Syria’s “inside” and “outside”: How they became “them”

The divide between Syrians inside the country and those outside has never been sharper. For the country’s sake, the two groups must make their relationship mutually advantageous, rather than antagonistic.

[Editor’s note: The below article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s 2017 Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 22 March, 2018.]

Who is the “inside”? Who is the “outside”?

“He still lives in Syria.” This expression is commonly used by the media to describe Syrians, as though living in one’s own country is a distinguishing feature. The conception of the war created by the media and the cinema serves to place question marks around the presence of civilians therein.

Between Syrians, the word juwwa (“inside”) is used to designate those living somewhere within the 185,180 square kilometers contained by Syria’s borders. One says: “the people on the inside/outside,” or “the inside/outside gang.” The two expressions don’t differ much from one another; the first focuses on geographical presence, which in the latter defines the essence of the given population. In terms of use, they both grant groups of humans certain characteristics additional to the location of their physical presence, attaching to them a number of assumed stances related to Syrian public affairs.

And while all who consider themselves “insiders” or “outsiders” judge the matter in terms of spatiality, i.e., I am juwwa or I am barra (“outside”), the perceptions surrounding the words don’t only derive from the question of where, but also how, when, what, and why. A new us-vs.-them dynamic emerges, which is used as a practical way of alignment, and sometimes condemnation.

Naming, affiliation, and speech

The reality is that Syria today is divided into different areas of control, each with its own “insider” narrative. It’s in the the areas under regime control, however, that all of this began, and it is there that people are the most concerned with the ongoing debate.

The emigrants and expatriates who were already outside Syrian territory before 2011 were the first to use the word “inside,” by which they referred to those Syrians who began to demonstrate against Bashar al-Assad and carry out acts of peaceful opposition to his rule. The word then became a term used by all who joined the pro-revolution expatriate movement. Opponents of the regime inside Syria used another term: “on the ground.”

The expression emerged out of the most overt action that was ever carried out in the public sphere: the protests. As the need grew for people to work in the centers and homes being opened to provide shelters and relief supplies, a group of “activists” who classified themselves as dissident and neutral parties started to take shape. They began to work in secret and in public, depending on area and funding. Over time, owing to their work in the same field, a considerable number of regime supporters also came to identify themselves as “activists on the ground.” This later contributed to the “inside” activists becoming a mixture of the opposition, regime supporters, and the unaligned. Meanwhile, most of the activists outside Syria remained clearly and entirely pro-revolution, usually doing work with those areas of the interior that were revolting.

At the start of the opposition’s mobilization, it was legitimacy that was supposed to be conferred by the phrase “on the ground;” we are the doers, and so we get to decide and to speak. From the first moments, as always in Assad’s Syria, speech was not easy. In addition, there was a lack of experience regarding how to speak to the media, and how to establish or maintain the necessary relationships for such action. The result of all this was the creation of political figures for the revolution, speaking on its behalf, and mostly living abroad, such as Burhan Ghalioun. A few others were hidden in the interior, like Razan Zaitouneh. Most others were eyewitnesses using false names and living within Syria, which was entirely under regime control at the time. This latter category was unable to speak out against the regime due to a fear of arrest that endures to this day.

As the situation changed, and certain areas fell under opposition control, it became possible to speak within them. Even if there were certain limitations in terms of access and logistics, the situation was still very different from the rest of Syria at the time. Many did not take full advantage of this newfound freedom. The phrase, “My parents are still in a regime area” explained it all.

Areas of fear: Who’s on the inside?

Who today can speak publicly about their opposition to Assad’s regime in the areas under its control? The National Coordination Committee? Some of the old opposition? Former detainees? People who declare oppositional stances online while almost completely denying those same positions in the real world?

How do they do this? Within what limits? With which privileges and at what risk? The only people we know of, the people whose voices we hear, are the select few who dare to declare their positions while maintaining a balance like a knife edge. They are from the opposition yet they live in the regime-controlled areas. What we don’t know is everything else. All the while, the loudest and clearest voices are those supportive of the regime, which is logical in a dictatorship such as Syria, just as things were before 2011, when Syrians were seen as complacent in their oppression, a dead and immobile people.

Despite all of this, many who were never armed rebels were arrested in regime-controlled areas, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) coming from rebellious areas made their way to these areas. It seems that every Syrian knows at least one person belonging to the opposition who still lives there. This means that some level of opposition exists in regime-controlled areas.

But what does this brand of opposition do? Is it distinguished by its inaction? Or the inaction that is sometimes demanded of it? Should it, because of its geographical location, do something? If so, how? For those who side with the revolution, answering these questions entails grappling with our interpretation of the idea of ​​the revolution, with its meaning and claims. Addressing the commonly used language of the “inside” and the “outside” can provide us with a means of approaching these questions at the level of the rhetoric of Syrian revolutionary actors.

Change and wellbeing

The exodus of civilians during wars is an automatic process, and in Syria, it’s a dream in peacetime too. Thus, the fact that things are now connected to a “revolution” both complicates and simplifies the issue. In many of the debates going on among Syrian dissidents, a legitimate concept such as personal safety has to struggle with the idea of ​​creating change. Some of the consequences of regional and class conflicts overlap because of reasons having to do with the locality itself, namely, the question of whether certain choices are a “betrayal of the revolution,” or if they are “self-preservation,” inside and outside the country.

