“In a non-violent struggle, our ammunition is the people”

Razan talks with peace activist Ossama Nassar from Darayaa about the chances of the Syrian revolution to remain peaceful

The trained eye cannot miss a recent change in the general mood in Syria under the pressure of the regime’s crackdown on the opposition and the lack, to date, of any change in the balance of power that could favour the revolution. Many have started to question the use of peaceful struggle; this form of protest has been carried out through all demonstrations, and hence failed to challenge, either on the ground or in the media, the views which consider militarisation coupled with foreign intervention, the only way to achieve the aims of the revolution.

The activists of the city of Darayya in the countryside of Damascus, which has become known as the symbol of pacifist struggle in Syria, are the most qualified to talk about this issue. Field activist Ussama Nassar was first arrested in 2003, with the rest of what was known as the Darayya Youth Group. He was arrested for the second time in 2007, and then arrested again with his pregnant wife during a sit-in near the ministry of interior on March 16, 2011, to be released two weeks after. The fourth time he was taken in by Air Force intelligence on May 1 and was released after two months. After his release he went into hiding like most of the other field activists.

The following is a Q&A with Ossama Nassar:

Is there a time limit after which one has to admit that the peaceful option should be discarded in favor of militarization and foreign intervention? Eight months after the start of the revolution, this seems to be the preference of a growing number of Syrians.

“The answer is simply no. No-one said the revolution should be over in a matter of 18 days or even a month. It’s very unfair to expect the Syrian revolution to bear fruit in the same time as the revolution in Tunisia or Egypt did; some revolutions last for years on end.

“However, it will not be in anybody’s interest if the bloodshed continues for long; this will leave wounds that will be very hard to heal in the future. I have to add that the military option does not guarantee that the [struggle] will be settled fast. As long as this [pacifist] endeavour is expanding and rallying more supporters, then it’s winning.

“If [we think] the peaceful solution still hasn’t succeeded we have to look for the reasons behind this [presumed] failure, because we will be faced with the same obstacles and problems once we resort to other options.

“I would like to reiterate that, since it started, the revolution has been based on peaceful activism and the rejection of foreign intervention as means to achieve freedom, dignity and justice. Whereas pacifists have benefited from the local and regional circumstances to start the revolution, others have failed.

“Deviating from the pacifist fundamentals of the revolution could jeopardise its goals. Some use the regime’s oppression to justify the deviation from [pacifism and the rejection of foreign intervention]. As for us, not only did we declare that we were pacifists, but we silently endured the regime’s cruelty.

“One of the important rules of pacifist struggle is to set the rules and stick to them, irrespective of the other side’s position. It’s wrong to mirror the other side’s filthiness; even if they have lost their reason, morals and principles, we should hold on to ours.

“We trained for eight months on how to practice peaceful activism, should we now start training for armed action from scratch?”

Coming from someone who has to live with the danger of bombs and burying loved ones and friends every day, this sounds too idealistic.

“We’re all suffering from what is going on in Syria, and it’s our duty to put an end to the bloodshed and terror. But I call upon everyone to have some reason and resort to options that are based on what’s most beneficial. Therefore, I suggest pacifism because it is the most efficient means, and not just as a principle. I also endorse civil disobedience as a potential option for peaceful escalation.

“I know that this option poses many questions that are still unanswered, but so does militarization: who will provide weapons and ammunition, until when and at what cost?

“The regime is trying to drag the revolution to its own domain, where there is fighting, killing and terror – the only things it can do well.

“The regime’s fighters and gangs have all the state’s capacities at their service to carry on what they’re doing: central planning, ammunition, supplies… safe roads, maps, etc. In a non-violent struggle, our ammunition is the people and our ability to convince them to free their will.

“We saw that the first Palestinian intifada lasted for many years and was successful in obtaining recognition that the Palestinian cause was just. In the second intifada, however, [weapons were used] and hence the Palestinians suffered severe losses without making any significant gains.

“It’s true that recently, in Libya, Benghazi fell [into the hands of the rebels] in a few days only, but this was followed by months of fighting despite the force which both the NATO and the Libyan rebels possess.

“As for demanding a no-fly zone and military intervention, practically, the air force is not the main weapon used to crack down on the opposition. Furthermore, air routes are not the only paths to supply the regime with weapons; weapon shipments could reach [Syria] through the sea or land routes, either from Iraq or from other countries.

“The way the current world system is made up means that nothing can be given for free; the price Syria is expected to pay could range from being financially exhausted to being politically blackmailed and turned into a satellite state.

“NATO has declared that it is not considering carrying out any intervention or enforcing a no-fly zone, which might be a lie. What is important is that it is inappropriate for this great people to beg for such an intervention.

“A form of international intervention which is not subject to any accusation could be carried out through independent press, legal observers and solidarity peace activists, like the ones who are peacefully confronting Israeli oppression in Palestinian villages such as Bil‘in and Na‘lin.

Concepts such as civil disobedience are still not taken seriously by people, whereas we see the supporters of other directions promoting their ideas and the ways to apply them by every means possible.

“This is not accurate; demonstrations are the main bulk of the revolution, but we have also seen many peaceful acts such as distributing pamphlets, and [graffiti writing against the regime, known as] “The Spray Man Operations”, as well as revolutionary songs and poems. There are also Syrian innovations in peaceful activism, such as secretly placing loudspeakers in public places, playing anti-regime chanting.”

It is obvious that the amount of violence practiced by the regime resulted in diminishing demonstrations in a number of regions, and that peaceful demonstrations alone are not enough to topple the regime. As pacifist activists, what other means could you consider to achieve your aims?

