How the Syrian Revolution was Organized — And How it Unraveled

After a decade of conflict, what happened to the pioneering revolutionary bodies that led the early revolution in Syria?

How the Syrian Revolution was Organized — And How it Unraveled
Razan Zaitouneh and Zaina Erhaim, in Damascus, Syria in 2007/ Photo by Susanne Fischer/Courtesy of author

It started in early 2011 at the onset of the Syrian uprising, as activists began organizing themselves in tansiqiat (groups) in their neighborhoods, villages, and towns to plan protests and deliver their news to the media.

As the uprising spread throughout the country, there came a need for coordination between people in different tansiqiat in the various cities, governorates, and nationwide. This is how the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) were born. I was brought in by Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and well-known human rights activist, to help establish the nascent outreach and media effort in 2011.

Zaitouneh was a co-founder and considered the head of the LCC. I had known her for about four years. We had met at a couple of events, and I had used various proxy programs to access Facebook, which then was blocked in Syria, and to read her articles and work published on blocked websites. She, too, was interacting with my critical feminist articles and initiatives, such as the first social media campaign I ran in 2009, which was the first of its kind in Syria. The focus of the campaign was a misogynistic, personal status draft law that contravened women’s rights on matters including child custody, legalization of early marriage for girls, polygamy, and other issues. Razan was messaging me after every single post I sent to members of our Facebook group, encouraging me to keep going and offering to help.

Many of my friends in Damascus were participating in the sit-ins in front of the Libyan and Egyptian embassies to support the uprisings in other Arab countries when the security forces attacked the activists. I was in London finishing my master’s degree, and because I had uncensored internet access, they were sharing what was happening with me so I could post it in Arabic and English. That was a clear signal of my support for the uprising, so when the first demonstrations of the revolution started in the southern city of Daraa, Razan contacted me to help reach out to Arab and international media. I did, and without any formal agreement, task lists, or scope of work, I became an active member of the team.

According to Mazen Darwish, a lawyer and one of the founders, the LCC actually started earlier, after the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, which was waged against the theft of the presidential election by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Online groups on blogs and other platforms were being formed in Syria under different topics and umbrellas, and their activity intensified after the Tunisian uprising in 2011.

“We were hiding behind the others’ movements, supporting them, knowing that Syria was next,” Darwish told me. “In February 2011, we organized a meeting with Razan and some Kurdish parties to discuss the possibility of using the occasion of Nowruz (the Kurdish New Year) as the spark for the Syrian revolution.”

When I joined the LCC, I was added to a general Skype room that had many activists from different parts of Syria posting about what was happening in their areas. We created about 21 Skype rooms for each tansiqiat, a main newsroom I was in charge of, and one for translations that mainly included Syrian volunteers in the diaspora whom we identified, trusted, and invited in.

Only a couple of the Skype accounts, among the dozens involved, reflected the real names of people. My alias was Zain, and many thought I was a man, a belief I didn’t correct. Lots of those pseudonyms didn’t even make sense as personal names, such as Cold Mountain, whom we had to call “Cold” all the time because it was supposedly his first name.

We only found out that his name was Hasan Azhari when he was arrested in Latakia in March 2012. Later, we had to post his picture as a news item on our LCC page.

“Our member Hasan died under torture in the regime’s prisons,” the post read. “He was in his fifth and final year of studying pharmacology.”

There were also lots of “Free” first names then, for whom we had to use their full name, like Free Douma, or just the surname, which was usually the name of their hometown.

At one point, the LCC had become a network of 70 coordination groups operated by media and street activists connected to the grassroots revolt inside Syria. It was anti-sectarian, committed to nonviolence, and opposed to foreign intervention. However, this position shifted as regime violence escalated, and in early 2012, the LCC began calling on the international community to take a stronger stand against the Assad regime while recognizing the role of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force that was beginning to coalesce.

Razan and Mazen were among the few who were using their full names on Skype and in media interviews while in Damascus, whereas we all were hiding behind pseudonyms. However, some of those who were doing a lot of the work were anonymous, such as the dynamo who was managing all these Skype rooms, and who was known as Syrian Yasmine. We worked (on a volunteer basis) together for more than two years and spent more than 12 hours a day online together; I never asked her about her real name, and neither did she ask for mine. We used to chat about our personal relationships, desperations, fears, and even gossip at night after sending the final bulletins and posting all the news we had for that day. She was the closest person to me then, along with Razan.

