Syria: Nonviolence in war time

Blanca Camps-Febrer
Political Scientist specialized in the Middle East and North Africa
Blanca Camps

Blanca Camps

One of the goals of peace journalism is to flee the age old stereotypes and simplistic explanations regarding societies and their conflicts. This objective also coincides with that held by the men and women who believe that conflict resolution is not possible without taking into account local grassroots initiatives, far too often ignored by media sensationalism and high-level diplomacy. The civil war in Syria involves far more stakeholders and many more stories which fail to factor into the regular narrative of armed violence and mass atrocities.

It is not surprising therefore that outside Syria, few have heard about the story of Yabroud, a city located to the north of Damascus which, since the end of 2011, has been under self-government by way of a local council. The council controls everything from street traffic to schools and bakeries. Essentially, these local grassroots organizations are responsible for organizing many acts of resistance. Their activities include setting up local news agencies, documentation and communication of human rights abuses, groups providing humanitarian and medical aid, managing services (waste, water, education, etc.), translations, groups engaging in civil disobedience, pressure campaigns, demonstrations, support network for those detained, and coordinating campaigns, strikes and boycotts at a state-wide level, etc.

Yabroud is one of many examples where the local population has organized and is attempting to build a model for conciliation and civil disobedience against the regime in a town where Sunnis and Christians have coexisted for centuries. The initiative in Yabroud takes its inspiration from the writings of Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz, who set up the first local committee in Barzeh. Aziz wanted to break from the dynamics of protesting every evening, only to return to normal everyday life within the structures imposed by the regime1. Nowadays, these forms of local organizations are commonplace in the majority of areas liberated from the regime and in some areas and neighbourhoods under government control. Some figures estimate that the number of committees or coordinators throughout the country is in the region of 400. It is estimated that the number of local councils in large cities and districts is somewhere in the region of 1982. Nevertheless, some local Councils have acted in a more inclusive manner than others. While many hold regular free elections, others are bogged down with internal power struggles, lack of financing or incapable of overcoming authoritarian structures inherited from the Ba'athist regime.

However, popular resistance, despite its essentially local level of organization, has also created different structures at state level of coordination. The best known examples of this are the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which oppose armed resistance and foreign military intervention3 – and the sector specific student organization, the Union of Free Syrian Students – and the Youth Coalition of the Syrian Revolution. The group known as Aiam alHorria (Freedom Days Syria), created in late 2011, was successful in organizing and coordinating several general strikes affecting the entire country during the so-called 'Week of Dignity' from December 14th-21st, 2012. In addition, another group known as Nabd promotes interreligious coexistence and non-discrimination.

The NGO, the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, made up of Syrian activists based throughout Europe, has compiled a elucidating although incomplete interactive map of nonviolent initiatives throughout Syria, in an effort to publicize their work4.

  • Throughout the country and far from the cameras, these committed stakeholders develop essential roles for the Syrian revolution which began peacefully in 2011, some of which include:
  • Maintaining resistance against the regime and the legitimacy and social basis of their demands.
  • Developing experience of direct democracy and organization to provide local communities with basic services in addition to creative forms of resistance
  • Building bridges between local communities and promote cohesion
  • Acting on many occasions as intermediaries between the civilian population and armed groups.

The vast majority of activists is young and would have previously classed themselves as apolitical, except in the case of Kurdish men and women, a historically more politicized group. From the very outset of the revolt, this latter group has been successful in building and organizing networks and groups independent of the traditional parties, such as through the Kurdish Youth Movement (TCK). According to activist and blogger Leila Shrooms, the majority of activists do not feel represented by traditional political parties or political ideologies, and are in fact "motivated by the causes of liberty, dignity, social justice and basic human rights"5.

Some of these groups take their inspiration from the culture of nonviolence from its most Gandhian expression and principles, such as figures like octogenarian scholar Jawdat Said, who some have called the Syrian Gandhi. Many others however, do not defend nonviolence as a moral principle but rather claiming that arming the country is merely inflicting a greater toll and bringing about an increase in violence and radicalization. As professor Stephen Zunes points out, "The opposition's turn from nonviolence to armed struggle resulted in higher civilian casualties, reduced defections from the Assad's forces, and contributed to the rise of anti-democratic elements within the opposition"6. Other groups coordinate with the Free Syrian Army or other brigades engaged in local protection, but they face the battering and repression from the Syrian regime as well as efforts to impose radical and intolerant Salafist ideology, something that up until now has been fundamentally inexistent. The personal price they pay is immense and they do so with nothing more to protect themselves that the power of the people. Moreover, according to Syrian scholar and activist Mohja Kahf, "…armed resistance renders the rest of an uprising population, those unwilling or unable to carry arms, passive"7.

Therefore, it is essential to include these initiatives and the thousands of men and women who offer nonviolent opposition to the regime and the war, not only in order to fully get to grips with the situation, but also to achieve the transformation of the conflict and a conciliatory, lasting, and inclusive resolution to the civil war. These stakeholders are already engaged on a day-to-day basis as mediators, promoting reconciliation and transformation, something that can only be attained with the support and trust their efforts earn daily among the local communities. Their experience has the power to build the necessary structures for self-government and conciliation between peoples who until very recently possessed an extremely precarious associative fabric under the fierce control of the Ba'athist regime.

Perhaps some of these experiences do not fit into the theoretical definition of nonviolent groups, nevertheless, they should be included if the objective really is to achieve a true and inclusive new Syria.

[1] "Translated: 'A Discussion Paper on Local Councils in Syria' by the Martyr and Anarchist Comrade, Omar Aziz". A Muqawameh. September 14, 2013.

[2] This and other initiatives can be found at: Leila Shrooms. "The struggle continues: Syria's grass-roots civil opposition". A Tahrir-ICN. September, 2013. Access 16 October 2013

[3] Official website of the LCCS and documents explaining their political vision

[4] Interactive Map showing nonviolence activities in Syria, created by Omar alAssil and the Syrian Nonviolence Movement:

[5] Shrooms, 2013.

[6] Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco

[7] Mohja Kahf. Then and Now: The Syrian Revolution to Date. Special Report by Friends for a Nonviolent World. February 28, 2013.