I last spoke to Bashar Assad in 1996. He assured me then that as part of his inevitable ascent to power, change was coming. He knew he could not expect the Syrian people to casually accept the heir apparent without dramatic improvements across the board. Assad was preparing to bring Syria into the twentieth century. He wanted openness, honesty, and truth for his country and his people.
Fast forward to March 2011. I wondered what Assad would do as the Arab Spring finally reached Syria. It was a golden opportunity for the openness, honesty, and truth he had talked about. Instead, he quickly answered with a military response that shocked the most cynical of Syrians. Bullets rained down on protesters at peaceful demonstrations, and the government’s violent response grew at the same pace as the uprising. The more civilians chanted that they wanted to overthrow the regime, the more brutal the attacks became. A government disinformation campaign soon was in full swing. Activists armed with no more than banners and flowers were called terrorists, germs, and agents of the West. Syrians watched, dumbfounded, as live ammunition turned to aerial shelling. More innocents—first in the dozens, then in the hundreds, and now in the thousands—were massacred by their own government, by the man who once wanted openness, honesty, and truth for his people.
I am writing in December 2012; I am not in Syria, so I cannot hear the incessant rat-tat-tat of machine guns. Nor do I hear what must be a deafening sound when barrels full of dynamite crash into the earth and leave craters as big as housing developments, the special signature of Bashar’s openness and truth. I hear the agony and frustration in the voices of nonviolent activists, nearly all of whom have lost several loved ones during their struggle for freedom, dignity, and democracy. But behind the agony I hear steely resolve: We will not stop until we achieve our goals. We will not resort to violence. We will not become the tyrant we seek to overthrow.
Even as the Syrian revolution has become increasingly militarized, the civil disobedience movement has become more sophisticated. Activists who started with simple protests and flowers have moved to complex strategies and tactics. They have braved gunfire and risked detention and torture. They have distributed leaflets and produced newspapers. They have conducted sit-ins, sick-ins, and noise rallies. They have super-glued entrances to government ministries and spilled liquids onto computer keyboards. Religious elders and the business community have collaborated on massive strikes that left the Assad regime reeling. Organizations such as the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) in Syria have managed, despite all constraints, to stage active campaigns designed to bring even more Syrians into the revolution. The famous Strike for Dignity was a huge success and the whispered negotiations with would-be defectors continue to deal blow after blow to Assad’s tottering regime. Syrians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds have learned to hack into state-owned systems, such as the telecommunications industry; in one instance, activists delivered tens of thousands of prorevolution text messages to communities across Syria. Alawites, Christians, and Sunnis have collaborated to treat the wounded, deliver relief, and plan the next campaign. Most recently, the LCC has launched a new campaign to appeal to battalions of the Free Syrian Army to unite and observe international laws as part of a wartime code of conduct. Using slogans such as “treat your captives with dignity and justice” and “my weapon can only be used to overthrow the regime,” the LCC was able to strike a balance between keeping the nonviolent movement alive and well and supporting the brave soldiers who risk their lives to ensure that nonviolent activists can continue their work. These are all acts of civil disobedience, since filming a protest, delivering food to the hungry, or providing medical assistance to a wounded activist can be punishable by death. Still others, both inside Syria and abroad, participate in massive planning efforts to pave the way for the transition to democracy. They prepare comprehensive plans—The Day After document is one example (see www.thedayafter-sy.org) to help Syria’s transformation into a democratic state, in which all citizens are equal before the law.
But when I hear the resolve in the voices of Syrians from all sects and backgrounds, I am proud. I know we will triumph.
Many maintain that Syria is in a state of civil war, or ask if sectarian violence will hold the country in its grip for decades to come. No one can answer this question with any certainty. But when I hear the resolve in the voices of Syrians from all sects and backgrounds, I am proud. I know we will triumph. Last summer, when I learned that Christian priests cooked Iftar dinner for fasting Sunni Muslims during Ramadan, I was humbled. I know it is not sectarian. When I learn that Syrians inside Syria—Christians, Muslims, Druze, and everyone else who makes up our culture—are delivering relief across all communities, I am moved to tears. Ultimately, we are united. I know, deep down, that Assad may not leave but for a sniper’s bullet or a targeted air strike. But I also know that nonviolent activists in Syria continue to give their lives as they march on to a peaceful, free nation that will eventually heal from its wounds.
The cycle of demonstrations and gunfire repeats itself every day. We understand perfectly the need to defend ourselves against a brutal regime and the urge to respond to the government’s crackdown with violence of our own. Yet we maintain our position that violence plays into Assad’s hands, that violence begets more violence and revenge begets more revenge. We are certain that if we truly want democracy, the transition must begin with us. We will not become the tyrant we are fighting.