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Amid a fragile ceasefire, Syria’s original protesters are rediscovering their voice

After more than five years of being bruised and bombed, Syrians are using the downturn in hostilities to reassert themselves – and the justness of their cause.

One of the most remarkable features of the Syrian ceasefire, which started on 27 February, has been the return of the original protesters. These are some of the civilians who initiated the uprising in 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad at huge personal risk and whose stories have long since been either forgotten or lost. Yet, after more than five years of being bruised and bombed, they are using the downturn in hostilities to reassert themselves – and the justness of their cause.

Most of the protests have been in Idlib province, in north-western Syria. A recent demonstration in the town of Darkoush not only called for the downfall of Assad but insisted on the return of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group that was originally comprised of army defectors who had refused to fire on unarmed civilians and which had no theocratic doctrine. This demand was particularly jarring for Islamist fighters who had been instrumental in liberating the area from the Syrian regime.

The anti-jihadist sentiment has been even more acute elsewhere in the blighted country. Protesters in Aleppo singled out Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, chanting: “Bearded men hijacked [the revolution]! Curse your soul, Golani!” Similar insults were directed against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State. (Assad was cursed, too, of course.)

When fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra tried to storm one of these demonstrations in the town of Maarat al-Numan, the protesters drowned them out by chanting, “One! One! One! The Syrian people are one!” This is a maxim from the incipient, secular phases of the uprising, in which Syrians struggled to stem the tide of rising sectarian and ethnic tension injected by the jihadists’ engagement in the conflict.

Syrians have long complained that religious extremists represent precisely what they first rose up against: authoritarianism. To get a sense of just how much the jihadists mirror the Assad regime, consider that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters recently threatened to open fire on unarmed protesters in the city of Idlib. This was the kind of behaviour that the regime exhibited when the uprising  first began.

Much of this has been forgotten in the West, where many are tempted to view the Syrian crisis as a battle between jihadists on one side and Assad on the other. Ordinary Syrians complain of being abandoned by the international community to the twin tyrannies of Ba’athists and theocrats. They organised these latest protests under the banner “The revolution continues”, in the hope of refocusing attention on their cause.

“You can starve them, bomb the f*** out of them, gas them, kill half a million, drive 12 million from their homes,” said the Syrian-British author Robin Yassin-Kassab (who, with Leila al-Shami, wrote the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War about the uprising) on social media. “But you still can’t stop their revolution.”

For a while, however, it seemed as though the war had killed the revolution. Gathering in large numbers is too dangerous for peaceful protesters when hostilities are in full flow, given the Assad regime’s deliberate targeting of them. Weapons of choice include barrel bombs and other devices thrown from helicopters on to civilians. Missiles fired from Russian and Syrian fighter jets are a further reason not to assemble in groups outside.

The protesters were much bolder before Assad adopted his policy of aerial bombardment, although they faced extraordinary risks. Those dangers were made clear after a large protest in Hama in 2011 at which a crowd of thousands sang “Come on Bashar, Time to Leave”, a song by Ibrahim Qashoush, a local firefighter. The song spread rapidly across Syria, becoming an early anthem of the revolution. Days after it was ­recorded on 2 July that year, Qashoush’s body was found floating in a river, his vocal cords cut from his throat.

This was the backdrop to the emergence of the FSA: protecting activists who had committed themselves to peaceful demonstrations. It was quickly overrun and melted into the background after the West limited itself to providing only non-lethal aid. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia – which on 14 March pledged to withdraw most of its troops from Syria – supplied Assad with ever more powerful weaponry to use against protesters, fuelling a breakdown in social order and stability: the perfect con­ditions for a jihadist insurrection. With limited international backing, Syria’s moderate rebels were soon mostly supplanted by Islamist fighters.

Of the main jihadist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra has proved to be far more politically astute than Islamic State, adopting a softer and more pragmatic approach towards civilians. It hopes to win “hearts and minds” by doing so and wants to normalise its Islamist agenda slowly.

The re-emergence of the protest movement in towns such as Maarat al-Numan has now thrown that strategy into question. Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra (along with other jihadist groups, such as Jund al-Aqsa) launched a crackdown against one of the most popular and capable parts of the FSA, known as Division 13, which has broad international support.

Protesters responded by storming one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s detention centres and also burned down parts of its headquarters in Maarat al-Numan. It remains to be seen whether this momentum carries over to other rebel-held areas, but recent events demonstrate that Syria’s beleaguered secularists – the country’s only proper hope – remain as defiant and resolute as ever. 

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and the author of a forthcoming book, “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea”

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.