Syrian revolutionaries return to the streets

DURING THE calm after a partial truce, Syrian revolutionaries returned to the streets for mass protests in rebel-held areas of the country for the first time since 2013. On March 4, they resumed their tradition of Friday protests , organizing more than 100 actions under the slogan “The revolution continues”.

Waving the three-star tricolor that has become the symbol of the uprising, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Deraa. They chanted: “Five years after the start of the revolution, the people still want the fall of the regime. The blog Syria freedom forever documented with images and videos the heroism, determination and festive atmosphere of these demonstrations.

In their actions on March 4, they reaffirmed their central demand which, as one activist told reporters, is “the downfall of the regime”. They chanted slogans that agitated the revolution in its early stages in 2011, such as “The Syrian people want freedom”, “Revolution for dignity and freedom” and the democratic and anti-sectarian chant “The people are one and united”.

Syrian protesters march against Assad regime near Aleppo

“With this truce, we have the opportunity to express why we took to the streets in the first place, namely the fall of the regime,” Abu Nadim said in the besieged city of Aleppo, where hundreds of activists are took to the streets. . He explained that he and others wanted to show the world that the Syrians were not “armed gangs, but a people demanding freedom”.

During the protest in Talbisseh, Hasaan Abu Nuh told reporters:

We could say that we are back to the beginning. People are so, so happy. There were tears, there was joy, but there was also a lump in people’s throats. There were many young people protesting with us who weren’t here today because they were killed.

THESE PROTESTS surprised many, especially those on the left who denounced the Syrian revolution as an American plot to install a pro-American client regime in Damascus.

In truth, as Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami explain in their book burning countrySyrians rose up against the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad for the same reasons as their brothers and sisters in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.

The Syrian uprising was an expression of massive disillusion with the Assad regime and an unwillingness to continue to tolerate dictatorship, neoliberalism, poverty and repression. And once they saw the precedent of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, they rose up in mass demonstrations of tens of thousands to demand democracy, freedom and equality. To retain his grip on the country, Assad turned to divide and conquer tactics to divide the uprising along sectarian and ethnic lines.

He denounced the protests as a “foreign” and “sectarian” plot to organize the Sunni majority against the Christian and Alawite minority, which forms the basis of his rule. To lend credence to this lie, he went so far as to release 1,500 Sunni jihadists from his prisons, many of whom then formed militias that actually carried out sectarian attacks.

He also ceded control of Kurdish areas in the north of the country to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Assad did not do so out of a commitment to Kurdish autonomy, let alone independence. It has in fact long oppressed the Kurds, denying citizenship to hundreds of thousands and periodically cracking down on their parties and protests. In reality, he granted control of the PYD in order to prevent it from joining the larger uprising.

When these measures failed to quell the revolt, Assad turned to a policy of scorched earth warfare against the predominantly Sunni resistance. He withdrew from the liberated areas and deployed his air force to bomb entire cities to pieces. He went so far as to use chemical weapons against civilians.

Assad therefore left the Syrian Revolution no choice but to arm itself in self-defense. Militants and soldiers who had defected from Assad’s army formed the Free Syrian Army. This loose collection of militia numbers over 150,000.

The militias expanded the liberated territory, which was partly governed by local coordinating committees (LCCs). These not only helped organize the revolution, but replaced the retreating state, administering hospitals, schools, garbage collection and even elections.

While the United States claimed it supported the FSA, it in no way supported the revolution. His policy was to co-opt the largely expatriate National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to bring about an “orderly transition” that would get rid of Assad and bring in a layer of the opposition. , but would preserve the existing state.

Thus, the United States refused to give the FSA the heavy armaments like anti-aircraft weapons it needed to defend itself against Assad’s aerial bombardments, fearing that such weapons would ultimately degrade the state that the United States wanted to preserve.

Assad’s regional opponents, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have funded various Islamist forces within the revolution. Following a similar arc of development, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, emerged alongside ISIS, which used its victories in Iraq to provide funds and forces to seize the territory in Syria. ISIS in particular has turned its guns not on Assad, but on revolutionaries in a counter-revolutionary effort to build its caliphate.

DESPITE FACING the counter-revolution of Assad and ISIS, the revolution has asserted control over growing swaths of Syria. As the regime was on the brink of collapse in late 2015, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah stepped in to rescue Assad. Together, they provided air power and ground forces to the Syrian regime to regain control of its strongholds and launch offensives – under Russian air cover – against rebel-held areas.

These combined forces of the counter-revolution devastated the country. The Assad regime, not ISIS, has killed the vast majority of the 470,000 people who have lost their lives since 2011. The regime bears primary responsibility for driving half of the 22 million population from their homes – 7 million are now internally displaced, 4 million have fled to other countries in the region and more than a million have left for Europe.

Overwhelmed by Russia and fearful that the wave of refugees could cause a political crisis in the EU, the United States brokered the recent ceasefire. After backing down from asking Assad to step down immediately, the United States has organized a new round of peace talks due to begin on March 10 in Geneva.

But the Syrian people have other plans in mind: to continue the revolution. The Syrian revolutionaries’ astonishing display of resilience under incredibly harsh conditions is a rebuke to anyone who has declared the Syrian revolution to be “jihadist” and/or “pro-American.”

But the fight ahead will not be easy. The protests confront Assad and his Russian supporters, but also a fifth column of revolt – al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Islamic State. So when the revolutionaries demonstrated in Idlib on March 4, they were confronted by Nusra, who had taken control of the city in March 2015.

“Al-Nusra fighters came out and started fighting the protesters, threatening them with their weapons saying, ‘If you don’t leave the streets, we will start shooting,'” said activist Ibrahim al -Idlibi. Jihadists detained 10 revolutionaries for several hours, prompting widespread condemnation on social media. Undeterred, Idlibi said that while the city remained tense, activists planned to stage more protests “against anyone who oppresses the Syrian people, from Nusra down.”

As Russia supports Assad’s counter-revolution, the United States seeks to co-opt revolutionaries into a superficially reconfigured version of the old regime, and Europe and the rest of the world close their doors to the wave of refugees, the re-emergence of popular protest offers the best hope of a solution in Syria.

Syrians will have to find a way to reforge solidarity across ethnic and religious divides and unite in a common struggle. Internationally, the left must stand in solidarity with their efforts and also demand that their countries open their borders to the desperate victims of Assad’s counter-revolution.

Thelma J. Longworth