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Amid Ongoing Conflict in Syria, Activists Work to Keep Alive Revolutionary Spirit of 2011 Uprising

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As the death toll in Syria’s five-year conflict reportedly reaches half a million people, we look at how Syrians are working at the local level to survive and organize in the midst of war—and to keep the revolutionary spirit of the 2011 Syrian uprising alive. We are joined by Yasser Munif, a Syrian scholar who specializes in grassroots movements in Syria, who describes the ongoing work of media activists, journalists, medical crews and rescue workers. “They don’t perceive the kind of work they are doing as humanitarian or relief work. They perceive it as the backbone of the revolution,” Munif notes. “The revolution is still alive. It may be marginal, but if there is a ceasefire … it can come back. It is very much invisible and, for some, unthinkable.” Munif is the co-founder of the Campaign for Global Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Syria, where renewed violence has erupted around the embattled city of Aleppo after a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the opposition expired. A surge in fighting between rebels and the Syrian regime has killed about 300 people there over the past two weeks. At least three people were killed last week when a maternity hospital in a government-controlled section of the city was hit by rocket fire. Secretary of State John Kerry said the rockets appear to have come from a rebel area. The hospital attack came days after the Syrian regime destroyed a Doctors Without Borders-backed hospital, killing at least 14 patients and three doctors, including one of the last pediatricians in rebel-held East Aleppo.

Meanwhile outside Damascus, Syrian government officials turned back an aid convoy carrying the first humanitarian supplies to the rebel-held town of Darayya in more than three years. The Damascus suburb has been under siege by the Syrian regime since 2012. Residents who had gathered to await the aid faced a shelling attack blamed on the Syrian government. Two civilians were killed: a father and son. Opening up besieged areas to aid delivery has been a key demand of the opposition during the latest round of peace talks, as well as a key demand of international aid organizations.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Russia have agreed to push for the revival of a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, amid hopes of restarting stalled peace talks. On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council expressed outrage over the ongoing violence, including recent attacks on hospitals. Egyptian Representative Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, the council’s president for this month, issued the condemnation.

AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA: The members of the Security Council expressed outrage at all recent attacks in Syria directed against civilians and civilian objects, including medical facilities, as well as all indiscriminate attacks, and stressed that these actions may amount to war crimes. They expressed their deep concern at violations of the cessation of hostilities endorsed by Security Council Resolution 2268.

AMY GOODMAN: According to a recent report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, the death toll in the five-year conflict has reached close to half a million people, nearly twice the number counted by the United Nations a year and a half ago, when it stopped keeping track of the numbers killed because of the data’s unreliability. The ongoing conflict has displaced about half the prewar population, with more than 6 million Syrians displaced inside Syria and nearly 5 million Syrian refugees outside Syria’s borders.

But beyond the plight of refugees and the violence, there’s another story in Syria that receives far less attention, that of Syrians working at the local level to survive and organize in the midst of war and to keep the revolutionary spirit of the 2011 Syrian uprising alive. To talk more about these efforts, we’re joined by Yasser Munif, a Syrian scholar who specializes in grassroots movements in Syria. He’s made several trips to Syria in recent years, most recently in 2015, when he visited the Syrian-Turkish border. He’s a sociology professor at Emerson College in Boston and a co-founder of the Campaign for Global Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.

Professor Yasser Munif, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what’s happening right now in Syria?

YASSER MUNIF: So, there are a number of different things happening, and there is—the spirit of the revolution is still there in Syria. Most recently, with the ceasefire that happened last month between the Russian and the U.S., and imposed on the Syrian regime and the opposition, there were massive protests in the liberated areas, in the Idlib and Aleppo areas, and they were demanding the fall of the Syrian regime, and they were chanting for the revolution of dignity and freedom and for democracy and so on.

And what’s interesting during, you know, those protests was that they were also protesting against al-Nusra. In those regions, there is a powerful presence of al-Nusra. And they were demanding the release of the prisoners that were held in al-Nusra prisons. And al-Nusra was trying to crush those protests. And they were happening for days and days, almost a month. And what happened in the end was that the Syrian regime bombed those cities. For example, Kafr Nabl and another city, it bombed the market there, and it killed 40 in one city and 10 in another city. And the message was very clear: The Syrian regime fears very much that type of peaceful protest, revolutionary spirit, and it wanted to crush it, despite its opposition to both sides, the Syrian regime and the jihadists in al-Nusra.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yasser Munif, you’ve spent several months in Syria since 2011. So could you tell us where you were in Syria, and also talk about some of the local groups you met there and how they’re organizing in the midst of this brutal war?

