لا شيء يدوم
(This too shall pass)
In April this year, Abdul-Hadi Sheikh Awad, a lawyer based in Damascus, founder of the Syrian Democratic Institute, and human rights defender was tortured to death. His apartment had previously been raided and searched, and he had been interrogated for his work by the security forces. He remained resolute in the face of the clear risks he was taking, in documenting human rights abuses, and fighting for a better future for all Syrians.
Abdul-Hadi Sheikh Awad is just one individual. The news out of Syria since March 2011, when the uprising started, has been bleak. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and over seven million people have had to leave their homes, including three million refugees. Prospects for a quick end to the conflict have rapidly evaporated, and as the civil war continues, it can be difficult to see hope.
Despite the unremittingly negative images in the news of barrel bombs and tent cities, there are still reasons for positivity. Many see the only alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime as being with violent fundamentalists. Less covered by the media are other groups that may provide better prospects for a peaceful, prosperous Syria. Amnesty International has been supporting the Syrian Non Violence Movement since late 2011. The Syrian Non Violence Movement is engaged in nonviolent struggle to replace Assad’s regime, and all other authoritarian forces, with a ‘free, democratic state in a sovereign, independent Syria.’
From running schools, relief distribution, media centres and even a bus with psycho-social support workers for internally displaced children, the non-violent side of the Syrian opposition has been supporting people caught in the conflict as well as building the foundations of a different, more inclusive Syria. Civil society under Assad’s Ba’ath party was crushed, which has exacerbated the problems that now face the country.
As activist Mohammad Al Bardan of the Syrian Nonviolent Movement, quoted in jadaliyya.com, says, “For the last four decades, the Ba’ath party has tried to teach Syrians to solve all of their problems through violence. Syrians never had the chance to practice any kind of civil movement. From student clubs to charities, every civil organization was infiltrated by security forces. As a result, civil society has remained idle for decades. So the most important thing right now is to rebuild this movement, but you can’t activate it like a switch, it takes time.”
As for the tension between the militarised element of the conflict and the civil society side, he notes: “What I believe now and what many other nonviolent activists believe as well is that the armed movement is not going to stop, so trying to halt it doesn’t make sense anymore. The best way for us to be efficient is to work on the civil movement as a basis for a future Syria. For us, it is more important to liberate minds than liberate lands.”
In fact, though not very widely reported, there have been many groups who have engaged in non-violent protest against the Assad regime in Syria. The Syrian Non Violence Movement has even created an interactive map of non-violent protest in the country which they periodically update. On it (which you can find here: http://www.alharak.org/nonviolence_map/en/) are shown the enormous numbers of people who have acted as citizen journalists, formed civil society committees and conducted demonstrations against the Syrian government. Following on from their success in spearheading a general strike in 2011 named the ‘Strike for Dignity’ by its proponents who were tired of chafing under the Assad yoke, the group has continued to stress non-violent protests as a way of improving the situation in Syria.
Of course, the obvious question is whether, in a warzone, non-violent protest can be effective? Is it worthwhile, or will its message be ignored by all of the armed factions? While of course in a war-zone, a non-violent group will have relatively little impact in the short term, many of the causes of the Syrian civil war can be traced back to a lack of respect for human rights and civil rights by those in positions of power and influence. For example, while police torture and forced disappearances have hit the headlines recently in Syria, they have been methods of control used by the regime for decades. Most importantly, for Syria to have a stable, prosperous and democratic future, it needs a healthy civil society and political freedom. Ultimately, the civil war will end, and in order to have a lasting peace, at least some reconciliation between different groups will have to occur. Groups like the Syrian Non Violence Movement will be a key and integral part of this future Syria and will ensure that one day, like Abdul-Hadi Sheikh Awad dreamt, all Syrians can live in peace, democracy and freedom.