Syria's Secular Revolution Lives On

Islamist radicals may be gaining strength, but the spirit that sparked this uprising survives in the unlikeliest of places.

In the town of Azaz, in northern Syria, a trail of destroyed houses, mass graves, tank tracks, and shell casings provides a glimpse of the daily reality for millions of Syrians. At the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey, children tell of fleeing their homes after being shelled by regime forces and attacked by pro-government militias.

"Why did Bashar have to send his community against us to kill our innocent people?" one man asks, framing the conflict as a war between the Alawite sect, a community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, and Syria's Sunni majority. Another man praises "the true righteous Muslims" of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group known for its vitriol toward Alawites and support for fundamentalist Islamic rule.

Such scenes, which I saw on my recent trip to war-torn northern Syria, point to the worrying growth of jihadi and Salafi groups -- but these forces are not the only players emerging in the new Syria. The secular and nationalist spirit that initially sparked the Syrian revolution is also still alive and well. Many grassroots activists and religious leaders are working to forge a country that is built on secular principles, against sectarian revenge, and supportive of equal rights for all its citizens. Even some of the sharia courts that have sprung up to administer justice in areas the Syrian government has abandoned contain surprising, nonsectarian trends.

Whether such a movement can survive as the uprising drags on is not yet clear. For the time being, however, these figures embody the sliver of hope that Syria may avoid an all-out sectarian war.

Grassroots movements

Among the best-known nonviolent protest movements on the ground is Tajammu' Nabd, or the Pulse Gathering for Civil Youth, which defines its purpose as to "fight the regime and fight sectarianism." It is led by Yamen Hussein, an Alawite originally from Homs, who joined the revolution in its earliest days. The relatively small, youth-led movement has served as a vehicle to empower minorities -- especially Alawites, the bulk of whom have been hostile to the revolution.

With bases in secular strongholds like Yabrud, Salamiyah, Zabadani, and Homs, Nabd activists have taken on small but unique projects. On Christmas, its activists dressed up as Santa Clauses and gave gifts to the Christians of Homs. In protests throughout the country, Nabd sends minority and secular activists to hold up signs that read: "In Syria there are two sects: the sect of freedom and the sect of the oppressors," and "Before you call for sectarian revenge, remember that you trembled when you witnessed the massacre."

"A small proportion of the signs and chants in protests in parts of Syria are growing more radical and sectarian, so we want to be the counterforce and present our movement on the ground," Hussein told me. "But the hardest work will come after we overthrow the regime, where we will try to keep our country from being torn apart."

Beyond organizations like Nabd, individual activists also work independently to help the uprising and build bridges between the predominantly Sunni rebels and the country's minority communities. Half a dozen Alawite and Ismaili activists, who requested that their names not be mentioned, told me how they regularly work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to sneak humanitarian and military aid through regime checkpoints. The presence of uncovered women who speak with an Alawite accent allows these activists to avoid suspicion by the regime.

Other activists loudly broadcast their contribution to the anti-Assad effort: One woman I met, Loubna Mrie, a young Alawite woman from the city of Jableh, publicly goes in and out of Syria with FSA brigades to deliver wheat to civilians in war-torn areas.

Religious leaders

Minorities and secular youth are only one part of the anti-sectarian revolutionary movement -- religious leaders also play a prominent role. Sheikh Abu al-Huda al-Husseini, former director of religious endowments in Aleppo, split with the regime in August 2011 and defected to Turkey. He has teamed up with Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a former Sufi preacher at Damascus's al-Hassan Mosque who famously attacked the regime in a May 2011 sermon, to form the "National Bloc," which seeks to advance an anti-radicalization and anti-sectarian agenda.

Husseini, over dinner in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, made the case for a moderate interpretation of Islam. He noted that the Quran prohibits sectarianism and stressed the need for a general amnesty after the fall of the regime, arguing that forgiveness is a central tenet of Islam. Husseini also expressed his vision for a civil state and pluralistic government after the fall of the Syrian regime, proposing a bicameral system that gives each religious or ethnic community's leaders an opportunity to be heard in government. "Everyone should get a say, no matter how small his group is, even the atheists," he told me.