YASSER MUNIF: I’ve been several times to Syria since 2011. I’ve been to the suburbs of Damascus, but also to the liberated areas in northern Syria, in Aleppo, Raqqa and mostly Manbij, which is in the suburbs of Aleppo. And I spent several months there in 2013 and 2014, trying to see what’s happening and what people are doing. And what I’ve seen was really impressive, the kind of politics that people were reinventing and the kind of democracy that they were trying to build from the ground up and the institutions that they were trying to create to make their cities and their villages livable. And all that was taking place in a very challenging environment, with the violence of the Syrian regime and the incremental and gradual presence of the jihadists back then in 2013 and 2014. And yet, people were experimenting with new ideas, trying to create a new culture of resistance and dignity, and tried to also provide the basic needs for the population, without any kind of funding, without any kind of support and so on. And that’s the dimension of the Syrian conflict that is basically invisible or hidden for most in the West and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, Yasser Munif, where ISIS fits into this story?

YASSER MUNIF: So, ISIS, obviously, has different histories and genealogies. Obviously, we can’t understand the emergence of ISIS in Syria without going back to the history of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan, and more recently in Iraq, and the push for that kind of radicalization. We should also understand that the Syrian regime fears very much the grassroots, civilian, peaceful resistance that was happening back in 2011. And what it did was the release of many jihadists in 2011 and 2012, thousands of them, many of whom became leaders in the main military jihadist groups, including Ahrar ash-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, al-Nusra and ISIS. And also, the chemical attacks, the way that the entire world responded to the chemical attacks and what people saw with the chemical attacks radicalized part of the population. And some people basically went and started fighting with ISIS. Combined to a culture of racism in Europe, which is also pushing part of the Muslim population, and also non-Muslim population—there are some Jews and some Christians who convert to Islam and go fight in Iraq and Syria. And so, it’s a combination of all these forces, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who are also funding and backing ISIS for very narrow interests that are basically against the Syrian revolution. So I think it’s important to understand the emergence and the hegemony of ISIS in those different dimensions. It’s not simply a creation by the jihadists and the Salafi currents or discourses in Syria.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yasser Munif, you’ve just spoken of the xenophobia in Europe that has also led people from there to join ISIS. And I want to go to what presumptive Republican presidential nominee here in the U.S., Donald Trump, said about Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. He was speaking Saturday in Washington state.

DONALD TRUMP: We should build safe zones for Syrians. But we can’t bring them to Washington state. And you don’t even know where they’re going. You know, you saw what happened in Paris. You saw what happened at the World Trade Center. You saw what happened in California with the 14 people that they worked with—shot, killed, many people in the hospital, right now, many, many people in the hospital. These are people that nobody knows who they are, and they’re going to be in your community. You can’t do it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Trump speaking on Saturday. Yasser Munif, your response to what he said?

YASSER MUNIF: So, again, we can’t really understand the Syrian revolution or the Syrian conflict without understanding it in a more global and regional context. And that global context is one where there is a major economic crisis, high unemployment rates in Europe and beyond, creating resentments among white working classes and the marginalization, demonization, vilification of Muslims in Europe and beyond. And that’s also creating alienation among the Muslim population, that is reacting, part of it—we have to also point that this is really a small segment of the Muslim population, which is marginalized, and part of it think that going to Syria and fighting in Syria is a form of salvation, that Syria is heaven and that they could build what is referred to as the caliphate. And so, there is an environment of xenophobia that is very much—has a representation in Syria. For example, the far right also backs the Syrian regime. For example, David Duke and Alex Jones here in the U.S. or the BNP in the U.K. or the Le Pen National Front in France or even the white supremacists in Greece have backed the Syrian regime. And for some of them, they sent people to fight along with the Syrian troops, thinking that this is a war against Muslims and against jihadists and so on.

So, the Syrian conflict has many dimensions. And this is one of them. It’s also referred to as a civil war. It’s referred to as a sectarian conflict, as a proxy war, foreign intervention. But in all these narratives, what is really missing is the Syrian revolution. And for the most part, it’s been absent in any kind of discussion or talk about the Syrian revolution or the Syrian conflict.

