Rebels question continued protests in 'Free Syria'

Protests gave birth to the anti-Assad uprising, but now some in Syria say they simply make for an easy target for regime planes. Others say they're important to keep new leaders accountable.

Monica G. Prieto/AP
Young Syrians demonstrate against Syrian President Bashar Assad, depicted on the poster beneath the feet of a drummer, in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 9. Syria's conflict began largely as peaceful protests against Assad's rule, but it has since collapsed into civil war after rebels took up arms in response to the regime's bloody crackdown.

Months after Syrian opposition forces brought several areas of Aleppo Province under their control, Syrian activists still demonstrate regularly, much as they have since the beginning of the uprising. 

Last Friday, more than 100 demonstrators gathered in Bustan al-Qasr, one of Aleppo’s calmer neighborhoods, for a protest against the Assad regime and to call for closer oversight of the rebels' Free Syrian Army. The protest leaders even decided to do a live broadcast of the event. 

As the event wound down, a lone mortar shell landed in the middle of the crowd, killing 14 people and injuring 21. Government forces often target such gatherings and can easily do so when their exact location is being broadcast in real time. 

Syrians are now questioning whether such protests in opposition-controlled areas are still warranted, given the risks and the fact that they are calling for change amid an audience that is already in agreement.

“Protesting now is something wrong. This is the second time in a month that protests have been shelled like this. In a free place like Aleppo, there is no need for protests,” says Abu Nazir, an FSA commander in Bustan al Qasr. “We want the activists to stop protesting because they’re targeted by shelling and Bustan al-Qasr is now full of refugees because it’s a peaceful area of Aleppo. We don’t want it to get shelled.”

But many activists push back, saying that to stop protesting would be a betrayal of the cause, and that protest remains an important tool for change within their own transitional leadership.

Don't give away positions

Mr. Nazir says the FSA will not stop anyone from protesting, but if they choose to continue, they must no longer televise live broadcasts of the protests or stay in one place for an extended period of time.

Some protesters concede that the demonstrations in so-called free areas of Aleppo no longer carry the same weight at this point that they did in the beginning. But, they say, what matters now is instilling a culture of civic activism that they hope will keep future leaders in check. Activists say protests are often just as much about new leaders as they are about Assad, and few are ready to give up the tool that launched an uprising that they hope will eventually unseat their embattled president. 

There is growing frustration with the FSA, which now acts as the de facto government in opposition-controlled areas. While the FSA is generally well-regarded, many Aleppo residents are beginning to complain that the group now includes criminals, and often abuses its power.

On one wall in Bustan al-Qasr, a graffiti artist painted a political cartoon that shows a figure wearing a bandit’s mask hoarding bags of money, while another figure, also wearing a revolutionary mask, tries to get the money back with a sword. A caption reads, “The money of the revolution is for the people.” 

“The protests are also still important because people can protest about the FSA if they are unhappy with them,” says Maheel Abu Mahmoud, an activist in Bustan al-Qasr. “We support the FSA in our protests, but when we find anyone in the FSA or the new coalition who is corrupt, we will criticize them immediately in a protest.” 

Important for young Syrians

Protests also remain their only means of action for a number of young Syrians, for now. To arm itself, the FSA relies almost entirely on what it is able to capture from the Assad Army or what defectors are able to bring with them. The weapons shortage means that many young Syrian men are unable to take a position on the front lines of the conflict.

“Many people would like to fight, but they can’t get weapons, so protests are a way for them to make their voices heard,” says Asmar Abu Gassan, an activist. ”The protests are like a break to entertain us and remind us of the early days of the revolution. The peaceful movement should continue.” 

Even those who oppose protests for safety reasons say they should not stop altogether. Most say that demonstrators now must consider new strategies to avoid needless deaths, such as flash protests that last no longer than 10 minutes or demonstrations that take place inside large buildings.  

“In my opinion, there is no use protesting, because now our weapons are doing the talking. We don’t need to protest now, but people can protest if they want to. In places that are still under regime control, protests are still a must to defend our freedom and dignity,” says Ahmad Badawi, an FSA commander in Bustan al-Qasr. 

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