logistical support and supplies for the liberated zones.” Hani, her husband, specifies that this entrée into clandestinity occurred at the same time that neighborhoods organized self-defense militias, which would give rise to the Free Syrian Army: “We could no longer move around in Damascus. I got arrested with a sum of money contributed for delivery to the free zone. Other activists, smugglers, helped soldiers desert. Special telephone numbers to call when a soldier wanted to desert circulated. Often the smuggler answered the call by saying, ‘With or without your weapon?’ Of course, desertion with weapons was better.”
Oussama, an ex-functionary of the Foreign Ministry who is now in Beirut, witnessed this tipping point in Douma, a “liberated” town located northeast of the capital in eastern Ghouta (the agricultural countryside around Damascus): “In 2012, we began to feel under siege. At this time, I lost close comrades who were summarily killed at the checkpoints. There was no arrest, no trial, nothing. We were afraid to move. The first person I lost was my nephew. A university student, he was arrested and tortured for 70 days. Next, I lost my cousin, a Douma shopkeeper, killed by government soldiers. After that, I lost my childhood friend who lived in the same area; he was killed by a sniper. At the end of 2014, there were 24 snipers in Douma who covered all the streets.” Majd also participated in Douma’s popular uprising by acting as a reporter: someone from an illiterate family, who had never before engaged in political activity: “The political discussions which emerged out of coordinating the revolution ceased to exist; the level of violence reduced discussion to zero. The territory was divided, marked off by snipers’ locations. All demonstrations disappeared; the activists were caught up in the humanitarian emergency that the repression imposed. The militant spirit changed, we had just lost the initiative of the revolution.”
The Razan Zeitouneh Network
Hani, Salma, and Majd are part of one the largest networks still active around Damascus, a network attached to the local coordinating committee and organized around the personality of Rasan Zeitouneh. This young Damascus lawyer, along with her husband Wael Hamada and two of her colleagues (including the wife of the writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh) were kidnapped. Everything suggests that a local warlord, whom the regime’s forces had liberated from jail, committed the abduction.1 Rasan Zeitouneh had contributed to the Violations Documentation Center which works on documenting the regime’s crimes and which demands that all political prisoners be freed. At Douma, she started a women’s protection center where more than 300 women regularly distribute survival baskets: for Douma’s residents, survival has become a means of resistance.
Madj recounts: “I am involved in coordinating local projects, particularly for hospitals and education. With the repression, all public services ended. I participated in the creation of seven educational centers, which serve 200 to 250 children. I have taught children from all backgrounds. We put in place playful pedagogies, very different from the regime’s disciplinary schooling. The local economy is limited but stable in Ghouta’s localities, particularly in clothing manufacture. There are still raw materials and production machinery; idle factories abandoned by their owners are put in the service of the free zone community. Because of the absence of international investors or of NGOs like the Red Cross, other connections were made with the outside and our own financial system was put into place, with occasional backers: a system operating between the flux of people who enter with dollars, that is to say, us or our support networks,2and those who leave, Syrians who flee and exchange their currency. It’s wartime banking logic.” Oussama confirms this: “Our vision was to aid the civilians. We never thought about aiding the soldiers. They have their own financial support. We work in several sectors: health, education, food. We can’t operate in too structured a manner or we risk being discovered by the regime. This has been very difficult: we’ve had problems with transporting money or food, because even when you want simply to talk to somebody on the street, you are observed and controlled. I’ve often carried money from one house to the next, from one person to the next; sometimes I’ve had to walk around with thousands of dollars, which could have cost me my life.”
Hani, formerly a restorer of old houses, an occupation he had to give up in 2012, recounts the first steps of the collective of activist engineers that he helped found in Damascus: “In 2013, you could go back and forth in the free zone. Cut off from basic needs like water, electricity, gas, another world was taking shape. We began by testing models of solar-powered stoves, of liquified gas tanks, in Damascus, then distributed them to other districts, in order to find alternatives to state-run energy sources. A Douma peasant agreed to put our tests into practice. This network has been active for two years. In the beginning, it operated from contributions, but the local population became impoverished. We are looking for outside support. This is our way of participating in the revolution. But it has a frustrating side, because today the reality of the resistance is at the front.”
