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.

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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