Activism and Optimism: The Syrian Uprising – An Interview with Karam Nachar
Conducted by Justin Schuster
Karam Nachar is a PhD candidate at Princeton University. His research and writing focuses on the cultural and political history of the Levant in the twentieth century. Raised in Aleppo, Mr. Nachar has close connections to the Syrian uprising and serves as a leading figure in organizing opposition efforts from the diaspora. From raising funds to organizing Facebook pages, he has been instrumental in leading the expatriate community and assisting his fellow countrymen. Before Princeton, Mr. Nachar received his BA from the American University of Beirut and his masters at Oxford.
The Politic: I was hoping that you could share your experiences and insights regarding the situation in Syria.
KN: Usually when I begin talking about what’s happening in Syria I’d say that the missing story in the mainstream media is the prehistory of the Syrian revolution.
When Bashar Assad took over in the year 2000, there was something called the Damascus Spring. This movement comprised many intellectuals, writers, cultural producers, or just public figures – people who used to be involved in politics and wanted to return to political activism now that there was a reformist president in power rather than his father. There was this phenomenon of “salons” where people discussed the future of the country. At that point the discussion was very intellectually heavy and about establishing a new social contract between state and society. In hindsight, realizing that there were other pockets of activism among average Syrians, the Damascus Spring was very elite driven, in Damascus primarily but also in Homs, Aleppo and other cities in the country. My parents, who both come from upper middle class backgrounds with interests in politics, decided to turn our house in 2000 into a salon.
In the first few months this was very reticent. Conversation shied away from the extremely sensitive topics like political succession and started with cultural discussions like women in Syria or religion in Syria. Later, it evolved into political activism, and this led to the Damascus Declaration in 2005. The Damascus Declaration was the biggest umbrella of opposition groups in Syria in the first five years of the last decade. This got momentum in 2005 when the Syrians were being pushed by the international community to pull out of Lebanon. A lot of observers anticipated that the regime inside of the country was going to collapse so the Damascus Declaration reached the pinnacle of its power in 2005. They made this huge statement along with Lebanese intellectuals calling for the immediate withdrawal of the Syrian army, which triggered a huge crackdown.
After 2005 the Spring was definitely over. The old ways of Assad’s father were back. The people who were still trying to be active in Damascus were all put in jail. There was a travel ban, and so my parents were not allowed to leave the country since then. Within this there were three different discourses that were talking about bringing back democracy.
There were lefty liberal intellectuals who are now also in the forefront of what’s happening in Syria, especially in Damascus and in certain circles in Homs and Latakia.
There was another more Islamic group. They’ve worked on marrying the two languages of Islam and non-violence and how to basically develop a type of moderate Islamic nonviolent kind of resistance to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. The more I learn about these people the more astonished I am of how humanistic and how seriously committed they are to peaceful and democratic means of regime change and democratic struggle.
The third camp, which my parents would be closest to, comprises the old families of the country. These people led the struggle against the French in the 20s, 30s and 40s, and then were in power in the 50s. Then they were completely driven aside by the rise of the Baath party and the Syrian military who took over in 1963. This camp is kind of nostalgic, liberal, democratic, slightly conservative in the social sense, and very family based.
So you have these three scripts that came together, and then there is the story that everyone knows. The 15 students from Daraa who wrote on the walls of the school “people want to bring down the regime” got arrested and tortured. As a result of the traditional structure of society in southern Syria and a break in the wall of fear because of Egypt and Tunisia, people decided to go to the streets.
At that point there was a convergence. Activists who were close to the lefty intellectuals in Damascus were organizing small demonstrations calling first for support for Libyans, Tunisians and Egyptians, but then also freedom in Syria. Then there was the mass base southern Syrian turmoil. These two groups converged and the movement picked up. Small committees were being formed to be in charge of what’s going on and to organize the videos. But cyber activism was only 50% of the picture. The other 50% was the traditional networks of solidarity, trust and support in the Syrian countryside.
People were able to show up in southern Syrian as opposed to Aleppo because they all knew each other. Once they gathered, they began to form coordination committees. These people would make pages on Facebook and upload the videos. Without the video there is no revolution. The coordination committees would take the videos from the phones, upload them on Facebook, and then reach out to members of the émigré community – Syrian expatriates who did not function under internet constraints and who could take these videos and send them to all of the networks.
