How will Syria's revolution be told?

How will Syria's revolution be told?
Comment: Battle against terrorism? Revolutionary struggle? American plot? Mat Nashed weighs up the opposing narratives that risk determining how history will remember Syria's revolution.
5 min read
16 Dec, 2016
Syrians wave their national flag, protesting against Assad's regime, Damascus, March 11, 2016 [Andalou]

This week saw Bashar al-Assad's regime commit war crimes in Aleppo, while his supporters were calling it liberation.

The Syrian president's forces advanced rapidly Monday, supported by Russian bombing and shelling, and Shia mercenaries on the ground. Some 50,000 civilians – trapped in the last rebel held pocket of territory – feared death was imminent.  

Turkey and Russia tried to broker an evacuation deal the next day. AFP reported that civilians were gathered in the center of their neighborhood, waiting for busses to escort them to safety – but no vehicles came. Hours later, they scattered for cover as bombing resumed.

The deal was later restored, permitting ambulances and busses to carry out thousands of people Thursday. The deal was halted again Friday, but the reasons were unclear as the situation continues to develop. 

The misery in Aleppo is being witnessed in real time. Activists and civilians uploaded what they expected to be their final goodbyes on twitter and YouTube. There was good reason to think they were going to die. The UN Human Rights Office had already reported that regime mercenaries killed 82 civilians 'on the spot'.

But while much of the world watched in horror, others applauded. Regime sympathisers even claimed that twitter profiles of civilians and activists were fake. Some dismissed allegations that the regime carried out summary executions, rather than advocating for a third party to conduct a full investigation.  

Such propaganda risks shaping how the ruin of Aleppo – and the origins of the Syrian revolution – will be talked about in history. Dubbed a "post-truth world" by some commentators, civilians risk being forgotten.

Fighting for existence

Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad wants the world to believe there are only terrorists in Aleppo. On Wednesday, he told Russia Today - the Kremlin sponsored news network - that the "West" was telling Russia that they are going "too far in defeating terrorists". He said that international pleas to stop the violence in Aleppo were merely western schemes to rescue terrorists.

People from across the world have absorbed his propaganda, but civilians trapped in the conflict are telling a different story.

Popular opinion in the United States tends to assess the conflict as a battle against the Islamic State

Lina Shamy, an activist in east Aleppo, has uploaded several videos pleading the international community for help. She recently noted that Russia's initial failure to uphold their promise to evacuate civilians is just another example of why they can't be trusted.

Activists like her have been targeted by the regime since the popular uprising started in March 2011.

Medics also fear they will be killed for their commitment to saving lives. Four years ago, the Syrian government passed a new terrorism law that criminalises anyone who aids the opposition.

Doctors have since been punished for treating anyone living in rebel held areas. Some have disappeared while others have been killed by snipers and security agents. The regime has further set ambulances on fire and systematically targeted hospitals, as reported by the Physicians for Human Rights, a non-profit in the US.

And then, there are the White Helmets, a group of volunteers who have risked their lives to pull survivors out from under the rubble. The group tweeted Monday that the streets were mounting with dead bodies. They also pleaded for safe passage out of Aleppo, terrified that they would be executed if seized by the regime.

Bashar al-Assad and his allies have stolen a page from America's foreign policy play book and performed it to perfection. They have used the label of terrorism to group civilians, opposition groups and extremists all under one umbrella.

Assad and his supporters simply can't see civilians because they don’t want to.  

Fighting for memory

"Dear world, there is intense bombing right now. Why are you silent? Why? Why? Why? Fear is killing me and my kids," tweeted Fatemah Alabed, Wednesday afternoon.

Fatemah opened a twitter account months ago to document the suffering of her seven year-old daughter, Bana. Her account has since been trolled by hundreds of Assad supporters who claim that Bana does not exist.

However, videos examined of Bana confirm that she is in fact living in what was previously rebel controlled East Aleppo. The online harassment of Fatemah and her daughter is symbolic of a popular uprising that has been smeared since its beginning.

The regime and their allies, of course, frame the conflict as an existential battle against terrorism

Syria's growing civil society has received little attention during five years of conflict. Local councils - created and run by activists - worked together to provide basic services to civilians living under rebel controlled areas.

Teachers worked without salaries to give children a semblance of a normal life, and doctors stayed behind to provide urgent care to the injured. These were the sacrifices that thousands of people made in the pursuit of freedom.

That said, it can't be ignored that rebel groups have also committed a myriad of human rights abuses. Foreign journalists have not been able to report in rebel held territory since 2014 due to the danger of the conflict and risk of being kidnapped.

But the Syrian regime has committed war crimes on a systematic scale, all the while empowering extremists.  So how will the history of the Syrian revolution be told?

Popular opinion in the United States tends to assess the conflict as a battle against the Islamic State. The regime and their allies, of course, frame the conflict as an existential battle against terrorism.

Self proclaimed anti-imperialists across the globe have read the conflict as an American plot to impose regime change - a perspective that is simply untrue when assessing US ambitions in the conflict. Experts may even refer to the Syrian war as President Barack Obama's greatest foreign policy failure.

But what about the voices of civilians and activists who are dead or still trapped in Syria: Will history remember what they stood for?

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.