Albert Einstein once said: "The search for truth and knowledge is one of the finest attributes of man - though often it is most loudly voiced by those who strive for it the least." Wise words indeed from a man who himself was a refugee at one point in his life. Any Syrian who started their university education at around the same time the revolution began in Syria would, if they had achieved the miracle of uninterrupted study over the past four years, by now would be approaching graduation.
And they will need every bit of knowledge they strove to attain, since degrees and skillsets in whatever capacity are often all that a refugee has to help them achieve self-sufficiency in the shortest time possible, a fact that Turkey recognized early when it greatly facilitated the education of Syrians at all levels in its schools and universities. My own experience of activism both inside and outside of Syria has consisted of a very steep learning curve, knowledge I learned because my circumstances demanded it. In particular, three lessons from the past four years have stood out the most.
All politics is personal: It's a cliché, but one I wish I had known early on. In my own extended family, I have relatives who were vehemently anti-regime, and others who were at the complete opposite end of the Syrian political spectrum. The most politically committed people are those who have already picked a side or cause due to personal experiences, and no amount of appeals to logic, history or debate will trump whatever that experience may have been. One of my relatives in opposition to the regime had, when he was a teenager, been beaten by riot police at a football match so severely that he lost his eyesight for a short period of time. Years later during the revolution, he was one of the first to demonstrate in Homs and took great risks to help people wounded by the regime's crackdown.
In contrast, another relative had led a very privileged life in Lebanon when it was dominated by the Syrian army. That relative's gratitude outlasted the Syrian occupation, and no amount of YouTube videos documenting Bashar Assad's atrocities could convince that relative that Doomsday would not befall Syria, let alone the region, within days of the regime's downfall. As for myself, when the first protests started in the southern city of Dara, I was completely indifferent. I was neither for the opposition or the regime. I had moved back to Syria in early 2010 after a decade of working in the Gulf, and all I wanted was for the world around me to leave me to myself as I made a home for myself after years of city-hopping all over Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
I bought a house in the city of Homs in early 2011, and I wanted nothing to disturb what I hoped would be a trouble-free existence. As long as the state provided me with electricity, some security, a stable currency - and a half decent Internet connection - I could not care less who headed it as long as they left me alone. My fence sitting lasted through the initial demonstrations in Dara, the subsequent crackdown by the regime, the spread of demonstrations to Homs and even to my home village of Talkalakh. Through it all, I was adamantly in the "leave me out of it" camp. All that changed on the night of April 18-19, 2011. In the evening, I was in my home village debating with my uncle the wisdom of a planned Friday demonstration.
A few hours after midnight, I was in a state of complete and abject terror. The next morning, I was mad as hell. And by the afternoon of April 19, I had initiated my first contact with a foreign news agency as an activist from Homs. I had turned completely and irrevocably against the regime. The event that had suddenly and so jarringly finally gotten me off the fence was the massacre by the regime's security forces of a large scale demonstration being held at the time in the very center of Homs - the city I had planned and hoped to make my home after so many years of not having a place to call home. By sheer luck, my own brother had missed being caught up in the terrible events of that night when demonstrators were hunted down in the streets and butchered in cold blood.
It shook me. It was an all-out declaration of war against the city of which I had come to regard myself an inhabitant. It was an act of barbarity against my neighbors, friends and relatives. I did not know what I could do to fight back, but I was about to find out. All politics is personal. When you get down to it, the most committed people from any side or camp are those with deep personal reasons for being so, regardless of the political justifications they may use to justify their politics. It is a basic reality all politicians know when they look for adherents to their way of thinking.
Second lesson: Even a corrupt, inept, unpopular dictator will manage to stick around forever if those in opposition to him have not put forward an alternative that people can trust and rally around. In the absence of a credible alternative system or government-in-waiting, the incumbent finds it much easier to hold onto power, no matter how ruinous his continued rule may be.
If one were on the deck of the sinking Titanic, one would not have thrown oneself into the freezing ocean waters unless there was a lifeboat or another ship to pick you up. When I joined demonstrations in Homs, "freedom" was our main rallying chant.
The problem was that "freedom," while being an admirable concept, is also a very vague one, at a time when circumstances demanded a much clearer and better-defined alternative to Assad's tyranny. I myself, before coming to Turkey, had never lived in a democratic society or knew what it meant. "Freedom" was all very well and good, but the word itself meant very different things to different people. While U.S. President Barack Obama's "Hope" may have served as a very effective one-word election slogan, the situation in Syria demanded a much clearer message and vision on the part of those opposed to the regime.
