On the fifth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, Mark Boothroyd discusses the how people have recently returned to the streets, once again voicing their commitment to overthrowing the regime
Protest in Kafranbel, Idlib
With the lull in the fighting brought on by the ceasefire, Syria’s popular revolution has returned to the streets. Demonstrators have taken advantage of the reduction in bombs and shelling by the regime and Russia due to the ceasefire that commenced on 29 February to once again voice their commitment to overthrowing the regime.
In over one hundred Friday demonstrations around the country held on 4 March, Syrians took to the streets waving the revolution flag in a rejection of the regime’s continued rule. In Aleppo, Idlib, the suburbs of Damascus, and Daraa thousands protested. In Aleppo, women and men marched behind a banner reading “The Revolution Continues” and the hashtag #TheRevolutionContinues was used to popularise the fact the revolution still lives.
The protests were also a rejection of the jihadist groups that have sought to dominate the popular democratic-nationalist uprising. There were no banners of Islamic armed groups at any of the protests, or any of the sectarian slogans that had grown in prominence as a result of the regime’s sectarian violence. Instead it was the chants from the first days of the demonstrations, five years ago, which were heard; “The people want the fall of the regime!” and “One, One, the Syrian people are one!”
Banner from the town of Kafranbel in Idlib
Better proof of the continued existence of the popular revolution could not be asked for. Contrary to the belief that the popular revolution was defeated, in reality it had merely been dormant while the fighting raged, waiting for an opportunity to reassert itself. The danger of attacks by regime forces kept them off the streets, and activists were too busy organising humanitarian aid, working as White Helmets or struggling to keep basic services running and people housed and fed, to launch the large scale demonstrations previously seen.
Importantly it also showed that while the militarisation of the revolt has certainly damaged it in many ways, it has also sheltered it, liberating territory from the regime in which Free Syrians are able to organise and continue their struggle. One banner at a protest read “We can now demonstrate without deaths”, in reference to the constant attacks on demonstrations by the regime throughout 2011-2012 that resulted in thousands of deaths. At a protest in Aleppo, Shamel al-Ahmad, one of the organizers, told a reporter, “I am overjoyed. …We are protesting today just like we did back in 2011, but without bullets, and the security forces are not here to repress us.”
There were still some attempts to intimidate the protesters. In Idlib province activists from Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al-Qaeda wing, were filmed shouting at the protestors, demanding they wave the black flag with the shahada and not the nationalist flag. And days later another pro-revolution demonstration was violently attacked and broken up by al-Nusra fighters, who beat and arrested activists. al-Nusra’s actions were widely condemned, even by Ahrar al-Sham, the dominant Islamic armed group in Idlib province. Further demonstrations have been called to demand the activists release, and al-Nusra has threatened to repress them.
Syrians have tolerated many of the impositions by jihadist and conservative islamic armed groups due to the sacrifices the armed groups have made to defend them, but this is only a temporary arrangement, as evidenced by the emergence of protests against them. Videos have been publicised of anti-Nusra demonstrations by women in South Aleppo, and of a night time demonstration in an Idlib village demanding the Free Syrian Army come in to remove al-Nusra, showing that with the reduction in conflict, the tolerance the populace have shown for repressive armed groups is waning rapidly, and political tensions are coming to the fore.
The space to protest has seen the creativity characteristic of the movement emerge again. In Daraya, besieged and bombed daily for four years, protestors recreated the atmosphere of the early protests, safe in the knowledge that for the time being, the bombs would not fall. Women and children also took to the street with darkly humourous signs demanding the lifting of the siege and the entry of humanitarian aid, which has been refused entry to Daraya for four years by the regime.
For activists in Britain, the re-emergence of the protest movement puts the onus on us to increase campaigning in solidarity. The ceasefire has to an extent been forced on Syrians as part of the Geneva III process, in an attempt to secure a political deal that ends the conflict, while preserving the regime. The rebel areas have been promised nothing more than a temporary reduction in bombing (which is still taking place just with less ferocity) except in key areas the regime is actively trying to reconquer.
Yet they have taken full advantage of the moment to show their determination to continue struggling until the regime is gone. They know there cannot be a just peace while the regime and its blood stained institutions remain intact. Our role should be to support their demands, to raise them on our own governments who are involved in the peace negotiations, to ensure they are adhered to and that the wishes of the civilian protest movements are not ignored by imperial or regional elites.
An opportunity to do this is taking place this weekend, as Syrians march in London to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution. Join the demonstration assembling at 12pm Paddington Green, for a march to Downing Street. Activists from Syria Solidarity UK will be meeting outside the Hilton London Metropole near Edgware Road Station – Bakerloo line at 12pm. Facebook event