Practicing Nonviolence in Syria

This article is from the Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014 double issue of The Progressive. For more great content like this, subscribe today and get a whole year of the magazine for as little as $10.

The Syrian revolution started with these simple words: “The people want the regime to fall.”

Fifteen schoolchildren painted this anti-regime mantra on a wall in the Syrian city of Dara’a in March 2011. Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces arrested them all, prompting Syrians to hold nonviolent protests across the country. The army responded with force, and eventually the revolution turned violent, with rebels taking up arms to defend themselves and try to take down Assad.

But not everyone abandoned nonviolence. Some Syrian activists inside and outside of their homeland still remain committed to it.

“We believe that speaking loudly is stronger than using any weapons,” says Omar Assil, the awareness program manager for the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, which coordinates peaceful activities and civil resistance throughout Syria. The movement has run campaigns throughout Syria that allow people to stand up against the powerful military elements in their areas, be they radical Islamists or Assad’s troops.

The “Dignity Strikes” campaign, for example, allowed Syrians to pick activities that they could do without putting themselves in danger. Some Syrians protested by gathering at a central place and wearing a certain color. Others attempted to block a street. Some people banged on kitchen pots.

These nonviolent tactics may not sound like they will have much effect on stopping the war, but activist Alaa Zaza says they are crucial.

“We believe the change in Syria that is required is not just toppling the regime or replacing the regime with another dictator or another system that is going to violate human rights,” he tells me at a café in Gaziantep, Turkey, just a short drive from the Syrian border. What they don’t need is “a new regime, with a different name but the same behavior.”

As vice president of the nonviolence organization, Zaza lives outside his homeland but returns as often as he can. With his background in child psychology, he leads a child protection program inside Syria. He also works to educate people about how they can use nonviolence to fight the regime.

Given the pervading violence and the high risk of being targeted, Syrians find unconventional ways to participate in this peace movement. Some are working as citizen journalists; others are organizing themselves in youth groups.

“Even if it seems like there is no impact, all these [changes] are building up inside the community, inside the society,” Assil says. “What we want in the first place is achieving democracy, human rights, and real rights, and this will not happen immediately.”

Getting people to fight without weapons during an ongoing military conflict has been tough.

“It is very difficult and challenging to talk about these things in a time of war because people will say, ‘We are being shelled and killed,’ ” says Assil. “But in the long term, it has an impact.”

Zaza argues that violence will never allow Syrians to be victorious.

“The regime strategy is to push people into violence because that’s where the regime can control things,” Zaza says. “Violence means more space and more room and more power for the regime because it is stronger in terms of weapons and the external support it gets.”

As the war continues, the rebels are losing ground militarily, and people continue to be killed and injured every day.

Syrians are “desperate for real change,” Assil says. “They haven’t seen the progress that they want to see.”

As a result, the activists say more people are starting to shift toward nonviolence. For example, in areas held by Al Qaeda-linked militant groups, activists are using nonviolent methods—like refusing to sell goods to the militants—instead of taking up arms.

“There is now a culture, even though it’s not that influential, a culture of nonviolence that did not exist before,” Zaza says.

Like the other nonviolent activists, Zaza says he expects the conflict will eventually end with both sides sitting down to negotiate. He said they should do so as soon as possible in order to save lives. “If not now, if after twenty years, if after twenty million people killed, they will eventually sit down and talk,” he says.

Taking the nonviolent route, he says, “is not easy and will never be easy,” but he notes that the use of massive violence so far hasn’t worked, either.

And Assil points out that the practice of nonviolence will be essential in rebuilding civil society after the war.
“Even if the regime is gone today, there is still more work to do,” he says. “It will not be a bright country overnight.”

Zack Baddorf is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. He’s a military veteran with ten years of video, radio, print, photo, and web reporting in more than thirty countries.

Photo: Dona_Bozzi /