The Syrian revolution on its 10th anniversary: No regrets, but longing for its early days

“We dared to dream, and we will not regret dignity.” This quote was widely circulated by Syrian social media users, mainly on Facebook, in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution.

The phrase was originally embroidered on the dress worn by the Syrian activist and Oscar-nominated director of “For Sama,” Waad al-Khateab, at the 92nd Academy Awards. The film portrayed the suffering of Aleppo city’s people after the Assad regime besieged it on July 17, 2016.

But the dream of “a revolution of freedom and dignity” has cost the Syrian people so much. The peaceful demonstrations of 2011 were answered with killing, destruction, displacement, and detention by the Assad regime, supported by Russia, Iran, and sectarian militias from several countries.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), the Assad regime is responsible for killing 259,202 civilians and the detention and disappearance of at least 215,477 people from March 15, 2011 to April 4, 2021, in addition to the displacement of at least 12 million people, almost half of Syria’s pre-2011 population.

Still, and in spite of the military setbacks that opposition forces have known since 2015 and the earlier political fragmentation, the revolution’s anniversary remains “the greatest day in the history of Syria,” according to pharmacist Maha Jumaa, who was displaced from the Reef Dimashq’s city of al-Dumayr to the northwest Idlib province. “This day changed the course of the lives of Syrians,” she told Syria Direct. “It made the dream of freedom and dignity something possible.”

A great revolution

Maha, 38, was one of the Syrian women who smuggled medical supplies to Darayya city in Ghouta after it was besieged by the Assad regime in November 2012. During that period, she worked with “young men and women who were secretly collecting medical supplies from pro-revolution medical workers to smuggle them to the people of Darayya.” Maha would transport “bandages and medicines through regime security checkpoints by taping them to my body and wearing loose clothes on top.” She “used to deliver the supplies to young men in Damascus’s al-Qaboun district, who later moved them to Darayya,” she said.

After a few months of her taking that “risk,” Maha learned from an army officer close to her family that her role had been exposed and she was wanted by the regime. “Someone from my city reported me to the Air Force Intelligence in al-Dumayr,” she said, even though the city was “under the Free Syrian Army control and experiencing a calm period due to a truce between the Free [Syrian Army] and the regime.”

Later, security forces detained two of Maha’s brothers from the student housing of Damascus University, where they were studying. “Until now, I don’t know what happened t0 them,” she said.

Hours after her the arrest of her brothers, her father received threatening messages on his mobile phone “from the Air Force Intelligence branch in al-Dumayr, stating that ‘either you turn in your daughter Maha or you and your family will face the fate of every traitor to the country.’”

Maha and her family went into hiding until she and her father, mother and husband were displaced to Idlib province after the regime took control of their city in 2018. She later learned that “the regime seized all my assets, as well as the real estate properties that my husband and my father own.”

Halima Eid, 50, took on another role in supporting the revolution. Throughout 2012, she prepared food and took it to Free Syrian Army fighters after they took control of the Bab Dreib district where she lived in Homs city. “I appreciated their efforts to repel the attempts of Assad’s gangs to enter the neighborhood,” she told Syria Direct, “and it was the least I could do to provide them with meals.”

Halima lost her two sons that same year. The first was killed “on one of the fronts of the al-Khalidiya district in Homs while taking part in holding back attempts by regime forces to advance.” The other was killed “with my brother, by sniper fire from Assad’s army while they were trying to cross from Bab Dreib to al-Khalidiya to bring the meals I had prepared to the fighters,” she recalled.

Losing two sons and a brother was “really hard on me,” she said. But “the hardest thing was the killing of my daughter alongside my older sister and her children, who burned in Bab Dreib the same year.” That took place “after the regime advanced into the neighborhood, set fire to the houses, and burned the people inside.”

Halima had left Bab Dreib hours before regime forces entered it. She had “to move two pieces of weaponry that I had hidden in my house to the Free Syrian Army forces before the regime could get to them,” she said.

After the district was stormed and encircled, “I wasn’t able to get in, and I didn’t know anything about my daughter’s fate until I arrived, after a difficult smuggling journey, to Lebanon, where my younger sister lives. A young man from the neighborhood who witnessed the regime assault told me that my sister’s house was charred, along with those inside it,” she recalled.

Despite all that, Halima did not hesitate to renew “my vow to this great revolution, and the demand for [the release of] our detainees, and the need to hold Bashar al-Assad, the Hitler of this age, accountable.”

The day that united the people

Recalling the revolution’s events, “from the spontaneous demonstrations and the great hopes to overthrow the regime in days, to our martyrs who were killed by the bullets of Assad’s soldiers and our detainees who died under torture, and ending in the destruction of our cities and our displacement inside and outside Syria,” the Syrian revolution’s anniversary is still an occasion for joy for Moeen al-Asfar, 37. “It brought the Syrian people together in a single word,” he said, “which is death rather than humiliation.”

