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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 Deputy Director 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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Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge