Nir Rosen on Syria’s Protest Movement
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA, 20 Feb 2012
Journalist who recently travelled around the country discusses the nature and goals of the opposition.
Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country – supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike – he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.
This is the second in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return. Read the first part here.
Al Jazeera: What is the social background of the protesters?
Nir Rosen: In much of the country, entire communities are involved in the uprising. It is difficult to generalise about their socio-economic backgrounds. The revolution is strongest in rural areas, the smaller cities and the working class, shaabi, areas of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. But there are also many wealthy and educated activists in the revolution.
In many opposition strongholds people are socially conservative. In part this is a function of economic class since working class areas have been most active in the uprising. Residents in such areas generally have more grievances motivating them to rise up and they are more likely to take part in the armed struggle.
AJ: What are the demographics of protesters and opposition leaders?
NR: Most protesters are in their late teens to mid 20s, but in many areas one can see middle-aged and even elderly men taking part. Leaders tend to be older, usually in their 30s to their 50s.
AJ: To what extent are different religious communities participating?
NR: While the revolution is strongest among the Sunni population, I have met many activists from Druze, Christian and even Alawite backgrounds. Unlike Sunnis however, minority activists cannot rely on the support of their broader communities.
AJ: Does religion play an important role?
NR: I have met many secular activists, who for example drink alcohol or date the opposite sex. There are female activists who dress in western fashions.
But undeniably, Islam is playing a role in the revolution. The majority of Syria’s population in Sunni Muslim – and so is most of the opposition on the ground. But very few in the opposition are struggling for an Islamic state. Islam is not the goal. But it does provide a creed or inspiration and it colours the discourse for many protesters and fighters. In part this is natural. People will refer to their local culture and history and values when struggling for political goals. This is especially true if they are devout and their struggle involves great risks. I have been to about 100 demonstrations in Syria. In many of them I had to run for my life from live gunfire. I was terrified. The demonstrators who go out every day since March know they are risking their lives. It helps them to believe in paradise and martyrdom.
AJ: What is the role of women?
NR: Women take part in demonstrations, but the majority are men.
Women are playing a rather limited role in the uprising. This is in part because the uprising is strongest in socially conservative areas. However, even in the most conservative areas such as the Damascus suburb of Douma – where almost all residents belong to the conservative Hanbali school of Sunni Islam and where almost every woman on the street is covering her entire face – there are women’s demonstrations or a crowd of women in the back of protests chanting along.
Even in less conservative places men will argue that they don’t want to risk “their” women, lest they get shot or captured. There is a great fear of rape should women be captured.
In Damascus and in private universities I have met many female activists and organisers, including Alawites and Druze. Some have been arrested or threatened. Some female activists wear the hijab (headscarves). Some are very socially liberal. The liberals are always welcomed when they visit more conservative opposition strongholds.
Many women in demonstrations cover their faces, not out of tradition but to protect their identities.
Women are sometimes used for smuggling supplies unnoticed.
Many men have told me that their mothers or wives urge them to go out and demonstrate. Most striking was a woman I met in Damascus’ Barzeh neighbourhood. Her husband, a local opposition activist, was shot at a funeral on November 9. Her three sons were all very active locally, including with the armed opposition. I asked her if she was not worried about her sons going out to demonstrate. “My sons are not more valuable than other people,” she said. “If every mother is afraid, then nobody will come out and our revolution will fail. My neighbour has two sons. I have three. Our revolution will fail if we tell them not to go out.”
AJ: Are there different types of protests being organised?
NR: There are so-called flying demonstrations which last for only a few minutes and are secretly planned in new and random locations to avoid being ambushed by security forces. These often take place in areas that are not opposition strongholds but where activists want to spark greater support and defy the regime.
In some areas, there are demonstrations every evening, on Fridays and on random occasions as well. In addition there are occasional attempts at sit-ins.
The nature of the demonstration is determined by the security situation. If it is in a “liberated” area it may last for well over an hour and number in the thousands. It may be “protected” by the armed opposition. Additionally there are neighbourhoods in Damascus, Homs and recently even Aleppo where armed opposition fighters guard the roads leading to the demonstration to hold off security forces. These demonstrations may be roving, marching throughout the neighbourhood, or remain in one location.
AJ: What happens at a ‘typical’ protest?
NR: Typically there are lights, banners, flags, and loudspeakers. Each demonstration is led by a hateef who sings songs and is cheered if the lyrics are clever or humorous. Some, like former football player Abdelbaset Sarut in Homs, have become celebrities. The same core of songs are sung throughout the country though there are always local inventions too.
