By the end of this article, my hopes are that you have identified yourself with me, and you have put yourself in my shoes. This analogy between me and you—the reader—is very important for the success of the article. I write this at the eve of the eighth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution against Assad.
Us & the West:
I might be considered a member of the “First Generation” of the Syrian Revolution and Arab Springers out there, one of those who are still alive after a great deal of filtering, purging, killing, assassinating, arresting, bombing.. etc. throughout eight years specifically dedicated to eliminate people like me and crush the revolution... After eight years of the first protest I tell you something: I don’t regret it, not a bit.
But who are we? These “First Generation” individuals, why are we so important for dictatorships to crackdown upon us like this? So much so that after we started a whole wave of revolutions, by now the war has been so harsh on us that we are nearly forgotten into obscurity.
I’m a young male in the 20s coming from a middle class white collar family. The strata that I represent is either westernized or affected by westernization. We consider ourselves representatives of western ideals in the east. I’m secular, liberal democrat, hate Islamists, advocate freedom of belief, read philosophy, adore the French revolution, quote Thomas Jefferson, listen to western classical and techno music, and a fan of Manchester United. Had I lived in the west, I would be what you might call “a promising normal person”.
Although people like me are natural allies and friends of the west, still we are not in the west, nor—to your surprise maybe—supported by the west, in fact we perceive the western position in the last years as a huge stab in our backs. Before you take this as a personal insult or ruminate it as guilt, bear with me until the end of the article, since I ask for a more “technical” reaction from you. Here, I want to quickly address a portion of westerners; your self-flagging with guilt doesn’t help us. It is not good for our cause, you don’t pay your debt to the world or the cause if you do it, and we don’t ask for it.
Take notice, I don’t pretend to be a westerner, nor that I have some kind of a special right to be supported by the west (nor that I hate Muslims for this matter, I hate “Islamists”; it is a hate motivated by political differences). No, in fact, people like me are the natural carriers of Syrian nationalism. Democratic Nationalism in the Middle East is a progressive force that counters both Islamism and secular dictatorships.
I do have expectations from the west though; either positive support of a sister cause, or at least maintenance of neutrality.. The last thing we expect is to see the west flipping sides against us.
We grew up in times when things were hopeless. It was inconceivable for a country like ours to revolt. Imagine Northern Korea revolting now, imagine the courage that the N.Koreans have to take to make the revolution happen.. imagine their disappointment when the world stands against them. In school, we had to do the Nazi Salute, and no I’m not kidding and this is not a Godwin's law case. Brain drain was the norm, we tire ourselves with study to migrate away later. Brutality was everywhere from primary schools to underground dungeons designed for political prisoners. Corruption was everywhere.. etc.
And then we came, individuals like me were able to mobilize the people. We rose up like an earthquake. The aim was clear: to oust the regime led by Assad. We did everything right, we were successful in building a wide cross-economic-class cross-gender cross-ethnic movement calling for Assad to leave. we made sure that no one forgets the tiniest of atrocities happening to us (the Syrian conflict is the most documented conflict in history). We mobilized more than 80% of the country to our side. 10% were swinging and the last 10% is pro-Assad. Assad countered our peaceful protests with bloody crackdowns and military sieges.. which only made us more persistent.
For a while, we thought the revolution had won. 70% of the Syrians at least are on the streets protesting at the same time. At one time, more than half of the country was not controlled by Assad.. etcetera etcetera.. and then a world domineering force comes to ruin everything. Russia, the ally of Assad, rallied for his support. Where the hell did Russia come from? And why it is allowed to control the choices of Syrians? Why is there a UN Security Council? with veto rights given only for five countries for heaven’s sake? This is a structure no less oppressive and authoritarian than the Assad regime.. it was the first non-regime front opened against the revolution that we had to deal with. Our only chance was to have reliable allies in the Security Council; the West. While Assad had the most reliable backer of all; Russia, we Syrians had to follow the whims of western powers and adapt to the changes caused by western democracy, and oh boy! They were disappointing.
Fronts Opening Against the Revolution
Fronts against the revolution started to open left and right. The lovely Islamists popped up. “Syrians are Muslims” they said. “Don’t worry, we are here to help you against the tyranny of the regime” they said. This was a time when Syrians would accept Satan’s presidency in exchange of Assad’s ousting. Little we knew, the newcomers were worse than Satan. Islamists would penetrate anti-regime protests and bring down revolutionary flags while raising black Islamist ones. I personally had the honor to fight with them over this issue. Soon enough, people like me found themselves both hated—and hunted—by the regime and Islamists. Later, an official defection took place wherein secularists and Islamists became eternal enemies.
