Those who planned and participated in the early demonstrations against the government of President Bashar al-Assad never thought they were setting the stage for a civil war.
Inspired by the protests that toppled the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, protesters hoped President Bashar al-Assad could be removed in weeks. But two years on, Assad – while effectively ruling over less than half the country – remains the head of state.
What started as a series of peaceful protests against corruption with calls for political reform turned into an armed struggle as people took up weapons amid a brutal crackdown by regime forces.
The initially modest armed resistance soon flourished with money provided by Syrian businessmen and expatriates, and with time, foreign states.
Two years later, tens of thousands of people have been killed as rebels and regime forces continue to battle each other. Whole neighbourhoods have been flattened in bombardment and a million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries .
There are many disparate armed groups in the country, with differing ideologies and interests, and no clear chain of command. Foreign fighters – some reportedly affiliated with al-Qaeda – are fighting alongside them.
The UN has warned that the conflict is becoming increasingly sectarian, as Sunni Muslim fighters clash with Alawite Assad loyalists. Tit-for-tat kidnappings between the two sects have become common.
On the two-year anniversary of the first protest in Damascus during the “Arab Spring”, Al Jazeera spoke to some of the first public faces of the uprising to hear their thoughts on the path their revolution has taken.
|Rami Nakhla (Malath Aumran)|
Nakhla started campaigning for human rights in Syria in 2006. He fled to Lebanon shortly before the uprising to avoid being arrested. As protests began, he became one of the most prominent online activists, working under the pseudonym Malath Aumran . He is now based in Turkey.
“Before the uprising started I was preparing myself to work for 20 years to achieve regime change. People on the ground surprised all of us when they called for it. I didn’t think the Syrian people were ready to go this far.
“The uprising is the people’s will, but if it was up to me, [it should have stayed unarmed]. Non-violent resistance would change this regime over 15-20 years, one step at time, without all this death, destruction and suffering.””I insist in calling it a revolution, but don’t let the name trick you – not all revolutions are for good. The Iranian revolution, for example. I’m not saying the Syrian revolution is for bad but it could be. It could end up with al-Qaeda taking over, but our job now is to fight on many fronts at the same time. We never expected Assad to be that criminal. We never expected the world to sit and watch us for two years and do nothing. Everything else was expected, even al-Qaeda and the jihadists and so on. That’s what happens in any vacuum.
|Fida Aldin al-Sayed Issa|
Living in Sweden, Issa set up the Syrian Revolution Facebook page in February 2011, along with other activists. The “Day of Rage” they called for on February 4 never materialised, but as protests began in March, the page became an important rallying force. Issa has since left the Facebook page to work with political initiatives and coordinating aid.
“Without doubt, it’s still a revolution. There is a saying that ‘no sound is louder than the sound of gun’. The media has been concentrating on the armed wing of the revolution while in reality, protests and the civil movement are still there.
“I wish the uprising had not been armed, that we didn’t reach this point. I wish Assad had instead left power early on, peacefully. But people had to defend themselves.
“Despite the bloodshed, it’s worth it, 100 percent. It reminds me of the French revolution. A lot of people died, but finally they got freedom. Now there are several liberated areas in Syria, where people have tasted freedom, and they’ll never again be slaves of Assad.
“There have been mistakes on the side of the opposition – by rebels, and by political and religious figures. When people rise up against the regime for the first time, mistakes will happen. But this revolution is working on sifting out the corrupt elements in society.”
Kilo, a journalist and writer, was jailed several times for his pro-democracy activities before the uprising began. While he supported the uprising from its early days, he warned shortly after the start that if no-one were to accept a political solution in the country, “Syria will become a battlefield for extremists fighting each other, and freedom demands will be lost”. He founded the Syrian Democratic Platform in Cairo in 2012, along with other opposition figures who felt the uprising had been taken over by armed faction.
“This continues to be a revolution for freedom and dignity. If I had the chance to reverse time and go back to before March 15, 2011, I would still do what people did.
“The revolution lies in rejecting tyranny and calling for freedom. Sacrificing to get freedom is the real meaning of a revolution.
“The losses inflicted on Syria are not the work of the revolution. They are the work of the regime which always made sure it denied people their rights and treated them like minors who needed some kind of guardianship.”
Using a pseudonym, “Edward” became an activist on social media as mass protests spread from Egypt to Libya. He later organised civil action on the ground in Aleppo, and is now involved in providing aid for the displaced.
“It’s no longer a revolution. It’s a civil war, fuelled by hatred, revenge and sectarianism, and by outside regional interests. It’s a proxy war that consumes the lives of ordinary Syrians for goals they never signed up for or had a voice in. Not to mention the al-Qaeda terrorists being armed and allowed into the country with the full knowledge and support of Syria’s neighbours.
“The initial euphoria has worn off, and the growing realisation that the revolution has morphed into a sectarian war of hate and revenge, consuming the entire country and its inhabitants, has set in. Add to that the very difficult living conditions and economic circumstances inside Syria, and it paints a bleak picture of where we’re at today.
“If we knew what would become of us and our country, we would never have started.”