Retreat, reconcile, resist

A Syrian mosaic

Alex Simon

Syrians have an uncanny way of distilling their country’s upheaval—with all its complexity, brutality, and humanity—into the space of a few sentences. For an outsider, this poses a question: What, if anything, could one add, which would amplify rather than obscure the truths already spoken by Syrians themselves? This question is all the more pressing amid the cacophony of external commentary on Syria’s conflict, which swirls around tropes that have little to do with the country’s reality: a reconstruction drive for which there is no money, a wave of refugee returns for which conditions are forbidding, or a peace process nobody believes in.

Syrians, in the meantime, are engaged in a quiet reckoning. Listening to friends and contacts spread out from Deraa to Raqqa, from Beirut to Berlin, I have been struck by the clarity and coherence with which many are taking stock and making sense of the conflict’s turning point. Such deliberations are highly individual yet inherently collective, adding up to an incomplete but revealing mosaic of how society is positioning itself for the stage ahead.

The resulting image tells us more than the sum of its parts. Syrians are the first to note how exhaustion and disillusion are causing society to withdraw into itself—seemingly relinquishing any hopes for a better future. A resurgent and vengeful regime reinforces that retreat through unwavering repression. But Damascus also aims to seduce: drawing Syrians into diverse forms of cooperation and complicity.

Critically, however, the ensuing narratives often depict the ways in which Syrians are grinding onward in pursuit of some semblance of progress, however slow and imperceptible. That determination takes many forms, from low-key civic activism to a basic but powerful drive to understand and bear witness to Syria’s transformations. Taken together, these invisible struggles coalesce into a more buoyant vision for Syria’s future. For outsiders seeking to understand where Syria is headed and lend support along the way, there is much to learn from those who are already taking the lead.

Giving up

I’ve tried to convince my parents to leave Syria, but they won’t think of it. They want to be in their country, but they have no hope about the future. Most of my friends are still in Syria, but all are depressed. One has barely left her neighbourhood in the last seven years, because her husband is wanted for conscription and can’t travel through checkpoints.

I personally feel I want to return, but I don’t want to return. I could only go back if I felt there was an opportunity for me to create something. Even going back for a week takes a toll. There’s this psychological pressure that comes from feeling unsafe, and from the difficulty of just getting by with the economic situation.

It’s also about the lack of cultural life. The regime was always oppressive, but there was still culture—my hometown produced thinkers, writers, poets. Today there’s nothing. Even established intellectuals don’t do anything, because they’re depressed.

I find that conversations about life inside Syria tend, increasingly, to circle back to the same emotions: frustration, weariness, and disillusionment, often crossing some invisible threshold into despair. Such sentiments are inevitable after years of catastrophic and futile war. Fresh traumas accumulate by the day, as violence continues across swathes of the country. Areas where conflict has subsided must live with its toxic legacy: abysmal living conditions and harassment by the authorities. Stifling Western sanctions compound Syrian misery, piling onto the economic pain inflicted by destruction, fragmentation, and corruption. While war has hit some communities harder than others, the overall malaise transcends boundaries of sect and loyalty.

Until recently, some found solace in the notion that conflict would end and life would improve. Today that prospect feels increasingly remote. The war has purportedly been won, yet many of the country’s most acute problems endure: Conscription, disappearances, and executions persist; state-led theft of property is on the rise; and a longstanding crisis of public services is, if anything, deepening. The result is that many are still finding ways to flee, and those who choose to remain often struggle to find any reason for optimism. A friend living in the Damascus suburbs summed up the hopelessness around her:

Many older people are just in this miserable state of despair; some refuse to deal with simple things, like fixing basic problems around the house. I know one person who stopped going to the dentist. He just says, ‘I’m going to die soon anyway.’ Young people are nihilistic in a different way. If the older generation has given up on everything, the younger one has given up specifically on Syria and is just looking to leave.

Those who sacrificed for the uprising often carry an additional layer of emotional bruises. Such wounds are partly self-inflicted, as many ask themselves what went wrong and what might, conceivably, have made it go right. Such introspection is often bound up with bitter resentment toward those who claimed to represent or support the revolution: from fickle Western governments to a failed political opposition to an array of armed factions now frequently derided as no better than the system they promised to overthrow. 