After about four years, I was finally able to put a name and a face to Yasmine. I met Ola Albarazi in Gaziantep, Turkey, after she left Canada to be closer to Syria and after I had already left London to go back to Syria.

“How do you feel about writing this?” she asked me as I spoke with her for this essay.

“I am not sure — it feels like I am a stranger to Zain, and what happened seems like a dream,” I answered. In all the interviews, it was as though our days in the LCC were a box that we did not yet dare open.

Yasmine/Ola was brought to the LCC by Razan as well, after she impressed with her devotion and dedication by sharing the contact details of all the Syrian embassies around the world and urging Syrians in the diaspora and others to call and protest the handling of Daraa’s demonstrations. After confirming Ola’s identity with a couple of trusted sources in Hamah, Razan asked her to get more involved. Ola agreed.

“At the beginning, she used to give me a ring, and when I called back, she would share the news she gathered and verified from Daraa. I would then translate and post them on my Twitter account,” Ola said. “After that, she gave my Skype to the activists in the field to communicate with them directly, and finally our media work became more organized and professional.”

We had an Arabic and English website, launched campaigns emphasizing social cohesion and nonviolence, documented news daily about detainees and victims, and sent out summaries at the end of every day, especially on Friday.

On a typical Friday, we would all be online and ready by 9 a.m. to report on how the security forces were blocking roads or being deployed around mosques. At noon, we turned into machines, verifying, editing, translating, uploading videos onto YouTube, sending bulletins along with the videos to the media outlets we had identified ahead of time; and on we went until 8 p.m., when we would start reminding each other that we hadn’t eaten yet, kicking each other from the Skype room so we would have a chance to have a meal before coming back to wrap up the work of the day.

We clearly had different backgrounds and ideologies. There were some conservative members, atheists, secularists, and moderates. However, the intimacy, trust, support, warmth, and passion that was clearly felt behind those pseudonyms is unforgettable.

Thinking about it now, I don’t understand how such relationships are not considered to be real or how they ended without knowing names and some personal information about each other. We knew everything about the personalities, preferences, and love stories. The only information we didn’t have were the formal markers you start any conversation with: your name, what you do, and where you are based.

Only a few of the members were unchanged by time, like Yahya Shurbaji, who was a pioneering figure of the LCC. He lived and died believing in his principles of nonviolent struggle. He used to say, “To be killed is better than being a murderer.”

Yahya was arrested in September 2011 and killed under torture.

On the other hand, what looked like fine and nuanced ideological differences started to sharpen and coalesce as the conflict became more militarized. That was the case with Free Domair, who later joined the FSA in a Damascus suburb and ended up carrying out a suicide attack on a regime barricade near his hometown of Domair.

Or Yazeed Al Halabi, who used to be the representative of the LCC in the Aleppo suburb of Bza’a, joined the Islamic State group after a year of its occupation of his hometown. While being brainwashed, Yazeed sent us messages to tell us how much he loved us and prayed that Allah would guide us to the right way. It was surreal to see videos on his YouTube channel of LCC campaigns calling for unity after he had changed his profile picture to the flag of the Islamic State group.

According to Ola, he was killed while fighting with them. We don’t know whether he was fighting the regime or the rebels.

Others went missing, like the journalist Jihad Jamal, whom we knew as Milan, since he was arrested in March 2012. The Committee to Protect Journalists confirmed last year that he died in government custody. His death certificate stated that he had died in 2016.

Nazem Hamadi, Razan Zaitouneh, and her husband Wael Hamada, whom we used to know as Jalal, were leading figures in the LCC and were kidnapped in a Damascus suburb in December 2013 by militants widely believed to be from the Army of Islam militia. They have not been seen since.

In addition to the secular-versus-Islamic identity conflicts that started to reveal themselves more, there was an Arab-Kurdish conflict divide that ensnared some nationalist members. It also caused many figures, mainly Kurdish ones, to step away from the LCC and refuse to be associated with it.