Around the same time, south of Damascus in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, Abou Selma, a teacher of Arabic at the university, established the first free school there since the dictator put the village under embargo. This former militant of the Palestinian Communist Party has since distanced himself from the school because of its relations with the regime. With the air strikes in July 2012, Yarmouk definitely entered the revolution. “Since the first bombing raid, shelling has occurred on a daily basis and they have targeted the schools. The Yarmouk schools that depended on UNRWA (the UN) closed. I, my wife, and a niece found a wedding hall in a basement called ‘The Golden Hall of Damascus;’ it became ‘The Damascus School.’ We had two half-days of school and around 1,200 pupils—the numbers fluctuated. As there was a great flight of expertise in the instruction staff, only a few people holding degrees or specializations remained: some young women with high school diplomas, in the beginning of their studies at best. There were only two other men. I trained everyone and they became the best teachers in all of Syria.” He continues: “The Free Syrian Army was stationed near the center of Yarmouk and the regime bombed our building seven times. We devised strategies so that the students would not leave at the same time. At the end of a year, there were five other schools created in a few other zones in Yarmouk. Three remain today. No international donors backed this project, but committed individuals joined together to finance us. Our idea was to save Yarmouk’s civil society no matter what, in order that education and teaching remain a timeless priority above any influence.”
Autonomy despite the war
These activist networks in Douma, as in other zones in Syria, depend more or less upon the local councils, through which the resistance attempted to structure itself across the country. In October 2011, Oma Aziz, an anarchist militant who died in prison in February, 2013, founded the local committee of Berzeh (a municipality north of Damascus). He called upon Syrians to organize themselves into self-governing bodies, independent of the state, by means of horizontal and collaborative practices. Today, every province has a council except Damascus, the heart of the state’s security system.
Most of our contacts understood organizing at the local level, including the purely humanitarian and survival missions, as a form of resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s scorched earth policy for the besieged zones. In the beginning, it was necessary at all costs to prevent Assad’s policy from carrying everything away in its path and at the same time to create a replacement administration to take over the important public services (justice, water, sanitation). Salma clarifies the importance of these local councils: “In certain towns, the local councils succeeded in persuading public sector employees to remain at their posts, notably in schools and power plants, even after the regime cut the salaries of civil employees in the free zones in order to incite them to quit.” She continues: “Derraya, that’s the most advanced project since the revolution. It has always been the most open city with the first political initiatives starting in 2002 – 2003, such as the municipal library and organized street cleaning to make up for the state’s shortcomings. It has really frightened the regime. The city has remained mobilized despite the intense bombings undertaken by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and commander of the fourth division. Life under the blockade is hard: there is no agricultural land to help withstand the siege. But the residents are not giving into Assad’s pressure, even when he dangles a cease-fire.” Derraya, located in the Rif near Damascus, is considered to have the most experienced local council. While it has become one of the hottest fronts of the conflict, since 2012 armed groups have to submit to the local council’s authority and military operations have to be discussed with the civil authorities.
Oussama recalls Douma’s local councils: “This city has been under siege for at least two years, but it continues to look for alternatives and to be united without returning to a hierarchical system. The residents have succeeded in creating a civil system, and while they live under exceedingly difficult conditions, it is systematized and organized. We have a democratically elected local council, which ensures municipal work. Military groups remain outside the town; it is forbidden to bring weapons into town.”
A discredited institution: the opposition in exile
“Through the local councils and the structuring of autonomous projects, we were also hoping to build representative legitimacy—all the while waiting for hypothetical international aid and contending with armed groups capitalizing on their military feats and foreign funds.” But Abou Selma recalls problems with the UN: “We began sending messages to the UN to announce the reopening of schools, the number of students, the programs, and to call on international organizations to take responsibility and aid us. They ignored us. Later, we sent lists with registration records and results to UNRWA. It finally recognized our schools but on condition that they taught the official Syrian curriculum. At least, the students coming out of our schools could continue their education elsewhere. There was, however, no financial aid.” Majd also touched upon the means of financing the autonomous projects, this time via local councils, which the opposition in exile and the international donors had asked to take over the distribution of aid: “A new council was elected for all of eastern Ghouta, charged with the distribution of funds. The council voted on budgets like the security program, for example. But putting these funds from abroad to use was complicated. Moreover, they came quarterly, not annually, which made it difficult to plan an alternative vision for the medium term.”
Those who represent the official opposition in exile rarely take into account this reality for activists on the ground. Syrian revolutionaries almost unanimously denounce the incompetence and the lack of credibility of these “ballroom opponents,” these privileged negotiators with the great powers. They criticize the Syrian National Council for its attempt to recentralize the local councils, for the opportunism, corruption, and divisions that undermine it, and for its attempts at international interference according to the changing power relations in the field. Marwan, a young Syrian exiled in Paris since 2011, vents his disillusionment: “The representatives of the Syrian National Council earn several thousand dollars a month, which encourages them to be content with their inaction. These former supporters of Bashar, part of the elite, represent themselves as an opposition in exile. This is why many Syrians don’t believe in them: those with the means escape, the poor stay and die. In reality, this is class opposition in exile.”