Often there are visitors from other areas. They may be delegations of activists from the Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili, or Kurdish minorities. These are welcomed and they often give speeches.
There is a carnival-like atmosphere for most demonstrations, a celebration of life and dignity. Political speeches are given, educating participants in the values of the revolution, and announcements are made. Poems are also recited.
Demonstrators frequently sing praises of satellite channels they view as sympathetic to the revolution while condemning the pro-regime channels of Syria as well as its allies in Lebanon.
Funerals have also become opportunities for demonstrations.
The goal for most urban demonstrators is to reach a main square to stage a sit-in. Until now most such attempts have been met with gunfire.
AJ: What preparations are made for protests?
NR: Demonstrations are more than just people meeting and shouting slogans.
Organisers meet activists to plan the time and location. They design banners, decide on the slogans, produce signs – all in a safe house. They arrange lighting, loud speakers or sound systems.
They coordinate the slogans so that the political message is unified and also consistent with other areas.
In many places they coordinate with the opposition’s security teams who block the streets to prevent regime security from entering. These teams collect rocks or Molotov cocktails to delay security forces so demonstrators can flee. They post lookouts to warn of approaching security forces. And in much of Syria, since the summer, protest organisers coordinate with local armed groups to protect them and post armed sentries around demonstrations. They also need medical teams to deal with wounded demonstrators, and underground medical clinics to treat them. And they need media teams to document the demonstration and the security crackdown and send the information to outside media and activists. They need anonymous mobile phones to communicate, or they need to use email or Skype.
This and more requires leadership, coordination and crucially, money. They need to raise money. And if the regime punishes a restive neighbourhood or town by besieging it or conducting an arrest campaign, the opposition needs to organise aid to the stricken families.
AJ: Have protests been peaceful?
NR: While most demonstrations are non-violent, by April demonstrators clashed with security forces, throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. In some towns or neighbourhoods they would attack security headquarters and other government buildings they associated with repression, such as Baath party offices or ministry of interior or justice branches.
During Ramadan (August) there were daily demonstrations, daily funerals and daily clashes with security forces. This led to another dynamic.
In November I returned to Homs after a two month absence. “The days of rocks are over,” said a friend of mine who used to throw rocks at security forces in demonstrations. “A new phase has begun of the Free Syrian Army defending demonstrations, and there are less demonstrations because security forces shoot more.”
I last visited the city in January. Armed men surrounded Khaldiyeh neighbourhood to protect its nightly demonstration. When I attended a rally in Bab Dreib area, snipers positioned in a neighbouring Alawite area shot in our direction just to scare the protesters.
Despite the growing armed insurgency in Homs, its revolutionary leaders maintain that demonstrations must continue. “Demonstrations are the main base for this revolution,” said one opposition leader. “An area that is inflamed in demonstrations supports the revolution and also supports armed groups so you can have armed groups there. When I carried wounded and martyrs in my hands I wished there would be people defending me.”
Another senior opposition leader echoed these remarks, saying: “People like the one who is protecting them.” Demonstrations were not important to him as demonstrations anymore, he said. They were important because they lead to the birth of an armed struggle.
AJ: How do the opposition treat their injured?
NR: Hospitals are off-limits to the opposition. To avoid arrest, they have created an increasingly sophisticated network of underground field hospitals. Many doctors and hospital directors have been arrested since the uprising began. Doctors and patients are smuggled to the makeshift hospitals. Some are protected by armed men. Doctors have trained nurses and first responders in treating wounded demonstrators and fighters. They have also trained them in documenting causes of death and signs of torture. Medicine and surgical equipment are smuggled from outside Syria and into besieged areas. Some areas are without doctors and this is leading to deaths. I have seen victims of gunshots lying for hours in cars or homes waiting to be smuggled out for medical treatment.
AJ: Who leads the opposition?
NR: The foreign media has focused on exiled Syrian opposition activists and politicians as if they are leading the uprising. It often seems that both media and the external opposition treat the opposition inside Syria as though they were merely youthful demonstrators. But in fact there is a mature and sophisticated leadership on the ground and they are the ones in charge of the uprising. They often lead double lives or live in hiding and by necessity, they are not known outside their communities.
They are organised on a very local basis although in some provinces or towns, they have united to create larger structures. The most impressive of these is the Homs Revolutionary Council, a virtual state-within-a-state.
AJ: How has the leadership matured during the uprising?
