Every March, since that of 2011, has invited us to ask a new question about the revolution, one of existential significance to us, as well as to the revolution itself. Today, six years into that revolution, perhaps the question remains: What is the lifespan of a revolution? Could it be traced within the scope of time at all?
Along the timeline with which we are familiar, the revolution has lasted for six years so far. In these years, however, countless generations of ideas, states and histories have been condensed, as well as horrors of different proportions and degrees. The revolution has nevertheless remained steadfast in its struggle, although it is difficult to define it or identify its representatives at the moment. This steadfastness is primarily linked to a strong common thread, invigorated by the cruelty of the Assadist authoritarianism throughout its battle to survive; this thread is the public conscience that has prevailed in Syria and risen to defend the dignity of its people.
The Revolution Prevails
If we were to answer the question regarding the permanent character of the revolution, and whether it has been, over time, obscured by “identities” that have tried to hijack it and attribute it to a specific conscience or one label, we can argue that the revolution has triumphed since its first rejection by its opponents; since its first encounter with regime media; since that small protest in front of the Umayyad Mosque; since the sit-in on the following day in front of the Ministry of the Interior; since the first protest in solidarity with the protesters and martyrs in Daraa; since Ghiath Matar drew attention to it and to us… The expansion of protests, and resonating calls to demonstrate, was the radiance of the revolution shining over the entirety of its home – Syria.
It is crucial when discussing this narrative to avoid arguing the expansion of the revolution to all regions in Syria. This scope of the revolution does not change the fact that its public, the revolutionaries and their popular base, were a large section of the Syrian population, with rights, grievances and demands that they shall not abandon, nor shall they forgo the pursuit to hold their oppressors and pillagers accountable.
The triumph of the revolution was embodied in its living up to responsibilities towards the slogans it proposed and the objectives it proclaimed; and in its attempts to run its natural course, with little regard to those who called to arms from the very beginning – arguing that peaceful resistance is futile against the a vicious security apparatus. The revolution triumphed over theorists and intellectuals who objected to the mosques from which the demonstrations first emerged, who did not dwell upon the unavailability of spaces for political association. Those also willfully ignored that the persistent goal of demonstrations was to reach the public squares of major cities, which is the most civil expression of protest, and the most peaceful and organized form of civil disobedience, even more so than helpless political parties and movements.
The triumph of the revolution was embodied in bearing the burden of its daily transformation into different forms. In this realization, it bore from the beginning the responsibility of developing and devising a political alternative to the regime, and of voicing the grievances and demands of the people, as well as their yearning to justice, dignity and freedom. This alternative, to which the revolution aspired, was to upend decades of monopoly over the Syrian homeland, over thoughts and words, and over rights and justice. It sought to break the regime’s definition of the victor and the defeated, and of the victim and the “avenger” at the same time. It sought to do away with exclusion from power, which has turned Syria into a hotbed of corruption in which one cannot live without being contaminated.
On Victims and Retribution
From the very beginning, Hafez al-Assad’s regime has instilled the foundations of his monopoly over power. This may have begun since the 1950s, a bitter period marked by a combination of political vitality and diversity and a series of coups; conspiracies and alternating foreign backers.. It was an era of hunger for power and political and military race towards it, wherein Hafez al-Assad, a major player at the time, continued turning against all his partners in previous coups until his final coup in 1970.
The regime managed to export ”what was necessary,” and to exercise its imperatives on Syrians – and sometimes on others. Under one of its imperatives, it assumed the leading role among Arab regimes. It is the victim whose land, the Golan, is occupied, and the rejectionist regional player who refuses to acquiesce. It is the primary seeker of retribution; the vanguard of the October war and the war of attrition; the sponsor of resistance and the thorn in Israel’s flesh.
This ”taqiyya” (double-standard) applied by the regime is the same it had long taught us to reject when it concerned others. We learnt that Israel has presented itself, since its inception, as a victim as well, and equally as the avenger of that victim. Thus, Nazism has rendered the Jews absolute victim, and Israel their prime avenger. Then, Arabs became Israel’s absolute victim, and the Syrian regime presented itself as the prime avenger of their dignity. At the end, Syrians became an absolute victim of the regime, one which is chasing its enemy and still seeking avengers to enact retribution on its behalf. Perhaps this cycle is realized by all the intelligence services of authoritarian regimes.
