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.

By Zack Baddorf

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 /


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Forty years ago the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against "hostile environmental modification techniques...

The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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