NR: As the uprising gathered momentum during Ramadan, more capable organisers emerged. Activists throughout Syria established larger, more formal structures, to coordinate the various activities of the opposition. Often the leaders of these organisations were better educated and older than the activists on the streets. The Homs Revolutionary Council was formed in September. It has committees dealing with security and armed operations, media, demonstrations, medical, humanitarian, and legal needs. As of January, it was feeding 16,000 families throughout the province. Its leadership is elected and lives clandestine double lives.
Activist in other provinces see Homs as a role model and have attempted to organise themselves on a similar model. Local leaders communicate and cooperate with each other on a national basis. They are not public figures or known outside Syria, but they are the ones running the revolution.
AJ: How can the opposition communicate without being detected?
NR: Communication is difficult for them. The regime can monitor phone calls so they have to use mobile phones not registered in their names – often the phones of slain “martyrs” of the uprising. Skype is also essential and one of the main methods of communication because it is believed to be hardest to monitor. Often land lines, mobile phones and internet are cut off, presenting a challenge to those without rare access to satellite internet or phones.
Protesters communicate by code about demonstrations, calling each other to ask if there is a “dinner” or a “game” and if there are any “dogs” or if it is “dirty”.
AJ: What are the concerns of the activists?
NR: They recognise the importance of maintaining civilian political control over the armed revolution and preventing the emergence of militias out of control. They worry about the emergence of sectarianism, vendettas, and criminality. They think of how to provide services and security to their population in areas where there are no longer government services. They worry about how to secure government institutions in the event of a sudden collapse of the regime. Nobody wants to be Libya or Iraq.
AJ: Is the opposition unified in their political demands?
NR: There is a remarkable unanimity and consensus in their views on the struggle, the future and what is needed. This is in part because of their communication with each other but mostly because of the unique role played by Arabic language satellite networks. Activists also access the internet, especially Facebook and opposition sites. This allows them to be keenly aware of international developments and importantly, to observe the revolutions taking place throughout the Arab world, listen to the debates of politicians and intellectuals, and familiarise themselves with exiled Syrian opposition figures. This has led to a sophisticated local leadership, capable of thinking strategically and also thinking of what to do on the day the revolution is successful.
AJ: Who represents the demonstrators politically?
NR: Arabic satellite channels as well as Facebook allow exiled Syrian opposition figures to observe the slogans of demonstrators on the ground so that they can in effect be led by the opposition on the street and reflect their views to the rest of the world. As a result it is safe to say that of the opposition activists and organisers on the ground (those who demonstrate, fight or provide aid to activists), nearly all back the Syrian National Council (SNC) as their representative to the outside world. At this point the SNC has been virtually recognised by outside countries as their main interlocutor with the Syrian opposition – despite the fact that the SNC is torn by divisions, jealousies and suspicion and is under the influence of many different countries. In my view, it is not sufficiently connected to local leaders inside Syria. It has not done enough to assuage the fears of minorities, to offer a plausible post-regime future or to come up with a strategy for removing the regime. But its position more or less reflects the views on the “street”.
AJ: How is the opposition financed?
NR: Until now there is no direct foreign state assistance to the opposition inside Syria or the Syrian insurgency commonly called the Free Syrian Army. Insurgents purchase their weapons locally from arms dealers and smugglers.
However, there is foreign assistance to the Syrian National Council, which is based in Turkey.
A lot of money to the opposition inside Syria is coming in from Syrians living outside. Some of those are in the SNC and some of those may receive financial assistance from some countries, but most of the money comes from Syrians.
Foreign NGOs and some states are supporting the opposition on the ground with medical aid as well as some audio visual technology like cameras, smart phones, and devices to broadcast their demonstrations. Jordanian security and Turkish military provide minimal help to some people crossing the borders, to Syrian activists and even to some humanitarian NGOs.
Increasingly, parts of the opposition are financing themselves by kidnapping wealthy regime supporters for ransom.
AJ: Do Syrians want foreign intervention?
NR: On the issue of intervention, as on most issues, it is impossible to generalise about ordinary people in Syria. Both sides like to talk about the “Syrian people” but there is no such thing. They are deeply divided. Naturally those who support the regime are opposed to any foreign intervention though they are happy to receive assistance from Iran and Russia.
Most opposition activists, fighters and supporters on the ground in Syria are in favour of some form of foreign military intervention. The older intellectual opposition figures who are well-known but not significant in this uprising are opposed to foreign intervention.
Surprisingly, the mainstream Syrian opposition on the ground looks to the West for help. This is despite decades of anti-Western attitudes and anger over issues such as Palestine and the American invasion of Iraq. And despite evidence of how disastrous the American intervention in Iraq was and the mixed reviews the NATO intervention in Libya has received.
