In Syria, It’s Complicated
by Amal Hanano
On Saturday, May 12, a group of activists held a vigil inside the Damascus Citadel, in the heart of the capital. Candles burned on the pavement, flowers were tucked into the iron railings, and red banners announcing “Stop the killing,” were held up by the mourners. The vigil was held in honor of the victims of the twin bombings that shook the capital two days prior, killing 55 people, wounding dozens more, and wreaking havoc on the busy street near the notorious “Palestine” Intelligence branch. The peaceful vigil was quiet, but was soon broken up by security forces and government thugs. At least twelve activists were detained.
Although by now these aggressive acts by Assad forces are predictable—expected even—this vigil should not have been threatening or problematic. In the aftermath of the bombings, an outpouring of outrage and concern had flooded the Syrian State television channels and social media platforms. It seemed that mourning and protesting this tragedy was allowed—encouraged even—but on condition that grief is expressed by only one kind of citizen: the regime loyalist.
The regime blames the bombings on the usual suspects: external armed forces; jihadi extremists; and this time, specifically, Al Qaeda. As martyrs have become the new commodity in the “media” war between opposition and loyalists, in order to claim the right to grieve the innocent civilians caught in the explosion, one needed to exclusively claim the official narrative and no other. But two days after the severe breach to national security, and the regime’s shrill claims that the country is under attack by international terrorist groups, it seems strange that the regime would be threatened by an innocent candlelight vigil, no matter what the group’s political views were.
Except it was threatening. It threatened to unite all Syrians in their desire to claim all of our martyrs. It threatened to undermine the regime’s divisive tactics with a simple but powerful message “Stop the killing.” And as we know, the Syrian regime does not like to take orders from anyone, not from Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for peace and definitely not from a group of youth carrying candles and flowers.
In the aftermath of this week’s deadly massacre of over 100 people in Houla, a village outside Homs, the victims themselves have been classified into groups. The UN has placed the responsibility of deaths by shelling on the regime but has left the question of who slaughtered children open – committed perhaps by unknown “armed gangs” – as if the regime is incapable of committing such atrocities. As if such brutality was too extreme for even the Syrian regime.
On May 15, the UN monitors’ convoy in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun in the province of Idleb was attacked while attending a funeral. Their cars were damaged and at least twenty protesters were killed. Stranded in the town and not willing to risk traveling after dark, the monitors spent the night under the Free Syrian Army’s protection. A few days later, in yet another attack during a UN visit, a monitor appeared in videos crawling away from bursts of gunfire and being dragged to safety by revolutionary forces. And again on May 20, in the Damascus suburb of Douma, a bomb exploded in a alley during the the mission’s leader General Robert Mood’s visit. Explosions have become the norm wherever UN monitors go and a heavy death toll usually follows after they leave. But in UN official statements, both sides are asked to stop the violence. In official statements, one day Al Qaeda is declared responsible for the Damascus bombings and on the very next day it’s not.
Late last year, Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem had predicted the violence that would happen in the presence of the Arab League monitors. When asked in a press conference if he thought that would help or hurt the regime’s narrative, he replied that it would prove that there are indeed armed, terrorist gangs in Syria. Are these the same armed gangs that UN monitors asked for protection in Khan Sheikhoun?
In his recent interview with Rossiya 24, Bashar al-Assad declared Syria is “losing the media war” but “reality is what matters.” Really? That’s news to many in the opposition. After filming hundreds of thousands of videos documenting the regimes shelling, destruction, and torture, along with protests, funerals, mass graves, and thousands of corpses, somehow, the conflict is still painted in the media as unclear, unverified, and always “complicated.”
“It’s complicated,” is the one thing everyone agrees on regarding Syria. The complex nature of the Syrian crisis supposedly makes the uprising in Syria both unique and yet conveniently similar to whatever historical precedent is chosen: sometimes Iraq/Lebanon/Libya, sometimes Rwanda/Sudan/Bosnia.
