Syria Diary

The Free Syrian Army – How To Lose Support And Alienate People In No Time

by Rita From Syria.

These are the two most recent blog entries by an anonymous Syrian woman, reprinted from the UK site, Open Democracy, where her blog entries appear on a weekly basis. Rita is an opposition activist living in Damascus.

By December 2011, peaceful protests had stopped being confined to Fridays and had become part of our daily life. Regime suppression continued apace, but we felt we had a modicum of safety. In response to regime attacks on peaceful protests, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took on the responsibility of protecting the protest movement. Armed with a deep conviction in our revolution rather than any heavy weapons, the embryonic FSA used to keep watch in the alleys and alert us to the coming of regime forces and the shabiha. [literally ‘ thugs ;’ a term for pro-regime militia)

Protecting the nascent revolution was the original reason given for the establishment of the Free Officers Movement (FOM) by Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush. Along with other members of the FOM, Colonel Harmoush was detained by the regime on the June 9, 2011 in suspicious circumstances – the colonel had been based in Turkey following his defection. From the remnants of the Free Officers Movement was born the FSA. Day by day, the FSA grew stronger and its numbers swelled with increasing defections from the Syrian army. Many opposition communities embraced and sponsored the fighters, who represented at that time the local defenders of these communities.

However, with rumours of considerable sums of money transferred to the private bank accounts of some FSA colonels via foreign parties, there is a mounting suspicion amongst activists and the Syrian public that the goals and policy of the FSA have changed. The FSA battalions switched from defensive to offensive manoeuvres – targeting military bases and specific officials. Violence escalated, and the communities which had been sheltering the FSA fell under siege. Lack of basic foodstuff and fuel supplies, daily bombardments and massacres have become part and parcel of the permanent landscape of suffering.

Most of the residents in these areas fled their homes and became refugees, while many others were killed. This has created a feeling of resentment and anger against FSA policy. Lack of communication between FSA foot-soldiers, activists and the Syrian public means that all have difficulty understanding what the FSA’s military strategy is. This mistake has been repeated over and again in cities all over Syria. Failure to learn on the part of the FSA has compelled many inside Syria to take a negative position towards it. This is why a month ago people in the Al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus asked the FSA fighters to leave it, as their houses became possible targets for regime forces. This happened despite the fact that most people in Al-Midan totally supported arming the revolution.

Abu Khaled, before the revolution, was a successful businessman from the suburb of Douma. He was a supporter and a sponsor of the FSA. He lost his factory and many other properties in the massive shelling on the city and has now moved with his family to a small apartment in Damascus. He had no comment to make on this subject except to invoke a phrase which is only used at times of great anxiety: ” la hawl wa la quwwa illa billah” which means “there is no transformation or power, except by [the will of] God””. The lack of any clear strategy by the FSA in Douma has left many like Abu Khaled disillusioned.

“I just want to continue my life” Raghda told me. Raghda had lost her job at a small publishing house after her neighbourhood had been shelled and invaded several times. “I don’t see an end to this armed conflict. I agree with the rightful demands of the opposition, but if this means bringing a halt to my life then I will stand against them”.

A dangerous problem has emerged. The sound of gun-fire and mortars is the loudest voice on the ground. The voices of the diverse protest movements, which made up the opposition on the ground in Syria, have been drowned out by the FSA. Activists and advocates for non-violence, who remain in Syria today, feel marginalised and useless. The sense of impotence is accentuated given that a considerable number of activists who had provided impetus to the protest movement in the spring of last year have now left Syria, or are languishing in the prisons of al-Assad. This has given the pro-regime media channels a golden opportunity to blacken the names of all opposition activists.

In addition to the fatal miscalculations of the FSA, many armed gangs have come out of the woodwork, robbing and kidnapping under the guise of the FSA. For many ordinary Syrians, this has cemented its bad reputation. A new front has opened up for the FSA challenging them to win back its lost credibility.

FSA leaders should take heed that a guerilla army can only attain success if it is mindful of its relationship to the people, because that is the only guarantor of their continuity. They should also be completely transparent regarding their military plans and financial concerns, so that they can defend themselves against rising accusations of corruption. If the FSA really want to be seen as defending Syria, it should make people feel safe thanks to its presence. Empty slogans can’t feed a hungry kid or put a roof over the heads of a displaced family. (3 September 2012)

Two Sides of The Same Coin

Secularists and Islamists alike have long suffered under the shadow of autocratic rule. What is required now is the strength and courage to actively integrate and mix so that we can be rid of the corrosive prejudices which threaten what this revolution stands for.

The Syrian street has grown accustomed to mocking the outcomes of meetings between representatives of Arab countries at any level. Our “so-called” representatives have often been found wanting in their ability to find consensus. On such occasions daily news headlines may well be prefaced with, “The Arabs have agreed to disagree”. This has deprived the people in the region of having any meaningful platform which carries weight in international forums. This paralysis can be attributed to the fact that all Arab dictatorships are subservient to external parties, making them unable to take any decision in the national interest.

But now it seems that this curse has spread to the Syrian people as well – agreeing not to agree at a time when we desperately need to unite our ranks. This divergence of views throws up a couple of interesting questions: is this proclivity to squabble symptomatic of multiple international actors intervening in the Syrian conflict or is it, as some political commentators would have it, attributable to Syrians actually not being intellectually ready for democracy and pluralism?

