On the surface, the status quo of recent months in Syria continues; each Friday tens of thousands of protesters throughout the country face live ammunition from security forces, widespread detention persists and entire towns are still being put under siege by the army. People are now starting to find mass graves.
While the situation in the streets remains largely consistent, behind the scenes the organizational structure of a grassroots political movement is beginning to take shape. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, has always relied on the mantra that for Syria it is either “us or chaos”, and this principle has been put into full effect in recent months. What this mentality asserts is that without a strong-handed leader the many sects that make up the country’s population will fight to fill a power vacuum, with bloody results.
But recent developments in Syria suggest the possibility of an ordered, inclusive and participatory alternative to dictatorship.
Though revolts continue to be largely decentralized, and not centered on Damascus or any other major city, individual communities throughout Syria have developed opposition councils, or Local Coordination Committees. These groups were informally established weeks into the uprising and have overtime developed into an extensive organizational network. On the ground they coordinate protests, organize members and provide valuable information to the outside world about what is happening inside Syria.
They seek to give a voice to the people in the streets, the people who have been tortured and those who remain in prison. In a country that methodically seeks to disempower civil society, the formation of these organizations is a critical step, especially as they are now beginning to communicate and organize among each other. They have formed an umbrella group, the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria (LCC Syria), consisting of 15 LCCs from Daraa to Deir El Zor, to better synchronize their activities and develop a platform beyond the local level.
On May 15, LCC Syria issued a statement declaring the conditions under which the opposition would negotiate with the regime, among them the cessation of violence against protesters and the release of political prisoners. Ultimately, this organizing effort could create the foundation for a lasting and deep democracy, where citizens have empowered themselves to make their demands heard.
In another sign of increasing political organization, on May 31 supporters of the Syrian opposition were invited to participate in a meeting in Turkey in order to discuss plans for a transitional council and to further coordinate activities. As of this writing on May 26, many opposition groups were expected to come together, including the Damascus Declaration. Although those on the ground in Syria will most likely have been unable to attend, various other participants will hopefully have represented the LCCs’ demands. Ideally, the agenda will have been set, not by politicians, but by those who are actually seeing what’s happening in the streets.
While these are small steps toward building a foundation for democracy, they are important reminders of the true nature of the movement, which is neither sectarian nor violent. On May 20 in Talbisah, a town just outside of Homs, 15,000 demonstrated (the largest gathering of this Friday), an event organized by the local LCC, including local Christians and Alawites, who are said have the most to lose from Assad’s departure. That same day there were protests in 50 towns and cities around Syria.
The regime doesn’t have the manpower to cut off all of these focal points. In Banias, 20,000 soldiers occupied a town of 40,000 people. After 15 days of occupation, the army withdrew, and the next Friday 3,000people in Banias took to the streets in protest — even people who had been severely injured while in security custody. These acts, while certainly preventing many from demonstrating, out of understandable fear for their lives, only serve to further politicize the Syrian people. The general population has been engaged and, most terrifying for Assad, increasingly they have a political outlet for their demands.
RAMI NAKHLE is a prominent Syrian human rights cyber activist, until recently working under the pseudonym Malath Aumran