Syria in Revolt

Understanding the Unthinkable War

By Sadik J. Al-Azm in the Boston Review

Burning Syria, Tammam Azam

The people’s intifada in Syria, against the military regime and police state of the Assad family, took me by surprise. I was fearful at first that the regime would crush it almost instantly, given its legendary ferocity and repressiveness. Like other Syrian intellectuals, I felt total impotence before this devouring monster, which precluded any thought of an imminent, or even possible, collective “no.”

I was surprised by the revolution, but I should not have been. Daily experiences and recurrent observations foretold a crisis that many Syrians tried hard to deny. And deny we did. Let me explain.

After the violent suppression of the Damascus Spring in 2001–2002 and again after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, angst spread throughout Syria. I was working in Damascus, where the trepidation was especially pronounced. The country, it seemed, was teetering on the edge of an abyss.

But life flowed routinely on the surface. Talking about the situation publicly was out of the question. Even hinting at it was dangerous. When someone did speak up, others quickly changed the subject. A conspiracy of silence was the order of the day.

This period marked a palpable deterioration in relations among Syrians. Sectarian lines hardened, undermining long-standing friendships, harmony among colleagues, and the daily interactions of citizens. Even our way of joking changed.

Like many in Damascus, I found myself beginning, almost unconsciously, to weigh every word according to the religious affiliations of passing acquaintances and close friends alike. Social engagements lost spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated, and offense was taken more quickly than ever before. An unusual dose of suspicion seeped into the Syrian intelligentsia’s traditional solidarity against oppression.

By 2009–2010, it was impossible to go about the day without repeatedly hearing from working people expressions such as, “All it needs is a match to ignite,” “It needs a spark to flare up,” and “All it needs is a fire-cracker to explode.”

More educated Syrians, particularly intellectuals, had their own favorite metaphors. Mine was a pressure cooker, where the heat is mounting and the safety valves have been destroyed. Yasine Haj Saleh, a former political prisoner and the most prominent underground commentator and critic on behalf of the revolution, as well as a fine writer of prison literature, warned that if the people did not quickly find a way of letting their “Syrianness” prevail, the country would be in for the worst. The cartoonist Ali Ferzat said in a 2007 Newsweek interview, “Either reform or le deluge.” In 2011 Ferzat was assaulted by regime thugs and left for dead on the side of the road, but he survived.

A prominent colleague and friend in the philosophy department emphasized the inevitability of a civil war because the worst had already happened: the antagonistic Sunni-Alawi divide in Syrian society is a fait accompli, he told me. War was preordained.

Others maintained that one thing could be said for the regime: it alone was holding Syrians back from massacring each other.

Had you asked me what would happen if the tsunami that started in Tunisia reached Syria, I would have answered: the Sunni of Hama would sharpen their knives and pour out into the neighboring Alawi villages to take revenge for the rape and destruction of their city by Assad’s storm troopers in 1982.

But sectarian slaughter did not come to pass. Instead, the unthinkable happened: a people’s revolution against the regime.

Read more at the Boston Review

The Names of the Revolution


Posted by Matthew Barber on Saturday, December 14th, 2013

From the inception of the Syrian uprising, each Friday has been given a special title by activists involved in protests. Fridays were important in the beginning because more protests would occur on that day than any other day of the week. Protests would often take place immediately following communal prayers in mosques where large groups of people would have already congregated together, something impossible in Syria outside of institutionalized contexts like the mosque or a place of education.

Each Friday bore a name such as “The Day of Rage” or “The Day of Defiance” and such titles were picked up and circulated by both the Arab and Western media. The practice of naming the Fridays was started by the “Syrian Revolution 2011” Facebook page, run by Fida’ ad-Din Tariif as-Sayyid ‘Isa, a Syrian activist in Sweden.

Some months into the uprising in 2011, people complained and proposed that the process of naming the Fridays should be democratic rather than performed by a small group of website administrators. A new system emerged whereby a number of options for the next Friday’s name would be posted on the Revolution Facebook page, and visitors were able to vote for the title of their choosing. Each week, multiple thousands vote on these names.

The names have reflected themes that concern the uprising during the particular week that a name is assigned. Back when the uprising was still characterized by protests rather than skirmishes, activists would incorporate the current Friday’s name into the slogans and banners used in demonstrations.

At the beginning, names began as simple, one-word titles such as “The Day of Honor” that were general in scope. Then the names began to express specific ideas, like “The Day of Loyalty to the Kurdish Uprising,” or positions that could be endorsed, like “The Day of No to Peacekeeping Forces in The Land of Sham.” Eventually, names grew unwieldy in length and included statements, i.e. “The Day of Full Preparation for Full Mobilization; Russia is the Enemy of the Syrian People” or “The Day of Allah Is Great: He Supported his Worshipers, Made his Soldiers Mighty, and Defeated the Factions Alone” (an excerpt from a prayer recited on Eid). Some titles employed cleverness: “Revolution University – Martyrdom Engineering.”

We recently collected all of the names given to the Fridays since the beginning of the uprising and list them below with translations. December 9 marked the 1000th day of the revolution; all of the Friday names listed below except the final one (Dec. 13) constitute the first 1000 days of the revolution.

Read more at Syria Comment

A Faceless Teenage Refugee Who Helped Ignite Syria’s War – NYTimes.com

A boy now living in Jordan, who was part of a group whose arrest and torture helped start Syria’s uprising.

AMMAN, Jordan — In a listless border town, the teenager goes unnoticed, one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the Syrian civil war, dashing across villages and farms to land in Jordan, just five miles from home.

But this young man carries a burden — maybe an honor, too — that almost no one else shares.

He knows that he and his friends helped start it all. They ignited an uprising.

It began simply enough, inspired not so much by political activism as by teenage rebellion against authority, and boredom. He watched his cousin spray-paint the wall of a school in the city of Dara’a with a short, impish challenge to President Bashar al-Assad, a trained ophthalmologist, about the spreading national revolts.

“It’s your turn, doctor,” the cousin wrote.

The opening episodes of the Arab uprisings are growing more distant, the memory of them clouded by fears about what the revolutions have wrought. In Egypt’s chaos, activists talk of a second revolution, and in Tunisia a political assassination this week has imperiled one of the region’s more hopeful transitions. Then there is Syria, where tens of thousands of people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled the country and the idea of the nation itself is disappearing amid cycles of sectarian bloodshed.

Read more at The New York Times.