Where the “Good Guys” get their motivation from

 Damascus, Umayyad Mosque
Teaser Image Caption
Damascus in May 2010

There's little hope for an improvement of the Syrian situation. Nonetheless, there are civil society activists who are still working on non-violent resistance and democratic change. Sarah Schwahn conducted interviews with many of them to see what motivates them to continue.

The conflict in Syria is portrayed  in most media presentations as one of “Two evils and no good guys”. Discussion seems to boil down to choosing the “lesser” of these two evils, even though it all started as a peaceful uprising three years ago. Forms of civil disobedience do persist in and outside Syria. This multifaceted resistance against the Syrian regime appears to be naturally developing, adapting, and changing – on an individual as well as on an organized level. My aim was to question the reasons for the perseverance of the nonviolent movement and Syrian civil activism more broadly. Is peaceful engagement gaining new momentum? What potential has it created? Being the foundation of a civil society in and after an ongoing civil war, the phenomenon deserves attention.

I conducted in-depth but also informal interviews with activists from different backgrounds.[1] We discussed peaceful activism in the Syrian context and reflected on how the events of the past three years have shaped and altered civil resistance. Although not all of these individuals’ motivation and experiences are given credit to in this article, their insights and thoughts shaped my perception of this dynamic movement. I conclude that – intentionally or unconsciously – some of the young Syrians living in exile distance themselves from any form of political engagement and thereby from the events inside Syria. The most urgent task of the activists inside Syria is to provide access to basic humanitarian goods, whereas Syrians living in exile to a greater extent realize their potential in the cultural sphere. The nonviolent movement has become more of an observer to politics than taking part in it; partly haunted by a feeling of being isolated from dissidents and activists inside Syria, partly also not recognized as equal partners for those inside any longer. One side effect is apparently the creation and utilization of a space for civil activism Syrians had no access to in a state silenced by an all-embracing “graveyard peace”.

Shattering the “Peace of the Graveyard”

Until 2011, even activities like launching an independent initiative to clean the street in Syria could have resulted in being arrested. All social and political activism was grouped under government financed “non-governmental” organizations and run by relatives of regime members – the best-known example being the “Syria Trust for Development”, chaired and founded by Asma Al Assad. The message to independent civil society activists being that their efforts are dispensable in light of already existing administrative structures. A period of political opening after the passing of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency to his son Bashar, from 2000 to 2001, known as “Damascus Spring”, turned out as a mere façade for the regime to collect information and to keep control over political activists. Ultimately, more than four decades of Ba’ath party rule had created an environment that is best described with the metaphor of “the peace of a graveyard” – an atmosphere of silence and oppression that had left its marks on the evolving civil movement. One consequence is that civil activists today ensure that they are acting independently of any politician or organization that might try to “pull their strings”. In the beginning, they were looking for any support from outside, but with time they became more aware that external support also might amount to certain “strings attached” that were not in line with their ideas.

In 2011, the onset of the revolutoin set the stage for the ordinary Syrian citizen to become politically active in one way or another. Whereas some preferred the relative safety of their friends’ homes for cautious discussions about the events on the streets, others decided to join the protests – now deliberately exposing themselves to the danger of being detained or killed. Some of the more traditional opposition who had been politically active in the underground for many years benefitted from the newly emerging scope for political freedoms. However, essentially the revolution was carried and advanced by citizens who had not been politically active ever before, citizens who sensed that just now the time had come to engage in more organized forms of civil activism. During this initial phase of civil unrest, there was no obvious division between civil and political activism and the diversity and looseness of first political networks made the movement less susceptible to destruction by the regime. Consequently, the landscape of peaceful protest was as ambiguous as were the judgments of the Syrian people about what might happen next, and although a hitherto blank page was filled with visions about democracy, structures of surveillance and repression worked as an eraser on such early sketches. Whatever society could flourish against such a starting point, as the following observations demonstrate, is nothing like a “textbook-civil society” in terms of institutionalization.

