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Nabil Mohamad, Syrian journalist and writer
Supervised and edited by:
Mohammed Kafina & Erik Prins, senior editors of Fanack
When the popular protests against the Syrian regime engulfed the streets across Syrian cities in the spring of 2011, revolutionary activists organised demonstrations in cities and villages. In addition to spreading footage as well as covering news about the protests, they arranged slogans and signs and coordinated the protests’ locations. Later, these activists formed the Local Coordination Committees (LCC). The LCC recruited activists and media professionals, who coordinated with each other to manage protests on the one hand and cover and document news of the Syrian regime’s violations against these protests on the other hand.
After the Syrian Revolution broke out, the work of the LCC picked up in a few weeks. It incorporated several aspects, some of which legal, such as documenting the victims’ names and how they were murdered, recording detainees’ names, and reporting them to international organisations. Additionally, the committees were active in the humanitarian, health, and media fields, granting them a leading role in organising revolutionary civil action.
As the Syrian Revolution progressed, these non-violent opposition activists had to work under huge pressure, putting their lives at risk. Eventually, they were excluded from any role in a solution to the Syrian Crisis, whether they fled Syria or not. In this article, Fanack explains who these revolutionary activists were and how they met their fate.
Representing a Pluralist Syria
One of the advantages of these groups is that they included the Syrian society‘s different classes, most of which were young revolutionaries, either university students or graduates. It also represented areas of different ethnicities and religions. At the time, the declared objective was to overthrow the dictatorship’s rule and attain a just country where all are equal before the law.
Mostly active in the spring and summer of 2011, they used all means to regulate civil action and prevent arming it. They also faced propaganda calling for arming the Syrian opposition or any foreign military intervention in Syria.
After the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was established, the committees reluctantly acknowledged it since armed action was never on their agenda. But in return, the committees stressed the significance of regulating the FSA’s behaviour by urging its leaders to sign a code of conduct. The code aimed to prevent internal conflict, and banned targeting based on factional affiliation or ethnicity, criminal practices and torture. The committees also utilised other rules to prevent the spread of arms or to resort to them to settle people’s affairs.
Soon, they clashed with various factions, especially the hard-line ones, that began to emerge in many Syrian regions. They became an obstacle to the military rule in many regions, and the founding revolutionary activists and their employees became targets for the radical factions, just as they were to the Syrian regime, which detained, tortured and murdered many of the committees’ activists.
In 2012 and 2013, the committees tried to keep pace with both the political and armed opposition, which they could not always maintain. Militarily, the committees opposed the calls for Islamising the movement and establishing Islamist organisations on Syrian soil.
Politically, they communicated with political opposition entities, such as the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and joined them. But soon, the LCC withdrew because of what they called at the time “conflicts over gains”. Those entities were located outside Syria and were linked to foreign agendas and policies, which completely contradicted the Local Committees’ rationale revolving around an internal national project and rejecting pursuing gains.
Unlike the above political opposition forces, the revolutionary activists of the LCC kept operating inside Syria, fighting a dual-front battle with the regime and the radical opposition factions. Consequently, these activists were plunged into a bleak future of murder, detention, and forced migration.
Most Prominent Civil Opposition Activists in Syria
In the following section, Fanack presents an overview of the most prominent active figures during the Revolution in Syria.
Bassel Shehadeh has been known as one of the most prominent photographers since the outbreak of protests against the Syrian regime. He returned from his residence in the United States, where he studied filmmaking, to his city, Homs, to document daily events of the Syrian Revolution and train young photographers and journalists. However, this did not last long, as he was killed in a bombardment by the Syrian regime, targeting protests in Homs on May 28, 2012.
Shehadeh’s funeral was akin to a huge protest. It was peculiar partially because he was a Christian who believed his country had to change. In addition, he opposed the notion of the Syrian regime as a protector of religious minorities in Syria, to which Shehadeh belonged.
Before he was murdered, he directed two short documentaries about the revolutionary action in Homs, besides other cinematic productions. Amazingly, Shehadeh decided to return to his homeland while in danger, picking up the camera as his weapon to defend his people’s cause.
Before the Syrian Revolution, Yahya Shurbaji was active through social initiatives to advocate cleaning the city and combating corruption within the governorate in his city, Darayya, in the countryside of Damascus. In 2003 he was detained because he participated in these initiatives. Imprisoned for two years, Shurbaji was deprived of his civil rights after his release.
