Sitting in my West Beirut office at the end of July, pondering the Syrian revolution and the conflicting reports from state media and activists on the ground, I decided I ought to visit.
For three days I travelled around Damascus, visiting the suburbs reported to be places of protest — they were hard to miss given the army deployment in these areas — but I saw little of what I expected. Where there were protests, such as in Qaboun, they ended within 10 minutes and were male-only marches; women were asked to leave for their own safety. Seeing the situation in Damascus made it clear how the regime is dealing with protests through a choking military siege. Was it like this all over Syria?
The Homs bus station of my youth had been bustling with vehicles and travelers but when I arrived last month it was a ghost town. As I jumped off the bus I heard gunshots in the distance. Later that night my nostalgia of Homs as a place where sects co-existed peacefully vanished when my Christian waiter told me he was worried about the “conspiracy” — touted by Syrian state media — that the militant Islamists sought to foment “chaos”.
“We Christians are afraid,” he said. “We saw how Al Qaeda groups killed Christians in Iraq after the American invasion. We are a minority here, and if this regime falls we are in danger.”
The Alawite neighborhoods in Homs were guarded by tanks and mukhabarat (secret service) and there were few people in the streets — not so different from the rest of the city save the posters declaring “We love you Assad”. Here nearly everyone swore to me that the revolution was a conspiracy, an American and Saudi plot to separate Syria from the axis of resistance, distance it from Palestine and force it sign a peace treaty with Israel. The international media’s inflated reporting of the protests has compounded this sentiment, causing Syrians on the ground to lose respect for their accountability and playing directly into the regime’s claims of an international conspiracy against it.
Now, it was time to see the places of protests, from where the echoing gunshots were fired.
The Khaldeyh neighborhood after Friday prayers saw wave after wave of men arrive to form a sea of protest, a mass movement that brought with it a sense of unity and security. The safety I felt in Khaldeyh encouraged me to travel to Bab-Amr, Bab-Dreb, Bab-sbe’a and Hola, near Hama, where I saw people, mostly poor, protesting courageously for their freedom. No one had guns; I did see signs of people trying to protect their neighborhoods with sticks and stones, but this seems the least one can expect from those attacked and threatened by battalions of state security.
Worryingly, I also saw people drifting unknowingly towards extremism. Lacking strong opposition figures, many found guidance in the words of Sheikh Adnan al-Ar’our, a Syrian religious leader broadcast by satellite from exile in Saudi Arabia. His fiery rhetoric incites Sunnis to take back their country, and graffiti in protest epicenters testifies to his revered status. As much an indication of the religious coloring of the movement, Ar’our’s influence speaks to disillusionment within the largely secular opposition. Repeatedly I was told the opposition were “doing a great job meeting and planning, but they don’t represent us”. “We are here on the streets striking, protesting and facing Assad’s bullets with our bare chests,” people would say, while the opposition “hangs out in hotels”. These sentiments resonated on August 20 when a transitional council was formed in Turkey by outside Syrian opposition figures. On social media networks Syrian activists have questioned who these people are and who chose them.
The danger now lies in this revolution being hijacked by those who do not have the people’s interests at heart, those in “hotel rooms” far from the streets, those who are empowered by foreign countries that want to shape the revolution and sectarian divisions to serve their own ends. As an Arab youth myself I stand by the protestors: this is our time. The older Arab generation had their chance and they left us with dictators, oligarchs, widespread unemployment, illiteracy and poverty; but the old ways die hard. Selmeyeh (peacefully) is how the Syrian revolution started and selmeyeh is the way it must remain to bring about true change, rather than the old tyranny under a new name.
MOE ALI NAYEL is a Beirut-based