It was precisely then, at the height of its strength, integration and brilliance, that the revolution proved that it does not intend to proclaim itself a prime avenger, neither does it purport to be an absolute and helpless victim with a right to retribution. It was all Syrians who have been victims to an oppressive power that has turned the country into the property of ruling family mafias, armed with monopolists and violent authoritarian policies.
At first, the revolution did not seek to avenge Syrians for the decades-long grievances. The call to arms did not initially resonate. There was a determination to remain within the natural revolutionary development, despite the violent attempts by the regime to embroil the revolution in a swift process of militarization. The regime confronted the nonviolent actions of the revolution with fire, but the revolution countered that with long bloody months of adherence to peaceful demonstrations.
The triumph of the revolution lies therein – in the general perception of this issue. Because the regime of Bashar Hafez al-Assad was quick to realize it as well, it promptly sought to expand the footnote at the expense of the body of the text, working tirelessly to disintegrate the collective conscience of the revolution, and to tear apart connected Syrian consciences.
Through its criminality and brutality against protesters and dissidents, the Syrian regime gave the revolution and its masses the elements of absolute victimhood. Then, together with other allies and adversaries, it supported and promoted the worst avengers” ever.
The Revolution Defends its Conscience
The root cause of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) emerged from the need to protect the demonstrations from security infiltrators, and from vengeful raids against neighborhoods following each demonstration – it was not a result of public demand to resort to armed insurrection. The regime’s war, both on the ground and in the media, against FSA battalions was evident from the outset. No regime, including those in support of the revolution, would accept the existence of relatively autonomous military power. In this context, we recall the immortal words of martyr Abdul Qadir Saleh (Hajji Marea), commander of the Al-Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, in his widely circulated video: “All states are making an example of us in front of their people.” This seems to be entirely accurate in retrospect, after all these years, as it seems that no party has an interest in the existence of a “conscience” that strives for no more than protection from the regime’s barbarity.
There have been many instances of revolutionaries and rebel leaders who rejected the directives. Discussion of the FSA narrative here does not contradict the previously mentioned adherence to nonviolent action. The aim was not the defense of the pacifism of the revolution as its conscience, but to defend the conscience of the revolution in both of its modes of resistance – peaceful and armed.
The revolutionary struggle was indeed an attempt to preserve itself as a political alternative to the regime. It represented the conscience that had been subjected to persecution and mass-murder for more than four decades, and over the entirety of Syrian geography, with its heterogeneous characters, customs, traditions and landscapes, yet homogeneous victimhood and subjugation, injustice and mass-murder.
Conversely, the specificities of each region or city have led them to deviate in their own narratives of permanent revolution, especially after daily protests turned into an act of self-defense in an uneven battle. Each region attempted to survive under fire, to overcome the calls for retaliation, to make sense of an ongoing genocide, and of utter helplessness and grave loss.
We continue to fight a war of self-defense against a real existential threat, even at the level of ideas and narratives. We continue to shout: We are here in the midst of fire, and our attempts to eliminate those who fan the flames are but primitive and instinctive self-defense. Whenever a truce was agreed upon in some area, people in that area would immediately organize demonstrations; laying down their arms and expressing themselves with songs, chants and banners.
Here, I may be accused of only highlighting the positive side to this, but I am mainly addressing the conscience of the revolution and its bearers. Beyond that, all that remains is nothing in my belief but a footnote that will never overshadow the main feature, no matter how much the former were to expand.
The Road Circles Back to its Beginning
In such conditions of disintegration, violence and victimization, not many revolutionaries have managed to avert becoming as monstrous as those they are fighting. Therefore, many have begun to claim absolute victimhood, and to claim the right to enact retribution. As the retribution against the regime seems ever more elusive in such asymmetric warfare, those claims seem to have spiralled into endless infighting and perpetual victimization.
After the massacre of eastern Aleppo and its mass exodus, there was much talk about the defeat of the revolution. It was then that it become necessary to admit defeat. I claim that revolutions cannot be defeated, or at least that their conscience is indomitable. The Syrian revolution is the conscience of this geography which has shaken off forty years of authoritarianism. The revolution is not military victory over a regime, or simple toppling of an authoritarian rule. It is rather an evolution of concepts related to man and his fundamental nature. If revolutions had previously been defeated, it would have never been possible for the Syrian revolution, or any other, to rise.