“Demonstrations are the most dangerous and difficult form of peaceful protest, but surely not the only one. Since demonstrations are not enough anymore, we could resort to other forms of protest, which are peaceful as well.

“We look forward to seeing more Syrians join the revolution, even if it was only through small or symbolic gestures that show their enthusiasm and support. Even a demonstration that is fostered and supported by all is a symbol in itself. Our real aim is to achieve civil disobedience. It may look like a far-fetched goal now, but back on March 14 [2011], the mere idea of having a demonstration in Syria seemed impossible.

“If we planned this in a well thought out and systematic way we could implement certain steps towards that end. We have to maintain our belief in the Syrian people who, day by day, surpass the elites’ expectations.

“We have to work towards involving Syrians who still haven’t participated in the revolution, before asking for intervention by the NATO or any other party. On that note, even the use of arms will require wide popular support, which also means involving the Syrians who still haven’t taken part in the revolution as yet.

“Many are wondering what the end will be like, but we’re not writing a movie script; we can’t expect to know every single event before it happens. But the more effort we put into our work, the clearer the next step will be. The correct path leads only to good results.

“We’re all humans and therefore it’s normal to make mistakes; a mistake in the context of peaceful protest, however, only delays victory, but we can still see the disastrous social and political effects of the mistakes committed during the armed protests in the 1980s.

“The advantage of peaceful activism is that it is constructive and can be useful even after the fall of the regime.”

Some say that the clearest evidence of the failure of the pacifist current is what is happening in Darayya; the wave of demonstrations has receded to a large extent as a result of the regime’s violent crackdown, whereas in other areas of the countryside outside Damascus, protesters defended themselves, and demonstrations are still actively taking place. How would you respond to that?

“Again, demonstrations, be they large or small, are neither an end in themselves, nor a criterion to measure success. A large demonstration is like a tornado; it’s massive but it does not last. It’s more useful to consider small but continuing and consecutive actions which would lead to civil disobedience, the same way rain results in a flood.

“In some areas, protestors have resorted to arms in order to protect demonstrations; this is dangerous behaviour, because the regime might believe that there are actually militiamen among the demonstrators. It’s true that nothing justifies the use of excessive force, but we know that the regime is looking for any excuse to justify their narrative about armed gangs. In any case, this proves that demonstrations are still the main form of protest.

“Many have become accustomed to judge the success of a demonstration by its size, which is not an accurate criterion. Also, no city has to carry out the revolution on its own, or provide a comprehensive view for everything. It’s true that the security crackdown on Darayya has resulted in a downturn in big demonstrations, but at the same time, it has relieved pressure on other areas and pushed the youth in Darayya to consider unique forms of action.

A member of the regime’s gangs was quoted to have secretly said, “We would rather crack down on a hundred demonstrations than work as garbage collectors picking up leaflets in Darayya or other cities.”

“We know that it’s not a matter of numbers, especially when we’re talking about martyrs. But when we look at what Darayya has offered in comparison with other areas that have witnessed similar circumstances, the city seems to have achieved a more prominent position than it really deserves. Since the start of the revolution eight months ago, Darayya has suffered 13 deaths and about 700 detainees. Other areas have suffered much more than that. If I were to use an economic analogy, I would say we’re making the highest ‘profit’ for the least expense.”

Pacifist activities lately seem to be isolated from the rest of the mobilised masses; are they more symbolic than effective?

“We need to closely measure this phenomenon before we can decide how ‘limited or widespread’ its effect is. These activities might have a limited effect now, but they have the potential to grow and reach most people. Everybody is qualified to participate in these activities, according to their own circumstances, capacities and readiness. If we resort to military action, however, only the rebelling youth who are able to fight will participate in the revolution. This would exclude hesitant [men], women and the elderly, among others.

“A few weeks ago a series of activities started under the title “Days of Freedom”; these activities were equivalent to an open assembly for all pacifist groups and activists and was aimed at finding a strategy to reach the goals of the revolution through peaceful means.

“These activities have had varying effects, but the good thing is that because of their diversity, if one of them fails to reach people, another might succeed. Nothing is sufficient by itself, and every [contribution] is important, no matter how small it is. A lot of these activities have proven to be useful in other revolutions, and most of them are simple, creative and educational. It’s also good that these activities resulted in convening the efforts of a lot of pacifist groups.”

What is your stance, as pacifist activists, vis-à-vis the Free Syrian Army?

“This is very crucial question.

“I salute each and every one who refused to shoot at his own people, or even refused to be part of the [regular Syrian army] when it turned into a tool of murder in the hands of the regime.

“The statements of [the military defectors] included very important and positive points, such as declaring that they are committed to protecting civilians and preserving the peaceful character of the revolution. They realise quite well that they are the product of the revolution and that they have to join it instead of leading it.

“On a practical level, the Free Syrian Army has to follow the political leadership produced by the revolution, to make sure its actions will be to the benefit of the Syrian people. They can also spread their practices among those of their colleagues who are still loyal to the regime.”

How has the death of Ghaith Matar affected your enterprise, as activists, in the area of Darayya?

Ghaith’s death has left a big void, but his presence is now stronger [than ever]; he was able to make his voice reach the entire world.

Ghaith’s killing gave a great impetus to the pacifist protest movement in general, and to the youth of Darayya in particular. He showed that pacifist struggle is the choice of the brave; [his death] demonstrated that pacifism is equivalent not to surrender, but to sacrifice and [reason].

[It also showed that pacifism] means needing patience when one is faced with harm, be it done by the regime or the people.”