Muhammad is in his late 20s and originally from Damascus. Before he fled he was a mobile phone vendor. He hails from the majority Sunni community. What follows are his recollections and commentary on the revolution (paraphrased).
Back in the first half of 2011, in the wake of the other Arab spring uprisings, people hesitantly staged peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Damascus. Initially it was just a case of raising banners calling for reform without demands for the removal of Bashar Assad. These initial protests were met by the police swooping in and detaining protestors and releasing them after a few days. It wasn’t initially dealt with by the military.
Ramadan 2011 was when the protests escalated in intensity and scale. In response the regime employed snipers to shoot dead protestors. The demonstrations were often held after Taraweeh [night prayers offered during Ramadan]. Often at the funerals of the victims the security services would open fire killing more. The killing of the young boy Ibrahim Shaiban, aged 9 at the time, proved a watershed moment and lead to a huge outpouring of anger. It was at the consequent demos that the now notorious Shabiha militia were first employed. Initially they were constituted as part of the official security forces but subsequently were separated out as distinct entity. Whereas previously demonstrators who were arrested were imprisoned, tortured and then released, the Shabiha began to arrest, torture and murder them; after a period of several days the relatives of the deceased would be ordered to collect the bodies of the victims. [I enquire at this point as to the veracity of the rape allegations levelled at the Shabiha] Many women were raped by the Shabiha and I am personally acquainted with some of them. The Shabiha are a predominantly Alawi outfit but also contain Sunni elements – mostly mercenaries and violent criminals. Before the revolution the Alawi and Sunni communities maintained excellent relations and live in perfect harmony. There was real sense of unison between the two. For this reason the local Shabiha units comprised of Alawis drafted in from the countryside as it was difficult to recruit members of the local community to perpetrate torture, murder and rape upon their Sunni neighbours.
The protests in Damascus were never violent. In the rural areas and in the environs of Damascus violence first broke out when Sunni soldiers rebelled against their central command and fired upon security forces attempting to shoot dead peaceful protestors. This happened in late 2011 and early 2012. This can be regarded as the start of the armed revolution. In the early days of the revolution many areas operated an informal non-aggression agreement with the central government whereby in return for permitting peaceful protests the local Free Syrian Army brigade wouldn’t mount attacks on Syrian army positions.
[I ask about foreign fighters in Syria and their role in the revolution]
The influx of foreign fighters began in earnest in early 2014. The media likes to highlight this aspect of the revolution but the reality is that the majority of fighters are locals. Foreigners often found themselves in leadership positions of non-FSA brigades due to their longstanding connections with the global Jihadi network, primarily Al Qaeda. Many of these commanders were veterans of previous jihadi conflicts. Additionally it is worth noting that many foreign Arab fighters were, at the outbreak of the revolution, imprisoned in Syria as a result of their participation in the Iraqi conflict across the border. Once released, under amnesty, they formed their own independent brigades. Most of Jabhat an-Nusra’s fighters are Syrians and 2012 saw them rise in prominence amongst the revolutionaries. They orchestrated a campaign of targeted bombings, eliminating key political and security personnel.
[I ask about the perceptions of Syrians vis-à-vis the difference between JaN and the FSA]
Syrians never viewed this difference in the simplistic paradigm of: FSA, “unislamic and secular” and JaN, “Islamist”. Rather they viewed both as Islamic but with differing visions. Regardless, today most Syrians are more interested in seeing an end to the conflict rather than engaging in such ideological disputations. As far as Khilafah is concerned this concept has become inextricably linked to the Islamic State movement, for which there is minimal support in the Damascus region.
[I ask why he hasn’t taken part in the conflict but he doesn’t offer a clear answer, instead stating that many Syrians preferred to remain aloof from the fighting and hence fled for the safety of surrounding countries. He contends that some who did join the fighting did so out of financial considerations due to the extreme poverty they faced and in light of the fact that many brigades offer their fighters a stipend.]
Foreign fighters are bitterly resented by many local Syrians who view them as interlopers in a conflict that is not theirs. Today there is a growing sense of disenchantment and people are asking themselves what they are actually fighting for? The original vision of the revolution has been lost, subsumed in an increasingly internecine battle for supremacy amongst the rival revolutionary factions, many of whom are merely agents of competing foreign powers. There is a realisation amongst the Syrian people that they are pawns in a wider strategic conflict involving the major world powers.
[I ask about two scenarios: (i) a victory for IS and its Caliphate (ii) a peace deal that leaves Assad in power. Neither of these two eventualities appears acceptable to him. I then ask what western Muslims can do to aid the Syrian revolution and whether they should come to fight.]
Media support is vital. To project an accurate picture of the ground reality in Syria. Financial support in respect of alleviating the suffering of Syrian civilians both inside its borders and also for those displaced externally. The network of exiled Syrian intellectuals who are opposed to the Assad regime should also be supported and their voices amplified. Under no circumstances should people come to fight. You will end up fighting other Muslims. Those who wish to partake in a Jihad should be wait patiently, for the true jihad will be against the Zionist entity. There is no shortage of manpower in the rebel ranks. What is required is money, media support and more advanced weaponry.
[Lastly I ask about the experience of the refugees in Lebanon]
Terrible. They experience widespread racism and have no legal rights. They are seen as a source of cheap labour by local businesses and are often abused (made to work and then refused their wages).