Syria’s non-violent demonstrations could be a game changer

Friday 11/03/2016

For the first time in five years, news from Syria sounded different. More than 100 demon­strations against the regime were recorded on March 5th across large parts of Syria freed from the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The enthusiasm that accompanied the news that people were demonstrating again peacefully in the streets was not confined to social media, which amplified it, or to the reporters who wrote about it.

It embarrassed the Syrian dictator and his supporters in Iran and Russia, as well as Islamo-fascists across Syria and the region. US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, the author of the book that describes best the Syrian biblical tragedy — A Problem from Hell — saluted the demonstrators in a tweet.

The question is if these demonstrations are the way to a game change in Syria, why did they trigger such an embrace and how is it possible to conceive the next steps that may effectively turn the international table on the side of the demonstrators?

As for why, the common ground for the enthusiasm is the non-violent character of the demonstrations across the board. Here were thousands of Syrians calling for the end of the regime and the continuation of the 5-year-long revolution, on the one, essential term that started it, non-violence.

In Syria, non-violence caught up with Tunis, Cairo, Sana’a and Manama in mid-March 2011, as children were tortured for scribbling anti-regime slogans in Deraa, women demonstrated in the place of Marja in front of the Ministry of the Interior and the Mandela of Syria, Riad Turk, wrote a wake-up call entitled The Time for Silence is Gone.

Then, for five consecutive months, the philosophy of non-violent change rocked the country, while the government exercised what it knew best against unarmed demonstrators — torture and killing.

When the revolution slowly took up arms in the summer of 2011, it lost its strongest, most powerful argument against the regime.

The most telling warning written on June 11th, in the entry of the main Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution against Bashar Assad, was defeated: “Why does the regime insist that the revolution is armed? Why does it go to such great lengths to say there are armed groups? Does this not tell you something? Does it not tell you that the choice of non-violence and peace is the right choice and that it is the choice that the regime is scared of? If the choice for peaceful means were wrong, wouldn’t the regime behave differently?”

Now is, at last, the chance to reclaim the lost spirit and to correct a prophetic mistake. But how to change the game in the direction outlined by non-violent demonstrators?

Geneva is on and the ceasefire needs to be nurtured. The opposition joining may not matter much, it just needs to say the right things and avoid the trap of legitimising the regime by participating in a rickety government of so-called national unity.

It should consider a government if Assad is truly sidelined, which is unlikely. It mostly needs to set its sight on the spirit of non-violence and rekindle it time and again in the coming weeks and not only on Fridays.

More demonstrations will command inevitable support worldwide if they remain non-violent in tone and aspect and it will be harder now for the cowardice and brutality of the dictatorship to be exercised on people marching in streets outside its reach. As the movement grows, other neighbourhoods will follow, all the way to Damascus, reviving also the argument for a safe haven in the localities where the people assemble peacefully in large numbers.

For this renewed dynamism to take root, three measures can be taken in the Syria where demonstrations are possible:

— The more women appear in the demonstrations and show their determination and leadership alongside men the more colourful the demonstrators, the more appealing the revived revolution. Women back in the leadership are the essence of success in any non-violent revolution.

— The language of the demonstrators must conform to the non-violent appeal. The small town of Kafr Nabl has been uniquely inventive over the past five years but the non-violence sloganeering requires new heights and this is where the unbound creativity of non-violence can be exercised across the world, including by showing that Syrians stranded by their millions abroad will return promptly to cities if they are not subject to torture and death every day.

— Last and not least, Islamo-fascism in non-Assad territory needs to be pushed back. This is not easy but even the most battle-hardened warriors recognise the value of survival. Muslims and Islamists are not born authoritarian. The demonstrations witnessed in early March in Syria could not have happened otherwise.