Militarization sets back popular resistance
Abandoned by its self-proclaimed representatives, helpless against the Assad regime’s repeated attacks, and dispossessed by the pro-war militias’ attempts to seize power, civil resistance has weakened. At the same time, militias seeking hegemony have been able to benefit from military and logistical support provided by the Gulf States3 and to play their own games of influence independently of the civil movement. Leila, an anarchist and dissident blogger,4 summarizes the growing importance of armed groups in the revolutionary situation: “Totalitarian Islamist groups like Daesh gained strength in the chaos and began to target the free zones, the activists, and the Free Army, while committing terrible atrocities. This was the emergence of criminal gangs and war profiteers. Syria became the battleground of proxy wars, of Sunni-Shiite rivalry, of foreign interventions. Iranian troops and Shiite militias [Hezbollah] occupy the parts of the territory that supported the regime. The Wahhabi extremists came to join Daesh. This was the price of our quest for freedom.”
In Yarmouk, the activists found themselves directly affected by the arrival of the Jabhat al-Nusra group. Abou Selma relates the dictates imposed by this Islamic militia: “The first time, the Jabhat al-Nusra men came to see me was with the emir (as a sign of respect for the educational institution). In the name of Islam, they asked me to separate the girls from the boys. I told them that I was, of course, a Muslim, but that I couldn’t open a second school for lack of funds. By virtue of this exceptional situation, they finally accepted coeducation in the school. The second time, they came to demand an hour per week of religious instruction, which I refused. Another time, I had trouble with them because I had organized a festival for the children during Eid al-Fitr [the end of Ramadan] with young girl and boy volunteers. These young volunteers wanted to continue the festival on their own and I let them. It was well behaved and family-like. But Jabhat al-Nusra accused me of turning the school into a place of debauchery and called me a street dancer ‘like all the Goranais’ [original inhabitants of Jordan]. We had a bitter exchange: I told them that they had no power over me and that it would be better to pick on the government.” Increasingly menaced, Abou Selma finally chose the path of exile in Turkey, then in France. “The school still exists,” he says, “but it is not as free. These militiamen want to impose an Islamist program. If that happens, it would be better to lock its doors.”
The non-choice of cooperating with the militias
“Even though there were Salafists were among the parents, independent education in Douma hasn’t been subjected to value conflicts. We avoided entering into religious controversies; we tried to keep to our shared interests, like the priority of addressing the pain and suffering of the population. There were daily efforts, the necessity to create a collective experience. A divided society would have been a victory for the regime.” Majd recalls life under the military command of Jaysh el-Islam, one of the powerful components of the SIF (the Syrian Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamic nationalist groups) and relates the reasons for the competition and cooperation that are now part of Douma’s daily life. “Today, the head of Douma is Zahran Alloush, who commands the most powerful militia. All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around. Two years ago, we went from a partial siege to a total siege. The bombardments come from the heights of Ghouta Valley, and these missiles condition our daily life. The fighters are not all Salafists, or, rather, they are Salafists by circumstance. Even if religion is very present in Syria, all the more so because death is now part of our daily life, in reality, the militias have become dominant because of the amount of resources at their disposal. Saudi Arabia provided the only military support on the ground. The West abandoned us, or hid behind the opportunist interventions of the Gulf States. Particular militias taking power is not a reflection of Syria’s social reality, but rather of geopolitical power struggles.”
Despite strong reservations about the rigorous decrees claiming to govern social life, the local council and militia are forced to cooperate with each other concerning resistance to Bashar. In Douma, Jaysh el-Islam put in place a justice administration to replace that of Assad, who had been playing the game of instilling widespread insecurity with the release of common prisoners, the termination of justice officials’ salaries, and the bombing of judicial buildings. Majd also puts into perspective the militias’ total control: “In Douma, there is a very strong bond between civilians and armed revolutionaries. Many think that under the circumstances, there is no place for ideological conflict. Indeed, in the beginning of the militarization, the progressive group, which coordinated the revolutionary forces in all of eastern Ghouta, chose to bring Salafists and Muslim brothers together to discuss alternatives to the state in anticipation of the regime’s fall. I think that if the Syrians are able to decide their fate, which will probably not be the case, it will not be the Saudi model that emerges out of the discussions. Syrians are believers, in many ways conservative, but even believers are capable of mobilizing against Alloush when he becomes authoritarian.” Hani described his experience with a Salafist injunction: “We were out for Iftar [the evening breaking of the fast during Ramadan], buying pastries. A bearded militiaman wanted to check our identities. When he returned my papers, he asked me why I didn’t have my wife veiled. I replied ironically that I was still looking for Douma’s traditional dress. He said any kind of cloth would do. And I replied that we weren’t in Saudi Arabia. He threatened me. But people in the bakery apologetically intervened. Later, other people came to apologize for his behavior, including his nephew, on behalf of the people of Douma.” Hani remains convinced that the militia cannot completely override the town’s social dynamics: “This kind of episode is not a reason to give up. Besides, the women in the Razan network don’t give up. These types are the new local despots. But they are not Bashar’s murderous forces.”
