‘Right now, people who are involved in nonviolent activism in Syria are mainly having to do two things: relief work, to deal with the catastrophic levels of humanitarian disaster and then underground civil resistance, like newspapers, news agencies, schools, hospitals and clinics,’ Mohja Kahf told Peace News in March.
Kahf, a member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement (SNVM), was born in Syria but grew up in the United States, where she is now an associate professor of Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas.
‘What [the newspapers, for instance,] do is that they help build and construct a free press for future Syria, so they will have a long-term impact,’ Kahf said. Schools supported by SNVM aim to educate displaced children not accepted at government schools.
Nonviolent civil society efforts, as a whole, work towards ensuring there is a viable future for Syria when fighting ends.
SNVM is an organisation operating inside and outside Syria as part of the larger nonviolent phenomenon of the revolution. While international media have largely focused on the armed components to the revolution, the revolution itself began peacefully and Kahf believes will return to this route soon.
‘I think the armed struggle [in Syria] has clearly revealed itself to have failed, even if some of its components don’t seem to know that yet,’ Mohja Kahf said. ‘I think there is a regrouping among the civil resistance camp and I think it is going to be the way forward.’
At first the people protesting in Syria chanted ‘Peaceful, peaceful, we want a peaceful revolution,’ Mataz Al Shhail said. Al Shhail is a Syrian national who has lived and studied in the UK for the past six years, during which he became involved in a number of nonviolent civil disobedience groups and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a nonviolent opposition party in Syria.
‘At the time they understood the Syrian regime would know how to deal best with a movement that is violent because they understand the language of violence very well,’ Al Shhail said. ‘But in terms of political dialogue, in terms of legitimacy amongst the population, it doesn’t have that language or flexibility to meet people’s demands, so the structure would crumble from within.’
People began ‘actively espousing nonviolence, not just using it as a method of action,’ he said. By remaining peaceful, anti-sectarian and independent, the movement was reacting to the regime ‘trying to claim it was a sectarian uprising or that it was armed, or that it was an international conspiracy.’
The first organisational structures to emerge in the Syrian revolution were nonviolent protest committees, which Kahf described: ‘horizontal leadership, youth-led, lots of women, grassroots, very local, very community-based.’
‘There was clearly a very widespread consensus for nonviolence,’ she said. ‘When there were isolated infractions, […] those were seen as a violation of a consensus that was in place. That consensus began to sway and falter [and] you could say the critical mass of it faltered by mid-autumn 2011. The grassroots, youth organising for protests began in January, so that nonviolence consensus held for a good six-to-nine months.’
When protestors turned into an armed opposition, Al Shhail found this restricted many people’s participation in the movement.
‘Militarising any movement will restrict it to a male chauvinistic mentality,’ Al Shhail said. ‘So the roles of women, children and people with physical and mental disabilities are immediately nullified and turned into spectators/casualties, people who need to be defended by men.’
He also found participation was restricted by the introduction of sectarian narratives, he said. Militarising the movement meant there had be a narrative of who to point a gun at – what kind of person, regionally, religiously, was the enemy for either side. ‘This polarises society much more,’ Al Shhail said.
United States and Russian involvement have also had a polarising influence, Al Shhail said. International involvement has made all sides of the conflict dependent on different, politically-motivated, outside forces, he noted, which threatens ‘one of the main tenets of the revolution’: independence.
Londoner Dan Viesnik, of Syria Peace and Justice, agreed.
‘The big players on the international stage are more keen to promote a military agenda from whatever side they are supporting, a political agenda which suits their interests,’ Viesnik said. ‘This hasn’t allowed the grassroots movement to play their full part in any kind of peace process to resolve the situation.’
Syria Peace and Justice was founded in October 2013 to support nonviolent actors in Syria while also bolstering solidarity in the UK. The group organises peace vigils, as well as the delivery of letters to the embassies of countries involved in the conflict that ask governments to accept refugees, stop the supply of arms, and look for a peaceful end to the struggle.
Viesnik said nonviolent groups have been pressuring the Russian, United States, and Saudi Arabian governments to stop fuelling the violence with funding and arms. He believes that, instead, a civil society movement must form and gain momentum within Syria for a successful post-conflict state to emerge.
‘There are still nonviolent protests and, more importantly, nonviolent activities like the building of an underground civil society […] of communication, transportation, health care, under enormously challenging conditions,’ Kahf said.