We would send them tips on improving the quality of the videos. This is how I became involved in one way with the revolution – by receiving all of these videos, creating a page for each coordination committee, and trying to spread the committees as much as possible in the country and southern Syria.
The first couple of months were remarkable for the number of fights that we were having with one another. Suddenly in a society where there had been no politics for 40 years, your friends are not necessarily people that you tend to agree with on certain political and moral issues but are just your relatives or from your fellow social milieu. It turns out that a lot of people were extremely worried. They were worried about the possibility of an “Iraqization” of Syria. People were very pessimistic about the possibility of democratic change, and pessimism came from different places. You have the business class of Damascus and Aleppo who are both quite wealthy and benefitting from the stability of the regime and the slow liberalization that Assad was following. You had a lot of diehard secularists and elitists who thought that the minute we democratize the country the Islamists are going to completely take over. So there were a lot of fights but people like me were trying to explain that if you want change to look more like you, you have to participate in it rather than just sit and watch it.
The Facebook groups were huge in creating networks. My favorite of the almost 20 groups that I’m part of is The Trust Circle. The whole notion is that living under an authoritarian regime is about not having trust in anyone that you don’t personally know because you are always worried that there is an agent right next to you that will send you to prison. One of the first ways that we began to fight the regime and heal from this authoritarian culture was to build bridges of trust with people that we don’t personally know. The technique that we used was this network where I know someone and you know someone and these two people would come to meet even though they don’t necessarily know each other. In Trust Circle we now have about 600 people and are really close friends. In our discussions on everything from the religious dynamic to the future of the country, I started realizing how much potential my country had and how many Syrian expatriates there were really eager to help their country once the regime is down. There was this very romantic element to the revolution.
The most important element of these secret groups was to trigger discussions and build a new political culture amongst the young generations, but also we would work together to build support. The other way in which I became active was in raising funds for the revolution either to send medical equipment or to set up mobile hospitals because you can’t take people to hospitals in Syria, because the security agents would come after you and ban the doctors from actually doing anything for you.
We also raised money for the families of the revolutionaries – the people that were active on the ground every day who lost their jobs or voluntarily quit so they could completely dedicate themselves to the revolution.
The third thing that we spent money on was technical assistance. For instance, we would buy routers that are connected directly to satellites. Instead of being dependent on state Internet, you can establish an immediate link with a satellite. You can use this router both as a hub for Wi-Fi and also to talk on the phone with Al-Jazeera. These people were formerly too afraid to use their landlines or even their Syrian cellphones and so these machines were very, very important. Part of setting up a coordination committee was to not only have the manpower or the Facebook page but also to have these machines. The more advanced models would also let you do live streaming from the street. This was a way to circumvent the complete media blockade that the Syrian regime was imposing.
Some of the people that were more artistically inclined would make YouTube videos, songs, puppet shows, stories, jokes, and ways to basically raise the moral of the revolutionaries, drive the message home to people that were still on the fence and also desacralize the regime. If you look at the French revolution or the Russian revolution you can see the importance of sarcasm in destroying the image of a certain regime and breaking completely the walls of fear and distress. So these videos were extremely important in making fun of either the pro-regime media commentators or Assad himself.
My father became someone that was very heavily involved in the opposition. He was trying very hard with other groups to form a united front, which is extremely difficult, and still is, even though they managed to do so. Every single day trying to establish trust between the conservatives and the liberals is extremely hard. These people share almost nothing except that they are both Syrian and against the regime but otherwise, they couldn’t be any more different.
The Islamists that we have in Syria have learned from their mistakes and learned from the mistakes of political Islam from all over the world and so now they are leaning more and more to the Turkish model of being a socially and economically conservative party without having to be a moral police or without having to impose an Islamic state. In a sense they are becoming more like Christian conservative parties in Europe or the Republican Party in this country where they have a social and moral message but are not really using any undemocratic means to impose this message or even undermine the basic civil pillars of a liberal democratic state.
On the secular liberal side you have a very strong bias, where they think modernity is one thing and that any association between religion and state is a sign of backwardness and medieval ages. They don’t want to hear anything about religion or a communal message. They’re terrified and they really don’t want to deal with Islamists. Both groups are trying to go beyond these historic limitations of theirs but it’s difficult.
