On a recent cold Chicago afternoon, hundreds of Syrians met in downtown’s Grant Park to protest Syria’s broken peace plan and the international community’s muddled response to a 13-month-long regime crackdown on dissents by President Bashar al-Assad.
Raising Syrian flags to the blustery wind and marching with children in tow, the 400-plus demonstrators might have stood in for the broader revolution itself, left out in the cold by the Syrian regime’s appalling use of violence and the international hesitation to provide more than diplomatic support for the embattled opposition. In one protester’s words, the landscape of Syria’s brief political spring has been reclaimed by the 41-year winter of violence and repression under the rule of the Assad family.
“We always knew that our revolution would be the hardest,” said Yissar Bittar, a protest organizer for the Syrian American Council’s (SAC) youth division. “We believed it would be impossible to ever see what happened in Tunisia or Egypt in our home. When it did, we knew something long and difficult had begun. There was not going to be an easy end to this regime.”
Assad’s brutal methods have claimed an estimated 9,000 lives and forced activists to abandon hope that the regime can be toppled through a determined wave of demonstrations and sit-ins. Consequently, the once staunchly pacifist movement has gradually moved to accept a military solution. The Chicago protesters, many of whom said they still had major hesitations about violence and guerrilla war, loudly chanting “act, act, USA!” and cheered when various speakers called upon America to give arms to Syria’s badly outgunned opposition fighters. The scene, in turn, suggested that the protest movement is being eclipsed in importance by the escalating war gripping Syria.
But Bittar and other activists stress that there is a reason why protesters still brave bullets in Syria and why the day’s demonstrators drove from places like New York and Texas to stand in the cold during the Chicago protest. “This genie is out of the bottle,” says Bittar adding that the conflict has still not altered the basic aims of the revolution and its first advocates. “Syria’s revolution will ultimately be about establishing a free, democratic government -- what it was about in the first place.” The activist describes a “political awakening,” which she says has been pushed aside by the war, but will ultimately dictate any new political system in Syria.
“The awakening of Syria began with this revolution: People are for the first time discussing what Syria should look like. People have to keep advocating for their demands, no matter the acts of the regime. Syrians want democracy and a tolerant, free country,” Bittar said.
Protesting for that democratic government has nonetheless proven difficult for Syria’s hard-bitten activists, who some opposition leaders said would “flood Syria’s streets” after the ceasefire agreement took effect in March. Instead, activists rallied in numbers lower than expected, which many have said was the result of heavy troop presence in cities and news of government reprisals taken on cities where protesters met with UN monitors. But activists stress that the protest movement is still as relevant to Syria’s struggle as it was in the early months, in which some hoped to bring down Damascus through country-wide acts of civil disobedience. According to Chicago-based Syrian blogger and activist Sherien al-Hayek, the loosely-coordinated, but widespread activist networks which began the revolution are still the only forum where a future Syria can be decided.
“What is being forgotten is that there was a massive awakening of political activism, and activist groups still have huge numbers and strong opinions about what the country’s future should be,” she said. “When the regime falls, they are going to be the dominant voice, and they are going to be in the streets again calling for what they have all along --democracy, and rights for everyone, regardless of religion or sect.”
That sectarian tensions are under enormous strain in Syria is without question. Syria’s revolution has been predominately driven by the country’s Sunni majority, whereas the nation’s sizable communities of Christians and Alawites, an esoteric version of Islam and also the religion of the al-Assad family, have feared reprisals and a transition away from a government which favors minority groups. The split was on display during the Chicago protest, where demonstrators -- who were almost exclusively Sunni Arabs -- acknowledged the central role of Islam in the revolution. Nevertheless, activists stress that the values they are fighting for are universal, and point to the relative absence of sectarian killings as evidence that the revolution isn’t about sects. And the antidote for growing sectarianism, they suggest, is more dialogue and demonstrations which emphasize activists’ vision of unity over division. Like the larger Syrian crisis, it would be easy to be cynical about what activists can achieve amid the violence. But as the Assad regime attempts to exploit sectarian divisions more than ever, a tireless effort to foster a unified, inclusive movement may be the opposition’s strongest weapon.