The more westerners hesitated in helping the revolution and the secularists, the more Islamists got empowered. I later had to leave the country, not because of all the tanks and military operations done by the regime (that was expected and bearable), but by the psychological stab-in-the-back effect when I saw Islamists spreading in light of the unreliability of my so-called “allies”, weakening the revolution, and hunting down secularists, making the latter stuck between them and the regime. Islamists can be imagined as spoiler parties (not “party spoilers” although the latter bears some resemblance to reality too). They are there to sip you off, and ruin what you have built. The more Islamists spread, the less the revolutionary mobilization happens, and consequently numbers were sharply decreasing in protests; Syrian people don’t want to rally behind an Islamist ideology. These Islamists damaged the revolution much more than the regime.
After the secularist regression, Islamists re-routed the popular anger from political to sectarian. Flags became black. “Nusayri” was the new word for “Alawite” the minority sect that Assad comes from. Alawites stood in their majority by Assad (they are the greatest portion of the pro-Assad 10% of Syrians), they are an offshoot of Shia Islam and like Iran. Many Syrians hate the Alawite position for sectarian and non-sectarian, political reasons. To contrast the Alawite position, Christians were not as hated, in fact in many areas they were highly respected. Christians chose a kind of neutrality, and like many other Syrians they escaped the country and avoided forced conscription in Assad army. In cities like Homs, Christians showed anti-regime sentiments. Druzes, another sect, are a bit similar to the Christian position.
Islamists had evolved their rhetoric in the Syrian conflict, so much so that a special kind of Islamism known as ISIS went as crazily far as to consider Al-Qaida an infidel organization!.. we had to deal with this now.
Interestingly, Islamists are no xenophobes (unlike the Kurdish PYD which we will talk about next, or Assad’s regime for example). ISIS’ capital “Raqqa” was the most cosmopolitan city in the world, overpassing Paris, London or Istanbul. There, you could see black, white, yellow and even green races. You could see Swedes, French, Russians, Arabs, Indonesians, and Somalis. Islamists are just very good in hating who hates them, and are motivated not by fearing the foreign, but by sectarian strife. Until today, this point was not caught by western anti-Islamist propaganda. The west thinks ISIS is a kind of extreme far Right conservative power in that it is a closed xenophobic society, while it is not. In fact it is more accurately described as a global cosmopolitan totalitarian movement.
The regime was said to be super happy when Islamists spread, it even facilitated this radicalization faster by freeing Islamist prisoners (while at the same time killing and arresting countless secular ones). Assad knew that the most effective and powerful mobilizing force against him is led by the secularists, and neutralizing secularists would mean killing the essence of the revolution. The regime realizes too that the west shuts its brain off, and becomes dumbfounded and stupidified when hearing the word “Islamist”. Islamists activate all irrationalities, stereotypes and orientalism in the minds of westerners, and consequently will lead the revolution to lose its appeal.
I, coming from a Muslim background, understand Islamists. This is what happens to a normal group of people if they are trapped, beaten and internalize defeats for a long time, and by long time I mean more than 100 years of periodical defeats.. people then would just.. bomb themselves into other people! I don’t like it.. it is just the way it is.
Kurds popped out too. Before the revolution, many didn’t even know that Kurds are an “ethnicity”, they were more of a “people” or a “tribe” living in a tribal area, and just like ourselves, we knew they were trampled upon with the military dictatorship of Assad. People like me chanted “Azadi” [Lit. “Freedom” in Kurdish] in the revolution, we shed blood and showed the highest of compassion to whatever injustices Kurds suffered under Assad. Specifically active in the Syrian conflict was the PYD; a Kurdish party highly influenced by a banned Kurdish party—for terrorism reasons—that operated in Turkey called the PKK. The PYD used the chaotic situation in Syria to ask for ethnic autonomy, whose eventual aim is well known by any middle-eastern; to separate. Kurds became like a Fifth Column. They are much like the Islamists but in secular ethnic terms. For example, in Tal-Abyad in northern Syria, they displaced Arab and Turkic populations motivated by ethnic reasons. For an anti-sectarian Syrian like me, PYD’s was a disgusting call, it is similar to sectarianism but based on ethnicity, as if sectarianism was not enough of a curse. To play on the feelings of westerners, they of course used the magic word and declared a “war” against “Islamists” (i.e. ISIS). The west naturally, being stupidified by the word “Islamist” supported the PYD blindly, angering all countries and people in the region, since no one wants more troubles and new fronts aside of the great ordeal that we have (i.e. sectarianism). It is like the west is pushing for a more endless and unsolvable situation when allowing for ethnic consciousness to spread. The PYD doesn’t entertain people like me too, I’m a Syrian nationalist, I believe in a Syria where everybody is called “Syrian” not by their family lineage, race, gender, religion or ethnicity.
Arab states are not so fun as allies too. They are in fact the worst possible allies for anybody. It is like one big bully who bullies the little you, and you have to make a confederation of little, quarrelsome, rich and spoiled children of the neighborhood to fight that bully.. Sometimes I tell myself “it is better to fight him alone”.
