In the pre-Arab Spring era, the conventional wisdom was that an uprising in Syria was far fetched. Articles written by learned experts proclaimed Assad’s immunity to the tide of protest sweeping through Arab republics, confidently asserting that Syria was a “sturdy house,” an exception to the rule. This was the time when the cause of regime change in Syria was deeply unfashionable.
Friday, March 18, 2011 changed all that. As I returned to my office on that day after performing prayers at a community center in south London, I caught a glimpse of the first grainy images on YouTube of a mass demonstration in Dera'a, a city in the southern Hawran region of Syria. A crowd had congregated outside the historic Omari Mosque and was chanting, “Syria’s protector [Assad] is its thief!” An hour later, more images were uploaded, this time showing riot police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Then there was shooting. One video showed several police officers dragging away the limp corpse of a young man.
My office was abuzz with these first images of revolt. At the time, I was running Barada TV, the first independent Syrian news and current affairs television channel. It was based at modest offices in London’s Vauxhall. My job was to use the channel to raise awareness of human rights issues, to empower civil society and to educate Syrian audiences on the virtues of freedom and democracy.
Being a second-generation émigré whose father had suffered at the hands of the Syrian government, I believed I had a historic duty to deliver my people from dictatorship to liberty, the sort that I had known and loved in Britain.
That was one way of looking at it. Another was that I was little more than a propagandist for the Syrian opposition, paid to make seditious broadcasts, incite rebellion and invite foreign interference.
On that Friday afternoon, it seemed that my prayers had finally been answered. Until that point, as much as I had desired regime change, I did not quite believe it would ever happen. This view was widely shared by the opposition, whose fortunes were at a low ebb after Assad survived US-imposed isolation following the Hariri assassination in 2005, and his subsequent rehabilitation at the hands of Sarkozy, Erdoğan and Qatari Prince Hamad.
Having judged which way the wind was blowing, the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest of the opposition groups—decided in 2009 to throw in the towel and suspend all anti-regime activities in the hope of negotiating its way back into Syria. By 2010, the opposition harbored no illusions about the desperate state it was in; short of direct foreign intervention (a highly unlikely prospect at the time) it had next to no chance of toppling Assad by popular revolt. When that revolt did come, I found myself a member of an opposition movement long reconciled with its political impotence.
Perhaps, then, it was a lack of confidence that made me, a normally perceptive reader of political developments, fail to see the coming tsunami in Syria. The signs were there for all to see: the mobile phone boycott of February 9, organized on Facebook to protest high charges and poor service; the spontaneous protest in Damascus’s Harika business district on February 17, after a case of police brutality; or the candlelight vigils organized by civil activists outside the Egyptian and Libyan embassies in Damascus on January 30 and February 22 respectively. These were the early tremors that pointed to a coming great eruption.
Barada TV covered all these events, perhaps the only media outlet to have done so, but my thinking at the time was clouded by calculations of a self-serving nature: since the opposition needed time to organize itself before it could hope to lead a popular revolt, the revolution must still be years away.
The Abazeid clan of Dera'a cared little for the interests of the opposition in exile. It was aggrieved at the arrest of some of its teenagers who, inspired by satellite television images of Tunisia and Egypt, scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school. Repeated attempts to negotiate their release through the intercession of local notables were rudely rebuffed by the governor and the local security chief.
My undercover reporter in Dera'a kept me fully informed of such developments. On March 9, 2011 he managed to interview a leading activist from the city, who confidently proclaimed that the revolution “had already begun.” Information came in from several villages in the southern province suggesting that isolated police stations were being vacated in expectation of looming trouble. The mood in the southern province grew darker as angry young men talked of revolt.
Despite this compelling intelligence, I was still reluctant to believe that Syrians would rise up. Sitting three thousand miles away on the banks of the Thames, it appeared overly ambitious—a near impossibility, in fact—given all that I knew and had experienced of the passivity of Syrian society, the fear it had for the mukhabarat (the military intelligence service), and the effects of brainwashing propaganda and social conditioning that discouraged collective action and promoted apathy. Besides, there were no reliable statistics on viewing figures, which meant that I was not quite sure whether my satellite broadcasts were even being watched or not. Like a ham radio operator trying to make contact with intelligent life in outer space, it sometimes felt like a hopeless task.