The overall malaise transcends boundaries of sect and loyalty

“The opposition factions proved themselves mercenaries,” said an activist from the southern province of Deraa, where protests first broke out in March 2011. We spoke at a Starbucks in Amman, during a period—October 2018—when the mood within the Jordan-based opposition was dark. Pro-regime forces had recently retaken southern Syria after a campaign that lasted mere weeks. The speed of the victory—accelerated by a wave of Russian-brokered “reconciliation” agreements—took almost everyone by surprise. It revealed rebel factions’ willingness to cut a deal, alongside widespread fatigue and frustration among the South’s population—directed, in large part, at the rebels themselves. The activist elaborated:

Today, people see a choice between one dictator in the regime and 20 dictators in the opposition. So, they’ll choose the regime. Everyone in the south hates Bashar. But all that hate won’t make them willing to relive the past eight years, when they were the only ones who paid the price. The kingdom of fear is back. Everyone will submit in exchange for being allowed to eat.

The themes of submission and surrender hung like a pall over every conversation on that trip to Jordan. It extends to countries like Lebanon, where Syrians are caught between punitive legal measures and a threatening political discourse. Syrians who cannot safely return must opt either for indefinitely suffering the indignity and precariousness of life in Lebanon or for some form of escape—legal or otherwise—usually to Europe. A Beirut-based acquaintance from the ravaged eastern province of Deir Ezzor described, with chilling concision, his predicament: “The phase of war is over; the phase of vengeance is beginning. It’s bad here, too. Better to be far away.”

Even among Syrians whose situation is relatively stable and who move freely between Lebanon and their hometowns, the ugliness and disintegration of recent years can create an unshakable sense of alienation. “I struggle with going home because I feel so disconnected from the people there,” reflected an NGO worker from a loyalist neighborhood in central Syria. “We have very different ways of thinking, and saw the revolution in a different light. I’ve managed to salvage some of those relationships, but any discussion of politics would ruin everything.” A friend from Homs voiced a related unease with the premise of re-engaging inside a country debased by war: “For me it’s about dignity and justice. How will I go back and deal with people in power who are this dirty and criminal?” 

The ugliness of recent years creates an unshakable sense of alienation

Estrangement easily hops the Mediterranean, seeping into far-flung circles where Syrians are struggling to maintain connections to the homeland. In Germany, where Syrians arguably have found the most tolerable collective exile, discussions with activists drifted reliably toward the difficulty of finding ways to continue supporting their society back home. Sipping espresso in a Berlin coffee shop, a young man from central Syria sketched a set of common themes:

Syrian engagement here is barely alive; it’s frustrating and depressing. We get so drawn into all of the things that are required in terms of paperwork and integration, to the point where families have no energy to spend even on trying to get their detained children out of Syrian prisons. I personally find it increasingly difficult to keep helping people in Syria. We activists talk big, but can do little. Sometimes I feel ashamed, because people inside ask for my support, and I can’t give it to them.

A young activist and computer programmer echoed the point, over Yemeni food in Berlin:

I’d love to go back to Syria, but I’m wanted by seven different branches of the security services. It would cost 15,000 dollars in bribes to even come close to getting my name off all these wanted lists, and even then, it wouldn’t be safe. I won’t pay Assad 15,000 dollars.

I was always against coming to Europe, because I knew it would be harder to stay engaged. I spent two years in Benghazi, Libya, before coming here, and it was far easier to support people in Syria: I could find work as a programmer, and there were no distractions and no way to spend money. So I was working 16 hours per day and sending almost all of it home. Here you live years before you can find work that allows you to support people that way.

Importantly, this inward turn encompasses figures who once wielded significant clout in their communities in Syria. Having openly cast their lot against the Syrian regime, they now find themselves forced to lay low for lack of other options. “Today is a period of silence,” reflected an oppositionist sheikh from southern Syria, in a meeting that was interrupted once by a phone call bearing news of a death back home in Deraa. He was somber and certain about the stage ahead: “None of those leadership figures who oppose the regime can play a role, because we have no way to back it up. You can’t resist without the means to resist.”

Another sheikh shared a similar dilemma, speaking over cake at his home in a suburb of Amman. While hard-pressed to play a role in exile, he nonetheless sees no option for return:

The time of being for or against the regime is gone. Many notables in the south have turned back to Damascus, despite having been the first people to turn against it. That’s not an option for me. There’s no way of knowing what would happen if I tried to go back—I could be killed, tortured, disappeared, anything. It’s also the issue of extending your hand to the person who’s been murdering your people. As a symbol of our family, I can’t do that.

