Syrian activists to rebels: Give us our revolution back
Many of the activists who began the uprising in Syria more than a year ago feel their peaceful push for change has been hijacked by the rebel Free Syrian Army. They're meeting in Cairo today.
Beirut, Lebanon; and Cairo — Syrian activist Mohamed Alloush has fled his native country for Lebanon, but it wasn't President Bashar al-Assad's regime that drove him away. It was the rebels of the Free Syrian Army who ran him out of his hometown of Homs.
"In September last year I had been arrested again by the regime for organizing protests," says Mr. Alloush, speaking on a cafe terrace in Beirut. "After they released me, I ran into a group of men I knew as members of the Free Syrian Army. I walked up to them and screamed: "You guys have stolen our revolution! You are just as bad as the shabiha," the pro-regime militia in Syria.
The rebels kept Alloush for four days, after which they told him not to show his face in Homs again.
Alloush is part of the movement of young revolutionaries who began the protests against the Assad regime in March last year in the wake of similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. They feel sidelined by the violent turn the conflict in Syria has taken since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed last summer. An armed group comprised mainly of former Army soldiers who defected from the regime, it is also reportedly cooperating with Sunni jihadis from abroad and many brigades have adopted an increasingly sectarian tone.
“Our revolution has been stolen from us by people who have their own agenda,” says a singer who uses the pseudonym ‘Safinas’ because she still lives in Damascus. “We are not violent people. We want to get back to the real thing. It was a clean thing when it started, but it has become something else now. I am against the regime, but I am also against the armed rebels.”
More than 200 peaceful Syrian activists are gathered in Cairo until tomorrow for a conference aimed at uniting revolutionaries around one common goal: returning to the nonviolent protests of last summer. While they acknowledge that the FSA has built up significant momentum, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar calling for the international community to arm the rebels, they see an opportunity for the momentum to swing back to the nonviolent activists if the United Nations cease-fire brokered by Kofi Annan holds.
“Mr. Annan’s plan is our main hope at this point and we are trying to have everybody abide by it,” says Haytham Khoury, a member of the Syrian Democratic Platform, attending Cairo’s conference. “We are contacting other opposition groups, trying to give hope to the people through media” to convey that “this is a very good step toward saving lives and regaining a completely peaceful revolution.”
The Syrian regime suspended military action beginning April 12, but reports of renewed shelling today underscore the fragility of the cease-fire, which is aimed at ending the violence that has killed more than 9,000 since the uprising broke out. With the international community struggling to gain leverage over the regime's brutal crackdown, some Syrians see the FSA as their only option for freedom.
"Frankly, we’ve given up" on the international community, an activist in Damascus who identifies himself as Mar says via Skype. “You guys have let us down. The FSA is our only hope for salvation now.”
Assad's government has characterized the uprising largely as the work of armed gangs and terrorists. The activity of the FSA, which has been accused of human rights violations as it fights the regime, has complicated what began as a revolution in which the masses peacefully but persistently demand political reform as Egyptians did in Tahrir Square.
Some say that the Assad regime views political change, rather than armed insurgency, as the greater threat.
“The regime is more afraid of the nonviolent protesters than it is of the armed Islamists. That’s why most of them have been forced to leave the country or are in prison," says Yara Nseir, who was forced to flee Syria last summer after she had been detained 18 days for distributing leaflets. "They wanted it to become an armed uprising because it allows them to tell the world that they are fighting terrorists.”
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a telling remark at an Istanbul press conference April 13, when he was asked if “the Syrian regime is afraid of their own Tahrir.” He replied, “That is what we have believed from day one.”
'I told them to their face they are criminals'
Alloush, who fled to Lebanon to escape the FSA, was among the first activists to organize anti-regime protests in Homs when the uprising began in March 2011.
“Back then the regime would have armed troublemakers mingle with the protesters to have an excuse to open fire on us. Well, they don’t need to do that anymore: the Free Syrian Army has provided them with the perfect excuse to go on killing people.”
