Armed thugs attacking demonstrators protesting against the regime was a hallmark of the early months of the Syrian revolution. The thugs were at it again early this fall in the Syrian city of Homs; this time, however, the demonstration was in the opposition stronghold of Wa’ar, and the armed men who roughed up the crowd and yelled at people to go home were Islamist rebel fighters who were provoked by protesters’ chants for a peaceful and secular future for their country.
“It felt as if our revolution was stolen,” said a friend who was there. In the beginning it was simple enough to say you were against the regime, it was the people against their oppressor — in the suburbs of Damascus, in downtown Homs and elsewhere people were demanding freedom, reforms, an end to corruption and a united Syria for all sects. The Syrian people were the ones who sparked their own peaceful revolution, without any support from the world’s so-called champions of freedom and democracy. Now, however, the intensity of foreign meddling has fragmented the unity around their cause.
Syria has become an arena for a geopolitical battle of global proportions: on the one hand there is the Syrian regime backed by Russia, China and Iran, and on the other hand we have the various insurgent groups being armed, aided and inflated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Western nations. The Syrian people, by and large, have been forced to choose between supporting the regime or partisans of the revolution. In this game of thrones, those who actually started the revolution, and their message, have been largely swept aside. Some of those supposedly fighting for Syrian freedom also seem to be adopting the same practices as the regime they are trying to topple.
Ghaith Abdul Ahad recently reported in The Guardian about a young man who was stopped at a checkpoint in Aleppo manned by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He was taken by the FSA for a torture and interrogation session; when he offered them nothing of value he was taken by “the Islamists” who didn’t allow anyone to see him after. How dissimilar is that to stories one hears of regime practices? Had it been the regular Syrian army who stopped the young man, he would have likely been interrogated and tortured on the spot, and later transferred to the dark cells of the mukhabarat (secret service), where he would vanish. The Guardian story shows revolutionaries, supposedly the fighters for change, mimicking age-old regime practices.
Twenty months into the uprising and Syrian society is splitting in many ways — between the religious and secular; deepening divisions between sects and communities; rich and poor; even men and women. With the raging internal conflict and greater geopolitical battle clearly polarizing the country, the need for the emergence of a khat thaleth, — a ‘third line’ or a ‘third way’ — is paramount, and indeed, these voices do exist. They are people who are trying to awaken the public consciousness and bring the essence of the revolution back to its early stages, when the quest for a better life for all was the hope.
Concerned Syrians — average citizens, activists, artists, journalists and others — are trying to open a window, a space for a third line to grow, though their efforts up to this point have been scattered. An image from an opposition protest, widely circulated on Facebook, sums up the situation; in it there is a placard depicting a man with the Syrian revolutionary flag on his chest being torn to pieces from all directions by hands holding dollar bills; at the top it reads: “Support for loyalty.” The awareness that Syria is being fragmented by external forces is clear. Another sign at a protest last month in the city of Kafr Nabl called for “the support of the revolution to get back on track”, while another stated: “To the opposition: Do not tire yourself, our revolution will produce its own leaders”, as opposed to foreign support choosing who has the power to lead.
Until now, outside intervention in Syria — from all sides — has amounted to dumping huge amounts of arms into the fray to fuel the bloodshed while outside powers bicker over a political settlement. This situation is reminiscent of Lebanon’s civil war — a war Lebanon has yet to recover from — that left the country with a divided society, a dysfunctional government and ultimately a monopoly on power for local elites backed by foreign powers. Neither this, nor a new regime in old clothes, will justify the sacrifices Syrians have endured, and have yet to endure. A third line must be taken.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut