Syria cease-fire gives nonviolent activists a new beginning


BEIRUT — More than a year after the uprising began, only 50 people were still around to protest in a Syrian town of burned buildings and pockmarked storefronts.

But for the residents of Anadan who came together to call for freedom and dignity on the morningSyria’scease-fire began last month, it was as though the revolution had begun again.

“We were willing to come out like it was our first day,” said Abu Ghaith, an activist in the town near Aleppo that rebels seized and lost again to government forces. “Our strength is in being peaceful.”


For months, activists who helped spark the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad by nonviolent means had seen it slip away as others in the opposition took up arms and the conflict began to resemble a civil war.

Now the United Nations-backed cease-fire, which has seen numerous violations but also an easing of the bloodshed, is providing an apt anti-violence backdrop to activists’ efforts to retake the revolution.

The week the cease-fire began, activists campaigned online for what to name the upcoming Friday protests, which is put up for a vote each week. In the end, the name “A Revolution for All Syrians” was chosen over a more militant one, and was hailed as a victory by peace activists.

Their position has been bolstered by the poorly armed rebels’ inability to defend against brutal government crackdowns in places such as Homs and Idlib and the lack of any foreseeable outside military aid, underscoring the difficulties of trying to unseat Assad through force.

The activists point out that the armed revolution has only further alienated Syria’s silent majority in cities such as Damascus and Aleppo who are horrified by the bloody images they see on state TV. Only through peaceful acts of defiance, they say, will this group join the revolution.

To be a successful movement, the activists say, the protests must be coupled with worker strikes and boycotts of the government to deprive the regime of financial support. Nonviolent groups have been promoting these campaigns for months but say they are hampered by a lack of organization and awareness.

The pacifists say that increasing protests in Aleppo and Damascus are proof of a resurgence of nonviolent means, but both cities have been hit by bombings in recent days. The activists also have limited traction in areas where the rebels have become more rooted.

In places like these, many activists and rebels alike say that laying down arms is tantamount to death, making the pacifists’ goal a daunting one.

The conflict over the course of the revolution is not only about who speaks for the opposition but also about the consequences of toppling the regime.

“Our purpose is to build Syria more than to destroy Syria; we don’t want to destroy the country as we try to oust the regime,” said Yusuf Ashami, an activist using a nom de guerre who fled Syria months ago because he was wanted by the security forces for organizing protests.

Last month, he joined about 200 other activists in Cairo to found the Syrian Democratic Platform, a coalition of activists who feel that the revolution has been overtaken by armed factions.

Like others in this camp, Ashami doesn’t oppose armed rebels defending protesters, but doesn’t believe they should be on the offensive. History, he said, proves that armed revolutions take a long time to unseat regimes and often result in another form of oppression and dictatorship.

The public reemergence of the movement has most been epitomized by the “Stop the Killing” silent protests taking hold in Damascus, the capital.

On April 8, an activist named Rima Dali stood in the middle of traffic on a Damascus street outside the parliament building and held up a handwritten red banner that demanded, “Stop the killing; we want to build a country for all Syrians.” Passersby stopped to watch and some clapped. Dali and a few friends were arrested, but it inspired others.

Nadja, a Damascus activist in her 20s, had become disenchanted with the turn the revolution had taken.

“Personally I felt terribly disappointed: This is not representing me anymore, it doesn’t look like me, it doesn’t fit me,” she said in an online interview.

But as she watched video of Dali’s one-woman demonstration, Nadja was inspired. The next day she, her cousin and a group of people gathered outside parliament again and raised a banner with the same demand written in white paint. Others staged similar demonstrations outside the Palace of Justice.

“The weeks before this were full of people’s frustration from everything. The peace activists were almost dead in action,” she said. “And now you see it buzzing like a beehive. Many people are contacting us to organize similar events. All my friends are active again in activities like in the past.”

Recently, women in Damascus handed out white flowers with revolutionary messages tied to them.

“We want to preserve the methods of the peaceful revolution,” said Manar Alsbehe, an activist with the Revolutionary Council in Horan, in Dara province, where the revolution began last year. “The armed revolutionaries need to know their parameters: It’s not to attack or take over areas, because that’s what the regime wants.”

In the first few months of protesting last year, government forces would fire upon the crowds regularly, but it wasn’t until the opposition began taking up arms that the crackdown became so brutal with tanks and military helicopters, Alsbehe said.

Even so, he said it would be too difficult for the revolution to go back to a purely peaceful one. But the fighters need to take a secondary role, he said.

“The defected soldier should not be coming out and speaking on behalf of the revolution,” he said. “There has become no room for the civilian activists, and this is wrong.”

Not too long ago, when Abu Aadil, an activist with Aleppo’s Revolutionary Youth, would bring up the topic of resistance through peaceful means, others would accuse him of being a coward.

But after the bloodshed of the last few months, more activists are willing to talk openly about the subject.

“The peaceful revolution wasn’t given enough time. A political revolution in Syria cannot only take one month or two,” he said. “It needs to continue and people need to reject carrying weapons.”

Sandels is a special correspondent.