In February, Alloush went back to Homs clandestinely. He made the rounds of the city’s mosques to persuade the imams there to preach against the use of violence. When the FSA found out he was in town he fled to neighboring Lebanon once again.
Another young Syrian activist, who goes by the pseudonym Yusuf Ashamy, has also drawn the ire of the FSA.
Mr. Ashamy was in Tripoli in north Lebanon last month to ask the FSA for help in sending a shipment of medicine to besieged cities in Syria when Human Rights Watch published a report on severe human rights violations by the Syrian rebels.
In an open letter to the leaders of the Syrian opposition, Human Rights Watch cited “increasing evidence of kidnappings, the use of torture, and executions by armed Syrian opposition members.”
"I told them to their face they are criminals if they do such things, and that they know the meaning of the word freedom," says Ashamy.
Ashamy was told he had better not show his face around Tripoli again if he wanted to stay alive.
"They have ruined everything," Ashamy says of the FSA. "In the beginning we were all Syrians. But when I was last in Homs [late last year] I found that people there were not even aware of what is happening elsewhere in the country. They see this as a purely Sunni Muslim insurgency, and I was accused of being a spy because my ancestry is Druze. "
Why the uprising has shrunk
Lately, some of the activists have formed a new group to revive the peaceful demonstrations of the early days of the revolution.
"We are still many who want a peaceful revolution,” an activist who calls herself Celine says via Skype from Damascus. “But since it became an armed conflict, many people who were sympathetic to our cause have dropped out.”
It has also become much more dangerous to stage protests. “These days we only talk to people we know very well,” says Celine.
As a consequence, the protests have become much smaller. Celine describes one recent action.
"We had agreed to meet at a strategic intersection in central Damascus. Some of us set tires on fire, while others chanted slogans. The whole thing lasted no longer than five minutes. Bystanders wanted to join us but we’d already disappeared.”
It may not seem much, “but it is important that our voices are heard. And we make sure that our protests are filmed and the videos are sent out to the media.”
Leaders needed for 'this sensitive period'
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, is supposed to provide a channel for working for political change. But even Ms. Nseir, who is the SNC's spokesperson in Lebanon, says the SNC is seen as too closely aligned with the FSA to present a real alternative to their armed rebellion.
"The SNC claims to be representative of the Syrian people. That’s just not true," says Nseir. "They talk only about arming the rebels. They never talk about nonviolent resistance and they certainly do not speak for the ramadieen, or grey people, the silent majority who support neither the regime nor the armed rebels.”
Nseir has considered resigning from the SNC, as others have done, “but I was persuaded to stay on and try and change things from within.”
She has set her hopes on the Cairo conference. “We hope to agree on a message that everyone who is against the further militarization of this conflict can get behind," she says.
“The opposition: They have to solve the problem,” says Ali Ali, a Syrian activist who was heavily involved in planning the nation’s uprising and now resides in Cairo, where he is attending the conference.
“The people who are demonstrating in the streets need to stop the blood and need a real opposition to lead this sensitive period,” he says, adding that like the regime, the opposition is responsible “for the blood that bleeds every day in Syria” and finding a way to make violence end.
“This conference is an arena for all political ideas and visions to meet,” says Syrian activist Orwa Al-Ahmed, now living in Dubai. “Most people are with the peaceful initiative. But to achieve this it requires the involvement of other political leaders and visions.”
The activists are not naïve: they know they cannot turn back the clock to last summer, before the uprising turned violent. But they are still determined to work toward peaceful solutions.
"There is no going back," says Alloush. "The Free Syrian Army is a reality and we have to accept it. But that does not mean that we have to accept them as the leaders of this revolution. I know these people, and I know that many of them want to turn Syria into an Islamic republic if they get the chance.”
The Syrian opposition has called for mass demonstrations this Friday to test Mr. Annan's peace plan. One of the conditions of the plan is that the regime allow freedom of assembly.
"We have a tiny window, but time is against us," says activist Safinas. "We are fighting two regimes and two armies now."