The National Bloc attempts to bring together 100 of Syria's most prominent, pro-revolution public leaders -- including tribal chiefs, intellectuals, religious clerics, and scientists -- to advance a message of national unity and reconciliation. The idea is that such elites can use their standing in Syrian society to push the country away from radicalism and revenge. The bloc advocates a return to Syria's 1950 constitution as a starting point for the post-Assad period.

Husseini is looking over the horizon to the post-Assad transition to expand the bloc's role. "There is too much fighting now, too much blood. It is hard to talk to battle-hardened fighters and tell them a message at this time," he said.

Sharia courts

Impromptu courts established to dispense Islamic law might seem a prime vehicle for advancing radical ideas, but sometimes in Syria, they do just the opposite. In two sharia courts -- one at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing and the other in the northern province of Idlib -- these bodies are an antidote to the idea of collective sectarian revenge.

"There is no crime in Islam called being an Alawite," Sheikh Abu Jamal, head of the sharia and law division of Idlib Council, told me. "As religious leaders we have the important role of being against vigilante justice, and we have spoken out against many of the youths taking matters into their own hands. Most people listen to us."

Abu Jamal said that the purpose of sharia courts is to make sure that no one is punished without a trial. In his court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty; both a human rights activist and Islamic cleric are witnesses at the trial to advise and object to irregularities; and each accused is offered the right to a lawyer.

Still, the sharia courts are plagued with problems. Not all such courts are created equal, and the protections Abu Jamal offers may not be present elsewhere. There is no appeals process, and the system of choosing and electing judges is biased toward revolutionary justice. At the same time, however, the courts' role in supporting due process and rule of law has acted as a counterweight to sectarian vigilantism in this transitional period.

Militant groups 

Some militant groups are also hostile to the growing radicalization of their anti-Assad brethren. In the northern town of Azaz, I met Capt. Bewar Mustafa, head of the Kurdish Salah al-Din Brigade, which largely fights in Aleppo. "We believe in democracy, equal rights for all, and representation," he told me. "This is automatically against sectarianism. We are the Free Syrian Army for all Syrians, not just for one group, and the Kurds in this are a moderating force."

Mustafa, a defected army captain, is afraid of the rising popularity of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. He also distrusts the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish insurgent PKK, whose leadership he says holds extreme separatist views and cooperates with the Assad regime. While there might be a need for temporary alliances with the radicals now, he said, Kurdish fighters are determined to stand up against sectarianism when the regime falls.

"Now we Kurds are in the fight, fighting alongside even al-Nusra in Aleppo, and the day after, we will defend all Syrians," he said. "I swear to God, if some radicals want to go kill the Alawites, we will fight with our guns and die to defend the Alawites because we are the army for all Syrians."

The Salah al-Din Brigade's members, who also include Arabs and Turkmen, explicitly affirm their desire for a secular state respecting pluralism, minorities, and religious freedoms. With their identity as mostly secular Kurds, they see themselves as a bridge between Syria's Sunni Arab and minority communities.


Uniting Syria's secularists

Syria's secularists were initially unorganized, but they have increasingly banded together to combat the rise of radical Islamist factions. Muhammad Hussein, a cardiologist and human rights activist from Aleppo, has been one of the key figures in building bridges between the country's disparate nonsectarian revolutionary forces.

Hussein launched the National Coalition to Protect the Civil Peace in late 2012 to unite secular civil society groups and aid organizations with secular-minded rebel brigades. He is currently working to bring together forces like the Salah al-Din Brigade, the minority-led National Unity Brigades that operate in parts of Idlib and Hama, and small Christian brigades that exist near the city of Qamishli with their counterparts in aid organizations, schools, and grassroots movements.

"There are a lot of people here who still believe in our nation," Hussein tells me. This coalition of civil forces may not be able to halt the rise of radical jihadists, whom he refers to as "sick-minded people," but he hopes that it will at least give civil and anti-sectarian forces a foothold on the ground.

At this point, Hussein's coalition is mostly focusing on Aleppo. The city is particularly important due to its ethnic and religious diversity -- Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and Sufis all call it home -- and the rise of radical groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra there. Hussein's plan is to establish "militants ready to protect the civil peace," composed of both rebel groups and secular activists, to police the neighborhoods. These local groups will police their own areas, protecting against sectarianism and radicalization.