Increasingly, narratives of surrender are bound up with tales of how Syrians are being sucked back into collaboration with the regime they once fought. Damascus, for its part, has long practiced the art of terrorizing society with one hand and enticing it with the other—opening doors to social and economic advancement for those willing to give themselves over. After a period of relative weakness, this time-honoured strategy is re-emerging in force.

Buying in

People in southern Syria feel defeated—like there could be no solution but the regime coming back. There’s this deep frustration, which comes from having a generation that grew up in this conflict. A child that was 12 when it began is now 20.

And everyone feels endangered. They want to believe Russia will protect them, but then people who have been displaced go home to find their houses stripped bare—no glass, no pipes, no livestock. No one knows what’s coming. The regime’s approach is to punish everyone but those who openly stand by it. So, nobody in Deraa is with the regime, but many will accommodate it.

The leaders of large families have been among the first to do so. There’s tremendous pressure for such people to embrace the regime or invite suffering upon their communities. Imagine that someone destroyed your house and killed your son, and then you welcome him back? In a way, though, it’s the wisest approach. What’s done is done; the dead are dead.

Even as war has plunged ordinary Syrians into destitution, a narrow cohort of opportunists has found wealth amid the rubble. The regime’s comeback indeed presents opportunities—above all for local authority figures prepared to join the fold. “Notables don’t become notables without being willing to get on board with the regime,” remarked a journalist from the Deraa countryside, not without disdain for the mix of tribal figures, local officials, and businesspeople whom he viewed as facilitating the authorities’ return. “The regime knows this well, and builds upon it. Those people don’t have any ideology; they’re opportunists, who will follow the regime because it’s the dominant power and because they have no other choice.”

Today, a dilapidated and near-bankrupt power structure can offer limited positive incentives. Yet many Syrians will nonetheless deal with the devil, in the face of widespread insecurity and a vindictive security apparatus. “People in Eastern Ghouta are informing on each other to protect themselves,” said a friend from the rebellious Damascus suburb of Douma, speaking over coffee some six-months after his hometown was retaken. He elaborated:

That’s especially true of those who were working for NGOs, who now face threats and harassment. When security services come question them, many insist that they were with the regime all along—and start informing on others to prove it. Some have gone out of their way to prove their loyalty, say by throwing a party to show how happy they are the regime came back. I know a woman whose husband was killed by the regime: She married her daughter to a security officer in order to protect the family.

Forced complicity extends to countless young men who find themselves dragged into Syria’s kaleidoscope of pro-regime armed groups. “Syria is full of families who never gave a shit about the regime, but who must now pray for its victory because they have a son who’s been forcibly recruited into the army or a militia,” said a researcher from eastern Syria, reflecting on his own conversations with residents of Aleppo city. “In East Aleppo, any given street might have a dozen families with at least one son serving in pro-regime forces. Such people are effectively forced into loyalism.”

This drift toward giving up and buying in naturally extends from the conflict’s horrendous toll and utter lack of closure. What I find more striking, however, is the frequency and fluidity with which Syrians transition from outlining the desperate mood across Syria to reaffirming their own determination to forge ahead. Earnestly, cogently, and with no hint of pretence or self-aggrandizement, such individuals are seeking ways to push for even the most marginal forms of progress within Syria’s narrowing confines. 

Grinding on

For me, activism is about believing that change is in your hands. It’s about trying to get some form of politics back into peoples’ minds, pushing them to feel that progress is within their control. In 2011, society believed it could change. We want to bring that back. Sometimes it looks very silly, at the level of convincing people it’s their responsibility to complain about trash piling up in the streets.

My work is tied to that idea of activism. I don’t care about politics—I just want to do something good for humanity. I found after the uprising that we, as activists, didn’t know enough to achieve what we wanted to achieve. We knew very little about our own country, even as we rushed into trying to change it. Even so, some people feel that trying to do anything for the sake of change is naive.

At the same time, I feel guilty—many of us are benefiting from the conflict. I personally am profiting, because I would not have my work in journalism if not for the war. Look what I’m paid while living next to someone who makes 50 dollars a month. It’s a duty to be aware of that privilege, and find ways of using it to help.

Some Syrians seem to pursue relatively concrete objectives: re-energizing engagement among their peers, preserving cultural life, or helping Syria’s most destitute. Others reference more abstract, less articulable but equally powerful motives: a drive to understand and bear witness, a refusal to abandon home in the hands of those who destroyed it, an obdurate conviction that things can and must improve, however slowly and painfully. A friend living with his wife and children in the Syrian capital laid out his philosophy:

People ask me why I’m still here. Even the regime can’t comprehend it and distrusts me as a result. But Syria is my country. It’s not a hotel, and I don’t want to leave—I want to go to the checkpoints, go to the market, understand what’s going on. And it’s my responsibility to capture the truth, as best I can, about what’s happening. Someday this regime will be gone, and I want to be here.