This was not helped by the general attitude of the expatriate Syrian community towards people like myself, which oscillated between open hostility when they did not know me and pity when they did. To be in the opposition was to be a member of a weird and dangerous émigré sub-culture that entertained outlandish notions of regime change. The thought was enough to induce sniggers of derision in so-called respectable circles.
Intellectually, I knew that Syria was ripe for revolution. My country was no different to Tunisia or Egypt; the same corruption, poverty and authoritarianism existed in Syria. And Syrians, I thought, could not be any less courageous than Libyans, nor could Assad’s henchmen be any more brutal than Gaddafi’s. Seen this way, revolution was a logical inevitability. But I still could not quite convince myself.
The reason for my lingering doubts was not really a rational and convincing counter-argument, but a series of emotionally induced responses born out of the experience of being a member of the Syrian opposition. To be a conscientious Syrian oppositionist before 2011 was to be relegated to the margins of the political mainstream, at the time still defined by the discourse of the so-called resistance axis: the alliance formed between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Working to bring down one of its key pillars resulted in a head-on collision with a powerful set of interests, not least the pro-Iranian and pro-Hamas lobbies that were well represented in important media outlets and in key political and religious organizations.
International patronage, which could have evened the odds, was hard to come by. Although sympathetic, the moderate Arab camp was loath to make any direct challenge to Assad, while the West’s obsession with regional stability meant that the opposition were politely listened to but duly ignored. No matter what persuasive arguments the opposition mustered, it was almost always trumped by the massive gap in power between the exiled handful of expats and the Ba'athist government. Social and political isolation ensued not only in Syria, but in the wider Arab mainstream too.
With no one to come to their rescue, the opposition endured years of what could be classed as emotional abuse at the hands of demagogic bullies of the resistance axis. The Syrian opposition became the perennial joke of newsrooms; they were the embarrassment of the Islamists or weak and resentful “intellectuals” whose patriotism was questioned, and whose commitment to the all-important cause of Palestine always in doubt.
The result was a list of symptoms that victims of childhood trauma would instantly recognize: low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of confidence, social isolation, destructive behavior and an inability to form partnerships. Having been vilified and mocked by one and all, the oppositionists’ frame of mind turned into an essentially defeatist one. Little wonder, then, that on the eve of revolution the last thing the opposition expected was events that would lead to a swift and spectacular turnaround in its fortunes.
The outbreak of protest was exactly that. But moments of triumph bring with them their own set of challenges. Like a rags-to-riches lottery winner, the Syrian opposition struggled in the months that followed to adjust to its newfound cause célèbre status. In many ways, it still has not. The opposition’s political strategy does not appear to be based on any discernible, grown-up set of rational principles, but on an overpowering emotional urge to court cheap popularity and solicit short-term funding, which has become the hallmark of the dozens of leadership bodies set up by the opposition.
The damage that this has had on the wider cause of regime change is all too obvious. But as to the question of why, from my vantage point and experience I can say this: that in letting its heart rule over its head, the opposition sought to recapture something of a stolen adolescence, a way of making up for years of carefree politicking denied to it by both circumstance and its enemies. At the historic moment of triumph, the Syrian opposition suffered a mid-life crisis.
That Friday afternoon in 2011, as I hunched over a computer screen in stunned silence watching replays of riot police, clad in all-black body armor like medieval men-at-arms, charging up the hill and into the city’s old quarter, my initial feelings of denial and disbelief made way for excitement and euphoria. Only days later did a sober realization set in: that my life would change forever.
Everything that I had worked for as a member of the opposition, from 2005 until that day, would become redundant. All the lobbying, the conferences, the demonstrations, the television appearances and hours and hours of political meetings—which were a triumph solely on the basis that they took place—would become irrelevant, nothing more than memories of note only to myself. A new era beckoned, with new rules, new battles and new enemies, but not all will find their place in it. Mahmud Qateesh Al-Jawabra of Dera'a, the first martyr of the Syrian revolution, turned my world upside down.