Syria's Nonviolent Resistance Is Dying To Be Heard

Above: The Syrian Non Violence Movement continues, despite being largely ignored in the conversation about Syria. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Many civil society activists who continue to defy the Assad regime are not convinced by the case for U.S. air strikes

Much of the debate over U.S. intervention in Syria boils down the conflict there to a clash between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and an armed rebellion in which al-Qaeda affiliates play a significant role. Typically ignored in that conversation are the voices of the non-violent opposition movement that took to the streets to challenge Assad in March 2011, and which has persisted against great odds.

“No matter how beleaguered it is, civil resistance continues,” says Mohja Kahf, a Professor of Middle East studies and literature at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Syrian Non Violence Movement (SNVM). A network of peaceful groups remains active in opposition to the regime inside Syria, their activities plotted by SNVM on an interactive map that can be viewed online.

Although it was the activists in such groups that originally drove the nationwide uprising against the Assad regime, these days much of their activity involves triage, mitigating the impact of the civil warand building the capacity for self-governance in towns no longer under regime control.

Reem Salahi, a Syrian-American civil rights attorney who spent time in Syria over the summer, witnessed a flourishing alternative media infrastructure, grassroots councils to run local government and organize humanitarian relief in areas vacated by the regime, and projects such as the Karama Bus — or “bus of dignity” — which travels around Idlib province offering psycho-social support for internally displaced children. “For Syrians living in Syria, just surviving and engaging in daily activities is a form of opposition, a form of activism,” said Salahi.

Many such efforts are funded by the Syrian diaspora. Rafif Jouejati, a Syrian-American activist organizing solidarity work describes its results as including schools in Idlib, media centers in Aleppo, relief-distribution in Homs and a planned water-treatment facility in Deir Ezzor.

And while many Syrians who first engaged in peaceful protest later turned to arms in the face of the regime’s crackdown, others continue to do non-violent political work. Their views on the question of proposed U.S. military strikes to punish the Assad regime for a suspected chemical-weapons attacktwo weeks ago are ambivalent.

Somar Kanjo, 30, joined the first wave of protests in Damascus in the spring of 2011, then fled to his hometown of Saraqeb in the northern Idlib province. While he has dedicated himself to non-violent projects such as producing educational materials for displaced children in rebel-controlled areas, Kanjo supports those who have joined rebel fighting groups. “I’m against being armed, but it was necessary,” he told Al Jazeera by phone from Turkey, where he was visiting his parents. “The regime made it necessary.”

Since it fell to rebel forces over a year ago, Saraqeb has been a target of relentless government shelling, which is why, according to Kanjo, most Syrians in the town welcome U.S. military intervention.

But in Damascus, most of which remains under regime control, even many opponents of the regime also oppose U.S. intervention, according to Khaled Harbash.

Harbash, 21, joined the uprising in April 2011 by helping to organize demonstrations as head of the Hama Civil Team. He moved to Damascus last year, where he has continued to engage in political activism with Building the Syrian State Current, a non-violent opposition group whose members organize meetings and democracy-building workshops among Syrian youth in hopes of building an inclusive foundation for a post-Assad government. The Current opposes outside intervention and armed opposition and favors a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Though it operates independently of the internationally recognized opposition groups, its members inside Syria continue to be targeted by the Assad regime.

Harbash is equally disdainful of all outside parties engaged in Syria’s conflict. Russia, the Gulf states, the West and Turkey are all “part of the problem and complicit in the crimes committed against civilians in Syrian villages and cities,” Harbash said. “What started as interference is now an assault on Syria’s sovereignty.”

He fears that outside intervention prolongs Syria’s war and could turn the country into “a failed state.”

“The United States is not an international judge who can punish and forgive as they please,” said Harbash. “Any military strike would not be against the regime, but against the entire country. And Syrians who for two and a half years have suffered from the war will bear the consequences.”

Osama Nasser, 35, is an activist with the SNVM who recently moved from Damascus — where he’d been in hiding — to East Ghouta, the rebel-controlled area targeted in the alleged gas attack two weeks ago. Although he also opposes the proposed punishment strike over the Ghouta attack, he’s angrier that the international community had done nothing to stop the violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives over the past two and a half years. “The West cares only about its reputation or its image,” he said, “not about innocent lives slaughtered every single day.”

Nasser has little faith in a limited U.S. action that will leave the regime intact. “Besides,” he says, “the history of such intervention doesn’t show that this will bring peace or democracy for the country.”

When asked why he committed to nonviolent resistance instead of joining the armed rebellion, Nasser said: “I believe in people power. Arms don’t bring democracy.”

Building the Syrian State Current co-founder Rim Turkmani, based in London, argues that a U.S. military strike will exacerbate the bloodshed, emboldening more extreme elements of the armed rebellions and hampering the civil society resistance she sees as the vital foundation of a future democratic Syria.

“This is not a regime that you can remove with military confrontation from the air without killing millions,” she told Al Jazeera. “We want to force the regime through a political solution to start sharing power to put the country on the path to democracy.”

Ending the war through diplomatic means, says Turkmani, is the only way to weaken both the Assad regime and the al-Qaeda-linked groups because it will open up a space for the non-violent resistance that initiated the uprising to reassert itself.

But Reem Salahi believes that the strength and influence of al-Qaeda groups in the rebellion has been exaggerated. “The Syrians I met didn’t like these foreign fighters,” she said. So much so that residents in some rebel-held areas have demonstrated against extremist fighters. Earlier this year, the town of Mayadeen erupted in protests as residents demanded that fighters from the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front leave their town.

Still, Salahi is ambivalent about U.S. military strikes. “I reject this binary analysis of do we strike or not strike,” she explained. “For me it’s about how we end the bloodshed.” Still, Salahi sympathizes with Syrians who support U.S. strikes, saying, “It breaks my heart that the only hope that a lot of Syrians I’ve met is the dropping of foreign bombs.”

Despite their ambivalence over the prospect of U.S. military strikes in Syria, many of the non-violent opposition activists are skeptical of some of the arguments against intervention coming from the antiwar left in the West.

“I need for people who are against the strikes to understand that there are valid reasons and invalid reasons to be against the strikes,” said Kahf, who strongly opposes U.S. strikes and advocates instead for diplomacy.

“Wringing your hands and screaming al-Qaeda or Iraq is not a valid reason. You need to get to know Syria, and not deny the legitimate struggle of the Syrian people and not equate rebel atrocities with hugely exponentially greater regime atrocities.”

Kahf has written that many in the antiwar left ignore the grassroots base of the Syrian uprising, viewing it “only through the endgame of geopolitics,” a narrative that turns the uprising into “nothing but the proxy of U.S. imperialism” — a view she strenuously rejects. Instead, she and others argue that making sense of Syria, today more than ever, demands that more attention be paid to the opposition voices of Syrian civil society whose voices have been increasingly drowned out by the sounds of war.