Similarly, those who retain a foothold inside Syria sometimes describe their anxiety about what would be sacrificed by leaving permanently. “I fear that if I stop spending time in Syria, within six months I’ll find myself speaking about what’s happening in my country without understanding it,” said a friend in Beirut who continues to visit her hometown. “The uprising left me thinking about how to make the world better, in small ways. My view is that knowledge gives people power.”

Many businesspeople are finding viable and beneficial ways to move forward

Principled, constructive engagement need not flow from idealism or altruism alone. Conversations with members of Syria’s robust, adaptable business class capture a similar process of positioning. Far from the headlines about cronies and profiteering, many businesspeople are quietly finding ways to move forward that are both financially viable and socially beneficial. Such individuals, however, must tread carefully: Business in Syria is fraught with economic and political risks, and Damascus has grown increasingly aggressive in reserving the most lucrative opportunities for close allies. A businessman who has remained inside throughout the war explained:

I’m exploring ways to help rebuild housing on a limited scale. I would have to start very small, just with my neighborhood and keeping a low profile. The space for independent business is very narrow, as the regime insists on controlling everything. But they also want people to finance rebuilding themselves, and will have to provide some margin for them to do so.

Doing good inside Syria hinges on a balancing act both practical and moral. The landscape is not just corrupted, but corrupting—designed to draw Syrians into diverse forms of compromise and complicity. “Everyone in Syria must be corrupt in one form or another. It’s an accepted part of life, something they joke about on TV,” reflected a particularly analytical and introspective journalist living in the Damascus suburbs. “Even public figures who genuinely believe they are fighting corruption only reached their positions because they themselves are corrupt. Sometimes I worry that I myself am fully corrupt, because I can’t do what I need to do without bribes and connections.”

Doing good inside Syria hinges on a balancing act both practical and moral

Among those who cannot return to Syria, many remain unwaveringly intent on preserving constructive ties to the inside. While such conversations often involve acute frustration at the growing divide between Syrians inside and outside the country, continued engagement by Syrians abroad nonetheless plays a lifesaving role. An engineer and activist based in southern Germany described the challenge of remaining plugged into Syria while seeking new forms of activism in his adoptive home:

I try hard to keep up with friends and relatives in and around Damascus. I check on them, hear how things are going, learn when someone is not doing well and needs help. The individual amounts that people send from here are trivial, but with the exchange rate and conditions in Syria those sums can keep a family alive.

At the same time, I work with a group of friends on organizing events connecting Syrians with Germans—we talk to locals about Syria, sometimes compare our war to theirs. Anything that improves understanding between Syrians and Germans is a good thing. But it’s small, and I wish I could find more effective ways to be engaged.

Given the risks, concessions, and constraints entailed in forging ahead, even the most active and forward-looking narratives often lack any real semblance of optimism. What they preserve, rather, is a modest but unremitting belief in the possibility—and the necessity—of making a difference at the margins. Over orange juice at an outdoor cafe in Berlin, a middle-aged Syrian professional—and disillusioned former regime opponent—described his personal thought process:

I can’t go back right now, but I am working to get my affairs in order so that I can do so. That’s complex and it’s dangerous; it’s a matter of getting into a cage with a predator. But I want to make an impact in Syria, to help my society. That means finding a way to coexist with this regime.

This kind of dutiful realism—the clarity of purpose with which many individuals discuss their particular sense of responsibility for the future—is perhaps Syria’s closest approximation of hope.

Outside looking in

As Syrians dig in for the conflict’s next phase, Western discussions are stranded in a parallel universe of our own creation. EU positioning revolves around a set of interlocking fantasies, whereby a mix of economic pressure and long-irrelevant political negotiations would force the regime and its Russian patron to lay the groundwork for some form of “transition”—and, by extension, the return of refugees to a ruined country that shows no sign of wanting them. That debate looks sage compared to the scene in Washington, where Syria policy increasingly turns on the intersection of presidential mood swings and nonsensical shadow-boxing with Iran. A veteran Western diplomat drew the distinction between his own camp’s incoherence and Damascus’ grim lucidity: 

Part of the regime’s strength is that it sees itself as it is, while we see ourselves as we would like to be. There’s a real need to be honest with ourselves. For now, the core of Western strategy for Syria is profoundly ambiguous. It revolves around terms like “transition,” “process,” “inclusive,” “genuine…” All of these can mean many things.