The Arab Spring did not start this way, although these “nuances” were analyzed obsessively from the beginning. The people from these countries chanted for freedom and saw themselves mirrored in the struggles of their brothers across borders. While regimes and media insisted: Egypt is not Tunisia; Libya isn’t Egypt; Yemen isn’t Bahrain; and Bahrain isn’t Syria. Not to mention, Syria is definitely not Libya. Syria’s future, at best, should be compared to Iraq’s present or Lebanon’s past.
Cynics on the sidelines use claims by regime supporters as evidence that the regime is not as bad as the activists say, and that the opposition in fact is much worse than we could imagine. They claim the videos are fabricated and declare the truth as elusive. They belittle the number of dead, creating graphs and writing long blog posts to back their rationale. They argue that the president and his family do not like to be humiliated. They ridicule claims that bombings like the one in Damascus cannot be executed by the regime, because it would be stupid for a regime to attack itself. But they do not state the facts, that the bombing attacked a street not a building. They are appalled by Palestinian writer Salameh Keilah’s accounts of recent torture at the hands of the Syrian regime but in the same breath are put off by his problematic choice of sharing his statement on the biased Al-Arabiya.
Condolences to the Syrian people were made months ago, along with predictions of the inevitable civil war. We were told that the ever-sectarian revolution would be weaponized and radicalized. We were warned that our infiltrated and hijacked revolution will spark violence would “spill over” across borders.
And now, fourteen months in, the armchair pessimists lean back, and smugly say, “I told you so.”
They say hindsight is 20/20 but what about foresight? Is it a mark of brilliance? Is it simply knowing the history of the region? Or is it what the late Anthony Shadid would have called practicing the ultimate shatara or cunning?
While some may say Bahrain’s uprising has suffered from the world’s silence, it seems that Syria’s revolution has suffered from the world saying too much. Empty chatter from Syria’s so-called friends is not that effective against Russian tanks and bullets, but is extremely effective in creating a hazy narrative of an equalized struggle: between the regime and the Syrian National Council; between the Syrian Army and the Free Syrian Army; between force and non-violence. The question of Syria is simplified to an impossible choice of regional stability over the humanitarian crisis or the choice of resistance over repression.
There were many, long months when the struggle was peaceful, non-sectarian, without outside influences, and contained within our borders. But the critics (who had claimed revolution would never touch Syria) shook their condescending fingers and raised their voices in unison with Bashar al-Assad’s, predicting the violence that was to be unleashed on the region.
Now, the detractors, practicing their audacious shatara, speak of the “two periods of the revolution”: the peaceful, pure period and the violent, sectarian one. The same people who used to cite the presence of “armed gangs” and “Salafis” over a year ago, now talk about the principles of the revolution that were once upheld but have now have been regrettably lost forever. Even Syrian television now admits that the revolution began with legitimate, non-violent demands for much-needed reforms.
So the question remains, why does the Syrian regime insist on detaining peaceful activists like the ones at the candlelight vigil or torturing writers like Salameh Keilah? Why don’t they focus their efforts at ridding our country from Al Qaeda terrorists? The answer is quite simple, and not complicated at all: What regime would be stupid enough to attack itself?
The pessimistic “I told you so’s” do not deter the will of the Syrian people. Despite the violence, sectarianism, and utter loss of trust in the regime and faith in the outside opposition, there are still thousands of peaceful protesters who call for freedom every day. They call to rebuild a country for all Syrians, far from regime-induced sectarianism. The cynics refuse to see these people while the regime detains and tortures them.
And even on days like today, while we watch our children, Syria’s children, piled in a heap with their throats slit open like slaughtered sheep, while the town of Houla digs yet another mass grave to bury its over 100 dead, the Syrian people still chant. They may chant with tears and cracked voices, but they chant. Because against the tyrant and his apologists, against the world’s empty promises and universal conspiracies, the Syrian people are determined to claim the only “I told you so” that counts – the final one.
And unlike the cynics, they are paying for bragging rights with their blood.
A shorter version of this article was originally published in The National.
Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer. Follow her on Twitter: @amalhanano.