The Syrian Revolution has gathered under its wing a wide cross-section of Syrian society, all opposed to the system of authoritarian rule. However, the divisions amongst this broad array of actors have continued to be the true master of the situation. Since the start of the revolution, the Syrian opposition abroad has witnessed sharp divisions and has been hitherto unable to demonstrate complete unity in its ranks to the extent that even the wording of press releases are not agreed upon. Personal differences are prevalent, creating a climate of frustration among the opposition at home. Despair at the in-fighting and rivalries amongst opposition elements has completely overwhelmed people at home. A more recent and disturbing development has been the re-emergence on the ground of a rivalry between Islamists and secularists in Syria. Evidence of the extent of this cleavage can be found on a number of social networking pages.

Islamists, who make up the vast majority of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), point an accusatory finger at secularists for not taking up arms. Islamists – and here I mean the Sunni community – consider themselves to have been the ones who have borne the heaviest burden and suffered the largest losses in the revolution to date. Thus, you can find among the Sunni community a general feeling that they are the vanguard and have the right to lead the many different groups and sects which make up the Syrian street.

On the other hand, there are a lot of young people belonging to other minority sects who have tried to join the ranks of the FSA only to be refused on the basis of their belonging to a minority sect. Saleh, an Alawi activist who had been detained by the regime’s security services in prison for a month, told me: “I tried repeatedly through a contact to volunteer with the FSA, but they kept deferring without giving me any reason. It wasn’t until someone told me that my request had been completely rejected because I wasn’t Sunni, that I understood.”

Jamal belongs to the Ismaili sect. His anti-regime credentials are as good as any – he had been arrested twice for a period exceeding six months for his role in documenting and participating in peaceful protests. Despite this, Jamal felt it necessary to pretend to be Sunni to gain acceptance into the FSA: “I’ve started practicing Sunni rituals even though I still consider myself Ismaili. I had to, so that I could engage in combat and be a part of the FSA.” He told me.

Given that membership of the FSA is seemingly out of bounds for members of minority sects, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who oppose the regime gravitate towards secularist opposition groups. Sunnis on the other hand are overly represented in the FSA while those who favour non-violence can be found in secularist opposition groups. Increasingly, secularists are becoming more vociferous in their condemnation of some FSA actions which are seen as sectarian and of the FSA’s uncoordinated and unbalanced military policies. Secularists in Syria are beginning to feel the imminent danger of being marginalised in the face of the growing power of Islamists who have taken up arms. A large percentage still believe in peaceful means as the best path towards a more democratic and liberal society. Meanwhile, the Islamists, who have borne the brunt of the regime’s brutal violence, look on disdainfully – referring to secularists as “rich kids playing at being revolutionaries.”

Recent developments provide us with a stark reminder of this struggle between Secularists and Islamists for the soul of the revolution. Approximately one month ago elements of the FSA cut off the water supply to Selemiyeh and its surrounding villages, because the predominantly Ismaili population refused to carry arms and continued to adhere to the principle of peaceful protest. This collective punishment on the part of the FSA seemed all the more shocking given that that Selemiyeh has provided refuge to more than 80,000 people, mostly from the Sunni community, who have been forcibly displaced from the nearby war-ravaged cities of Hama and Homs.

How do we proceed with the revolution – peaceably or by means of an armed struggle? The question here is why do Islamists and secularists feel they are in opposing camps? When I asked a few young fighters from the Ali bin Abi Talib battalion of the FSA what they understood by the term secular, they gave a terse reply: “Secularism is contempt for our faith and it means we cannot practice our religion freely.” Of course this is not how secularists in Syria, like myself, understand the term. For me, the separation of state from religion follows the popular slogan “religion is for God and the homeland is for all.” It means that the freedom of religion, like other freedoms is sacred. At the same time, it also means that religion cannot control the policies of the state and should not define its national identity. It is a recognition that the homeland we call Syria is made up of numerous faith communities and a celebration of plurality which is not at the expense of any one group.

When I asked a gathering of young secular Syrians on a Facebook forum why there was so much fear concerning Islamists, the response drew striking parallels with how similarly aged members of the FSA had viewed secularists. “The Islamists want to impose Islamic law on us and prevent us from exercising our personal freedoms.” Islamic law, of course, does not mean this. Justice, ethics and religious freedom are the cornerstones of Islamic Law. This is neatly encapsulated in the well-known quote from the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion”. The Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet – on which Islamic Law is based – gave people the complete right to follow whichever faith they want. When the law imposes a system of Islam on minorities, this does not mean that it is an Islamic regime but an autocratic dictatorship. For the FSA to follow this path would be a betrayal of the revolution it originally set out to defend and protect. We would only be substituting one despotic regime for another.

It is the absence of communication between Islamists and Secularists that will certainly widen the gap between the two camps and strengthen the preconceived and misguided ideas they have of one another. It is thus that sectarian identities become ossified. From the conversations I have had with both secularists and Islamists, I really do not see much distinction in their principles and ideas – the only difference lies in how best to reach the goals of the revolution. Everyone is afraid of being marginalized and made irrelevant by the other. Both parties have long suffered under the shadow of autocratic rule. What is required now is the strength and courage to actively integrate and mix so that we can be rid of the corrosive prejudices which threaten what this revolution stands for. (20 August 2012)

(Translation by Tahir Zaman)

These blog entries from the rebellion in Syria are reprinted from Open Democracy

(Creative Commons) Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0)