Velvet revolutions are desirable, but a revolution, by its nature, is an extreme solution to an extreme situation. Revolutions often turn violent, igniting civil wars and attracting extremism – whether in individuals, ideologies or agendas – overwhelming moderate voices, the voices of reason.
This is our story in Syria today. The new hegemonic power emerging on the scene is political Islam in its most radical manifestation. Unless we can identify the reasons for this development and find ways to address it, the possibility of a return to peace and stability in the country and the achievement of communal reconciliation while respecting the democratic aspirations of the people will be next to nil.
The ongoing radicalization of Syrian rebels is in no small part a product of the violent crackdown initiated by Bashar Assad’s regime. It sought from the very beginning of the revolution to eliminate the young and moderate leaders of the initially nonviolent protest movement through detention, assassination and dislocation.
By embarking on a violent campaign against the early protesters and their host communities, Assad created an environment of anger and despair that by its nature was conducive to the emergence of extremist elements. The regime, as it has done since the 1970s, ensured that chaos would survive. Previously, it had done this regionally in such places as Lebanon and Iraq, but it now applied this in Syria. Hundreds of extremists were released from regime prisons, and Assad exploited the negative consequences to his advantage, re-engaging with the international community with Russian and Iranian backing.
The negligible support that moderate rebels received from the international community, often in the form of nonlethal aid such as communications equipment and night-vision goggles, at a time when Gulf donors were busy supplying cash and weapons to more extreme factions, proved another crucial factor in the ongoing marginalization of moderate elements from the scene, allowing for the effective hijacking of the revolution by extremists.
The choices confronting pro-democracy activists are now harder than ever. Discrepancy, confusion, loss and a deep sense of betrayal tend to color the view of most at this stage. What is happening in their circles is not a clash of ideas, however.
A choice between the extremism represented by Assad and his loyalist sectarian militias and that championed by Islamist militias leaves little room for ideas and mutes the voices of reason. Political and intellectual maturity is sorely lacking, even as the challenges ahead grow more and more daunting.
Some pro-democracy activists refuse to criticize Islamist groups on account of their bravery in the battlefield, but this is a naive decision to say the least, as the ideologies espoused by these groups leave little room for the ideals the activists take to heart.
But in the absence of international support for their effort, and with more and more international figures emerging to call for relegitimizing the Assad regime (“Assad is the least worst option,” America’s former ambassador to Syria, Ryan C. Crocker, argued in December) who can blame these activists really?
They had only taken to the street after realizing that Assad could never commit to serious, far-reaching reforms, and over the last three years, they have seen him unleash a methodical campaign to decimate their towns and communities. How could they forgive or forget that? Extremists may not offer salvation or democracy, but, with their actions and rhetoric, they allow for a necessary release that so many activists seem to need as they swallow the poisonous pill that the world has offered them.
“Ahrar al-Sham represents me,” a secular Syrian journalist, in fact, a former Baath Party member, told me when we recently met in Washington. Her work along the Syrian-Turkish border brought her into contact with ranking members of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Salafist fighters, as well as the Nusra Front and the Islamic Sate of Iraq and Greater Syria, two Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria. There was more spite in her statement than reason.
But the more common sentiment among activists is captured more aptly by the oft-repeated assertion of “let us topple Assad first, then, we can deal with other groups.” But even this focus could not prevent the inevitable for long. Sooner or later, jihadist groups tend to clash with each other, and whether they do so over a division of spoils or ideological differences, or both, the end result, as far as the pro-democracy activists are concerned, is the same: There are no more “liberated” areas in Syria. Wherever the activists go, they must either face pro-Assad or extreme Islamist militias. This development seems to have come as a necessary wake-up call for many of them.
But none of this would have made any difference had the international community not remained oblivious to the presence of these young people, not to mention their aspirations. Ultimately, however, it is our responsibility as Syrians to save ourselves from tyranny and to acknowledge our shortcomings. It is still primarily our responsibility to come up with a new social contract that can allow us to address the needs and concerns of each social segment and community in our country.
For long as Assad is making advances and controlling more land, there will be no incentive for him to participate in peace talks. Without outside assistance and a strategy to counter what the regime is doing, the opposition will be defeated. And that will represent the end of the Syrian revolution.
Oula Abdulhamid is executive director of SANAD Syria, an initiative of the Tharwa Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting the Syrian Revolution. She can be followed on Twitter @OulaAbdulhamid. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.