Syrian civil resistance continues amidst armed conflict

A checkpoint run by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at Baba Amr, a poor district in the southwestern part of Homs. Photo from Der Spiegel.

Say the words, “Free Syrian Army” in nearly any gathering of Syrian expatriates lately, and their faces break into wide smiles of appreciation. Say the same words to people in Syria, and they say, “They will liberate us.” This sentiment is growing all over Syria, as the defected soldiers that make up the FSA wage battle against their pro-regime counterparts. But will such optimism last?

Nearly 11 months into the Syrian uprising, ordinary civilians, once certain of the effectiveness of civil resistance, are losing hope. They turn to the FSA for protection. The world has been in awe of the Syrian revolution and its peaceful activists (“How brave!” “Such tenacity!”), who vow to oust the Assad regime once and for all, and the peaceful protests continue daily. However, many of these demonstrations are protected from Assad’s army and snipers by the FSA, where and when possible. The presence of the FSA at protest sites has re-energized protesters, who are coming out in increasing numbers even as the regime escalates its violence against them.

Given the FSA’s popularity in some communities, many argue that the full-scale militarization of the Syrian conflict is inevitable. But FSA successes in Zabadani, the eastern belt of the Damascus suburbs, and Homs, among other areas, have given Syrians renewed hope. Their hope stems not from the thought that military help is coming from the West or NATO, but that it comes from home-grown forces: brothers and fathers and uncles who could not face the thought of shooting at their own unarmed people, and who defected. As of this writing, FSA soldiers in Zabadani are facing a massive assault by regime forces, and the FSA has vowed to fight back until “we are all free or we are all dead.” Its determination has inspired others to go out and protest despite the fighting.

Is this the end of peaceful resistance in Syria? Does the emergence of the FSA mean that nonviolence is a thing of the past? Apparently not. Protesters now seem emboldened by their protectors, and have engaged in ever more creative forms of peaceful civil disobedience.

Today, the city of Hama commemorated the massacres of 1982, in which Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad’s father, killed as many as 40,000 people in just over a week. (It’s a sad irony that over the past year, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Hama alone by the junior Assad, including more than a dozen today; more than 6,000 more from around the rest of the country have died as a result of the continuing crackdown.) In preparation, the entire city of Hama shut down on Thursday as security forces descended upon the city to thwart any commemorative demonstrations. Much to the surprise of Assad’s security forces, residents observed a general strike throughout the city—but not before painting streets red and throwing dye into the famous water wheels on the Orontes River. Activists spray-painted graffiti on the walls: “Hafez died, and Hama did not. Bashar will die, and Hama will not.”

In Daraa, another flashpoint city (aren’t they all, at this point?), protesters clapped in union and chanted, “He who kills his people is a traitor.”

All over Syria, in virtually every city, town and village, pro-democracy activists distribute leaflets, create new anti-regime songs, draw caricatures and stage plays to voice their opposition to the Assad regime. The nonviolent part of the movement is still very much alive.

Across continents and oceans, Syrian activists in Toronto, London and Vienna are staging flash mobs in public spaces to let the world know what is happening in their homeland. In Manchester, England, nonviolent activists created a video, “The Whole World Supports Syria,” which shows young people from around the world holding up signs of city names, victims’ names or inspirational messages.

In Washington, D.C., Ottawa, Berlin, Cairo and other world capitals, Syrian activists are doing sit-ins at Russian embassies and consulates to protest Russia’s staunch support of Assad in the United Nations Security Council. Detroit, Chicago and LA are holding sing-alongs and fundraisers to buy and deliver medical supplies.

Another form of nonviolent resistance are the Twitter campaigns designed to stretch the Friday protests in Syria into the weekend, worldwide. One of them is directed by the Free Syrian Twitter Army against the “minhibakjis,” the pro-Assadists who like to intimidate and harass Syrian activists around the world. The FSTA focuses on the minhibakjis by sending targeted messages just to irritate and annoy the enemy. The FSTA has simple rules: no profanity, no personal attacks and tag all tweets with #FSTA.

For now, at least, the nonviolent movement remains alive and thriving. Scholars of civil resistance understand full well that short-term gains by the FSA today do not necessarily mean a democratic Syria tomorrow. And while the FSA enjoys popular support in certain cities now, many activists—especially those watching events in Egypt—wonder whether they might be trading one military dictatorship for another. Historically, an armed revolution tends to lessen popular participation; however, thus far in Syria, that hasn’t been the case.

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