Perhaps revolution and war are the two equally-matched factors that must be taken into account when considering the issue; is it a revolution to which you have to contribute, or a war from which you should escape? Or is there a set triad available to Syrians today: hero, victim, criminal? Unknowingly, this triad is rushing to categorize us all, making use of metaphors that we ourselves use when we ask for asylum. These are metaphors we are forced to adopt, individual or group causes and stories for leaving or staying, and they are usually catastrophic. This means that the simple act of scrutinizing them is a type of violation. This is true to the extent that discussing these movements and their consequences is usually reduced to personalized discussions, conducted in a tone resembling that of the regime’s supporters. One hears expressions such as “they ravaged the country and fled,” or “they made a truce and are now in the regime’s areas.” Every utterance like this makes the role played by the regime in what has happened to Syria somehow more vague; it begins to seem like a comrade of the revolution.

Changes and discourse

With the increase in arrests and the initiation of shelling, fear rapidly became an important factor, one that incited and mobilized. This marked the end of the era of protests and other dissident actions; the end of peaceful opposition to the regime. Such a possibility ended with the emergence of armed conflict and the inability to develop nonviolent means for achieving the same result and exerting the same influence. The years of 2012 and 2013 witnessed waves of Syrians (activists and otherwise) leaving for other countries. Some were able to have farewell parties where one would hear such phrases as: “You’ve done a lot, now it’s someone else’s turn;” “I can’t achieve anything here;” “You’re more useful outside;” and “It’s not possible to work on the inside.”

In all of this there is a sense of exoneration; being let off the hook; and at the same time, one of frustrated surrender; it cannot be done. Nonviolent resistance derives its strength from the energy and solidarity of the crowds. So what happens if there are no more crowds? What if there are no activists? Leaving and a disappearance of desire are an additional loss in resources, just as arrest and murder are in the course of the revolution.

The subsequent years were marked by the relocation of most of the opposition bloc to the outside. The discourse shifted towards maintaining personal safety, with questions emerging such as, “What are you still doing in the country?” and, “Why haven’t you gotten out?” The wish to protect those we care about from death, harm, or arrest resulted in the country being emptied of activists opposed to the regime.

The crack

The exhibition of the artist Youssef Abdelke in Damascus in late 2016 was a turning point in terms of what it meant to be juwwa versus barra as a member of the opposition. Discussions that were previously held in closed sessions came out into the digital space.

Rumors about people, such as the soccer player Omar al-Somah, returning to Syria allegedly because they changed their stance from opposing the regime to supporting it, made living in regime-controlled areas questionable in terms of political position. Simply being there meant siding with the regime. “I won’t return to the regime” became a supposedly radical revolutionary position. But it also expressed a rejection of the Syria that is subject to the regime, as well as of those living within it. All of the adjectives with which the regime is described were attached to the places that it controlled, and all of the various forms of its oppression became characteristic of these places and incriminated them.

The few people with sufficient privileges to get a visa to go abroad and return, “those who leave and come back,” are incomprehensible to those living in Syria. “Why did you return?” they get asked in disbelief when they are received in Syria, compared to those who died on the path of the dream of a better life. On the outside, phrases such as, “They left with a plan to come back [i.e. to reconcile with the regime],” or “two-faced,” are used to mock them; the implication being that exiting and returning cannot co-exist, and that outside means opposition, and inside means loyalty, and that’s that.

Revolution and place

Today, the revolution is defined by what it is not, rather than by what it is. It is not pro-regime. This means rejecting anything related to anything that is close to having anything to do with the regime, sometimes unrealistically so. The revolution, or the new moral covenant, was based on a political and moral position directed towards the regime and its actions. With time, however, it became defined in terms of geographic proximity, in the sense of being in regime-controlled-areas, albeit under the same repressive force that led to a revolution.

Here we have a series of assumptions:

The regime is an absolute and ultimate evil; not a system of rule difficult to defeat in the current circumstances.

You have to move away from it, and only by doing so can you manage not to be like it. If you approach it geographically, you support it. The only representation of the regime’s areas is the discourse of its supporters; this is the only clear marker, and therefore by living there you are represented by this discourse.

Here, activists as an intellectual current become an audience. They are cheering at a big game, which consists of shouting at one another, and holding the other party accountable without discussing the objective reasons for what actually happened to this revolution. It’s said that “there is no discussion needed” when it comes to the actions of the regime, and that “it is the reason [for all ills],” and the matter ends with one’s conscience consoled. The survivor’s complex is heavily weighted. The absence of collective action and the difficulty of achieving it makes responsibility for Syria a burden rather than a subject that can be studied and understood, even if debate is a part of that process. The tone of the dialogue is filled with accusations of treason and purported monopolies on morality.

What the inside doesn’t say

“They live their lives as normal just a few meters away from death.” In the 1960s, revolutionary German students asked their parents: What were you doing while Hitler killed the Jews?