During the Revolution, he was known for the initiative to distribute flowers and water bottles to Syrian Army soldiers tasked with repressing the protests in Darayya. He was a strong proponent of peaceful action and a recurring participant in his city’s cultural centre seminars. He called for a revolution that grants everyone freedom, dignity, and a homeland.
Shurbaji was detained on September 6, 2011, in an ambush by the Air Force Intelligence of the Syrian regime. His brother, Ma’an, was detained afterwards. Both died under torture in 2013.
The late Syrian activist, Fadwa Suleimane, had a peculiar position, just like Bassel Shahadeh. She was an Alawite; from the same sect as Bashar al-Assad and his senior intelligence and army leaders. She opposed the regime and joined the protesters in her city, Homs. She led many protests alongside the reputable fighter and activist Abdel-Basset al-Sarout.
Her name started to echo during al-Khalidiyyah district protests in Homs in 2011 and 2012, when the masses chanted after her the famous slogan of the initial protests “One, one, one… The Syrian people are one”. A slogan expressing the unity of all ethnic and religious components of Syria in the face of the dictatorship.
Fadwa, a TV and theatrical actress before the Revolution, was persecuted. She lived in hiding for months and moved from one place to another in Homs until she left Syria and settled in France, where she died in 2017 at 47 after a struggle with illness.
Mashaal Tammo was among the most prominent Syrian Kurdish opposition figures. He called for incorporating the Kurdish component into the Syrian Revolution against the dictatorship.
Tammo was known for the protests in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli and participated in Syrian opposition conferences. In 2005, he founded the Kurdish Future Movement and was detained for his political action in 2008, to be released in June 2011, a few months after the Syrian Revolution broke out.
Tammo was assassinated on October 7, 2011. The Syrian opposition and some western countries accused the Syrian regime of murdering him at the time. He remained a symbol of the struggle against the Syrian regime and against the secessionism that some Kurdish movements called for.
Syrian lawyer, Razan Zaitouneh, was one of the most prominent non-violent opponents of the Syrian regime. During the initial years of the Revolution, she was active in documenting the names of the Syrian regime’s victims, whether detainees or dead, because of their anti-regime actions. Zaitouneh was also one of the most outspoken founding leaders of the LCC.
Zaitouneh was summoned several times by the Syrian security apparatus and investigated before she decided to relocate outside regime-controlled territories. She decided to move to Douma, which was under the control of radical opposition organisations, such as Jaish al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush at the time. Meanwhile, Zeitouneh continued documenting violations, both of the regime and of the armed factions.
Thus, she came to face a new foe she insisted on peacefully struggling against alongside other opposition activists: her husband, Wael Hamadeh, and her colleagues, Nazem Hammadi and Samira Khalil. The four activists worked together at the Violation Documentation Centre in Douma.
On December 9, 2013, an unidentified armed group raided the headquarters where the four activists worked and kidnapped them, and their fate is yet to be known. Dozens of human rights organisations accused the armed factions controlling Douma, while Jaish al-Islam, the most influential and powerful faction in Douma at the time, denied any connection to the incident. Until today, organisations, friends, and relatives of the missing activists still demand to know what happened to them, yet in vain. It is worth mentioning that Douma is no longer under the armed opposition’s control as of February 2018, when the Syrian regime reclaimed control over Douma.
A Palestinian theatrical actor who was active in relief and media fields in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus. Hassan moved with his camera between the streets of the camp and other areas, trying to capture the popular movement and to make short films and programmes that covered the lives of people in the camp.
According to his friends who lived with him in the Yarmouk camp, Hassan’s camera was a threat to the Syrian regime. Hence, the regime detained him as he tried to leave the camp under siege. He was killed under torture on December 13, 2013, in the ‘Palestine Branch’, known as one of the most brutal security branches of the Syrian regime.
Abdel-Basset al- Sarout is one of the most controversial figures in Syria. He was one of the most outstanding young faces of the Syrian Revolution and was bestowed with several titles, such as “Icon of the Syrian Revolution” and “Keeper of Dignity”. Before the Revolution, he played as a goalkeeper for the al-Karamah SC youth team in his city, Homs.
When the Revolution erupted, his voice was a shining beacon as he led popular protests in the al-Bayyiadeh district in Homs and other districts. He sang many songs that later on became slogans echoing all over Syria.
He then joined armed resistance, joining Jaysh al-Izza, one of the armed opposition factions in the middle and northwest of Syria, and led a militia in Homs. He was killed in a clash with the Syrian army in June 2019.
