Article published in March 2012
This article is the first of a three-part series exploring key questions and debates that have emerged in relation to the Syrian revolution that has been ongoing since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011.
Part 1: Who is Behind the Popular Movement?
The Syrian people have been struggling for a year now against a criminal and authoritarian regime. Over the past year, the regime has forgone any human consideration in its response to the uprising. Examples of human rights crimes include the recent massacres of women and children in Homs. Despite terrible repression, the popular movement in Syria continues to demonstrate in the streets to demand the overthrow of the regime.
The Syrian opposition has been very often reduced by the regional and international media to the Syrian National Council (SNC). In reality, the Syrian political scene is very rich and complex.
The SNC is a group of regime opponents in exile and is dominated by political parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals, linked to Western imperialism and their clients in the Gulf. The SNC has called several times for foreign military intervention in Syria. The SNC is nevertheless not representative of the Syrian people and has almost no support inside Syria. Defections are happening slowly inside the SNC and ex-members are condemning its links with foreign powers. The SNC has been the target of protesters and of various groups struggling on the ground.
Many other groups are present in Syria and are struggling against the regime, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (a group inside the country, gathering together nationalists, leftists and Kurds), and the National Coalition gathering around 14 leftist political groups and organization asking for a democratic, social and civic Syria. Both organizations are opposed to any foreign military intervention. We find as well Kurdish and Assyrian parties, nationalists, and liberals, as well as several Islamist groups from different tendencies and not linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The main organizers of demonstrations, civil disobedience and campaign of strikes are nevertheless the coordination committees inside the country such as the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), grassroots activist networks helping organize and document protests (including through a daily newsletter for the international and Arabic media), the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, the National Coordination Committee, and other local committees inside Syria. They are the real force of resistance, and have rejected foreign military interventions. This is why they have been the main targets of the regime since the beginning of the uprising.
The Popular Movement
In addition to the “traditional” opposition participating in the popular movement, including Kurdish parties, leftists, nationalists, liberals and Islamists, there are a number of different sections in the popular movement of Syria. Firstly we can find activists who were part of the struggle against the regime before the uprising and especially since the “Damascus spring” of 2001. Their activities have ranged from advocating for democracy in Syria, to defending the Palestinian cause and denouncing the US war on Iraq. They are mostly educated young men and women in their mid-20s and 30s. The majority are progressive seculars from all religious sects, including minorities such as Alawites, Christians, Druzes, etcetera.
These were the activists who organized one of the first demonstrations at the beginning of the uprising on March 16, 2011, the Family Vigil for Prisoners, a gathering of two hundred people that took place in front of the Interior Ministry in Damascus. These same activists are now playing an important role in the coordination committees on the ground in Syria, and in the peaceful actions against the regime.
For example, the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, a coalition of local committees, is headed by Suhair Atassi. Atassi was arrested for ten days following her participation as one of the organizers at the March 16 demonstration, and is now living in exile after months in hiding. The LCCs are headed notably by the lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who has been living in hiding for more than ten months.
The regime has targeted specifically this kind of activists, the people behind the organization of demonstrations, civil disobedience, and strike campaigns. They have either been in jail or were killed, or have had to live in exile. Nevertheless, those who have survived still play an important role in the Syrian revolutionary process, and are trying to foment various popular forms of resistance against the regime.
The second and biggest section of the Syrian revolutionary movement includes the economically disenfranchised rural and urban working and middle classes who are experiencing the accelerated imposition of neoliberal policies by Bashar Al Assad since his arrival to power.
The process of economic liberalization has created greater inequality in Syria. The poorest are struggling to help themselves in the new economy due to a lack of employment opportunities, while the middle class is plummeting towards the poverty line because their incomes have not kept up with inflation, which rose to 17% in 2008. There is now 20-25% unemployment, reaching 55% for under-25s (in a country where people under 30 are 65% of the total population). The percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from eleven percent in 2000 to thirty-three percent in 2010. That is, about seven million Syrians live around or below the poverty line.
In agriculture, the dispossession of several hundred thousand farmers in the Northeast as a result of the drought should not be thought of as merely a natural disaster. The increase and intensive use of land by agro-businessmen — including land previously kept for grazing — as well as illegal drilling of water wells facilitated by paying off local administrators has contributed to the crisis of agriculture. Indeed, the expansion and intensification of land exploitation by large commercial farmers (agrobusiness), including land previously held for grazing, as well as the illegal drilling of wells and the establishment of selective water pipes meeting the requirements of the new landowners – all facilitated by the corruption of the local governments – have accelerated the agricultural crisis. According to the United Nations, in 2010 more than a million people were forced to migrate from the north-eastern region of Syria to urban centres.
The geography of the uprisings in Idlib and Deraa as well as other rural areas including the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo, historic bastions of the Baath Party that had not taken part on a massive scale in the insurrection of the 1980s, shows the involvement of the victims of neoliberalism in this revolution. Many from this group are joining the armed groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
As well, protesters may be observed gathering around sheiks in some neighborhoods and opposing the regime. As a result many sheikhs have been arrested, while others have fled the country.
The courage and the determination of the Syrian people in their struggle against the authoritarian regime for democracy, social justice and true independence has astonished the world. As Syrian revolutionaries have said since the beginning of the uprising, “The Syrian people will not kneel.”
This past year, a new Syrian people rooted in revolutionary humanism and the struggle for freedom was born. We call on all men and women of conscience to support and bring solidarity to the Syrian people in their revolutionary struggle to overthrow a criminal and authoritarian regime. The revolution must continue.
Victory to the Syrian Revolution and mercy to our martyrs!