Such fuzziness has in fact stood as the lone factor of consistency in Western Syria policy. From the beginning, Western players sought to achieve maximalist ends through half-hearted and vacillating means: We staked everything on the opposition while backing it just enough to discredit it as a Western stooge; we excommunicated the regime with no concept of what we would do if it were to hang on; we slapped on crippling sanctions with no coherent vision of what they could achieve.

Today we are left with few options, and a high price to pay for any of them. A small minority in the Western camp are tempted by outright normalization: a lifting of sanctions, a reopening of embassies, an injection of cash intended to kick-start reconstruction. Others gravitate toward the opposite pole: accepting that nothing can be achieved and pulling back altogether, reining in ambitions even at the level of aid programs inside Syria. Yet just as rushing back to Damascus will merely enrich a regime that will give nothing in return, full-fledged retreat—coupled with continued sanctions and isolation—will condemn Syrian society to struggle alone for its very survival. Neither extreme makes practical sense, and both are morally dismal.

We are left with few options and a high price to pay for any of them

Staying the course, however, holds little more promise. Fantasizing a transition, investing in farcical negotiations, and indulging in baseless discussions about refugees returning does not merely render Western actors irrelevant: It deepens our complicity in Syrian misery. Just as peace talks and constitutional processes extend an aura of legitimacy to a regime that remains as belligerent as ever, premature chatter about returns ratchets up existing pressure on refugees while reinforcing Damascus and Moscow in their quest to use Syrian lives as bargaining chips. In the meantime, holding fast to an ill-defined and impossible end-game all but guarantees that Western and regional actors will gravitate, through sheer inertia, toward ad hoc and haphazard forms of normalization.

The challenge therefore lies in staking out a path that is neither self-defeatingly absolutist nor meaninglessly romantic: setting forth goals that are ambitious but attainable, which may contribute slowly but tangibly to Syrian society as it trudges on into the future. There will be no democratic transition, inclusive constitution, or meaningful justice, but there are ways to support Syrian constituencies as they rebuild the means to live with each other. Reconstruction as a grand bargain will remain unattainable, but Syrian entrepreneurs, farmers, and teachers need every bit of help we can extend.

Today, our only viable policy is to invest in helping Syrian society prepare—in practical, tangible ways—for a long and difficult stage ahead. This must entail, at one level, a focused and self-critical push to improve those structures already in place for delivering support to Syrians both inside and outside Syria. The existing aid architecture is as inadequate as it is entrenched: It cannot be rebuilt from scratch, but it can certainly be adjusted at the margins to limit the most scandalous and counterproductive behaviors seen to date. On this front, a worst-case scenario is one in which Western actors gradually repurpose existing mechanisms with the goal of coaxing Syrians into a premature and dangerous return.

Intensive investment in Syrian human capital must stand at the heart of our efforts

A re-examination of our current posture should coincide with a redoubled and far more creative effort to shore up those resources on which Syria’s long-term survival will hinge. Intensive investment in Syrian human capital must stand at the heart of such an effort, and can flow from any number of approaches: from scholarships in Europe to diverse education and training initiatives in Syria and neighboring states, capitalizing on Syrian commitment and ingenuity in fields ranging from journalism to computer programming to agricultural engineering. Indeed, interventions should place special emphasis on helping Syrians preempt a looming disaster in the realm of water and food security, through expanded and forward-looking support to modern techniques in agriculture and water management. 

Lastly, outsiders can do more to set the stage for Syrians to begin reconstituting ties that have been severed, while preserving those that will continue to fray. While flashy conferences and short-term peacebuilding interventions bear little promise, low-key but sustained support for initiatives such as community centers—which give Syrians a space in which to discuss, on their own terms, the issues that affect them day-to-day—hold potential to produce meaningful shifts over time.

Syrians are sometimes baffled as to how outsiders can still be so confused after so long. They have long given up on great schemes that promised an end to the crisis, engaging instead in dogged, endlessly inventive attempts to make life once again livable. They are charting a path through the grey zone between retreat and reconciliation, testing ways to resist Syria’s grim reality even as they must work within it. In seeking out even narrow avenues for progress, we can only be as persistent and creative as them.

4 March 2019

Alex Simon is a co-founder of Synaps.

Illustration credits: Roman mosaic from Antioch by Wikipedia; Rustico cement tiles by Flickr / licensed by CC.

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