Al-Sarout met much criticism when rumours spread about him joining the Islamic State (IS), which he denied later. However, his journey is considered a symbol of the course of the Syrian Revolution, transitioning from pure non-violent action to armed resistance.
The common factor among all these activists is that they sought a free democratic Syria, where the law is above all and everyone enjoys the same rights.
Non-violent Struggle under Pressure
Less than two years after the Revolution started, revolutionary activists and advocates of transition to an inclusive civil regime had only three options.
The first option was to stay in territories under the regime’s control, which put them at risk of imprisonment or death under torture, just like thousands of other Syrians.
The second option was to stay in territories under militia control, which would result in clashes with those militias. Most of those factions were radical and would take an approach similar to the Syrian regime’s against its opposition. Indeed, many civil activists went missing or were killed inside the armed factions’ prisons, just like Razan Zaitouneh and her colleagues.
The third option was to flee Syria. Many activists chose to do so, thereby losing their ability to make a direct impact. Many distanced themselves from Syrian affairs as they became expats. They lost effective communication with the situation on the ground in Syria, dominated by those who forced these activists out. Hence, their project of forming a real civil opposition operating inside Syria came to a halt. They had intended to fight all forms of oppression and injustice, and seek to build a homeland for all Syrians. But the armed factions and all their associations blocked any actual civil action.
As a consequence of these developments, the Syrian opposition exists in two primary forms. A military form subjected to foreign influence and a radical Islamist nature that influences almost all opposition armed factions. And a political form represented by political forces stationed outside Syria, incapable of making an impact, subjected to foreign agendas, and lacking any popular base in Syria.
To counter the Syrian opposition in all its forms, the Syrian regime formed an ‘opposition’ that suited its needs; the ‘permitted’ or ‘licensed’ opposition. Basically, it was a group of political entities established by the regime, permitted to express their political stances and granted a media presence. These entities were often subject to sarcasm since they bear the regime’s visions and ideologies in a context that allowed them to criticise administrative corruption within the regime’s circles from time to time. The following blocs were most notable among them.
The Popular Front for Change and Liberation
A political bloc incorporating formerly licensed parties in Syria, operating with the ruling Arab Socialist Baʿath Party, and likewise with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the National Committee for the Unity of Syrian Communists. As per its founding statement of July 2011, the bloc’s objective is “comprehensive reform in Syria and the preservation of national unity in the face of external pressure and interference.” It also declared support for the Syrian Army and endorsed its military operations inside Syria.
The most notable official of the Front is Qadri Jamil, who became a member of parliament after the Front’s establishment, then a minister in the Syrian regime’s government, and finally deputy prime minister. Later, he was removed from office for “not following up on his duties”, as he had moved to Moscow and established the so-called “Moscow Platform” for the Syrian opposition. The Platform had always been accused of affiliation with the regime and constant coordination with the Syrian regime’s primary sponsor, Russia.
Syria the Homeland Party
A political bloc permitted by the Syrian Ministry of Interior in 2012 tasked with defending the “national sovereignty” and condemning foreign interference in the Syrian cause. The party held several events to criticise price hikes and corruption. Majd Niazi, a plastic artist and a restaurant owner in Damascus, was the party’s general secretary before passing away in 2019. She was known for supporting the Syrian Army during its battles with the Syrian armed opposition.
Youth Party for Development and Alteration
A political party licensed in 2012, similar to Syria the Homeland in terms of orientations and objectives. It seeks to promote the role of youth in “building a healthy community”, fighting corruption, and the “sovereignty of national decision”. The party held several social and relief events as well as meetings between the party’s leaders and Russian political and military officials.
Internal Opposition Statement
In addition to the above ‘opposition’ groups licensed by the regime, there were also grassroots movements that attempted to come with an agenda. In March 2021, three forces labelled as “internal opposition” issued a statement outlining their thoughts on a political solution in Syria. It was a frail statement without impact, as it was not seriously dealt with by any political party. The statement was signed by the Syrian National Conference, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, and the National Initiative in Jabal al-Arab.
Along with other political forces, they attempted to hold a national conference in Damascus to establish what they called “The National Democratic Front”. However, Syrian security apparatus prevented holding the conference and denied journalists from attending it.
As a result, these forces, permitted by the Syrian regime to operate from inside, are incapable of taking any step outside of the regime’s will. However, it is doubtful whether they had any intentions of taking that step without consulting with the regime in the first place.