Such forces are not yet fully in action, but their intent is to protect communities from both the regime's sectarian shabiha and radical Islamist groups. "There was never any option other than opposing this awful regime," Hussein says. "What's coming next may not be good in the short term, but we must at least have something in place to protect national unity. We cannot surrender to the extremists so fast."

Despite the energy of the anti-sectarian movement, the regime's increasing brutality is leading to worrying signs of radicalization across Syria. Of those I spoke to, only a few were willing to criticize Jabhat al-Nusra, saying that the al Qaeda-linked jihadi group is helping on the ground in ways the West has failed to do.

What I found most surprising was how many secularists and activists from minority backgrounds defended the jihadists. Ali al-Meer, a Shiite doctor and spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee of Salamiyah, a city whose majority is Ismaili, summed it up. "Look, I am Shiite, but these Salafis are helping us. Ahrar al-Sham is fighting the regime and delivering aid even to Shiite areas, even if we don't see eye to eye on many things."

One Alawite woman who wished to remain anonymous cast a more defiant tone: "I don't understand why the United States calls Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist, while Bashar al-Assad is the only terrorist in Syria."

Syria's revolution began peacefully, and hopeful anecdotes of national unity are still evident on the ground. As the conflict drags on, however, the anti-sectarian forces are slowing losing ground to the radicals -- but still remain Syria's last, best hope for avoiding a sectarian civil war.



Live, from Beirut...

Watching TV with Hezbollah.

BEIRUT — "Lebanon isn't a country so much as it's a place, full of people," a Lebanese friend told me recently.

In your average country, the thinking went, citizens share a sense of national identity -- not to mention a basic sense of common interests and purpose. The Lebanese on the other hand, my friend meant, seem thrown together at random: Their social and political views run the gamut, from sexually liberated supporters of liberal democracy to teetotaling partisans of Islamic theocracy.

Lebanon likes to celebrate its diversity. And it's true: It boasts the Middle East's largest Christian population, one of the largest proportions of Shiite Muslims in the Arab world, and a Sunni middle class that often appears more concerned with commerce than about Islam and jihad. All these disparate parts, however, don't add up to a nation: Lebanese often spend their lives within a few blocks of each other and often remain virtual strangers clustered into neighborhoods or enclaves, and the country remains violently divided on the political issues of the day -- most recently, the bloody 22-month civil war in neighboring Syria.

As a result of Lebanon's sometimes comical, often tragic political scene, locals and foreigners alike often overlook that the country boasts perhaps the freest media environment in the Middle East. Like its famed religious eclecticism, however, media diversity does not translate into a melting pot -- rather it just provides each side a foxhole from which to launch potshots at its enemies. The result is channels that reinforce all their viewers' prejudices and biases in a manner that can make Fox News look pretty close to its comical slogan of "fair and balanced."

While it's not entirely true that you can judge a person's background by what he or she watches on television, in Lebanon a pattern does appear to exist. Right-wing Christians have MTV and LBC, owned by businessmen with close ties to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist movement. Lebanon's Shiite Muslims have Al-Manar, Hezbollah's television station, and its more secular, trashier cousin, NBN. Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims have the Saudi-centric Future TV, a media appendage of a major political party owned by the Hariri dynasty.

The least bleak perspective can often come from New TV, a station that began as an independent voice in 2001, but one that leans toward a secular audience generally not fond of Israel. It's usually the best source of journalism with the fewest number of forehead-thumping moments of absolute propaganda. And in my neighborhood, the Christian bourgeoisie looks to French satellite channels to remind it of the myth of its "Phoenician" roots and help equip them to make the often ridiculously racist argument that they are indeed not Arabs.

There are some moments of popular unity: Lebanon used the earlier part of the 2000s to pioneer reality-television programming in the Arab world. And during the month of Ramadan, which can feel like the old-fashioned "sweeps week" on American networks, miniseries draw strong attention from across the political spectrum, as do old Egyptian movies and trashy music videos of local stars. Hyperaware of the increased audience share throughout the Arab world, the plotlines often reflect the attitudes of the ownership but with a strong populist tendency toward Israelis as villains.