The rise and fall of the first wave of civil activism

The arrest of a group of teenagers in Dara’a – the town that would later be referred to as the cradle of the Syrian uprising – had triggered landslide protests in 2011. However, the rural population was already marginalized by four years of drought and suffered from earlier policies of economic liberalization which had ultimately translated into an ever growing gap between rich and poor. It was therefore rather the marginalized regions of Syria who sparked the uprising – areas such as Deir ez-Zor or Hassakeh rather than Dara'a, a comparatively advantaged stronghold of the Baath party, who found themselves disconnected from the large centres and excluded from the prosperity they themselves had produced as the “breadbaskets of Syria”. Besides, the dissident members of the small cultural circles in the “intellectual centres” of Aleppo and Damascus were rather hesitant in the meantime.

One matter is however evident: in 2011, there were many different, but many feasible reasons all over Syria to upraise. Although the revolution started in different places in reaction to different problem situations and across political and social classes, the common experience of violent repression provided a fertile soil for alliances beyond social, cultural or religious borders at that time. Yet the main visionaries of the peaceful movement visible to the world public today are Syrians stemming from a well-educated middle class. While some of them stress that there is a visible network between all levels of activism, others criticize that there is rarely any connection left between exiled activists and the grass root movement. However, what is visible to the more attentive observer are the voices from places such as Kafranbel or Saraqeb. Both towns belong to the Idlib Governorate, whose inhabitants are not exactly part of what is commonly referred to as “a well-educated middle-class”, but nonetheless attracted international attention with witty posters and banners and writings on walls respectively. In short, the voices of the revolution remain heterogeneous. This should be kept in mind in light of fact that the following remarks focus on a patchwork of young activists who are mostly based abroad and stem from an academic background.

In any case, networks between the different revolutionary groups are only feasible in view of the fact that from the beginning activists had utilized international media platforms such as Youtube or Facebook, thereby creating a unique global setup of peaceful resistance. The movement is highly reliant on these bonds, as today a significant share of it is operated from abroad. This not only includes Syria’s neighbouring countries as Lebanon or Turkey, but also the European Union and the United States. Bisher Alissa, executive coordinator of the Syrian Non Violence Movement (SNVM), living in California, emphasizes that it was his very absence from Syria that enabled him to increase his activism.

“It’s not that romantic being a revolutionary in Damascus in 2012. Your mobile phone is dead, your internet is watched, and you can be detained at any moment. This doesn’t allow for a very healthy environment when trying to build up an organization.”

Rola*, who works in complementing the memory of the Syrian revolution by documenting peaceful campaigns for Syria Untold, additionally notes that it was important for the activists in 2011 to realize that global media platforms had the power to cover human rights violations committed by the regime. However, the young Syrian demonstrators found themselves excluded from the associated debates. They were confronted with the doubts of the international community as to the validity of the sheer mass of material they had collected. Apparently, the Syrian regime successfully incorporated its own narrative in international media representations – a narrative about jihadist groups striving for influence within Syria, while discrediting the opposition as ‘terrorists’. With the international focus gradually shifting from condemning the Syrian regime, the social and political dimension to the Syrian mobilization was undermined. This widely destroyed the activist’s hopes of being noticed by the international community and left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of those who were struggling to define a creative space for their own initiatives.

General Failure, Individual Success: The Re-Shaping of the Non-Violent Movement

One side effect being that in 2011, step by step, the situation developed into an armed resistance, as defected soldiers and officers joined forces to establish the Free Syrian Army and Syrian citizens would take up arms to defend themselves. Mustafa Haid, founder of the Syrian NGO Dawlaty, explains how in his opinion the decision to carry weapons is strongly related to the capacity of the human mind. Taking reasonable action might be easy in a normal environment, as he reflects, but facing a civil war and the destruction of one’s home and family, the capacity to cope with losses might diminish. The resorting to use force to protect oneself might appear the only option left. Haid also points out that the nonviolent movement made a mistake when opposing the armed resistance instead of cooperating with armed groups, which further diminished the already limited capacities of the nonviolent activists. Ali, an activist based in a small village in Idlib to the present day, says that, “as much as I believed in peaceful resistance before, eventually I had to carry a weapon after having realized that otherwise the regime will not fall”. Ali is grounding his resistance on his belief in God – the “Islamic Front” has a strong presence in Idlib – yet he rejects the “Islamic State” (IS) for the fact that as foreigners to the Syrian society he deems the IS not capable of defending the interests of the Syrian people. His case illustrates how the realities of Syrians living abroad and of those based inside Syria are drifting apart. The Syrians who mostly live in relatively secure conditions and profit from international funding create an unprecedented domain for civil activism that appears detached from the realities of a civil war.