When the revolution broke out, Moeen, originally from Daraa city, was living with his family in officers’ housing in the Reef Dimashq town of Jdeidat Artooz as his father was a high-ranking officer in the regime army. In 2012, Moeen participated in the first Syrian opposition coalition conferences held in Turkey while traveling there for assigned tasks by the construction company he worked for in Syria. “I attended [the opposition meeting] out of my belief in the need to contribute what I could, especially since I have a Master’s degree in political science,” he told Syria Direct.

But regime “informants attended that meeting,” he said, and “they took some pictures of me.” Two days later, “the Republican Guard raided my father’s house, looking for me, and detained my brother and my brother-in-law. They threatened my father that they would take the rest of his children if he did not hand me over.”

After that, “Republican Guard forces took my brother and brother-in-law to the neighboring town of Jdeidat al-Fadl, which was stormed the same day. Both were killed along with hundreds of people in the town, in what was known at the time as the massacre of Jdeidat al-Fadl,” Moeen added, “and mentioned their names on Syrian television as terrorists who were killed by the army.”

Two months after the event, Moeen’s father decided to defect from the regime. He fled to Jordan and from there went to Turkey to settle alongside Moeen.

Holding on to the revolution, despite the enormous sacrifices, was also expressed by Omar al-Dimashqi. “We will remain loyal to the first cry, to our chants of ‘Come on Bashar, leave’ [Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar]. And he will leave, he and his allies, God willing.”

“Powerlessness overcame us. We have been exhausted by the loss of those we love. But all we can do is to choose the revolution—a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time.”

After contributing to organizing the demonstrations, Omar, 35, was the first media activist in Qudsaya, in Reef Dimashq, to photograph what was going on in the city and transmit it to satellite TV stations. He was wounded by a gunshot to his left leg in 2016, leading to “the disintegration of the knee joint, and I lost the ability to move,” he told Syria Direct.

At the same time, “regime forces detained my brother-in-law, who was living in Damascus, because of my support for the terrorists’ narrative,” according to the regime’s characterization of the rebels and opponents in general, “through my reporting of regime massacres committed in the area.”

Omar left Qudsaya with hundreds of civilians and opposition fighters for Idlib province in 2016 after a so-called “reconciliation” between the Assad army and the opposition forces in the city. A year later, he left for Turkey to do an operation on his leg, and from there, he went to France to complete the treatment.

But the price Omar paid did not stop there. “In 2019, I called my older sister who lives in Damascus to hear the sound of my mother and father’s voices after being deprived of them for years,” he recalled. Hours after the call, “Political Security from the Air Force Intelligence in Damascus detained my sister. They want to strip me of my most basic rights, to check in on my family.”

Further, “Assad’s forces threw my family out of their house in Qudsaya and used it as a headquarters,” Omar added. “They also broke up our shops in the city, which were my family’s main livelihood.”

The only option until freedom

Maha and Halima both agreed that the main reason for the Syrian revolution’s setbacks is Russia and Iran’s involvement, as “had it not been for their intervention on Assad’s side, his rule would have fallen since 2012,” according to Maha. But Omar held the international community responsible, as “despite all the legal and media documentation of Assad’s crimes, [the key states] remain complicit in not stopping the bloodshed and removing Assad from power.”

For Moeen, however, it is “the fragmentation of the opposition’s political and military forces, and the weakness of their leadership inside and outside the country, had the fundamental role in the deterioration of the revolution.” That is what caused “the international community to deem that there is no alternative to Assad among the opposition leaders who is able to rule Syria,” he said.

Nonetheless, the four activists express no regret on the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution. For Maha, the days of getting aid to those besieged in Darayya remain the most beautiful “days of my life, despite the danger.” Although she lost her brothers, “if they came back to life and learned what their sister gave in terms of humanitarian aid, they wouldn’t hesitate to pay for that with their lives,” she said. “No matter how much time has passed, the revolution of truth will prevail. I’ll repeat here what [Syrian actress and activist] May Skaf – may she rest in peace – said: ‘It is the great Syria, not Assad’s Syria.’”

Likewise, for Halima, “if time could go backward,” she said, “I would do what I did, without hesitation. It is enough for me that I gave my children as martyrs to an orphan revolution that emerged to defend the rights of the oppressed. I do not regret that.”

“The rule of tyrants is fleeting, no matter how they try to cling to their chairs,” Moeen emphasized. Although “powerlessness overcame us and we have been exhausted by the loss of those we love, all we can do is to choose the revolution—a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time.”

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