A member of the opposition may think the question doesn’t apply to him because of his stance, and that the culprits are the regime supporters. In reality, however, many confide in secret that they wish for the war to end in any way whatsoever, and as quickly as possible. It’s like overhearing a torture session as a detainee when you want to sleep; you either want the executioner to stop or for the person being tortured to lose consciousness: May the people of Ghouta be forcibly displaced to Idlib, then the people of Idlib leave for Turkey; and while we’re at it, let’s forget all about Daraa; just let all this stop. The “sounds of bombardment” bother them, and they reassure themselves it’s “outgoing, not incoming.” They even sarcastically use terms such as “friendly fire.”

The presence of people outside relieves the Syrian here who doesn’t accept to be told to act by anyone on grounds of fear; so what then if the person making the demand is far away from all this? Personal safety won out over the necessity of change long ago. “It’s a high price to pay,” or “[The regime] doesn’t deserve me staying in its areas even for an hour” are expressions used to relieve the burden of having to act under the pretext of moral correctness. They echo the slogan of the current helpless phase; “May God relieve."

Privileges and identification

After this, identification with the regime occurs automatically. Its ambiguously interrelated structures fighting over interests create a reality much like the pre-2011 corruption. The conflict, however, has been transferred to much simpler things, such as movement, checkpoints, housing, sales and purchasing, keeping work, evading military service, striking deals to free a detainee, and many of the living needs that used to have little to do with state intervention. The corrupt power structure is spreading like cancer with various socially interconnected parties participating in it. Corruption is the law, and “knowing someone” is the only way to do things. No one can live outside this system. They can only continue to survive within it day after day, using the privileges of class, region, sex (what women have), anything and everything that can promote individual salvation.

Fear and the wish to remain clash here with the desired steadfastness, so that “remaining” becomes “distortion” and the steadfast stance becomes meaningless. We are surrounded by talk about suffering, the same suffering that is experienced by any regime supporter. First there is unity, then there are periodic shells and explosions and hours of rationing or water shortages, let alone overcrowding and high prices.

The thing is, people are afraid. Fear is the reason, the argument, and the result. Everything can be justified by it, just as things were before 2011. The truly sad thing here is the propaganda that “the wall of fear has been smashed,” when in fact it has risen many meters higher in front of our faces.

The urgent question today is this: how do we arrive at ethical and nationally-beneficial choices, for ourselves and the people, amid this frenzy for self-preservation, which seems to necessitate toppling the other person? How do we do this instead of throwing around accusations of betrayal, and of causing defeat, or “polishing his image”?

Steadfastness as merchandise

Many people demand to be appreciated for “staying juwwa.” Exploiting the locality or “trading on it” is something we do not recognize when we do it, something for which there exists no reference point against which to measure it. Here, concepts overlap. Slogans such as “still staying juwwa” have a sleep-inducing effect, keeping us from evaluating our actions. We find ourselves either corrupted or accused of corruption, learning that in this mess, anything goes.

This takes many shapes, such as requesting funding for projects that never get implemented, or being unable to document work. Security issues and the disruption of services are always present, providing an excuse for everything. On the other side, the “survivor’s complex” immediately grants legitimacy to any demands made by “our people who are inside.” This is not always the case, but the problem is the scorning of accountability. This issue needs to be dealt with in a serious manner, with consideration for the work ethic that it normalizes.

About the outside

“They fled.” The word is used as an accusation, despite the fact a person only usually “flees” an imminent danger, and is pushed inevitably by instinct to do so. The accusations take other forms as well, such as “they have no right to speak,” “they are virtue-signalling,” and “when they were here, they didn’t dare to open their mouths.” We hear questions such as “Activists or employees?” or “Did they adopt an oppositional stance for a salary?” Although it is strategically a good idea to recruit additional people, male or female, for the side of change rather the side of crime, the focus here is on determining the greatest victim, and not seeking the greatest benefit.

Some reject others’ views purely on the basis of their physical remoteness. Meanwhile there are only a few people who speak about politics inside Syria. Since the militarization of the revolution began, most opposition activists in the regime-controlled areas have been transformed into apolitical actors. The only work available is in the fields of development, media, and relief. All of this is usually done in secret. Activists don’t know about the activities of other activists, out of fear of revealing information in the event of their arrest.

This unity and non-unity of situation can fragment any common vision, and even render it non-existent at its very root. This has severely impeded the emergence and solidification within Syria of a political society with a unified national and geographic identity, just as geographical dispersion has influenced those on the outside.

Current Syrian discussions resemble the old inherited conflicts in the region, and add a new item to the history of Syrian hatreds. Nevertheless, relationships and work continue, with those inside benefiting from the access and experiential knowledge, while those outside benefit from their freedom of expression and the ability to network with international actors. In light of the current geographic situation confronted by those involved in creating change in Syria, it is imperative that we develop this division of labor.

There is something amusing about recalling that all of this began with protests mostly concerned with solidarity with other oppressed people. This means we recognize the existence and importance of the Other, and the necessity of empathy with them, and a desire to interact and co-exist with them in this world.