Syria Becoming

Activists now and then

“We activists knew very little about our own country, even as we rushed into trying to change it,” recalled a filmmaker who grew up and lives in the Damascus suburbs. She was in her mid-twenties when she took to the streets, along with countless other young people, to demand change in 2011. They improvised their revolution: drawing on tools and tactics that were then being tested elsewhere in Syria and the Arab world, without much grounding in the experiences of Syrian dissidents who came before them. “Today we need to step back and analyze,” she concluded, “to avoid repeating past mistakes.”

The hard-learned lessons of dissent are many, and accumulating by the year. They span three generations of civic engagement, starting with an aging cohort of opposition politicians and intellectuals, extending through the youth who spearheaded the uprising, and culminating with an up-and-coming generation that is only now forming its own political consciousness. Each group has much to learn from the others, and just as much to teach. Such an exchange is not just about understanding how Syria reached its current impasse; it will shine a light on the society that Syria is today, and shape what the country aspires to become tomorrow.

The generational firewall

The disconnect between old and new Syrian activists was evident from the revolution’s outset. The streets filled with protestors in their teens, twenties, and thirties, equipped with digital savvy and powered by the fervor sweeping across the Arab world. But while young Syrians dove into the growing movement, their parents were more likely to stay home, or even to discourage their children from participating.

This wariness can be traced back more than half a century, to the first decade following Syria’s independence in 1946. Older Syrians recall this moment as a brief golden age for political participation: Civic engagement flourished, finding expression in the forms of a free press, vibrant student activism, and political parties that espoused views ranging from communism and pan-Arabism to the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular brand of Islamism.

That opening, however, was short-lived. Starting with Syria’s fusion into Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic in 1958, a series of military governments set about dismantling political structures and suffocating dissent. The apex of repression came with Hafez al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood from 1980 to 1982. Then, whole neighborhoods of Hama and Aleppo were razed and extended families disappeared.

While concentrated in those two cities, the conflict’s chilling effect permeated Syria as a whole. It plunged the country into a culture of silence so complete that many parents raised their children with no knowledge of the confrontation, for fear that they might mention it and invite retribution from the security services. Activism, genuine opposition parties, ideological debates, and free press were not just suppressed; their very role in Syria’s history was erased. Those who had participated in Syria’s brief political flourishing vanished into exile, detention, or silence.

The transition to Bashar al-Assad’s presidency in 2000 seemed to herald a welcome change, as the young leader promised to reopen the country’s civic and political space. This sparked an upsurge in political fora and newly established civil society organizations, in what came to be known as the Damascus Spring. Yet this political revival was as limited in scope as it was fleeting in duration: Activities were mostly limited to a narrow urban elite, and quickly brought about a new crackdown. As a result, most Syrians who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s remained in the dark regarding their own political history. 

Awakening and antagonism

That lack of awareness was a double-edged sword for Syria’s 2011 protest movement. Young people drove the uprising with courage, creativity, and optimism, unburdened by the generational trauma that kept their parents off the streets. But this blank slate also left newfound activists ill-prepared to face off with a regime whose tactics they misread. Some now recall, for example, their naive expectation that security forces would not butcher protestors with the world looking on. Others note how they underestimated the regime’s expert ability to derail protests by exploiting and amplifying sectarian divisions—particularly in confessionally mixed areas, which were the first to fall into the trap of communal bloodletting.

While young Syrians were cobbling together a grassroots protest movement, their political forebears were carving out a very different space of their own. An older generation of dissidents in exile—who lived Syria’s political heyday and fled the ensuing crackdown—claimed the mantle of representing the uprising on the global stage. While some veteran critics had remained inside Syria, many others had long since established themselves abroad: Equipped with mobility, connections, and decades of political practice, they naturally came to dominate opposition structures, such as the Syrian National Council, that were forming in the diaspora.

However qualified these experienced players might have seemed, they quickly came under attack from young activists who accused them of being out of touch and ineffective. Their cosmopolitan lifestyles and frequent participation in flashy gatherings from Istanbul to Geneva earned them a reputation as elitist, self-enriching stooges of outside powers. Many had not lived or even set foot in Syria in years, and struggled to link up with young protestors with whom they had no common frames of reference. Echoing his peers, a young activist in Damascus criticized these elders for being more inclined toward philosophizing than providing practical support:

We didn’t need people to tell us theories of what our country should eventually become. We were living under immediate threat. We needed advice about how to communicate with each other safely, about digital security, about how to deal with the security services if we were arrested. 

As the regime’s crackdown escalated and young activists faced arrests, displacement, and death, they increasingly resented their elders as indulgent and ineffective. “The problem isn’t just with the regime, but also with the opposition abroad who offered nothing but meaningless speeches,” said a 30-something activist from Suweida, now in Lebanon. “Young activists paid an enormous price for that combination.”

There were notable exceptions to this disconnect. Some on both sides of the divide actively sought to bridge the gap, driving small but fruitful forms of cross-pollination in such fields as journalism, feminism, aid work, and political organizing. An elderly Syrian academic and politician recalled his own role in the uprising’s early days, before he relocated from Damascus to Beirut: “When the revolution started, many young people reached out to me to ask for advice about Syria’s political history and how to establish parties. It was a dynamic relationship.” 

Syria’s current stalemate seems to have increased the appetite for such exchanges. Faced with a political dead-end, old and young activists alike are taking stock of what went wrong and what comes next. Some wonder if stronger communication among them might have placed the revolution on a more solid footing: “We younger Syrians weren’t good listeners or learners,” reflected an activist now in Beirut. “Sometimes we blame the older generation for not taking a more active role. But now that we’ve seen what the regime is capable of, we understand how difficult it was for them.” And if growing numbers are willing to listen, they are also ready to talk. The elderly academic put it well: “We all have the duty to support this young generation, rather than trying to take its place.”

