The professionalisation of revolution in Syria

With increasingly savvy media efforts and political lobbying, dissidents are broadening the scope of their uprising.

Syrians young and old are resisting both at home and abroad [GALLO/ GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt –  To say that the Syrian groups which are arrayed against the regime, have become “professionals” in revolution is no exaggeration.

The country’s revolutionaries have reached a point of no return. The Syrian uprising has four characteristics, each of which are partly owed to its impasse and prolonged nature. It was initially popularised and then professionalised. Recently it has been militarised, and it has now entered into a phase of inevitably heightened internationalisation.

Of these four, its professionalisation is almost unique in the Arab Spring geography, with the qualified exception of the Yemeni uprising, still facing its own dreaded impasse.

The professionalisation of a revolution 

The various forces and voices combining in spreading the gymnasiums of resistance all over Syria today have the knack for revolution. They have a firm grip over their revolution that come what may, the Assads will not suffocate the uprising and all they can do is delay the inevitable D-Day – when a fifth dynasty unceremoniously exits Arab history.

This professionalisation in the case of Syria’s revolutionaries is the function of the tenacious, audacious and steadfast pursuit of the chief goal of ousting the Assads. But this does not come out of thin air. The Arab Spring has shown with consistency that the longer the dynasticism and the deeper the decay, the more ferocious and adamant are the protests for “freedom” and “dignity”. The threshold of fear was transcended and any “aura” the “state”, “power”, or “authority” had in the past was long gone with Ben Ali and Mubarak and buried with Gaddafi.

In the case of the Syrians, they have historical depth and pedigree and know very well the giants that once transported them to the peak of global power. All of these from the Umayyad Dynasty’s founders to Saladin, whose eternal resting home is Damascus, dwarf the mediocre rulers they have had for more than 50 years – long before the Assads came to power. According to London-based Obaida Fares: “Syrians know that – without the Assads – they can recover their Levantine shine, thanks to a unique mosaic of cultures, sects, religions, and even ethnicities.”

It is precisely this diversity that Syria’s “professional” revolutionaries are putting to good use in their resistance against the Assads. The voice they have for so long tried and failed to find in playing second fiddle to failed dynasts, they are now finding as empowered revolutionaries.

What kind of revolutionaries? “Diverse revolutionaries”, says Fares, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and of the Syrian Revolution’s General Body (al-Haya al- Ammah li al-Thwarah al-Suriyyah – SRGB). That means Syrians today are resisting from the homeland and from the diaspora, as Muslims and Christians, as Sunnis and Alawites, as Arabs and Kurds, as old and new dissidents, and as old and new victims. It is the total sum of the resources and energies that go with these identities that they have deployed so deftly against the regime.

This is precisely where the brilliance of the Syrian revolution lies. The divides are such that the regime’s old tactic of “divide and rule” is failing to divert from the single-pointed-ness of the revolution and to dissolve the Syrians’ daily popular display of critical mass from Homs and Hama to the precincts of Damascus.

Revolutionary professionalisation, adds Fares, is manifest in the systematic and stratified approach in the struggle against the Assads. The struggle is led according to a tripartite division of labour.

1. Mobilisation and organisation (al-nidal maydani) across 170 live sites of demonstration all over Syria – including 50 where protest is sustained daily – and these have aided the revolution buoyancy and momentum. Ad hoc demonstrations and strikes add to this momentum.

2. Press and propaganda (al-janib al-Ilami), representing what Mr Fares calls Ilam al-thawrah (revolution’s vox populi or media). It has hundreds of dedicated voluntary foot soldiers (video users, cameramen, analysts, reporters) who relay information and break news and events expeditiously to the world and almost instantaneously, certainly faster than most professional news agencies. This has denied the Assads the ability to cover up the crimes committed by their forces, especially in the absence of international media.

This coverage is very risky in a country notorious for the ubiquity of surveillance. What the revolution’s media has been able to do is to engage in “reverse surveillance”, through the sophisticated use of social media and other media. The revolution actually runs its own quasi “operations room” where the news is received and disseminated.

3. Political activism, the bulk of which is currently being done by the SNC, through a combination of diplomacy, advocacy, lobbying and negotiation.

Cascading revolution: A map

Mapping out the revolutionaries must account for all – the political, military, populist and communal. All four have forces and voices that jointly maintain the momentum of people power in Syria.

However, what is noticeable is the reconfigurations apparent in the formerly emasculated civil society, especially the forces and voices of the “Spring of Damascus”, which came to life soon after the advent of Assad to power at the turn of the millennium, peaking in 2002-03 – before being dismantled and banned for good in 2004. With the cascade of revolutionary passion, these marginalised forces all streamed their activism into various channels most suited to their particular contexts and politics. At least seven important and active revolutionary clusters can be identified.


