Before pundits, politicians, and gunmen succeed in convincing us that the uprising in Syria has become a civil war, it is worth remembering that the uprising began as a seemingly spontaneous mass-based movement of non-violent resistance. It was unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean it came out of nowhere.
Realists would have us believe that politics is determined by the exercise of power. During the spring of 2011, Syrian moms, dads, children, students, merchants and young professionals demonstrated otherwise. A motley crew of tech-savvy urban youth, poor farmers, frustrated merchants, unruly teenagers, and outraged parents carried the revolutionary fervor that had already gripped Tunisia and Egypt into Syrian cities and the countryside. In late January and early February 2011, sporadic demonstrations broke out in the Jazirah region of northeast Syria and in the Bab Tuma and Suq al-Hamadiya neighborhoods of the old city of Damascus. In early march a group of boys– aged between 9 and 15 and– were arrested for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on the walls of Dar’a, in the drought stricken southern tip of the country. On March 15, when government forces fired on protesting parents and supporters killing four, popular outrage exploded and the uprising was on.
The crowds of demonstrators grew exponentially from Friday to Friday. From hundreds to thousands and tens of thousands, protesters poured into the streets carrying banners and shouting slogans against the regime. From Dar’a and Damascus, the demonstrations spread to the length and breadth of the country, from Banyas and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to Hama and Homs in the center to Deir ez-Zor near the eastern border with Iraq.
As with the organizers of the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, these gatherings were facilitated by computer literate youth across gender, sectarian, and even class divides. Decision-making was deliberately decentralized. (That said, two of the most outspoken activists were women, Razan Zeitouneh and Suhair Atassi). By the beginning of the summer, local groups began to work more in tandem while maintaining logistical autonomy under the umbrella of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs).
The regime demonstrated its intransigence and cruelty by unleashing the force of the military on unarmed civilians. As the death toll mounted, calls for taking up arms increased and by late July renegade soldiers announced the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The LCCs, however, insisted that it was a mistake to “militarize the Revolution” in an August 28, 2011 statement.
Today, Aleppo is besieged by tanks and FSA and other rebels are holed up inside ready for full-scale urban warfare. The death toll has surpassed the 10,000 mark. Sectarian violence perpetrated by both the regime and some of its opponents are transforming a popular uprising into a sectarian civil war. Comparisons to the violence in Iraq are more prevalent and seem more and more convincing.
But, before we get mired in such dire predictions and before news of one massacre after another fogs our memory, I think it is worth taking stock of the achievements of the Syrian Spring. In the heady days of early 2011, the first demonstrators were not only breaking the law but were breaking a psychological barrier that had been in place for at least a generation. The Asad regime had effectively banned politics from the lives of ordinary citizens. To criticize the state outside of the closest circles of family and friends– not to mention organizing demonstrations– was tantamount to courting imprisonment, torture, and worse.
Those early demonstrators broke the fear barrier. And once the momentum caught on, there was no stopping the “people power” that filled the streets, that mobilized citizens of different backgrounds and persuasions, and that powered the creative energies that kept people organized, cooperative, and ready to meet whatever challenge the regime fired at them. Homegrown journalism via phone-cam became almost synonymous with the Syrian uprising. Every Friday was given a name as protests in different parts of the country were synchronized (“Friday of Rage”, “Friday of Dignity”, “Day of Solidarity with Dar’a”). The underground hospitals that served Homs when it was under siege got international attention when Western journalists were targeted as they reported from within the city. In general, the targets of popular outrage and violence were circumscribed and precise: Ba’th Party offices, police stations, court houses, and Syriatel, the communications company owned by Rami Makhlouf, part of the Asad clan.
Was this creativity, determination, and bravery spontaneous? What unleashed such popular resistance in such a disciplined and non-violent fashion so quickly and for so long?
Part of the answer is that, despite their best (and most violent) efforts, the Asad regime never completely snuffed out the will to resist. The notorious political prisons of Mezze and Tadmur were always chock full of resisters. Some of them are legion: Riyad al-Turk, the indefatigable Communist, who spent at least 20 years in prison; Haitham Maleh, founder of the Human Rights Association in Syria; the writer Michel Kilo and many others. Syria’s Kurds have been the most actively organized and protests in Qamishli, the capital of Syrian Kurdistan, and other predominantly Kurdish towns erupted in 2004.
There are doubtless other precedents for political engagement and opposition. I have a hunch, however, that there is more behind this uprising than the legacy of dissident forces.
The most compelling analysis of the background to the Arab Spring as a whole with obvious implications for– if not direct evidence from– the Syrian Spring comes from a 2010 publication by the sociologist Asef Bayat titled Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Bayat’s theoretical approach and the evidence it is based go a long way toward explaining what otherwise might have seemed as spontaneous a year ago. That he was working out this explanation of popular resistance over the previous decade is a testament to his ability to anticipate what caught most observers (and participants) by surprise.
Based largely on examples drawn from Egypt and Iran, Bayat characterizes this phase of political activity at the grass roots as one of “social non-movements”. Unlike the more explicitly political movements that most observers look for in their research, “non-movements” are not guided by ideologies or leaders or institutions. They represent collective action by actors who are not consciously acting in unison but whose combined efforts and practices shape social change. He focuses on three specific groups that typify this kind of politics: the poor, women, and youth. One specific example that resonates with the Arab Spring, is the tendency among street sellers in urban areas to encroach on public space and to occupy it for their own purposes. Bayat calls this the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”. Given this analysis, it should not have been surprising that it was the action of Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who was pushed from his perch by the police, that set the whole region on fire.
The lens of current events may obscure the fact that there was a Syrian Spring during which a people reclaimed their humanity from the clutches of regime intent on crushing the popular tide at any cost.