For the network activists, the militarization of the conflict and the rise of certain rebel groups must not erase the fact that the principal enemy is Bashar: “With the front necessarily united under ‘Anything but Bashar,’ it’s not possible to define a perfect political alternative for Syria. What we have for the moment is the revolution against tyranny above all.” This absence of a political plan, combined with the difficult circumstances of cohabitation by necessity with groups of armed Islamist groups in the free zones, makes it very hard for Arab and Western leftists to identify networks like Razan as allies to support. The old anti-imperialist stance then becomes a pretext for the left to adopt the worst of positions: support for the Baathist regime, following the example of the most reactionary political tendencies.
The sectarian argument, the weapon of the counter-revolution
For Salma, Hani, Majd and Abou Selma, the argument about the opposition’s Islamization harmed the popular civil movement that began in 2011. It is less a description of the reality of the social movement than discourse delivered to the outside world, which has served the regime, now posing as a protector of minorities.
“I do not understand the accusation made about Syrian revolutionaries carrying out a sectarian war,” protests Salma. In Zabadani,5 a Christian Syrian town, the clergy itself was involved in the Revolution. Father Paolo wasn’t involved in his own name, but intentionally as a Christian. This is important to underline: he understood the importance of smashing the image of a movement manipulated by Sunni Islamism, which the regime projected in international discourse and Western media.”
To combat the idea of a revolution reduced to sectarian militias, Hani brings up the participation of minorities like the Ismaliens of Salamieh at the beginning of the Revolution: “They participated in the brigades, in logistics. This was astute, because they represented a minority above suspicion. It was surprising because we had always thought of them as part of Assad’s hen house. In demonstrations, they chanted, ‘We don’t kneel before anyone, not even God,’ something that seems unthinkable to say in Syria, which remains a traditionalist country.” Salma takes over: “If Druze leaders have officially posted their neutrality, many Druze have resisted, as there is a long tradition of resistance since the French mandate. There were a number of military desertions, especially in Sueida [a Druze region north of Deraa, the cradle of the revolution]. For strategic reasons and as a pretense of community alliance, the regime no longer permits killing in the streets, which contributed to Druze participation in the resistance. Later, there was a more explicit rapprochement with the revolutionaries. Suddenly, today, Bashar lets Daesh terrorize the Druze. This makes me say that Deraa is a zone that the regime could abandon to the revolutionaries, because after this point of no return, the Druze will not play any more alliance games with the regime.”
For Salma, “The sectarian argument is used as an excuse for all the parties in the conflict, from Bashar to the foreign powers. It’s as if there were a plan in two stages, the first to make everyone believe that the sectarian groups are irreconcilable, the next to impose a partition, a carving up into zones of influence as in Libya or Iraq.” Marwan insists on the likelihood of a devastating intervention by the regional powers, supported by their international allies: “Syria is not in the hands of Syrians. Even with oppositional institutions, we haven’t succeeded in committing to democracy. The material damage will one day be replaced by Iran or Saudi Arabia. For me, that’s where the revolution is lost.” When in September French Defense Minister Le Drian announced France’s first military strikes against Daesh, when Russia’s soldiers landed in northern Syria and China stationed an aircraft carrier at the Syrian port of Tatrous, it is clear that no power has volunteered to support the civil uprising or really wants the Assad regime to fall.
The feeling of abandonment and exile
For those struggling against the feeling of abandonment and exile, what hope remains of seeing the construction of the Syrian republic that they are calling for, one that is democratic, multi-faith, interethnic, and secular? Condemning the deception made by the objective alliance between the regime and outside powers and the guilty radio silence about those who really carried out the popular uprising, Abou Selma concludes bitterly: “This opposition force, this should have been us! But we were pushed into blind alleys. The international community made a fanfare of supporting the resistance, but the support never arrived. Today, the media focus on actors in the conflict who represent only a minority of the people actually involved, when it is the majority of the Syrians who rose up! But that has no value in the eyes of the West. We have all become sneaks or supporters of Daesh. If nobody today knows what will really happen in Syria, with or without Bashar, united or fragmented, the memory of this resistance should still be the basis of any reorganization.”