Popular uprising against Assad revived by truce
GAZIANTEP (Turkey) - A s if the clock was put back five years, Syrians in rebel-held territory took advantage of the first ceasefire in the war that created havoc across their country to take to the streets again and call for the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Ba’ath regime.
The ritual of Friday anti-government protests resumed March 5th after a ceasefire went into effect February 27th, recreating scenes reminiscent of the early days of the uprising against Assad before unarmed protests turned to armed insurrection.
Although the tenuous truce was marred by sporadic clashes and occasional barrel bombs dropped on rebel areas, protests occurred in more than 100 locations across Syria, including Deraa, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, rural Damascus and certain parts of Islamic State-held Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, under the theme of The Revolution Continues.
Waving the three-starred, tricolor flag that has become the uprising’s emblem, demonstrators raised banners that read “Long live Syria, down with Assad” and “We don’t love you. We don’t love you. Go away with your (B’aath) party.”
“The aim of the protests is to bring our voice to the world and (to say) that the revolution that started as a peaceful one will continue until the regime is brought down,” said Omar al-Abed, a protester in Jirjanaz in rural Idlib.
“The world has turned a blind eye on us and allowed Russia, Iran and the regime to commit massacres against the people right from the onset of the peaceful uprising in Syria,” Abed added, stressing that the movement will not abate despite the high casualty toll.
More than 260,000 people have been killed, including 135 dead during the first week of the truce, and hundreds of thousands have been arrested or gone missing, in addition to millions displaced.
Protesters in rural Damascus, besieged by the regime for almost three years, carried banners demonstrating the resilience of the uprising. “The calamity continues despite the muzzling of the guns… We will not let down our detainees,” read one banner.
However, protests that used to draw hundreds of thousands of people have shrunk. Many of the young men who took part in the protests have been rounded up or have since been killed or forced to flee the country.
“After five years, many of my friends have been killed on the fronts against ISIS and the regime but I returned to the street to remember the first days of the uprising,” said Yassine Ibrahim from Aazaz, north of Aleppo.
Mohamad Aziz placed his weapon aside to join the peaceful protest in Jirjanaz.
“The regime has forced us to carry arms to defend ourselves after two years of peaceful demonstrations,” he said. “The protests revived hope and confidence in the success of the Syrian people’s uprising.”
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with widespread protests against the regime. Demonstrations were at their largest on Fridays and activists assigned themes to the weekly marches. By 2013, a fierce government crackdown and heavy shelling had stamped out most attempts to stage protests.
The “cessation of hostilities” brokered by the United States and Russia allowed humanitarian organisations to deliver much-needed aid to besieged and rebel-controlled areas. The United Nations estimates that there are almost 500,000 people living under siege in Syria, out of a total 4.6 million who are hard to reach with aid.
For the first time in years, Yasser Abu Ammar said he was not living in fear, taking advantage of the relative calm to repair his damaged house in Aazaz.
“I hope I will not have to redo it again,” he said. “I fear that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s planes might come back and destroy my house completely because I believe Aazaz would be the main front in case the truce collapses.”
In ISIS-held Raqqa and Deir ez- Zor provinces, anti-government protests were limited to a few hundred people in remote rural areas.
The resumption of political protest shocked official Syrian circles. “Turkey and (Arab) Gulf countries are behind the organisation of these protests that were staged in areas close to Turkey and Jordan,” charged a Syrian official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The ‘organisers’ should have rather pushed towards a solution of the crisis instead of escalating the situation through provocative slogans,” the official added.
Mohamad Daoud and his family from Maarat al-Naaman in rural Idlib took advantage of the ceasefire to lead a semblance of normal life.
“For the first time in three years we could go to the farm in the outskirts of the city to check on the fruit trees,” Daoud said. “I hope the truce will continue and a solution will be found… Syrians have had enough destruction and calamity… We have simply forgotten the meaning of life.”