But beyond this, there's little mixing of ideas. If you support the rebellion in Syria or don't ache for the destruction of Israel, you're unlikely to watch Al-Manar for very long. For the most part, pro-Syrian regime partisans don't sit down in front of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have played a central role in cheerleading for the rebels. And Hezbollah members don't really watch a lot of music videos and ribald soap operas -- at least, in front of me.

It was with this -- and the situation in Syria in mind -- that I set off on a winter's evening to watch the news with a couple of guys from Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. One of them (we'll call him Hassan) is a midlevel Hezbollah commander from a small village in the south. His best friend, whom we'll call Ali, is a secular Shiite with close family ties to Hezbollah and a history as a civil war-era gunman that gives him a strong dose of respect on the streets of the southern suburbs. Along with my friend who follows the situation in Syria closely and speaks near-native Arabic, we planned a night of watching Lebanese television.

But first Ali and Hassan had to pick me up from my apartment -- less than two miles from where they've spent most of their lives.

We promptly got lost in the warren of one-way streets around my home. As I barked directions in my crude Arabic, everyone in the SUV began laughing at our inauspicious start. The lack of basic geographical knowledge wasn't limited to my comrades. I can safely say that virtually none of my neighbors can find their way around the Hezbollah-controlled areas of Beirut either.

"I've been here before; I know where to go," muttered the taciturn Hezbollah commander. He was quickly embarrassed, as he fancies himself slightly better traveled and open-minded than many of his colleagues. We blasted down yet another one-way street amid pissed-off honks from Christian commuters stuck in Beirut's notorious rush-hour traffic.

I ventured that a civil war between Christians and Shiites might be difficult if neither side can find its way around each other's neighborhoods, and even Hassan let out a small giggle.

"If there's a civil war, I'll be able to drive any way I want on the street," he joked. "But there will never be a civil war between Christians and Hezbollah because our weapons are only for the Israelis and not to be used on the Lebanese."

It was the first of many moments that began candidly and turned into a recitation of the straight party line. Hezbollah members aren't really allowed to socialize with foreigners and don't give interviews to the media. But Hassan and I have known each other for nearly five years, and though he's comfortable in my company, getting him to say anything that isn't more or less the official line of the self-described "Party of God" can feel like an ordeal.

And here's the thing: Hassan isn't lying to me or putting on a show. He completely buys into Hezbollah's worldview. Outsiders tend to marvel at the military and psychological discipline of Hezbollah's fighters, but ideological discipline is much easier if everyone involved profoundly believes the party line is The Truth.

"The captain of the ship doesn't like getting lost," Ali teased his friend.

"I'm not lost," Hassan muttered. "Now how do we get to Hamra?"

At that point we were in downtown Beirut. Hamra, perhaps the city's most famous neighborhood, was less than a mile away. My cheeky suggestion that we follow the signs that said "Hamra" elicited only a scowl. It was yet another example of this fractured country: Its divides are not only religious and political, but imprinted on the geography of the land.

We finally found our way back to Ali's house. Turning on the television, we first watched MTV, a Christian station owned by the Murr family dynasty. Five pundits were debating which election law Lebanon should use in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"There will never be peace in this country," ventured Ali, as he switched the channel from the painfully boring debate on a nevertheless critical issue. "We can't even agree on how to hold the elections."

Hassan suggested that we should watch a coming special on Al-Manar -- Hezbollah had promised to release a slew of new combat-camera footage from the 2006 war. "We will show our special forces are the best in the world," he said. "Our special forces can throw rocks in the air and shoot them out of the sky!"

I asked him why Al-Manar and Hezbollah chose to release that documentary now, in light of the growing tensions between Shiites and Sunnis over the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah has thrown its lot behind President Bashar al-Assad's regime, while Lebanese Sunnis overwhelmingly support the rebels.

"It's for Hezbollah's supporters, to show the world that the resistance is not a militia but a noble cause," Hassan explained. "We have begun a combination of a conventional army and guerrilla force. It will show what we were like when Hezbollah first started and what we have become today. And we want to show that our only target is Israel, not the Sunnis of Lebanon, not any of the Lebanese."

