There are many reasons to be worried about Syria. The uprising that manifested itself through peaceful demonstrations in 2011 has escalated to a military conflict. While the regime continues to get its supply of weapons, the demands of the Syrian people have received no real international support.
The attempts to push the country toward a self-fulfilled prophecy of sectarianism are extremely dangerous. The fact that the Assad administration has survived this long in its crusade against its own people, and continues to destroy every inch of life and ancient history, is excruciating. The daily loss is unbearable.
While all of this is true, there are many reasons to remain optimistic considering what Syrians have accomplished in two years under extreme pressure. The reasons are related to the internal dynamics of a people desperate for free expression, association and communication after decades of terror and isolation.
Two years have passed since the first demonstrations emerged in different parts of the country. During this time, the regime’s strategy involved arresting, killing and torturing demonstrators, with a special focus on those coordinating and communicating the protests.
Despite the fact that the regime has not been able to produce any non-violent response to citizen demands, non-violent protests continue to take place all over the country on a weekly basis.
Demonstrations are not the only manifestation of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience. From the strikes to the sit-ins, from the “peace brides” to the celebration of Women’s Day through countless citizen mobilisations, daily resistance against oppression has not stopped.
It is important to be aware of these initiatives, which co-exist with the militarisation on the ground and do not usually receive international attention.
The emergence of a new outspoken and creative Syria
For decades, Syria was an information black hole. Syrians were isolated from one another and from the rest of the world by a regime that controlled the telecommunications infrastructure.
Neighbours feared each other, parents feared their own children, and life went by under a constant state of terror that transcended the Syrian borders. Even citizens living abroad, like my own family, spoke about Syria in whispers.
Now, Syrians inside the country and abroad are having conversations about their ideology, their political views, their hopes and fears, in a way that was not possible before.
During this time, Syrians not only have faced up to their government, but their own psychological boundaries that had imposed a state of self-censorship in which certain thoughts or ideas were systematically repressed.
Everything is now out in the open, as proved by the endless conversations, articles and different forms of expression taking place through physical and online spaces around every aspect of the Syrian struggle.
Syrians are not only exchanging their views of their country with each other, but also documenting and sharing it with the rest of the world. Two years into the uprising, Syria is one of the world’s largest producers of YouTube videos.
Aware of their historical role in narrating the events that they are witnessing, citizens have been recording history, accumulating evidence that could serve an international tribunal willing to judge war crimes against the population.
The constant flow of information coming out of Syria, which stands in contrast with the lack of documentation of the Hama massacre in 1982, will be very necessary in the following stages, for accountability and reconciliation purposes.
In addition to producing a record of historical demonstrations, events and war crimes, Syrians are also engaging in a cultural renaissance that has recently emerged in the Middle East and North Africa.
Much like the emergence of theatre during the army coups of the 50s and 60s, new manifestations of creativity and artistic expression are flourishing in the region in this period of uprisings, regime change and transition.
There is a constant and increasing production of music, graffiti, independent films, poetry, cartoons, video-art, puppet shows and all forms of free expression after decades of art serving the power structures.
These independent, often collective productions are part of a new Syrian reality that has flowered without the regime’s consent, and it survives every attempt to silence its expression. Mostly uncovered by mainstream media, it constitutes in itself a ground for optimism.
Self-management emerging from the rubble
Achievements on the ground can be summarised in the name of a Syrian village that will remain a symbol of resistance against tyranny: Kafranbel. This northwestern town has become well-known for the powerful and edgy banners. They are being created since the beginning of the uprising and are instantly shared through social media.
Internet users from all over the world look forward to every new message and drawing, which summarise the meaning and the evolution of the Syrian struggle.
Although banners and drawings have captured international attention, Kafranbel is more than that. It is also a model for new forms of self-management emerging from the rubble. Its inhabitants not only have survived several regime bombings, but also have engaged in self-government while rebuilding their own town.
The teams that were organised to coordinate the demonstrations and prepare the banners have turned into committees working to ensure life continues in the village.
From organising the police to cleaning patrols, “Liberated Kafranbel” has become a proof that an alternative is already on the making. Kafranbel has shown that the central state – imposed on cities, villages and communities for decades – constituted a force of oppression.
However, Kafranbel is not the only one in this. Self-management is being experienced throughout the country, mainly in small towns while the regime is trying to maintain its control over big cities.
From the local and provincial councils of Aleppo to the organisation of independent activities like the Duma festival, citizens are experiencing true self-management and self-government after years of their country being ruled like private property.
There is an opposition
As a Syrian, I see the discussion on the political opposition as a big development in itself. The international community demands that Syrians have a unified opposition, and this is what Syrians on the ground and abroad hope for as well.
However, how realistic is it to expect an easy agreement given the current circumstances and the mounting pressure? The opposition is not quite unified in most democratic countries, and less so under repressive regimes.
But the possibility of holding an open dialogue on the future of the country is a progress, if only compared with the monopoly over political issues that the Assad administration maintained for 40 years.
The president of the Syrian National Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, announced his resignation on March 22 citing a lack of support from the international community, and growing disagreement with the election of Ghassan Hitto as prime minister of the interim government. Many others have expressed similar concerns.
On March 25, the Coalition occupied Syria’s seat at the Arab League, another clear evidence that Assad is no longer an interlocutor. The Muslim Brotherhood is facing increased rejection in some parts of the country, despite its attempt to gain ground at the expense of Assad’s loss of grip on the country.
These recent developments contrast with the silence and stagnation of the last 40 years.
A consensus over who will represent Syrians, with the approval of people on the ground, is necessary and urgent. But political discussion, disagreement, non-violent dissent and the process of building a legitimate opposition is in itself an important step, despite the obstacles and the frustration involved.
While international coverage of the situation inside the country is monopolised by its military aspects, life goes on in Syria. As the fighting continues, with the regime losing ground despite its military superiority, solidarity emerges on the ground.
Towns are re-born from under the rubble into new forms of self-management, discussions take place, lessons are learned and shared, and Syrians continue their struggle against tyranny. As long as they stand, there is ground for optimism.
Leila Nachawati Rego is a Spanish-Syrian free-speech activist based in Madrid. She is a professor of Communications at Carlos III University, where she is currently pursuing her PhD. She contributes to several online projects such as Global Voices Online and Global Voices Advocacy, where she is an advisory committee member.
Follow her on Twitter: @leila_na