Moving more towards the west now, I recall talking with the Occupy Wall Street guys. I was happy for their movement like many other Syrians. We have sent a message asking for cooperation. Next thing we knew we were blocked from all communication channels with them. We tried to reach them via other nontraditional methods, and we found that they hated the Syrian Revolution; we are anti-Iranian pro-Israeli pro-imperialist conspiracy they said (the Syria regime’s story). It was a shocking disappointment that changed my whole thoughts about the Left in general.
Western people on the Left were (and still are) getting less and less reliable. They busy themselves with weird unpolitical agendas, or secondary agendas not of global or immediate interest. The Right on the other hand is not surprising, they are cool, slow, hesitant to do anything, and isolationist.. you can’t be an isolationist when you have a veto right in the Security Council, you don’t like it? Give it to someone else more deserving, Germany maybe. This ignorance about our situation in the west wasted our times in trying to convince them that the Syrian conflict is not a humanitarian cause, not a gender cause, not an LGBTQ+ cause, not a feminist cause, not a class struggle nor an SJW dream.. it is bloody political! And it is real! It is about installing a west-friendly liberal democracy and ousting a dictator. This effort amounted to a new front in itself.
It is worth noting that both Western far-Right and far-Left hate the Syrian revolution. The first consider Assad as the only weapon against the evil Islamists. Assad for them is a fascist totem that resembles a neo-Hitler who is of course the only solution (amazingly not the cause!) of the refugees crisis, while entertaining the leftovers of the Nazi ideology in Al-Ba’ath party (Assad’s ruling party). Far-leftists on the other hand think Assad is a grandson of Stalin, and a son of gay marriage between Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. For them, Assad is a socialist anti-imperialist anti-capitalist lefty who is the only guy fighting Israel, and since he comes from a minority sect, he is allowed to reduce the country into ruins to counter our “tyranny of the majority”, little they knew that Assad was the ultimate representation of the “tyranny of the minority”.
This limited our revolutionary appeal to western politics within the range of the center, which happens to be—for our bad luck—a destabilized shifting center.
On the other hand, the whole might of Russia was behind the Syrian regime, economically, politically and militarily, which culminated in a direct military intervention in 2015. But that was not the worst thing Russia did. Russia’s PR, propaganda war and online armies of trolls, fake-newsers, mobbers and dictator-promoters, were the greatest weapons provided by Russia, and possibly the most lethal thing ever happened to Syrians. Little by little, Russians promoted two things for the western receiver:
The situation in Syria is too chaotic for you to understand, so just don’t do anything and forget about it (this translates to: neutralize yourself).
The situation in Syria is a fight between a secular ruler and an insurrection of ugly fearsome Islamists who are the cause of all the bad stuff including displacing refugees (this translates to: love Assad, identify the revolution with Islamists, and hate the revolution because you hate Islamists).
Russia’s fingerprint in the anti-refugees campaign in Europe is evident for any Syrian (although this is not to say that the campaign was done by the Russians). In fact Syrians see the same fingerprints that they saw in their country, but now all over the west from Hawaii to Eastern Europe, not only bothering with Syrian-related issues, but also with things related to the interior affairs particular to these countries. Syrians nowadays equate evil with the word “Russia”.
Where we are Now & What is Next
We have become a bogey-country. Arab leaders threaten their people that their countries will become a new Syria if they protest the abusive practices of their states. The western far-Right uses our pictures to promote a closed border policy. Refugees are molesters, refugees are Islamized and un-integratable, and so on.. And it seems that everybody from all spectrums ignore the reason behind the refugee crisis; Assad.
Yet, After all of this, I say “no regrets”. I know the ideals that I fought for, they are so noble that they were my consolation in dark times, they always held me still and picked me up from collapsing. They were so powerful that they stood resilient in a literal “the world vs. me” scenario. They were like a very effective existentialist psychological training and therapy. Secular, democratic, and liberal Syrian nationalism exists. It is the only solution for such a country, and it will definitely contribute positively for this world. I think this is what makes the “First Generation” of revolutionaries; their full dedication and persistence for the revolution even in its darkest times. We don’t break easily, we built our movement to continue its struggle for a hundred years. This is why dictators fear us and fight us with everything they have.
Support us, support people like me, for we exist, and the revolutionary flag is the evidence. When you see that flag you must feel friendliness, freedom and inspiration. Try to break all the stereotypes, media indoctrination and associations you held. This is a flag of secularist identity and we sacrificed a lot to raise it and for us as much as you to feel safe under its shadow. People have died for this message to be delivered. Dictators support each other cross-borderly. Democrats should too. An imbalance in this would mean that dictators will win. I’m your friend, a soldier in a shared frontline. Empowering me is not different from empowering yourself.