Syrian Revolution’s General Body

(al-Haya al-Ammah li al-Thwarah al-Suriyyah)

Over-arching but loose umbrella containing voices and forces committed to the ousting of the Assads; its membership is diverse and includes in its leadership some of the “Spring of Damascus” dissidents such as Sohayr Al-Atassi; some of its members double up as members of the SNC.

Mobilisation, organisation, media, and coordination;

60 per cent of all Syria-based Revolutionary Councils in various regions are represented in SRGB;

Subsumed under it are also the Unions of the Local Coordination Committees (tansiqiyyat).

National Coordination Body – NCB (Hayat al-Tanseeq al-Watani)

Generally, a Syria-based liberal and secular group which includes known human rights activists and dissidents;

It has no power-base in the revolution; aims at localisation of the crisis, seeking a solution that excludes no-one, including the incumbent regime;

Believes in general elections in 2014 as one way for political renewal.

Mediation work, such as its mission to the Arab League;

Its local Coordinator is Hasan Abd Al-Azim; overseas it is represented by Haytham Manna;

It comprises a number of middle-ranking military defectors and civil servants, including the former prosecutor in Hama, Adnan Mohamed Al-Bakour.

The Syrian National Council (Al-Majlis al-Watani al-Suri)

Currently, the most legitimate and popular umbrella representing the revolutionary current in Syria;

Enjoys wide popular following: One “Friday of Rage” was consecrated with its endorsement: “SNC represents me; the NCB does not represent me”;

Enjoys wide international backing;

Current term ends on January 15, 2012.

Its revolutionary goals adopted in its Tunis Generally Assembly on December 17-18, 2011, stood for democratic transition, the ousting of the Assad system, rights for Kurdish and Assyrian minorities and international protection for Syrian civilians;

Its aims and those of the NCB clash;

Has many known dissidents, activists and scholars in its ranks;

Headed by Sorbonne Professor Burhan Ghalioun.

Neighbourhood or Local Coordination Committees (Lijan Tanseeqiyyah)

The mobilising and organisational backbone of the Syrian revolution;

There are around 400 of these all over Syria’s suburbs, wherever there is a live  revolutionary site in various neighbourhood quarters;

The committees form the “Town Coordination Committee” (taniseeqiyyat al-madinah), which is city-based “revolutionary councils”;

Volunteers for youth groups, elders, and dissidents of all kinds are active in these committees, male and female, from all sects and religions;

They co-ordinate locally and with the SRGB

Syrian Free Army

The only military arm of the revolution;

Has its base in Turkey, across the northern border of Syria.

Headed by Colonel Riad Al-As’ad;

Has close to 18,000 military defectors with limited capabilities, seeking Arab and international support;

Encourages localised resistance;

SNC endorses its role but opposes militarisation of the revolution.

Muslim Brotherhood (MB)

Formidable Islamist organisation and long time foe of the Assads;

Fought the regime in Hama in 1982.

Represented in the SNC;

Experiencing a schism between the old guard and the MB youth movement over difference of opinion over vision for next phase;

MB Youth branch is less doctrinaire; average age 25-30 years;

MB Old Guard average age 65: many were in the MB’s military wing in 1980 – including current General Guide and his deputy;

Seen by MB youth not to be suited to current phase of revolutionary struggle.


Rich mosaic of talents and resources across all continents;

Youthful and resourceful leadership and volunteers;

A key medium in professionalisation of the Syrian revolution, especially in Europe, including London and Paris.

Coordinates and organises: Media, lobbying, demos outside Syrian embassies, advocacy and human rights activism especially, documentation of violations by the regime, relief work and fund-raising, multimedia and Syrian Revolution’s Homepage, arts and film production, including the Ramadan series huriyya wa bas (Only Freedom), YouTube and international media monitoring units, and finally political work through the SNC and other NGOs in the Diaspora.

The death of a president

Bashar al-Assad – as a president – is dead. Fares says he is “clinging to the faded hope that he might revive his presidency”. He makes speeches to show he is unfazed by the mounting resistance to his rule. His recent third speech’s contradictions, twists and untruths all divulge more than Bashar is willing to let out: He is no match for the formidable forces arrayed against him.

The only thing Bashar may still control is how he wishes to be unseated, and there are only four possible exits: the way of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi or al-Saleh. A fifth exit may be in the dock of the International Criminal Court.

Three crisis speeches and nearly 11 months of brutality – the brunt of which borne by civilian protesters all over Syria – have only made his compatriots, hundreds of thousands such as Fares, more adamant than ever before to unseat him.

Soon, it will be the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The Assads must ponder the difficult question of whether they want to stick around for a second year of futile butchery.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009), The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004) and forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2012).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.