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Mourning the Syria That Might Have Been
How Assad’s forces bombed a democratic experiment into oblivion.
Earlier this week, when the latest ceasefire in Syria’s long-running civil war took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized the opportunity to embark on a triumphant tour of a place that has long defied him. He paid a visit to the city of Daraya, a Damascus suburb where rebels managed to resist his forces for four long years until they finally agreed to give up control in the last week of August.
For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya. The troops surrounding it tried to starve it out, refusing to let aid convoys bring food to residents. Syrian helicopters pounded the city with barrel bombs, weapons of indiscriminate terror that have little or no military utility. In August, the Syrian air force used rockets and napalm to obliterate the city’s last surviving hospital. Some observers believe this was part of a calculated effort to make the place completely uninhabitable.
We’ve seen the same brutality in far too many places in this war. But there was something different about Daraya — something that helps to explain why Assad was so keen to celebrate its fall.
If you only follow the headlines, you can be forgiven for seeing this war primarily as a fight between two equally nasty alternatives: the totalitarian Baath Party regime of Assad or the totalitarian theocracy of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. But this is a drastic simplification — one that both Assad and the terrorists want their own supporters, and the world, to believe. But it is certainly truer today than it was back at the beginning of the conflict. By their very nature, civil wars have a tendency to foster extremes. The ruthless are rewarded, while the moderates and the evolutionary reformers tend to get culled out.
That’s exactly what has happened in Syria. Today, five years later, it’s easy to forget that Syria’s revolution started off amid the optimism of the Arab Spring. The first protests against Assad’s dictatorship were peaceful: Demonstrators were demanding democracy, not rule by Al Qaeda.
And Daraya was one of the birthplaces of this movement. In the revolution’s early stages it was the home of the activist Ghiyath Matar, known as “Little Gandhi” for his quixotic embrace of non-violence. When Assad’s soldiers arrived to crush local protests, he greeted them with flowers and water. They responded by torturing him to death. His corpse was later returned to his family with its throat torn out. The country’s downward spiral began.
In The Morning They Came for Us, her bloodcurdling account of the early stages of the war, journalist Janine di Giovanni explains what happened next. When she visited Daraya in 2012, locals gave her detailed accounts of a massacre conducted by government troops who had briefly managed to wrest the town away from the rebels. “It was punished,” she told me, “because it was a symbol of peaceful resistance.”
Yet even amid the descending darkness, the people of the city tried to hold on to their ideals. When Assad’s generals realized they couldn’t take the place back, they placed it under siege. Hunger became the government’s most potent weapon. “‘What did you eat today?’ I’d ask them,” di Giovanni recalls. “‘Grape leaves, some salt.’ They took leaves from the trees and made soup out of them.” Much of the population left, but several thousand locals, many of them activists, remained. In October 2012 they set up a council to govern themselves, and in the years that followed, even as life became nearly impossible, they persisted in holding regular elections — “every six months, inside every single office and department of the local government,” says Hussam Ayash, a spokesperson for the local council.
Most importantly of all, he told me, the local government persisted in maintaining its independence from the city’s militia, a non-jihadist unit of the rebel Free Syrian Army. In many other rebel-controlled parts of Syria, Ayash explained, local governments have frequently fallen under the sway of fighters, many of them Islamist extremists. By contrast, Al Qaeda and its ilk never managed to get a foothold in Daraya. “We had no services,” says Ayash. “We had no communications. We had no water. But also nobody could get in or get out. The only fighters in Daraya were the local people. So we had no jihadists.”
Ayash spoke to me on Skype from northern Syria, where he is now living after being “evacuated” from Daraya by government forces in the days following the city’s surrender on August 25. When the Syrian army managed to capture a key position on the outskirts of the city, Daraya’s leaders saw the writing on the wall, and accepted a government offer of safe passage to the north in return for their surrender of control over the community. This uncharacteristically lenient gesture by Assad was a shrewd move, one that enabled him to finally seize control of a key rebel stronghold at relatively low cost to his own troops. It was also calculated to undermine the resolve of rebel holdouts in other hard-pressed areas, who may now see a deal with the government as a more palatable option than continued resistance.
It’s hard to overestimate the psychological impact of the city’s fall. Fadi Mohammed, another Daraya activist, told me that the city embodied the hopes of the many Syrians who reject extremists of all stripes. He cites one occasion, early on, when protesters formed a human chain around the local government building to protect it from attack by pro-government forces, and recalls the city’s devotion to the principle of civilian control. “If the experience in Daraya had been protected and supported by the international community, it could have been a model,” he says. “Many people around Syria regarded Daraya as something special.” That’s a big “if,” of course. But it’s hard to dismiss the thought out of hand.
“The loss of Darayya is a watershed in Syria’s war,” wrote analyst Sam Heller of The Century Foundation in a recent blogpost. “For many in Syria’s opposition, Darayya represented the best of the Syrian revolution — a bastion of civil activism and nationalist, ‘Free Syrian Army’ rebels that held together and persevered for years against overwhelming odds, even as rebel-held areas elsewhere slid sideways into jihadism and factional infighting.”
To be sure, Daraya is also a place of considerable military significance. As Faysal Itani, an analyst at Washington’s Atlantic Council, points out, the city is just a few miles south of Damascus proper, and close to a key government airfield. “My own perception has always been that this is the most important geography of the war,” he told me. The surrender of Daraya and other areas near Damascus to government forces are, he says, “the most significant military victories of the war” — victories that owe a great deal, he says, to Russia’s forceful intervention on Assad’s behalf.
Now the government has succeeded in completely emptying the city of the people who lived there, and there are rumors that Assad intends to replace its rebellious Sunnis with members of other sectarian groups who are loyal to his regime. “What happened in Daraya is ethnic cleansing,” says di Giovanni, who notes that the practice of expelling civilians and replacing them with others is a direct violation of international law. “This will set a terrible precedent.” The situation is so dire that even the otherwise mealy-mouthed United Nations has seen fit to utter a few critical words about the expulsion of the city’s last inhabitants.
Daraya’s supporters often speak of it as an “experiment” in self-government and democratic practice. The question now is whether that experiment should be regarded as a failure, or whether its survivors can keep it alive at a time when their spirit of moderation and pragmatism looks like a throwback to a distant era.
Its example remains tantalizing. Here is a case where Syrians stubbornly stuck to the principles of civilized government even under the most forbidding circumstances. And that, clearly, amounts to a particularly potent challenge to Assad’s ruling Baath Party. “This idea of the choice, that you only have Assad or ISIS, it’s not right,” as Ayash put it. “Actually you have another choice, and this choice is us. We are looking for a future, and we think that we’ll have a decent future if we are free, with dignity.”
The sad reality, though, is that Daraya’s fall is a huge blow to this dream, and democratically minded Syrians everywhere are mourning. And this is precisely why the Syrian president decided to take his victory lap there. “It’s a real coup for Assad,” says di Giovanni. “He hated Daraya. It was everything he loathed.”
The photo shows a March 9, 2016 protest by local women and children in Daraya, who were calling on the government to allow for the delivery of food to the besieged city.
Hussam El Ahmed /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images