There are many members who just left in despair and decided to go back to old business or start new, non-Syria-related pursuits. Some web pages belonging to the tansiqiat became commercials, advertising services being provided in those towns.

And there are those who left because there was nothing left to be done, like Souri Muftakher (“Proud Syrian”), who was an LCC representative in Daraa. I only learned while writing this piece that his name was Alaa Al Fakeer and that he was forcibly displaced from his town and is now a refugee in France.

And finally, there are those who have continued to be active in civil society organizations, such as Mazen, who is the president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. Ola is a project manager with The Day After, a transitional justice CSO, and Mohammad Al Abdallah is the executive director of ‎Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. There is also Orwa Nyrabia, who is now the artistic director of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

Although the grassroots organization essentially vanished a couple of years ago, two of its projects are still ongoing after surviving many hiccups. The first is the Violations Documentation Center, which began as an Excel sheet before it developed into a different, bigger project and then a full-blown organization.

The second is Rising for Freedom, a magazine that adopted a nonviolent political approach in addressing Syrian citizens’ concerns and promoting human rights values and gender equity. The magazine was launched in 2012 but suffered from some interruptions, including a two-year suspension, after its office in East Ghouta was targeted by the security apparatus of the Army of Islam. The militia banned it, only for it to come back to life a couple of months ago.

The local court accused the magazine of defaming the image of God and hurting the feelings of Muslims in Syria and subsequently banned the distribution of the magazine. The Army of Islam controlled the court that upheld this sentence. In the written court sentence, the judge cited an article from a publications law in Kuwait to justify his sentence.

Laila Al Safadi, who was the editor-in-chief of the magazine then, told me, “We are back now to a monthly issue, but only electronically as most of those areas in which we were distributing our copies are back under the control of the first suppressor, which is the regime.”

Laila was also active with the LCC from the beginning, and she organized many activists under its umbrella in the Golan Heights, where she is based.

During its active years, the LCC got its funding from the French and U.S. governments, and the money was mainly meant to cover the humanitarian aid work the committees were doing. Despite being one of the largest and best-organized of the opposition groups inside Syria then, the LCC received the least amount of external funding, perhaps because there was religious affiliation. For instance, the LCC didn’t receive funds from Qatar, which opted to support the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), a second revolutionary coalition of more than 40 opposition groups inside and outside of Syria.

The SRGC was established in August 2011 and gathered people with different ideologies and backgrounds, such as Suhair al-Atassi and Mohammad Alloush, who were both members of its political office.

Suhair al-Atassi is a secular political activist who graduated with degrees in French literature and education from Damascus University. She had been one of a number of outspoken women who appeared in Syria in the first decade of the 21st century and proved herself during the preparations for the Syrian revolution, as well as during the uprising.

Mohammad Alloush, on the other hand, was a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah with a master’s degree in banking sciences from the department of Islamic studies at Beirut Islamic University. With his brother Zahran, he founded the Army of Islam and was a prominent member in the political bureau of this army; the same army kidnapped leaders of LCC, attacked its offices, and banned its magazine.

It was always the public figures who were secular or did not overtly portray themselves as Islamic who faced fierce character assassination campaigns on social media over the past decade of war. These character assassinations might develop if an activist didn’t condemn the regime in the same vicious terms that were expected of angry opposition figures and could take the form of a leaked picture, for example of a female activist wearing a bathing suit on the beach.

Other myriad, unfounded accusations were often directed at these secular activists who were part of the nascent revolution. These include embezzling funds, abuse of power, writing harmful reports about other activists to the authorities, whether to the regime, the opposition, embassies, or governments of neighboring counties, and so on.

“In such a complicated conflict like ours, it’s normal for such destruction to happen on all levels,” said Mazen. “Any community in our situation would have got the same results of sectarianism, division, racism, loyalties to ideologies and other countries, so everything we are passing through is normal.”

None of those perceived and valued as heroes at the beginning of the uprising, who are still alive and out of detention, are considered legitimate, trusted, or appreciated now. Within the realm of Syria’s fragmented and fractured opposition, even they contend with relentless efforts to discredit them and undermine their legacy. A decade into the revolution they helped spark, they are scattered, their movement leaderless and disunited. The regime couldn’t have done a better job in breaking the various aspects of Syria’s peaceful movement.

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