Two basic entities represent the Syrian nonviolent opposition in terms of institutionalization. On the grass-root level, the “Local Coordination Committees” were initially helpful to connect the peaceful movement throughout the country. However, they stopped working in an efficient way, not least due to the lack of resources, the kidnapping, arrest and assassination of their most important figures, as well as the fact that they were gradually overrun by armed forces. However, alongside with the above-mentioned town of Kafranbel, the city of Daraya marks an exception to this phenomenon. The nonviolent resistance to a certain extent managed to peacefully coexist with the armed movement because the fighters were from the region – they did not allow any outsider in, which granted an organic relationship of armed actors to their environment. On the international level, neither the “National Coalition”[2] and the affiliated “Interim Government”, nor the “National Council” was able to spread its message to the streets and unify the grassroots movement. The National Council had been seen critically by many people already. Accordingly, National Council member Husam Al Katlaby, not active any more to the present day, finds harsh words to describe his experience, stating that the Council’s members were too inflexible in their thinking and completely at odds with each other. The National Coalition, founded in 2012 in Doha, gave the impression of being “the same under a new label”, and its inauguration with US support in Qatar also caused many doubts about how authentically it could represent Syrian interests.

As one side-effect of the high level of violence in Syria and the distrust against the institutionalized opposition, the interviewees see a risk in the fact that many Syrians are starting to (re-)turn to religious affiliation as the main means of identification. The media activist Ayman* suggests that the civil war led to a revelation of reactionary claims out of fear and a search for spiritual guidance. Ayman* is himself an example for how dangerous extremist groups can become, even for long standing civil activism. As an atheist stemming from a Christian/Druze background, today active as a film maker, he indicates to have lost the feeling for what is valuable for his society:

“I know that I don’t want an Islamic state. But if you ask me why? … I do want to drink and all that, but is it really the best for society?”

Reflecting on his own words and on the “Islamic State’s” increasingly professionalized media appearances, he carves out where the actual danger of the IS lies: “They are showing some flexibility for change – and that is the scary thing.” The writer Khaled El-Ekhetyar remembers an encounter with a secular person in Syria, “who grew himself a beard and went to the prayers with religious armed rebels, while hiding Arak behind a tree in the garden”, for the reason that the armed divisions had the guns he needed to defend his family. Although he sarcastically states that “maybe this is not an example for everybody at that time right now”, it exemplifies the complex fragmentation of the grassroots movement inside Syria beyond religious affiliation.

The impression prevails among Syrians living in exile that due to the high level of violence, the irrelevance of the institutionalized opposition and the rise of sectarian tensions the revolution has failed on the general level. On an individual basis, however, most interviewed persons see themselves as activists who have succeeded in growing up as revolutionaries and now aim at some kind of a cultural revolution.

Resistance against all odds

In late 2014, searching for the revolution – inside and outside Syria – and celebrating its uniqueness, while at the same time being part of the healing of those wounds the regime’s brutal reaction to their legitimate claims caused, is what in the eyes of many activists stands for “resistance against all odds”.  

“I must look out for my revolution. It is still there.” When it comes to the first-mentioned mantra, Mustafa Haid draws on his experience when meeting activists in Syria. For him, the most important task is to travel back to see what is happening on the ground. He asserts that even experienced activists are susceptible to being tricked by media representations:

“When I go to visit different villages, I am subjected to the typical bias of where nonviolent activism should be. Sometimes this is totally wrong.”

However, considering the extent to which peaceful revolutionary structures were gradually marginalized in the course of the past three years, the often-quoted outcry of some activists that their revolution was “kidnapped”, seems understandable. “Who is a revolution being stolen from? Maybe you are just not good enough to have your own revolution”, is the answer Khaled El-Ekhetyar finds.

Whereas the media is quick to lump together the uprisings in the “Arab World”, Syrian activists usually don’t see themselves as guided by what became known as the “Arab Spring”. The evolving Syrian civil society landscape indeed seems exceptional. Although the scope of peaceful activism within Syria is weakened on a daily basis, the peaceful movement connects activists inside Syria with those operating from abroad. Whereas the former group provides information about the situation on the ground, the latter works to increase the visibility of the non-violent movement on an international level by networking. The Damascene journalist Maurice Aaek stresses that it is especially this increase in capacity that the activists need, although he admits that the civil society based outside suffers from the lack of knowledge about activities on the ground. Sara*, a Syrian journalist who recently left Damascus, claims that there is no such thing as nonviolent activism in Syria any more: “Those who talk about it have obviously not been there for a while. Now it is impossible to do anything”.

