The anniversary of the Syrian revolution is always a cause for reflection and debate, and this year those debates are laced with even more meaning and profundity. That is because it is exactly a decade since ordinary civilians marched in the streets of the Syrian city of Daraa to demand dignity and freedom, and sparked a popular uprising that turned into a civil war and grinding proxy conflict.
The cost of this simple demand has been astronomical. Half a million dead, half the country displaced, tens of thousands languishing in government jails, death by every conceivable weapon in the modern arsenal (as well as some ancient ones, like starvation sieges), nations and militants from every corner of the world carrying out atrocities on this ancient land. Even now, with a presumptive military victory, a nation has been left destroyed and impoverished, and it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps a generation or more to stanch the wounds of this cataclysm.
But with the regime of Bashar Al Assad entrenched in power thanks to its military victories and the support of its allies, it is only natural for Syrians to be asking themselves, did the revolution fail?
This is the essence of many of the conversations and debates that have been swirling around on social media, particularly on Clubhouse, a new platform consisting of audio chat rooms, where Syrians have been very active in recent weeks.
Something about the conversational nature of the platform, combined with the ease with which members of the diaspora, immigrants and refugees, can interact even if they don’t know each other, as well as the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has starved everyone of human contact, allows for a much more engaging, personal and civil exchange of stories.
Over the past few days, I’ve listened with rapt attention to people sharing intimate stories of their participation in the early protests, the music they wrote in response to the events unfolding at home, how they lost loved ones and how they’ve sought to reconcile that with the conflict’s progression, how they survived and grappled with torture in regime prisons and how the struggle for a more just and equitable country animated their every day, injecting them with energy to carry on living through their worst nightmares. People wrestled with survivor’s guilt, with what they could have done differently and what they might do next. One told a story of how he broke down in prison when a cat snuck in through the bars of their jail and watched them from a beam up above, because he realised the detainees were in a kind of zoo in reverse, with the animals looking in. It puts the popular slogan, “I am a Syrian, not an animal” in stark relief.
By practical, objective measures, the Syrian revolution failed. Its goal of transforming the brutal police state of the Assads into a democratic system has not been achieved. Few of the activists who helped organise the early protest movements remain – they mostly have either been killed, tortured and disappeared, fled the country or been overtaken by the armed militias than now rule parts of it.
And yet, this narrow definition of defeat and victory does not account for the experiences of these individuals sharing their stories and traumas. It does not account for the breaking of a barrier of fear that endured for decades. It does not account for the thriving civil society, even in exile, that took hold, laying down the roots for grassroots activism. It does not account for the sacrifices made, for the baring of the brutality of this regime for the whole world to see, for all the Syrians in the diaspora who have and will make new lives for themselves, enriching nations in all four corners of the world. It does not account for all the stories, the breadth and beauty of the tapestry that is the Syrian experience.
Gaming out different scenarios for how the revolution might have unfolded at crucial inflection points is an exercise in futility. Things might have turned out differently, yes. It is hard to conceive of a greater unadulterated disaster if someone had done something, anything, to end it.
But as I listened in on those stories, it occurred to me that I was contemplating the wrong question. The failure in question was not one that belonged to Syrians. One can, of course, debate endlessly issues like the wisdom of non-violence versus armed resistance, or whether a foreign power should have intervened, or the sort of pressure that might have worked to alleviate some of the suffering, or how Mr Al Assad should have responded to the early protests, or how a militia here or there should have conducted a military campaign.
But this all detracts from the central issue: Syrians rose up to demand freedom from oppression, and were met with indescribable cruelty from their leader and his allies, and betrayal and apathy from the international community. The price we will all pay is a world that is less just, a world that is willing to normalise and put up with the fact that hospitals were bombed, chemical weapons were used, starvation was weaponised, civilians were killed indiscriminately and, in cases, discriminately, based on their ethnic or religious affiliations. All because a people demanded dignity.
The Syrian revolution failed for now, yes. But that’s on all of us.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National