Returning to the subject of victimization and retribution, there have been many enemies of the revolution who have sought revenge against it, as well as those who seek revenge in its name. Every region has a different and new enemy: ones occupied or controlled by Daesh and engaged in a struggle against it; ones over which the regime and its militias have regained control; and ones under near-total control by extremist Islamist factions. What all these oppressors share is a rejection of the flag of the revolution and of its fundamental slogans. In the midst of mass exodus, mass murder, mass destruction, the cultural and demographic deformity of cities and geographies, massacres of the sort we witnessed in Aleppo late last year, is it not necessary to admit defeat? But the question prior to that ought to be: Who emerged victorious, and over whom? The entity that is supposed to have been vanquished and defeated, was it a single party, a faction, an army or a state? Is it by any measure defeatable?
No, this entity was and still is a conscience, and as long as retaliation continues against this conscience, it shall not endure defeat. It will rather progress to an effective productive process. Perhaps the first proof of that is the very ability of many revolutionaries to admit defeat, whether as criticism, despair, or hope for the cessation of gratuitous and endless bloodshed and devastation.
Cruel assault against those who admit defeat, or those who have otherwise referred to recent developments as defeat, is the utmost admission of defeat. Most of the attackers are self-proclaimed judges, who issue judgments and accusations of treason onto others according to their degree of victimization, of how absolute of victims they are. This is precisely what makes the end of the road circle back into its beginning, as the regime triumphs by making us resemble it: people who claim the right to retaliation for the victim’s sake.
This mindset has manifested on many debates in recent memory, such as the one that ensued after the publishing of Munther Masri’s article “I Wish It Were Not.” In fact, that article was nothing more than a sincerely expressed admission of despair and an attempt to critique. It falls under the category of shouting through the fire, as both the victim and the witness. In this instance, judgements mainly referenced the author’s positionality within the degrees of victimhood. This is exactly what we should reject, for many reasons. First, it prevents a large number of witnesses from documenting or discussing their experiences and testimonies. Such documentation and discourse is a duty owed to the revolution, and to the victims, and is also the right of people to testify and discuss ideas freely and openly.
This mode of thinking and judgement opens the door to the monopoly of some over the martyrdom of others, and to accusations of treason, let alone digging through personal histories and records. This was no more evident than in the case of painter Yusef Abdelki’s exhibition, which he chose to hold in Damascus. Expression of opinions about this event were quick to delve into accusations of treason, and many writers began digging in the artist’s history. Regardless of one’s take on the exhibition and its featured artist, the method of handling it was characterized by regime-like monopoly, whereby propagators assumed the right to speak for the victims, and the right to avenge them.
It is important to open avenues for discussion and expression of opinions with regards to both events. What is also important is the discussion of the rest, i.e. those who remain within regime-controlled areas. However, whether in defence or prosecution, there must be certain criteria for judging people and assessing their experiences.
But how could these avenues be opened, and the results be fair and useful, if those remaining inside Damascus and other regime-controlled areas cannot present their experiences – because they are not enough of victims to have this right? If we have arrived at the point in which we consider dissidents within these areas as traitors or suspects until proven innocent, this precisely means that the revolution has been defeated, because it means that this country is indeed Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, and not ours.
If we were to discuss criteria of judgement, and if we were to enter the realm of response and debate, it should be stated that there remain many dissidents inside Syria who refuse to carry out any activity that could benefit the regime. Many of those have undertaken several small activities which have only benefited the revolution.
Therefore, if we were to judge everyone accordingly, and reject any cultural activity within the regime-controlled areas, should we not oppose cultural activities outside of Syria in solidarity with those inside the country?! This is just an argument for its own sake, because if we delve into questions such as these, then everyone ought to remain silent. What we need today is public debate, one that could prevent the road from circling back to its beginning, to where some monopolize the right to speak for the rest.
This is not in defense of anyone; it is a defense of the revolution, of each one of us. The Syrian revolution was characterized by the fact that it is not a partisan or ideological revolution; it is the revolution of Syrian conscience. The lives of people during the revolution were not brief and general, neither were they encompassed in slogans or chants. They were individual lives. Every Syrian was a voice and a homeland. The revolution still refers to them as being a protester, a detainee, a liberator, a refugee, a martyr, a pessimist, an optimist, a believer, and an atheist. The revolution has been, and still is, the core of connected Syrian consciences, since it established its own networks of solidarity which triumphed in the streets, neighborhoods and cities of the country – our country... Syria.