However, she admits that she has no detailed information about the countryside and other towns and cities, as the scope of the activism inside Syria naturally varies across different regions. Rola* explains where such impressions come from.

“We work anonymously; even most of my friends don’t know I am working with Syria Untold.”

Although she lives inside Syria, Rola* interviews people mostly via Skype, and when documenting campaigns in some cases the organization does not publish the actual location. Like Mustafa Haid, she underlines that although IS poses a great danger, there are still various forms of civil disobedience even in places where no kind of activism would have been expected. She refers to a campaign in Raqqa that became famous as “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” as well as to smaller, unorganized protests she herself witnessed. Rola* is sure that relying on such unrelenting initiatives is the most important motivation for Syrian activists. Husam Al Katlaby, program officer at the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), based in the Netherlands, notes that NGOs which document human rights violations are highly dependent on their contacts inside Syria – in the case of the SJAC currently around eight people. Some organizations focus particularly on a global audience. The most prominent example being the above-mentioned Syrian Non Violence Movement, which has received much international attention for its unprecedented effort to produce a remarkable visual map of nonviolent activism in Syria.

The main motivation behind this mapping is to reach out to the international media to demonstrate the dimension of the Syrian civil society by visualizing its connections, as Bisher Alissa, executive director of the SNVM, explains. “The map was done to show the world that we exist, and we exist as a big force.” Shadi Azzam, director of NUON, a Syrian NGO located in Beirut that concentrates on peace-building and reconciliation, expresses his understanding that civil society is ideally concerned with every single Syrian citizen, no matter whether he supports or tries to overthrow the regime. Such visions exemplify the extent to which principles like “reconciliation” or “transitional justice” are susceptible to being used as something of a ready-made template for civil resistance, being more of a commonplace than filled with content. Reflecting on his experience with the Day After Project, a project launched in 2012 to support a future democratic transition in Syria, Husam Alkatlaby is however sure that the concrete outcomes of such initiatives will be of great value for transitional processes.

Many Syrians increasingly put emphasis on finding solutions to concrete drawbacks brought about as a consequence of the civil war. Such shortcomings could as well be referred to as “teething problems” of the nonviolent movement. As Mustafa Haid explains:

“On one side we are struggling to achieve what we wanted from the beginning. On the other side we are a part of the healing from what happened.”

Khaled El-Ekhetyar, for instance, works on launching a webpage for Syrian refugees to access information about their legal status in Lebanon. His goal is to support the refugees assert their rights through knowing their duties. The media activist Ayman* focusses on the shortcomings of the unexperienced peaceful movement by pursuing a research about youth access to multimedia. He aims at arriving at a better understanding as regards the target audience of the creative media initiative Waw al Wasel, which he co-founded. The group applies creative techniques to produce video art with the aim of building alternative media free from ideological influences.

Rola* sometimes struggles with the agenda of certain groups when documenting initiatives for Syria Untold. She gives the example of one campaign whose members claimed that only God could help them, since only Islam will destroy their enemy, Assad. “They felt left behind by those who asked for freedom and dignity at the beginning of the revolution”, Rola* says. The young archaeologist Ahmad* is yet another example. He supports the revolution, even though in his opinion it is the ultimate reason for the suffering Syria is witnessing now:

“All of us are working to resolve our revolutionary problems, but who is working for the success of the revolution? Maybe, only the regime is still working – to kill the revolution.”

Not considering himself an “activist”, Ahmad* refers to one initiative he is working with, which, as he explains, researches and documents the destruction of Syrian’s ancient sites – committed from both pro- and anti-regime forces. One interesting capability of such campaigns is that they are installed by individuals who do not consider themselves to be “activists”, but still feel the need to engage in some kind of activism with the purpose of contributing to healing the revolution’s wounds. Such initiatives embrace both people who are with as well as people who are against the regime – a first step of reconciliation. This potential scope for cooperation beyond deadlocked political mind-sets complements the bandwidth of peaceful resistance. However, together with his colleagues Ahmad* decided that the name of their small organization should not be published yet. This suggests the sensitivity of cooperation efforts between supporters and opponents of the regime, as well as it unveils one difference between Syrian activists in a more “classical sense”, and the “average” citizen. But although being more careful when it comes to the publishing of details related to their efforts, the way how those individuals are making use of a kind of freedom that was before silenced by a graveyard peace, might be one of the most overlooked feature and potential of the peaceful movement.