My dad now is one of seven people leading the Syrian National Council, which is the biggest conglomeration of opposition groups inside and outside the country. As a result of him wanting to be in this position and being chosen to be in this position by his original group, he had to flee the country last month with my mother and sister. They were going through a very hard time and I had to go to Turkey to help them out because they are now refugees settling in Istanbul. Now they are very active with all of the opposition figures – Islamists, liberals inside and outside of Syria, the Syrian national council – to put more and more pressure on the regime. Their first success was getting the Arab League to suspend the membership of Syria and impose economic and political sanctions. God knows what’s going to happen over the coming months.
The Politic: How optimistic are you looking forward?
KN: I am optimistic. Revolutions and democracy are not easy. People who think you have a revolution one day and the next day you have democracy, stability and economic growth – no, that’s a joke. I think Syria is going to be in turmoil for the coming three to five years but at the same time I think that’s totally fine. We’ve been under the Assad regime for the past 41 years and under the Baaths since 1963 and it’s getting time to be able to get rid of them.
The revolution has its doves and hawks. The hawks are people that think there is no other way than to ask for international intervention. They are very scared that the revolution will be defeated before this actually materializes. They don’t know how it’s going to happen but they want to push for something – Turkish, NATO, something to bring the regime down. They think the regime is like the Libyan or the Iraqi regimes in that it will never have a breakdown on its own. They think the regime will keep killing people until there are no more people willing to demonstrate. The longer the revolution lasts, the more hawkish people are becoming. There are people that are for international intervention and for the militarization of the revolution like the Libyan model, by letting go of the peaceful means of demonstration and actually carrying arms. This is becoming more and more of a reality because of the defections from the army. The defectors are keeping their weapons with them even though they have no ability to actually fight, and so I think that any talk about a civil war in the country is completely immature. At the same time they are attacking every week or two a convoy or a building that belongs to the security apparatus in the country.
Then there are the doves: people who believe the revolution should persist in the way it started no matter how many people are dying, and they should keep demonstrating until the revolution becomes really massive.
In terms of post-regime, I am not pessimistic. I think it is not going to be super stable, and there is going to be the challenge at first between the different social components of society – the Alawites, Christians and Sunnis. I am not very worried because the group that is committed to not letting this happen is big and they are very present. All we need is to be in charge of the security and the military so that we can preclude any kind of communal fighting.
The other challenge is for the Islamists and the secularists to be able to reach a modus vivendi, but I’m fine with that. Democracies all over the world learn from their mistakes and here I tend to oppose Western observers who sometimes tend to talk about an Islamic takeover of the world. As long as it is through democratic votes, these people are not impinging on the private sphere of citizens. So long as they are not establishing Islamic states, if they want to form an Islamic government in an otherwise civil state then that’s fine. That is the biggest challenge and we may learn it the hard way but that is the only way to build a democracy – through trial and error.
Under authoritarianism there is no change; there is nothing. In democracy there is a little bit of instability but there is cumulative learning – I hope. No one could have initially joined the revolution without a little dose of optimism.
The Politic: Do you think the military leadership will remain faithful to the regime?
KN: That is the million dollar question. The leadership itself is made up of several powerful figures that Assad Sr. never allowed to form a body of their own. Each one of them was accountable to Assad himself and Assad only. The situation is even more complicated because there is no one person in charge; there is Bashar and his brother Maher and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat. Another huge problem is the sectarian dynamic. It is very possible that the Syrian regime is succeeding in convincing the top echelon of the military which by and large tend to be of the Alawite community that this is not about the Assad family but is about the Alawites as a community, and if they turn their backs on Assad then they will pay a big price because revolutionaries will come after them. We have a really big challenge to convince those people.
At the same time I don’t know if the revolutionaries are willing to take the chance to open channels of discussion with people who they think are criminals. Over the past eight months, everyone in the regime has been implicated in what’s going on. We have more than 4,000 martyrs, which is what we call them. Also, the revolutionaries believe that the military brass may never turn their backs on Assad because they have everything to lose and they may still be convinced that they can completely crush the revolution by just killing people, which is not completely inaccurate. The other thing is why do I, as a demonstrator, want to make a deal with people that are already guilty of killing so many and might not help me build a democracy, judging by the Egyptian model and the role of the military in Egypt. They think that we should not trust the army and that we should ask the Turks or Americans or NATO to help us get rid of all of them. I don’t know, that is the very big question.
Justin Schuster is a freshman in Branford College.