Citizens International

And who are we to say the Syrian revolution is dead?

by Malak Chabkoun

The spirit of the revolution in Syria persists, even as Assad’s forces advance.


Regardless of what Donald Trump says he is going to do in terms of disarming Syrian rebels and his promises to Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian revolution is not dead.

Regardless of how many armed opposition factions are fighting among themselves at the moment, regardless of what the external opposition does, or who it plans to “work with” now that Trump will be the new United States president, the Syrian revolution is not dead.

Regardless of how many “Friends of Syria” continue to sell out Syrian revolutionaries, the Syrian revolution is not dead.

Regardless of the countless doomsday declarations that there are no options for the US but to submit to Russia in Syria, the Syrian revolution is not dead.

And regardless of whether East Aleppo falls to the regime or not, the Syrian revolution is not dead.

Declaring the Syrian revolution dead reduces it – and all the sacrifices Syrians have made – to a military conflict, and once again plays directly into the narratives of despots and dictators in the Arab world who treated the Arab Spring as their personal invitation to further destroy their own peoples.

Syrians defined their revolution early on

Since the first anti-regime protests in Daraa, Syrians have defined revolution on their own terms. In those early days of revolution, weapons and military factions – save for the Assad-controlled army – had nothing to do with the peaceful demands of the protesters.

Back then, the “thawra”, translated literally as “revolution”, represented a changed state of mind, one that defied the decades-long brutal security state built by Hafez al-Assad and willfully extended by Bashar al-Assad.

Syrians have not only demanded that they wanted isqat al-nidham (fall of the regime), but also that they preferred death to humiliation. When the revolution began, activists across the nation used social media platforms to choose the weekly themes of their protests every Friday.

It is very clear from the themes chosen in early 2011 that Syrians were using them to define exactly what their revolution demanded, aspired to and represented: March 18, dignity; March 25, dignity; April 15, persistence; April 29, rage; May 13, free women.

Unfortunately, these demands have not been a focal point for most researchers and journalists covering Syria, particularly as the military map in Syria increasingly became crowded and complex. However, while analysts have chosen to ignore that these demands have translated to civil society initiatives across Syria under far less than ideal conditions, Syrians have not forgotten this.

“One cannot expect that the freedom and independence displayed by Syrians in these areas will simply disappear – social change in the form of local councils and civil society organisation and mobilisation will not be erased by military conquests.”

Earlier this year, Daraya, a city in the suburbs of Damascus, also known as Reef Damascus province, was forcibly evacuated of its revolutionaries by the regime.

Before the evacuation, Daraya gained notoriety in revolutionary circles not only for its staunch resistance against Hezbollah and the regime, but also for its massive library built underground by the very people painted mainly as “Islamist fighters”.

As the city was being evacuated, an image of a green evacuation bus circulated with a line of poetry written on the side in Arabic, “Your attempts are in vain. A revolutionary never dies”.

For many observers, both inside and outside Syria, it was a reminder from Daraya’s people that even on one of the worst days of the revolution, its spirit persists within those loyal to it.

It is worth noting that Syria’s history contributes to the current revolutionaries’ definition of freedom. An attempted uprising in 1982, for which Hafez Assad punished residents of Hama by killing tens of thousands of civilians, and rebellion against French colonisation of the country starting in 1919, are both cited as inspiration for the revolutionaries.

The revolution’s enemies grow in number, yet it persists

The Friday themes mentioned earlier have reflected an expansion of the Syrian revolution as time has gone on – Syrians have had to defend their revolution not only against Assad’s assaults, but also the full force of the Lebanese Hezbollah, the militias of the Iranian al-Quds Force, Russian troops and air power, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and groups such as the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Nusra Front Front).

On Friday, November 8, 2013, the revolutionaries called out Iran, with the theme, “No to the Iranian Occupation of Syria”. On February 28, 2014, and again on August 8 of the same year, Hezbollah’s attacks on the Syrian revolution were called out by the revolutionaries.

On November 21, 2014, “ISIS Seeks to Distort Islam”. On June 5, 2015, “ISIL Betrays Aleppo”. On October 9, 2015, “Russian Intervention Will Not Stop the People’s Revolution”.

The very fact that peaceful protests persist against these various actors that have attacked the revolution indicates a social change within Syria.

As recently as November 29, as shelling on Aleppo intensified, Syrian activists gathered in Idlib city, both in solidarity and to remind the world, yet again, that their narrative has not changed, and that their demands for freedom and peace have not yet expired.

Who gets to call the end of the revolution?

Can anyone say that the revolution has been free of flaws? No, of course not. Its flaws were expected and human, and have often been a natural reaction to conditions far beyond the revolutionaries’ control. But these flaws are not an excuse for random analysts to declare the revolution dead.

Even if, as many are predicting, the battle for Aleppo segues into the eventual fall of Idlib province back into regime and Russian hands, the revolution will not have died. One cannot expect that the freedom and independence displayed by Syrians in these areas will simply disappear: social change in the form of local councils and civil society organisation and mobilisation will not be erased by military conquests.

The bottom line is that the Syrian revolution changed something within Syrians, something that they have paid dearly for and that only they can give life to or declare it dead.

For nearly six years, their narrative has been trampled, twisted and abused, and this would be a fine moment for analysts to finally respect Syrians enough to return the narrative of this revolution back to its rightful owners.

Malak Chabkoun is an independent Middle East researcher and writer based in the US. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.