Syria Between Sides: Majority Stays Neutral
With their demands no closer to being met today than they were a year ago, more and more Syrians choose neutrality over siding with either the regime loyalists or the opposition.
In the historic neighborhood of Bab Tuma, adjacent to the Great Umayyad Mosque and several churches, a perfumery and antiques shop sells photographs of revolutionary Marxist icon, Che Guevara.
Across the narrow street, another shop displays pictures of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and the Hezbollah flag. In the middle of the road leading to the famous Nawfara Café, a young neighborhood artist painted an Israeli flag on the ground for pedestrians to step and walk on. It is one of the rare means of expression that continues to unite Syrians – whether they support or oppose the ruling regime in their country.
Syrian society is a mix of Islamists, liberals, Communists, pan-Arab nationalists, nationalists, atheists, and conservatives. They each try to deal with the ongoing events in their own unique way, expressing views on the fluctuating political situation.
Throughout the past year, the debate on reforms and new laws became confined to two camps, those loyal to the regime and those opposing it. But the laws are awaited by Syrians of all ideological, religious, and political inclinations.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising, discussions of the latest political developments have become the people's daily bread.
A shop owner in the historic al-Salhiya Market in Damascus tells Al-Akhbarthat "there is no fear anymore about calling things by their name, after being forced to invent code words or beat around the bush in our political discussions for so many years."
Today, the general atmosphere in the Syrian street suggests the emergence of a new stance. Some people are completely neutral when it comes to rapid political developments.
This trend might have already existed before the Syrian events, but it the numbers adhering to it have grown significantly. Large numbers of former pro-regime loyalists lost their faith in the many promises of reforms.
Joining them are greater numbers of critics whose aspirations were not met by any of the various opposition groups and figures. They have been especially disgusted by the actions of the Free Syrian Army that are not that different to the repressive practices of the regime’s security services.
The debate on reforms and new laws became confined to two camps, those loyal to the regime and those opposing it. But the laws are awaited by Syrians of all ideological, religious, and political inclinations."Since the beginning of the events, the regime asked those who stand in the middle to take a clear position or else they would lose," said youth activist Amr Sawah, who noticed the existing moderate, or neutral, trend from the beginning.
"We all remember the chants of the [opposition] demonstrators about those not joining [the protests]. They were later used, with slight changes, by those supporting President Bashar Assad's regime," Sawah said.
"Up until this point, loyalists and critics alike have been demanding that those who stand in the center make a choice, but the number of those in the center is increasing," he explains.
Sawah added that the rush by many from both sides toward moderation and neutrality is largely due to fear about the future.
"The Syrians cannot forget that the security services’ approach in dealing with the crisis has led to many feeling very cautious about aligning themselves with the demonstrators," he adds.
"But it was not this fear that prevented this group of people from being pulled into the revolution. It was fear about the future; a worry strengthened by the media," he says.
In the coastal city of Latakia, the demographic mix is not much different from Damascus and other Syrian cities and districts. And as is the case in other cities, Syria’s events affected the people’s views both of the regime and the opposition.
Journalist Farah al-Ghashi lived through many incidents in her home city of Latakia. She says that “the problem with the so-called silent majority, accused of remaining in the gray area, is that it is well aware of the lies made by both rival sides."
She adds that this group "tried the lies of the regime over decades, memorized its corruption by heart, and tasted its repression. But they were shocked by the lies of the opposition that exceeded all limits and they became fed up with its successive scandals."
Like the neutral group that she talked about, the young journalist rejected attempts by the Syrian opposition to promote their figures and symbols as "angels and alternatives to the faces of the regime's officials, whose corruption caused the people's suffering for so many years."
She adds that a large number of opposition supporters in Latakia took a step back after "the demonstrations started raising sectarian slogans and titles on Fridays, in addition to the scandals of the leadership of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and their inappropriate statements."
All these factors prompted the silent majority to observe this revolution closely. It remained silent, unaffected by bids from either sides.
In the Syrian commercial capital, Aleppo, which was very late in joining the protests, the neutral segment is similar. Press activist Nael al-Hariri described the status of what he called the "third current.”
"Personalities close to the regime were first to start what was dubbed the third current, for they were more aware of the practices of the regime and its complex structure that is not easy to dismantle," Hariri says.
They knew that "the revolutionary concept of overthrowing the regime, in a pure emotional sense, will not be enough to break the camel's back," he adds.
Hariri also says that the policy of refusing dialogue and rejecting the political process is not a well thought out or viable systematic process. "This is when views stating that 'the regime and the opposition do not convince us' began to appear," he explains.
He says that the revolutionary opposition began to lean toward extremism as events developed and the revolutionary movements continued to be "sterile and orphaned."
He believes that "calling for foreign intervention and military protection returned supporters of this third trend to the lap of the regime."
"The third current’s momentum began to disappear because the question at that time started to revolve around the dichotomy of whether to accept or reject foreign intervention," he explains.
A large number of opposition supporters in Latakia took a step back after "the demonstrations started raising sectarian slogans and titles.Meanwhile, the SNC considered accepting foreign intervention as proof of opposition. The National Coordination Committee (NCC) rejected intervention but this was used against them amid accusations of siding with the regime.
Hariri says that there was a deliberate media blackout of the trend towards political neutrality. “Today the neutral groups feed off the rebelling street that raises banners demanding the fall of the SNC and its political leaders, and for finding alternatives that rise to the size of the difficult responsibility," he adds.
The pro-regime third trend started to move toward presenting partial objections to the authority's practices, methods, and ineffective treatment of daily situations.
The voice of the two groups in the neutral segment is rising and is being heard, despite their being completely ignored by extremist media outlets of the loyalists and opposition alike.
Sawah accused the media on both sides of dealing negatively with this trend. "After an entire year of broadcasting from the Syrian Al-Dunia satellite news channel, the Syrian satellite channel, the Gulf channels or the opposition – be they Islamic or secular – they could not find the proper discourse to discuss what this 'major minority' wants," he says.
Meanwhile, Ghashi believes that the different media, be they opposition or loyalists, are responsible for accusing this category of collusion or negativity. She says that "the silent majority was a target for the media that sought to fill both the loyalists and opposition with hatred and extremism."
The journalist from Latakia adds that many people "leaned toward certain extremism as a result of the rumors and the difficulty in obtaining information amid the ongoing lies.”
She concludes by saying, "And now, action is needed from the silent majority, since it is the segment being relied on to save the country from the extremism of both sides.”
By Anas Zarzar
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