And I think the left, the global left, has played a major role in that by dismissing what the Syrian people are doing, for a number of different reasons, in part because the Syrian regime imposed a media blackout and prevented journalists from going there. So there is very little reports from the ground that are in English and that people in the left and the progressive circles in the West and beyond understand. And for some people, they think that the Syrian regime is anti-imperialist, pro-Palestine, it’s allied to Iran and so on, and they have to side with the lesser evil, the lesser evil being the Syrian regime. For example, the—Seymour Hersh, as one example, has written four or five different narratives about the chemical attacks without ever really interviewing journalists or activists on the ground. And those narratives are really conflicting. For example, Robert Fisk, another journalist, who was very much against embedded journalism in Iraq, does only embedded journalism in Syria and has interviewed prisoners in torture chambers in Syria. Tariq Ali suggested that the only way to defeat ISIS is to side and back the Syrian regime. Some antiwar activists here in the U.S. and in Europe brought pictures of Assad in their demonstrations against foreign intervention. In many cases, leftists and progressives have organized conferences and panels about Syria, and oftentimes the Syrian voice was missing. And so, this has made the understanding of the Syrian revolution very much difficult, and marginalized and alienated part of the Syrian population, who think that leftists are against the revolution, that people don’t understand what is happening, that they are only perceived as Muslims and jihadists. And this revolutionary dimension is completely dismissed in those discourses.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to one of the journalists you just talked about, Seymour Hersh. Last month, I interviewed him, and he talked about Russia’s role in Syria.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Russian special forces are in the fight against ISIS with the Syrian army, with Hezbollah, with the Iranian army, the Quds Force. And the Russians have done an awful lot to improve the Syrian army in the past year—retrained them, reoutfitted them, etc., etc., etc. It’s a much better army since the Russians came in.

AMY GOODMAN: Yasser Munif, your response to Seymour Hersh?

YASSER MUNIF: So, Russia is a force of occupation in Syria. Like many others who are intervening in Syria—the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran—the Russians are playing a very detrimental role. So, for example, in the recent intervention and the airstrikes that they have been conducting since a number of months now, more than 50 percent of the people who were killed are civilian. The Russian airplanes have also bombed bakeries. And that’s a strategies—one of the strategies of the Syrian regime, basically propagating and imposing their politics of despair on the Syrians who live in those liberated areas or besieged areas. And most people despise and really reject that Russian presence or colonization that has—that the Syrian regime has imposed on them. Most recently, the Russians have also organized trips for journalists. And more than a hundred journalists visited military camps and military bases, Russian bases in Syria, and celebrating the Russian presence, which is very detrimental for the Syrian. And it’s basically making the continuation of the conflict possible. It’s backing the Syrian regime and its violence and its vicious war. So I very much oppose what Seymour Hersh is trying to do and represents.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yasser Munif, just before we conclude, I think one of the issues that we have here is a lot of confusion about who constitutes the Syrian opposition today. There seems to be a conflation of the opposition now with groups like al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc. So could you tell us how you would characterize the opposition now?

YASSER MUNIF: So we have to understand that the al-Nusra and ISIS and other jihadist groups are part of a counterrevolution. There are a number of different—or the counterrevolution have different dimensions, one of which is those jihadist groups. Obviously, there is the foreign intervention in its different dimensions, whether it’s Russian, Iranian or American and European and so on, or Saudi and Turkish. And there is also, obviously, the Syrian regime. But for the most part, most of the people who look at the Syrian revolt or the Syrian conflict think that the Syrian opposition, the official Syrian opposition, represent the entire revolutionary aspect or the Syrian opposition to Assad, which is far from truth. The official opposition represent a minority. Most people despise that Syrian opposition. And many of the activists, many of the revolutionaries who are on the ground, who continue the revolution, who are creating that and continuing that politics of dignity and freedom, don’t recognize themselves as part of that opposition. They are, for the most part, unaffiliated.

But the type of work that they are doing is tremendous. They are media activists, they are journalists, they are the medical crews, and they are the rescue workers. And they don’t perceive the kind of work they’re doing as part of humanitarian or relief work. They perceive it as, you know, the backbone of the revolution. And that’s, again, part of the confusion. And this is why I think that the revolution is still alive. It may be marginal, but if there is a ceasefire, as we have seen in the past month, it can come back. And it’s still present very much, but very much invisible and, for some, unthinkable.

AMY GOODMAN: Yasser Munif, I want to thank you for being with us, Syrian scholar who specializes in grassroots movements in Syria. Thank you so much for being with us. Yasser Munif teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go inside a prison where there’s been a work strike for the last 10 days. We go to Alabama. Stay with us.

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