But I didn't want to watch Al-Manar with these guys -- the point was to get them to talk about programs they would never otherwise watch. So I changed the channel to Al Arabiya, the Saudi-funded satellite channel that has been a vocal supporter of the Syrian revolution. The lead stories were on Syrian refugees in Jordan, the fighting in the southern Syrian city of Daraa where the revolution started, and incidents along Syria's border with Jordan.

As Al Arabiya ran footage of a slew of dead kids and what it described as "civilians," Ali got a little heated.

"This is normal in a war!" he exclaimed. "We've all lived through this, and there are violations of human rights by both sides every day. As Lebanese we know this from the civil war. In a civil war, people lose their minds."

"That report was mostly lies," said Hassan. "But it got one thing right: The Jordanians want to protect their border because the rebels are Salafi terrorists. Jordan makes sure to keep the [Free Syrian Army (FSA)] away from the borders because they're worried they will eventually turn on them."

I flipped the channel to Al Jazeera. It was the day of U.S. President Barack Obama's second inauguration, and the Qatar-funded station was broadcasting live as the presidential motorcade drove down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House.

"Oh, look," laughed Hassan. "There's Obama, the president of the world!"

"Do you really think he runs the world?" asked my friend.

"Remove Iran, Hezbollah, China, and Russia, and he's the president of the world," remarked Hassan. "Outside of those four, America de facto controls the world with its policies because America has agents working in every Arab country."

This was the prism through which Hassan saw the conflict in Syria: It was an attempt by the United States and its local allies to deal a death blow to one of the only forces that threatens Israel -- one more example of Washington's attempt at global domination. But according to Hassan, whose view of the world was shaped by Al-Manar, the Syrian regime was nowhere near collapse.

"Bashar al-Assad has never been more comfortable, and the Syrian army has yet to deploy more than 10 to 20 percent of its troops against the rebels," he lectured. "The FSA does an operation with 100 men and 99 are killed. One comes back and goes on Al Jazeera and calls it a massacre [of civilians]. Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera are playing the biggest role in this war by playing to everyone's sensibilities."

The scrolling chyron on Al Jazeera announced that 89 Syrian civilians and rebels were killed that day by the regime's bullets -- but Hassan would hear none of it.

"Oh yes, 89 people are killed by the regime's bullets," he said. "But is the FSA using water guns?!"

"If Bashar promised to turn his back on Hezbollah and Iran and let Israel keep the Golan Heights, this war would be over in a day," Hassan continued. "I think you will see big changes this year as Syria, America, Russia, and Israel come together to fight the rebels because they're al Qaeda terrorists. Syria will end up the most powerful country in the Arab world, and Bashar will stay in power."

Ali laughed at this idea, but then got serious.

"You can't argue with these people," he said in English, pointing at Hassan. "They truly believe this stuff in their hearts. They're so religious and disciplined, there's no room for anything else. He's not trying to trick anyone; he truly believes this in his heart."

The irony is that the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have not always been so joined at the hip. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, ordered the public executions (just around the corner from where we were sitting) of two dozen Hezbollah fighters in the 1980s in an effort to keep Syrian control over the Shiite areas in the face of expanding Iranian influence.

I asked Hassan whether he trusted the Syrian regime.

"Now I do," Hassan admitted. "But before the revolution I did not. [Bashar al-Assad] made many mistakes at first -- he was oppressive and handled it badly -- but he fixed these mistakes. Now he's OK with opposition; he just wants a clean opposition. And now everyone in Syria is talking about reconciliation between the rebels and the regime. This war is almost over."

At that stage, my friend began debating Hassan about the situation in Syria with mounting frustration. Hassan would hear none of it. Despite speaking the same language, they couldn't agree on a common set of facts -- beyond that there was violence in Syria. After a few minutes of circular argument, I realized the experiment was over. TV would not bring us together.

It's not just a couple of Hezbollah guys in the Dahiya Shiite suburb who refuse to let facts mix with ideology. My neighborhood is filled with Maronite Christians still in denial about decades of demographic change who virulently refute any notion of a Lebanese Arab identity. Thankfully, Lebanon does have a silent majority of reasonable thinkers who know that what they see on television is probably nonsense.

Ali and I eventually laughed at the two as they battled and decided to call it a night. As all four of us left Ali's place for the ride home, he switched the channel back to Al-Manar before turning it off.