Whatever happened to peaceful activism in Syria? Lately, it seems that the non-violent movement has completely disappeared from the headlines. Long gone are the days when Ghiyath Mattar, a Daraya-based activist would organize marches where protesters distributed water bottles and roses to the army. Long gone are the days when demonstrators in Deraa would rally around the chant “silmiyeh silmiyeh,” facing the bullets of the government forces with their bare chests. Peaceful activism was eclipsed by the repression of the regime initially and, subsequently, by both the regime and the rise of a multitude of anti-Assad militarized factions.
When some insurgents started to take up arms as early as 2011, activists strove to propose non-violent alternatives to defeat the regime. The Dignity Strike in early 2012 was an attempt to channel the forces of Syrians to take down the regime through civil disobedience by organizing coordinated sit-down strikes and encouraging the boycott of public services. While the campaign received wide coverage in the media and was followed up on the ground, it was not sustained and failed to reach a critical mass. On April 9th 2012, in response to the increased resort to sectarian rhetoric, Rima Dali staged a march carrying the banner “Stop the killing we want to build a homeland for all Syrians” in front of the Syrian Parliament. Her arrest launched a campaign of peaceful sittings in Damascus, breathing new life into the civil movement. From the witty banners of Kafranbel to the political movies of Bassel Shehadeh, art also proved to be a powerful vehicle for creative dissent. Underground revolutionary publications put forward by Oxygen magazine or the Local Coordinating Committees are yet another example of civilian activism that is too often disregarded by the media in favor of more sensational reports on violent fighting.