While the Syrian opposition's message may have been muddled, that of the Syrian regime was very clear - "Assad or else we will burn the country." From day one, the regime regarded the possible existence of any alternative political movement or even civil organizations as posing a greater threat than a hundred armed rebel groups. I personally knew of countless cases of Syrians who had taken up arms against the regime and were released from its jails after paying hefty bribes, while civil activists such as Ghaith Mattar were tortured to death within days of being imprisoned.
Preventing the emergence of areas that could govern themselves was also the reason behind the regime's barbaric campaign of barrel bombings in the city of Aleppo, once the industrial capital of the country. In the summer of 2013, civil organizations started to form in the areas of the city under the opposition's control, an intolerable state of affairs for Assad - the last thing it could afford was areas outside of its control serving as successful examples of alternatives to its rule.
"Assad or else we burn the country." Huge swaths of Aleppo were leveled and depopulated as Assad's air force dropped more bombs on the city than it had in all of Syria's wars against Israel. Other parts of Syria that the regime's militias could not re-conquer, such as Raqqa in the east, were allowed to fall into the hands of the terror group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
That is what passed for a "political program" on the part of the regime. In almost four years of war, it has not been able to implement even the tiniest political, economic or social reform in either civil society or the armed forces. It has no political vision to offer its supporters other than to exploit the terrifying vision of a rampant ISIS and other less well-defined "threats" and conspiracies. Sadly, Syria is what happens when a society does not have an effective political class on either side.
Third and, arguably, the most important lesson: Before looking to bring about any great change, it is very important to properly gauge how strong the commitment of your supporters are and how committed those in opposition to you are in maintaining the status quo. At one time, there were over 140 countries calling themselves "Friends of Syria" -- states that were supposedly on the side of the Syrian people's desire for a change in government. Grand summits were held and even grander statements of support were made.
And the first thing some "Friends of Syria" did was to bar visas to Syrians. Others pledged financial support that was never delivered. The Syrian opposition may have gotten numerous proclamations of "friendship," but except in a very few cases, they were very shallow and superficial friendships indeed. Meantime, the regime's diplomatic representatives were being expelled from numerous countries and organizations. Time and again, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to censor the Assad dictatorship, which found itself with very few friends left on the world stage.
But the friends it did have left were determined to save Assad, beleaguered as he was, no matter what the cost. Money, arms and mercenaries poured in from Iran, Russia, the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and assorted sectarian "soldiers of fortune" from Iraq to Afghanistan, all with the sole aim of sustaining a regime that would otherwise have collapsed. Inside Syria itself, the level of commitment among each side's supporters varied a great deal as the conflict became ever more brutal. Syria is proof of the old adage that in the end, the battle goes to the side that is more committed and resilient.
While many regime supporters and government militias may have been happy to scream themselves hoarse about Western, NATO, Wahabi, Salafi and Zionist conspiracies at government sponsored rallies and proclaim their undying love and support for "His Excellency the Doctor Bashar Hafez al-Assad," their tune changed once the regime started enforcing extended periods of conscription and reserve duty. Beirut and Europe are now filled with former supporters of the regime who would have been happy to fight to the last man, woman and child for "Doctor Bashar" as long as it was someone else's husband, son or brother who were doing the actual fighting.
And on the opposition side, one quickly had to learn that just because 10,000 people "Liked" a Facebook post about an upcoming Friday protest did not mean that anywhere close to 10,000 people would actually show up at said protest. And if several thousand people did show up, far from having a snowball effect, when the regime started shooting up demonstrations all over the country, you could only rely on a very committed core of activists to show up the Friday after that. Murdering protestors is, sadly, a very effective way of putting down protests.
As the conflict became more brutal, more and more Syrians were forced to leave the country. Individuals who may have been very active while inside Syria did not continue their activism once they got to Europe or North America. Everyone has their limits, and in war, social struggles or political activism, the fight goes to the side that can outlast their opponents. Far better 1,000 individuals fully committed to a cause, than 10,000 with only a superficial or shallow commitment. And brutal regimes have many means at their disposal to make the price of said commitment very high indeed.
A movement with a clear and well-defined vision, filled with members with deep personal experiences to drive and sustain their commitment is a movement that is already halfway to realizing its goals. If any of those elements are missing, then you get a political movement that will struggle. And when you do not have effective political movements, you get a country like Syria.
* Syrian Activist