Shrinking ambitions

What becomes of Syria in the coming years depends not only on the youth that led the uprising, but also on those growing up after them. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this latter cohort was too young to play a role in Syria’s protests or the ensuing conflict; yet they were shaped by this experience, and have inherited, by default, the responsibility for picking up the pieces. Some are experimenting with small-scale forms of civic engagement, within the narrow space available to them: They volunteer with charitable initiatives, engage in digital conversations on feminism or human rights, and devote themselves to social work through NGOs.

For now, however, many young adults inside Syria show less interest in repairing their country than escaping it. Many are thoroughly alienated from, even disgusted by, the very idea of politics. If their elders came of age in an era of political blackout, this group is the opposite: They have been molded by a decade of extreme, violent, and wasteful politicization, and inundated by all that is ugly about the Syrian regime, its rivals, and the international players that backed all sides. Add to this a resurgent fear of Syria’s security state, and most young people—at least in regime-controlled areas—think twice before even mentioning politics: “We’re constantly afraid,” said a Damascus-based psychology student. “The best thing we can do is shut up.”

Fear, indeed, is a recurring theme in discussions with this group—not just the specific concern of surveillance, but a more diffuse, pervasive unease born from years of unaddressed trauma. The psychology student went on:

Young people are living with depression, insomnia, generalized anxiety. No one treated us for PTSD, or even asked us what we were feeling. Doctors prescribe a lot of antidepressants, as if there was no solution besides drugging us. And we drug ourselves, turning to weed and alcohol. I’ve been smoking weed for five years to manage my anxiety.

The combination of fear and hopelessness leads people to withdraw from even modest notions of social responsibility. In a country that has offered them little and taken much, many ask why they should fight an uphill battle to change things for the better. A university student who teaches displaced children in the Damascus suburbs summed up this individualist mindset: “Syria has given us nothing, so it’s not my role to fix it. I don’t want to be part of this destruction.” A 20-year-old man who lost his father to Syria’s maze of detention centers put the same sentiment in stronger terms:

I hate this country and don’t care about this society. You can’t live with dignity here, even if you work like a mule every day. Syria is dead; all young people just want to leave. I personally can’t wait to move to Europe and start a new life. The only reason I would ever come back is to visit my mother and friends.

Indeed, almost every conversation with young Syrians seems to circle back to the holy grail of emigration. Critically, though, not all of those seeking to leave aim to do so permanently; some hope to find their way back home, using skills gained abroad to do good inside Syria. “I want to travel for my master’s, but then come back and do something for my country,” said a third year IT student in Damascus. The psychology student voiced a similar logic: “There’s so much work to be done with young people here, and I must be in Syria to do it. But first I need to continue my studies abroad, as Syrian universities are hopeless.”

This residual pool of civic determination carries glimmers of hope for Syria’s future. Moreover, the quiet minority of young people intent on helping their country recover bring to this task a fresh perspective and unique set of qualifications: Digitally native, they are more conscious and connected than any who came before them—savvy to global trends from climate change to feminist thought. “This younger group is extremely well-informed and thirsty for knowledge,” noted the filmmaker mentioned above, describing her own experience training teens to shoot documentary video on their mobiles. Having been forced to grow up too fast, they often analyze their own predicament with clarity and sophistication beyond their years.

It remains to be seen how these experiences will translate into politics, and whether they will catalyze change. But the seeds of a new political culture are surely present, if only because this new generation’s outlook is far removed from those which came before—as foreign to the party politics of the 1950s as to the revolutionary zeal of the 2010s. “They represent a third wave,” reflected the filmmaker, “and it’s too early to tell whether they can help save us. They’re now responsible for much of the activism that remains inside Syria—but they need our help, and we need theirs.”

Connecting the dots

As these young Syrians are formulating their civic identity, many older dissidents are entering their twilight years. The revolutionaries in between face an inflection point of their own, as they reckon with what comes next after a decade of disappointment. Together, they are slowly testing ways to bridge the divides that have long hampered Syrian activism—whether between old and young or residents inside and outside the country. Such experiments take various forms: A veteran publishes a memoir of the uprising’s unraveling; a Europe-based academic visits Beirut to deliver lectures on Syrian society to the next generation of researchers; an NGO founded by revolutionaries creates spaces where young adults can voice their ambitions and anxieties about their own future and that of their country.

But there is much more to be done, and plenty of ways to do it. Syria’s uprising birthed a vibrant landscape of media initiatives, aid organizations, research centers, and cultural institutions, which may kindle exchange between groups that have little contact but much to learn from each other. Meanwhile, the spread of digital technology—accelerated by the pandemic and particularly ubiquitous among younger Syrians—offers diverse avenues for reaching across the generational and geographic divides.

The time is ripe in other ways, too. For years, the tumult of Syria’s uprising left little space for quiet reflection. As activists of all stripes scrambled to make their way through a phase of rapid, disruptive change, it is natural enough that they struggled to find ways of bridging the many gaps between them. Syria today has entered a very different stage, defined less by extreme upheaval than by the kind of cautious adaptation and introspection that would prompt us to seek wisdom in our elders and our youth. For those eager to learn from the past as they chart a course for a future Syria, now indeed is the time to start.

9 May 2022

Illustration credit: "Between past and future," by Shadi Abousada, gratefully reproduced with permission of the artist.

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union and Germany. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Synaps, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union and Germany.