Saturday, June 09, 2012

Syria - all hope not yet lost

The peaceful demonstrations that marked the beginning of the Syrian uprising in February 2011 seem to have faded into a distant past. As in other countries, the uprising in Syria began with peaceful demonstrations for democratic reform. Even Syrian state television now admits that the revolution began with legitimate, non-violent demands for much-needed reforms. But the struggle devolved into a violence that has now brought the country to the brink of a full-blown civil war. The tactics of nonviolence can be a frustrating path for those who seek freedom. But, nevertheless, popular, peaceful protests have the best chance of winning.

While most Syrians desire a complete return to the peaceful revolution that began over a year ago, the regime seems quite content with an armed opposition. The Syrian military can contain a low-level insurgency, while a full return to large-scale protests on the streets presents a more difficult challenge. For some months the regime largely left these activists alone as the military attacked the armed resistance in their strongholds but the regime has re-focused on the peaceful demonstrators. Scores of the most popular non-violent movements were rounded up, driving them underground again. Similarly, opponents of armed struggler and foreign intervention find themselves increasingly charged with collaboration with the mukhabarat, Syria's internal intelligence services.

"Each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalogue of atrocities: assaults against civilians; brutal human rights violations; mass arrests; and execution-style killings of whole families,"
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the General Assembly. For the moment, the efforts of the United Nations have not been able to establish good-faith negotiations or even a permanent ceasefire.

Active since the dawn of the Syrian uprising, the Syrian Non-Violence Movement has endeavoured to engage a silent majority in actions of resistance and civil disobedience to mark their contempt for the regime. "We need support, but not in arms," Omar al Assil, an activist in the Syrian nonviolence movement, explained. "Weapons do not help anyone," he added. "Our weapon is civil disobedience."

"The violence is drastically escalating and the sectarian strife has become unavoidable with the mounting numbers of explosions, torture, and massacres in many areas in the country,"
Jasmin Roman, a Syrian youth activist related. "The hyperinflation, rising unemployment, scarcity and skyrocketing prices of essential food and non-food items are exhausting the Syrians and exacerbating their struggle to afford their daily basic needs," Roman said.

The non-violent movements that gathered momentum early on have become increasingly sidelined by the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian regime's bloody crackdown on dissent pushed many Syrian protesters to raise angry calls earlier this year for an armed uprising, for foreign military intervention to stop the killing. The FSA began as a collection of soldiers who refused to fire on peacefully protesting civilians, who then left the army and began to form militias aimed at protecting these demonstrators. Soon, this purely defensive function gave way to small raids and ambushes of government troops, thereby fuelling the regime's claims that protestors are not peaceful, and that they cannot be dealt with peacefully. The armed opposition helped Mr. Assad gain the upper hand by justifying the government's battle against so-called terrorists.

 The escalating violence has prompted the return of 81-year-old Islamic scholar and activist Sheik Jawdat Said to the region. He is little known in the West, but remains an influential teacher, according to activists in Damascus. He renounces all recourse to violence in the Syrian movement, including that of the FSA. "We need to get rid of armies. Soldiers are rifles used by others," is his concise answer to a question about the growing popularity of the armed wing of the uprising.

 According to Amr Azm, a Syrian-born professor of Middle East history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, Said influenced the "peace wing" in Syria. "He's important because he's the last of what is holding that line together," Azm told IPS. "Everyone else has moved to the military wing. "Peaceful protests are still an integral part of the movement," he said. But "'Long Live the Free Syrian Army,' is what people are chanting in a nonviolent protest."

Some people say we can't expect the revolution to adhere to its original principles after the indiscriminate violence and the spilt blood. Not only should we expect it, we should demand it. If we have learnt anything we should know what is wrong will never be right; a lie cannot be fabricated into fact; an unjust crime cannot be repackaged as a just act. No number of martyrs, not 10,000, not even a million, changes those principles. To betray them is to betray the ones who sacrificed their lives for Syria. To betray them is to admit we are nothing but traitors to ourselves.

Without a firm commitment to civil disobedience, the largely Sunni protesters may not be able to gain the support of Syria’s minorities. Assad's ruthless crackdown was designed to force people to take up arms, which in turn allowed him to warn Syrian minorities to stick with him and endorse his iron fist. Syria is a country composed of many minorities— Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, Armenians and others—and those minorities are terribly afraid of massacres that might take place if the conflict escalates. He seeks to turn the protests into a sectarian, violent cause. What Assad seems to fear most are nonviolent protesters. Their stand for a secular, democratic Syria could entice the minorities, such as Kurds and Christians, to support them. Peaceful resistance does not mean no resistance. It does not mean non-action. It involves direct action, like general strikes, which is capable of paralyzing the country.

A Libya-style NATO intervention (as some seem to desire) in bringing about a truly peaceful, free Syria by a  military solution, for all practical purposes, does not exist - at least not without destroying the nation. It is a choice between non-violence or non-existence. As Louay Hussein, an intellectual leader of nonviolent tactics and a founder of the group Building the Syrian State, said last year, “If we enter the cycle of violence we will not find a democratic solution but the division of the country.” The members of Building the Syrian State say they are seeking a "third way" that isn't asking for foreign help or seeking to bring down President Assad by fighting.

With perseverance of the Syrian people will eventually prevail but to ensure this outcome, they must go beyond the  political and ethnic differences that the Assad regime is so keen to exploit against them. More importantly,  is that they do so without resorting to the same violence that characterizes the Syrian government. The use of violence will represent a failure of the revolution and a victory for Bashar Assad. Public attention has been captured by activists who are attempting to recapture the peaceful mantle of the early protest movement. These hold the potential to mobilize a broader-based movement against the regime. Non-violence, like any other goal, must be nurtured by a hope in a better tomorrow. We must move forward and never let our hope for peace and justice die.

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