Global Dialogues

Syria: Despair, Tragedy and Hope

Now that the Obama administration has concluded that the red line has been crossed, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people, there will be more military aid for the rebels from the U.S. and its allies. Although this will certainly affect the course of the war (though the rebels and their strong supporters, such as John McCain, will demand more), equally certain is that this aid will not on its own positively affect the prospects for a just peace, with an improved situation for the Syrian people in their diversity.

The dark situation that Hakan Topal described in his last post on Syria (and Turkey and its neo-Ottoman foreign policy) stands: profoundly undemocratic and illiberal, brutal and barbarian actions are on both sides of the Syrian military conflict. The victory of one side or the other is likely to yield very unpleasant outcomes, as each side reveals itself with more and more horrific means of fighting, and more and more sectarian commitments.

The story of the Syrian opposition is tragic. A very hopeful peaceful protest was heartlessly repressed. The bravery of peaceful protestors in the face of military force, including bombings, was remarkable. I watched the persistence of the protests in the face of brutal force with wonder and deep admiration. Violent resistance was an understandable last resort.

But as resistance fighters have replaced peaceful protesters, and as the war has escalated, with the fortunes of each side rising and falling, the nature of the war seems to have fundamentally undermined the ideals of the protest. Islamist true belief seems to have overwhelmed democratic and pluralistic commitment. Sectarian interest, defense and retribution seem to animate the resistance’s actions, no less than the actions of the government forces and the forces of Hezbollah.

I want to believe that out of this mess something less than horrific may result. But by reading the headlines and the debates here in the U.S., I see little that is promising. I am not an expert on Syria or the region, but as I read what the experts have to say, I despair. They don’t point to a way out. Yet without knowing exactly how it would work, I do see some basis of hope in action off the central political and military stage, not captured in headlines or in expert analysis.

Well before the Arab Spring, in May 2010, I read an interesting article in The New York Times about a literary salon in Syria. It reminded me of the kind of alternative cultural activity I first worked on during the communist years in Poland. The significance of the Polish and the Syrian activities was clear to me: the existence of a space apart from the logic of the existing order, where people could speak and act freely changed the nature of the repressive order. This suggests the possibility of a different order, with a changed relationship between power and culture, in my terms “reinventing political culture,” immediately in a small way, and, perhaps, in a big way in the long term. This happened in Poland. I hope it can also happen in Syria. I see some positive signs.

A couple of weeks ago the Polish translator of Reinventing Political Culture, Agata Lisiak, sent me a note about a new Syrian blog, Syria Untold. She knows my perspective as well as I do and she recognized how important this blog could be. It’s an instance of the politics of small things under extreme circumstances, in wartime conditions. It’s an instance of a small group of people working creatively to reinvent political culture. I think it provides a glimpse of a broad range of activities that provides an alternative to despair. It tells the story of an emergent alternative to tragedy in Syria.

The blog is only a couple of months old, but it is already very impressive. Its self-description:

Syria Untold is an independent digital media project exploring the storytelling of the Syrian struggle and the diverse forms of resistance. We are a team of Syrian writers, journalists, programmers and designers living in the country and abroad trying to highlight the narrative of the Syrian revolution, which Syrian men and women are writing day by day. Through grassroots campaigns, emerging forms of self-management and self-government and endless manifestations of citizen creativity, a new outspoken Syria has emerged, after decades of repression and paralysis. With mainstream media focusing increasingly on geostrategic and military aspects and less on internal dynamics developing on the ground, we believe there are many aspects of the Syrian struggle that remain uncovered, many stories that we would not like to see forgotten. Welcome to the stories of daily resistance and creativity. Welcome to Syria Untold.”

Clearly this is an example of what I call “the politics of small things,” telling the story of other practices of the politics of small things around Syria.

Syria Untold tells the history of the resistance starting before the Arab Spring. It gives day to day descriptions of non-violent opposition around the country. Playful protests are reported, e.g. even Syrian snowmen want freedom. Other “untold stories” include reports on the work of Syrian artists commenting on the course of the Syrian transformation, a beautiful animated cartoon of a tulip overthrowing a tank by the famous artist, Ali Farzat, the work of “The Rebel Painter of Horan,” and the musicians in the city of Duma using the instruments of war to make music.

The emerging alternative media landscape is sketched. The story of the “creative state building” in the city of Raqqa within the chaos of war is told. The deep significance of demonstrations in the small town Bustan al-Qasr (The Palace Orchard) which seek to maintain the ideals of peaceful resistance and self governance after the withdrawal of the Syrian army is revealed:

“As one of the signs from their countless demonstrations highlights, the people of Bustan al-Qasr inisist that ‘in the Syria of the future there will be no revenge but justice, and everyone without distinction will be held accountable for their actions.’”

There is also a report on an independent Internet Radio station reinforcing this theme. The radio declares:

“We believe that our problem is that we don’t listen to each other. Our message isn’t aimed at any one group over others, rather we try to reach every Syrian heart and especially those of the so called ‘silent majority.’”

Syria Untold is published both in Arabic and English. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the Arabic version is even more impressive, as the stories of an alternative to the tragedy is enacted and reported. I don’t know how consequential beyond its immediate creators and audience it will be. But I do know that Syria is different because such a project exists. And I do see an alternative to a tragic end is visible in its actions: grounds for hope.