Syrian protesters fight another enemy: Despair

Published March 13th, 2016 - 01:20 GMT
Anti-regime protesters take advantage of the ceasefire to stage a protest in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo. (AFP/Karam Al-Masri)
Anti-regime protesters take advantage of the ceasefire to stage a protest in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo. (AFP/Karam Al-Masri)

Five years after protesters took to the streets of Syria demanding an end to the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad's family, the determination remains - but there is also regret and disappointment with the direction of their revolution.

Pro-democracy activists cling to the faith that the revolution is salvageable, despite growing sectarianism and the emergence of extremist armed factions, including the dominance of al-Qaeda's al-Nusra Front in key rebel-held areas.

The fifth anniversary of the Syrian uprising comes as a ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States is holding. With the halt in fighting, demonstrators have returned to the streets, chanting the original slogans from 2011.

"I think the fragile truce is helping a bit in returning the revolution to its roots. Maybe now is the chance to emerge again, like a Phoenix from under the heavy ashes," says Ammar Jello, a Syrian rights activist who fled his homeland and now lives in Turkey.

Jello refuses to describe himself in religious or ethnic labels. He insists he is a "Syrian," a concise expression of his hopes for a country increasingly divided.

He is not alone in feeling a sense of elation, perhaps premature, at the renewed energy for protesting against al-Assad, who hails from the small Alawite sect and is often supported by religious and ethnic minorities in the largely Sunni Muslim country.

The Syrian revolution, after all, began as a series of protests demanding greater rights and freedoms which were violently crushed by the government, using lethal force and mass arrests.

The armed conflict, which has since claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced 11 million people, came later.

UN-brokered peace talks are set to resume to try to capitalize on the lull and advance a framework towards resolving the conflict. But no one is betting on a breakthrough.

For some, years of war have taken their toll. Their anger at al-Assad, who clings to power by the use of sieges, barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes - which not only target militants but also schools and hospitals - is all consuming.

"Our aim is to remove the regime of Bashar al-Assad," says Mahmoud Shahabi, an activist in rebel-held Aleppo, an area that will face a siege if the violence resumes.

"From the beginning of 2011, we knew the price would be very high. After five years, we are more determined to continue, whatever the cost."

For others, however, the sacrifices are too much.

Omar al-Halabi, who took part in the first protests in Homs, whose old city was largely destroyed in the fighting, admits that things did not turn out as planned.

"My heart cries every day, especially for the loved ones I have lost." But he insists that the revolution must be righted from its current trajectory and carried on.

"We cannot go back. We need to overcome the obstacles," al-Halabi says, worried that extremist factions will "steal our dream."

It is not just the scale of destruction, which has laid entire cities to ruin, or the chaos that allowed Islamic State to found a corrupted caliphate inside a once-moderate country.

Raghd, who currently lives in Beirut, recalls the first demonstrations in Damascus, when men and women marched together against al-Assad, whose father Hafez took power in coup in 1970. She now sees a "male dominance" over the revolution.

"We faced the tyrant regime as one. We tasted the same imprisonment and torture. Syrian women from all parts of society were involved in the protest movement. Christians, Muslims, liberal and conservatives," she says.

"After five years, I am saddened our role has been marginalized," bemoans Raghd, who wears a veil. She says democratization is not only about political authority but also something that "starts at home" and requires societal change.

Marwan, one of the Christians who took part in the original wave of demonstrations to sweep through Syrian cities, towns and villages, says he was betrayed by a cause he once risked his life to support.

"I had hoped I would live in a free Syria, but my dreams collapsed when extremists came and started looking at us Christians as deviants," he says from exile in Lebanon.

"I decided to leave Syria because I felt this revolution is going to a place where I do not belong. For me the revolution which we started in 2011 is dead."

Idlib in north-western Syria is the only province almost entirely under rebel control, though it is largely run by Ahrar al Sham, a hardline Islamist faction, and al-Nusra.

Recent protests against the government, demanding democracy, were met with the iron fist of al-Qaeda, who broke up the demonstrations and arrested participants.

"The word democracy to them means we are cursing the religion," says Firas, a resident of Idlib. "These people are the first enemies of the revolution."

Rami al-Homsi fled the Middle East entirely. He now lives as a refugee in Europe, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen, and watches from afar.

His belief in the rebellion against al-Assad had waned, but gained new strength from the resurgent protests during the ceasefire.

"I know people are angry that the revolution has changed its meaning, but we can still do this," al-Homsi says. "If not us who started it, maybe the next generation will continue the fight. I have hope."
By Weedah Hamzah and Shabtai Gold

© 2019 dpa GmbH

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