Even Islamist leaders of the revolution look to Europe and the US more than they do to Arab or Muslim countries (with the exception of Turkey). Anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist causes have ceased mattering to the opposition on the ground. It is the death of ideology, in a way. It strikes me as the opposite of many Egyptian protesters who reacted to decades of a pro-American and pro-Israeli dictatorship by expressing anti-imperialist slogans. But the Syrian opposition associates notions of resistance and anti-imperialism with the Assad regime and therefore the causes themselves have been discredited and their enemy has been reduced to the regime and the daily struggle for survival.
Even Islamist leaders of the revolution I met who had supported the Iraqi insurgency against the American occupation now look to the US and the West for assistance. One example is an opposition military commander in Douma who is an Islamist and a former sheikh. “You and your friends supported jihad against America in Iraq, didn’t you?” I asked him. “Of course,” he said. “And now you want American help in your struggle against the regime?,” I asked. “Of course,” he answered, “There is a difference between an aggression and occupation and helping an oppressed country.”
AJ: How did Syrians view the Arab League observer mission?
NR: Few opposition supporters had high expectations of the Arab League because it is a toothless body with no enforcement capability. At most they were hoping for moral support or for the Arab League to transfer responsibility for “doing something” about Syria to the United Nations or the West. Many opposition supporters were suspicious of the Arab League, knowing that it consists of many despotic regimes who have little interest in freedom, human rights or democracy. Others interpreted Arab League dithering as evidence that its member states wanted to give the regime a chance to crush the revolution.
Regime supporters despise the Arab League and view it as an agent of the West or of Saudi Arabia. They mock the royal families who lead it and even dismiss it as the “Hebrew League”. But when the Arab League monitors arrived in Syria, many in the opposition hoped they would somehow stop the violence even though this was not in their mandate and their only task was to observe and report.
AJ: Is the uprising inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’?
NR: The Syrian opposition activists undeniably feel as though they are part of the Arab uprisings. They only began demonstrating thanks to the inspiration of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Some of their songs and chants were inspired by what they saw in other Arab countries. After Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi fell they shouted “your turn is coming oh Dr!” referring to President Bashar al-Assad. They have learned from the tactics of activists throughout the Arab world and they have also learned from their mistakes and challenges, such as the limits of the Egyptian revolution which preserved the regime intact and the post-revolution chaos of Libyan militias.
Syrian activists are part of the culture of revolution that the Al Jazeera network has been instrumental in creating.
It was the fall of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that convinced most Syrian activists that they too wanted an armed struggle with foreign support. And it was the continued struggle of Egyptians in Tahrir Square against their military council that also inspired Syrian opposition figures to persist. Additionally, the regime and its supporters also believe that the uprising in Syria is part of an alleged American and Qatari (and maybe Mossad) conspiracy which also aimed to topple other regimes in the region.
AJ: Are foreign intelligence agencies involved in the uprising?
NR: There is little available evidence that foreign intelligence agencies are directly involved in Syria. I strongly believe the uprising began locally and is locally led.
In my meetings with foreign diplomats and others dealing with Syria I have been struck by how little they know about Syria. The outside world is looking at Syria and feeling an urge to “do something”, but they lack the information to know how to interfere or who to support.
New local leaders have emerged and they have little connections to the outside world. I have met leaders of the revolution all throughout Syria and I know how many of them get their funding and weapons – and it is not from foreign organisations. The leaders of the revolution are all Syrians and they are inside Syria. That said, I think there will inevitably be more direct if covert foreign support for the revolution in a matter of months.
AJ: Are Assad’s claim of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ anchored in reality?
NR: I don’t believe in conspiracies. Of course the Baathist regime in Syria has had enemies hoping to see it fall or radically shift its policies for decades. During the 1980s Iraq, Jordan and other countries did indeed help the Muslim Brotherhood. Countries pursue their interests and many countries have hoped the Assad regime would fall. But the uprising in Syria is the result of internal problems that the regime could have addressed. Instead its violent response unleashed a deeply suppressed anger and the speeches and statements made by Assad and his associates have alienated many of his former supporters.
This is largely a struggle of Syrians against each other. Of course black market arms dealers and smugglers are making a killing from the increased demand for weapons, but these weapons are not supplied by a state. And of course many countries will be happy for Assad to be replaced by a regime more cooperative with interests of imperialist Western powers or counter-revolutionary and reactionary powers such as Saudi Arabia. But that issue is separate from the struggle of those on the ground. The regime and its supporters falsely claim there are foreign fighters or agents on the ground. Likewise the opposition falsely claims there are fighters from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, or the Iraqi Mahdi Army on the ground.
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