Future Visions: A Flourishing Civil Society and a Failing State?

Many activists show a high level of pessimism – responding with a grim outlook to the frequently asked question about Syria’s future. The imperative to continue with the revolution on the one hand and the need to find solutions to the immediate suffering of many Syrians as a consequence of the regime’s answer to their claims on the other hand created a feeling of fighting on two fronts. Those active in the nonviolent movement are however convinced about its sustainability, whereas the impatience to arrive at something like a democratic state disappeared. The chief editor of Syria Untold is sure that in the next – five to twenty-five – years a new generation of civil resistance will emerge as a foundation for a future civil society. But how do the young activists envisage a future Syria? “I think it will stay within the same geographical borders” – Ahmad’s* ironic assessment seems all the more cynical considering the rise of the “Islamic State”. More thoughtfully, however, he shares his opinion about the whereabouts of the Syrian regime in five years. “Some of them, imprisoned. Some of them, in high political positions. Some of them, killed. But maybe, most of them will stay.” Nibal*, an activist working on peacebuilding for NUON, emphasizes the importance of transforming the mentality of the army, which in her opinion can only be achieved by separating the army from the regime. Bisher Alissa finds the answer to such worries in processes of reconciliation: “We have other examples to rely on. Look at Nelson Mandela”.

In the end, the activists’ positions remain imprecise. They design a realm of civil activism that is detached from the civil war – and from politics more generally. However, as indicated above, the most influential potential of civil activism might well be that it creates a cultural sphere which the Syrian civil society has been denied by the Ba’ath regime for four decades. Maybe, a “natural selection process”[3] was necessary to produce a more confident and sustainable resistance movement.

“For those who fell on the way, maybe it had to be like that”, Alissa says, “we can’t help but be optimistic and keep on pushing forward with our vision.”


The individual insights remind us that this conflict is neither to be presented as a choice to be made between the lesser of two evils being Assad and the “Islamic State”, nor as a scenario with only armed groups involved. Instead, it prompts us with the multifaceted Syrian mentalities within the realm of peaceful resistance and traces the effects of a three year civil war that brought about the displacement of nine million Syrian people on the psychology of individuals and on an evolving civil society. It appears all the more encouraging that a large number of activists continue to create a panorama of unique peaceful activism. At times expressing the feeling of being fence sitters while the Syrian state is on the verge of failing, those activists are in the position to “practice civil society”. Although for the time being they are restricted to thought experiments as to their impact in a future Syria, the non-violent movement already fulfils a range of functions indispensable for a civil society.

In the Syrian context, it is perceived as a matter of course to be an “activist”. Motivation and future remain unarticulated. In the end, the “Good Guys” refuse to involve themselves in politics. The political becomes an object of observation rather than subject of engagement. Such processes of de-politicization are as unpleasant as they seem inevitable. They provide the activists with a space they were unable to obtain under Assad – as well as apparently unable to find within the political realm after the onset of the revolt in 2011. No matter what happens, we need to keep on going – so the reasoning goes, and as nobody could predict what would happen in Syria, nobody can foresee where this path will lead.

 “They said; because of dictatorship, because of Islam, because of poverty, because of Islamophobia, because of reconciliation, because of globalization, because of ... Mother Theresa … – nothing will change in the Middle East. And because of the reasons mentioned, everything has changed in the Middle East.”[4]


* Name changed.


[1] The article does not address the Istanbul-based “Syrian National Coalition”, but rather illuminates civil society structures, which evolved in parallel to institutionalized forms of political opposition.

[2] The “National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Force” is an alliance of opposition groups formed in November 2012 in Doha. It is not to be confused with the Istanbul-based “National Council” that was founded in August 2011.

[3] Interview Khaled El-Ekhetyar, 25.06.2014, Beirut.

[4] Interview Khaled El-Ekhetyar, 25.06.2014, Beirut.