On 18 March 2011, the most important civil movement in Syria’s modern history was launched in the streets of Dara’a. Inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the Arab spring, it was peaceful. Anti-corruption and anti-authoritarian, it combined local and national demands for democratic change.
In the second week of this mobilisation, I launched what became known as “the three no’s”: no to violence, sectarianism and external intervention. As a strategy, this would ensure the territorial integrity and unity of the Syrian people. Our challenge was to break out of the province of Dara’a into all of Syria, and we needed to ensure that the uprising attracted majority support.
But this broadening of the struggle took place in the absence of unity within opposition forces. Powerful players tried to recruit the tens of thousands of young people who went out in public for the first time to their own regional or international causes. Within the first three months many players had intervened in the conflict, which was seen by many, inside and outside Syria, as an opportunity to change some basic geopolitical facts about the Middle East.
The aims of those intervening from outside Syria were at odds with the revolutions’s songs of dignity and freedom. There was a mismatch between the internal need to overthrow the country’s ruling class, described as Alawite, and the desire of some outside the country to both break the Shia crescent – stretching from Beirut to Tehran via Damascus – and rid the Mediterranean of Russia’s military presence. Some sought to give the impression that Syria’s uprising was a sectarian conflict or made efforts to Islamise or Salafise it. Russia and China, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to shift from a US-dominated unipolar world to a multipolar one. One of the paradoxes of the Syrian uprising for freedom was that it created an opportunity to revive the foreign policy and strengthen the influence of Saudi Arabia.
Syria’s authorities, meanwhile, dealt with the uprising as a security matter, rejecting the idea that it was a spontaneous affair in favour of conspiracy theories. Three key regime decisions were to shape the nature, form and content of the popular movement: the decision to send troops into the town of Dara’a in April 2011; the attack on three cities (Abu Kamal, Deir al-Zour and Hama) on the first day of Ramadan; and the atrocities committed in the second half of Ramadan at the coast in Homs, in the Damascus countryside and in Idlib. This excessive and disproportionate violence led some insurgents to accept the idea of taking up arms in self-defence. In religious circles the idea was strengthened by talk of jihad, and publicised by Gulf TV stations like Wisal and Safa. The first and most organised of the non-Syrian financial support network groups were in the Salafist Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
Democratic and civilian political opposition groups resisted this change in strategy at first, but the spread of violence across the country prevented peaceful demonstrations, and created the climate for the strategy to be accepted. As the military savagery descended into the torture cellars, more people embraced counter-violence. Others, however, stood firmly against the notion of taking up arms, believing to do so would strengthen the dictatorship, whose power was more threatened by a peaceful movement than an armed one.
The first negative result of the use of arms was to undermine the broad popular support necessary to transform the uprising into a democratic revolution. It made the integration of competing demands – rural v urban, secular v Islamist, old opposition v revolutionary youth – much more difficult. The resort to arms gave birth to fragmented groups that have no political programme. Turkey trained army dissidents on its territory, and a group of them announced the birth of the Free Syrian Army under the supervision of Turkish military intelligence. Most militants inside Syria now carry a “Free Army” logo, but beyond a name there is no coordination or organised political harmony.
Money was given for this purpose at the expense of support for relief assistance and peaceful political activity. It could be argued that the violence escalated: the pumping of arms to Syria, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the phenomenon of the Free Syrian Army, and the entry of more than 200 jihadi foreigners into Syria in the past six months have all led to a decline in the mobilisation of large segments of the population, especially amongst minorities and those living in the big cities, and in the activists’ peaceful civil movement. The political discourse has become sectarian; there has been a Salafisation of religiously conservative sectors.
Kofi Annan’s peace plan was an opportunity for armed insurgents to make an honourable exit from their strategy. Annan called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of the army and militants from the cities, as well as aid for more than a million people affected directly by15 months of continuous clashes, and the release of the civilian activists. However, the armed opposition saw it simply as an opportunity for the regime to gain time so did not deal with it seriously, while the Syrian authorities used any breach of the ceasefire to launch yet more military action and strikes in the areas where insurgents have been, resulting in several massacres in Soran, Khan Sheikhoun, Hula and Homs.
In its first four weeks Annan’s plan needed to be given a new momentum if was to have a chance to succeed. It needed to be expanded, with more observers and equipment, and it needed to clarify its political plan for the transitional period. The Russian move towards an international conference on Syria could perhaps open the way for a political solution. However, this raises two questions: is it possible for the armed parties to reach and enforce political decisions; and has the arming of the insurgents already seriously weakened any chance of a political solution and a democratic transition in Syria?