The road from Damascus

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

‘Hope’ was a word on many lips in the Middle East in 2011.

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire to protest against government harassment in December 2010, the Arab Spring was born. By the time that Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on January 4th, the anti-government demonstrations that had quickly flooded the streets of Tunis had spread throughout the country, and by January’s end, had spilled over its borders. By November, four deep-rooted Middle Eastern regimes had tumbled, with several others engaged in hasty reforms.

For Dima Hussain, a first-year Law researcher at the EUI, ‘hope’ is the word that often comes to mind when she recalls the early days of the Arab Spring. Hussain was a law student in Damascus when the tide of popular protest that had already gripped much of the Middle East reached her native Syria. ‘It was an amazing time,’ she reflects, ‘and I am really glad I lived through it.’

Syria’s uprising took a little longer to ignite than its Tunisian or Egyptian equivalents. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, initially spoke openly about the revolts underway elsewhere in the Middle East, happily telling the international media that Syria was ‘stable’ because his government  was ‘very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.’

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Before 2011, living in Damascus was like ‘living in total oppression’, Dima Hussain explains.

Indeed, when demonstrations did break out in Homs, a city some 160 kilometres north of Damascus, many observers expected Assad to adopt a conciliatory approach. In the ten years since succeeding his father Hafez al Assad, who had ruled Syria for nearly thirty years, the younger Assad had given lip service to enacting reform in Syria. Alongside his young British-born wife he had, as the New York Times put it, ‘put a pleasing modern face on the Syrian autocracy’.

Yet appearances can be deceiving and, under the surface, little had changed. ‘We lived in total oppression,’ Hussain explains, noting that Syria’s notorious secret police were still extremely powerful, while power still remained entrenched in the hands of the country’s old guard.

‘Even now, when I think about how we were living and how fearful we were, I can’t comprehend it,’ Hussain, who was working for UNHCR in Damascus alongside her studies when the uprising started, told EUI Times. ‘You wouldn’t even be able to tell your closest friends about your political ideas. Everyone was forced to live double-lives; one where you said that everything is OK, that you support the government, the president, everything – and another that you keep for yourself, where you are distraught with the corruption and oppression that was going on.’

So when the first protests did break out in Syria, ‘it was not an ordinary moment’. ‘It was a moment of common realisation among people,’ Hussain recalls. ‘I remember the first demonstration I participated in. Seeing yourself among people chanting to demand change in the country after all that fear, I was in tears. I could not believe that we had finally reached that moment.’ Protesters sought, among other things, greater civil rights and a repeal of a state-of-emergency edict that had been in place for almost 50 years.

Yet any anticipation that Assad might take heed of the public’s desire to change Syria’s status quo was short-lived. In an ominous address to the Syrian Parliament in late March 2011, Assad declared it a ‘national, moral and religious duty’ to crush ‘sedition’. ‘There is no compromise or middle way in this,’ he warned.

Nonetheless, the idealism of those early rallies endured for the best part of two years, which Hussain remembers fondly. ‘It was very hopeful, and full of dreams of justice and a better future.’ Yet the early optimism of Syria’s revolutionaries soon faded. The turning-point, she believes, was the silence of the international community. ‘We felt that everyone was failing us.’

‘I remember that, around the fifth month of the revolution, everybody internationally started to call it a civil war. That was really a shock to us. Why is it a civil war? You called what happened in Egypt and Tunisia a revolution, and that is not far from what happened in Syria. So why is our uprising a civil war rather than a revolution?’

It wasn’t until Hussain saw a Red Cross report stating that conflict in Syria had become so widespread that it met the criteria for a civil war that she ‘understood where this was going.’ Syria’s uprising ‘wasn’t something that the international community, or the most powerful countries, wanted to support, that was very clear from the beginning.’ As a result, the brutality of the regime increased, because Assad ‘realised that the international community was turning a blind eye.’ To this day, Hussain struggles to explain why Syria was apparently seen through such a different lens than other countries in the Middle East.

By the end of 2012, Hussain had made the decision to leave Syria. ‘My boyfriend was arrested by the regime and detained for a month,’ she explained, meaning that his movements became increasingly restricted as the government erected checkpoints throughout Damascus. Hussain was fearful for her own safety, too, having been involved with the opposition before and after the uprising. ‘This was a time when many of the civil society activists and people involved with the uprising decided to leave the country. The number of arrests was skyrocketing, as did the number of people being tortured and imprisoned. Everyone became increasingly worried about their safety.’

Around the same time, Hussain’s village in the countryside surrounding Damascus was hit by a regime airstrike, displacing her and her family for around three months. It was then that she and her boyfriend decided to get married, and move to Lebanon. In Lebanon, Hussain worked firstly with an Italian NGO, before working to provide legal help to Syrian refugees on behalf of the Norwegian Refugee Council. In 2014, she moved to the United States, taking her LLM at Syracuse University, before doing a fellowship in Washington.

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Protesters take to the streets of Damascus in 2011. ‘I was in tears,’ Hussain recalls.

Now in Florence, a few months into the first year of her PhD, the extent of Syria’s political crisis still weighs heavy on Hussain’s shoulders. Yet there is still a discernible flash of optimism in her voice when she speaks about her home, which becomes especially clear when she discusses her work at the EUI. Hussain, a Law researcher, is studying the sulha: a traditional, tribal method of conflict resolution and reconciliation common in many Arab countries. She plans to examine whether there is a link between the sulha and modern methods of reconciliation underway in Syria, investigating whether and to what extent they impact transitional justice and peace-building.

Hussain’s research reveals something that is often overlooked in media coverage of the Syrian Civil War – that reconciliation is ongoing on many different levels, despite a ‘blockage’ at the international level. From the onset of conflict, she argues, ‘people started to create their own methods of reconciliation.’ That has ranged from conflict resolution between local communities, to members of those communities and even between fighting groups on both sides of the conflict. While much of the media coverage of Syria focusses on the war against the so-called Islamic State and the power games of Russia and the US, Hussain’s work could reveal that Syrians themselves are trying their best to get on with rebuilding their lives.

Hussain believes that the peace-building initiatives undertaken at an international level are fundamentally flawed. Alluding to the previous round of major talks, convened by the Kremlin in the Kazakh capital Astana last July, she argues that the discussions were ‘aimed at grabbing more land for the regime’ rather than peace. ‘This,’ she says with pointed understatement, ‘is problematic.’

The peace process in its current form is being conducted ‘like a military strategy’. Systematically, the regime is surrounding one opposition-held village at a time, cutting off its services and supplies and forcing the fighters to negotiate. However, more often than not, the opposition’s terms – most important of which is the release of detainees – are not met. Instead, people who oppose Assad are shuttled to the northern province of Idlib.

Looking forward, she does not believe that Syria can ever return to its pre-2011 status quo. As disheartening as it may seem on the surface, Hussain believes the militaristic way in which the regime is seeking to end the conflict is doomed to fail. ‘It cannot be permanent, because grievances have not been addressed yet, and the population is still not happy.’

While she admits that Assad will ‘regain control’ of the country in time, she thinks his government will be spread too thin to exert any power.  Already, she points out, many villages and communities are effectively self-governing because the regime is unable to exert any authority – that, ironically, was a central aim of the uprising in the first place. As for Assad’s powerful allies in Moscow and Tehran, Hussain believes their gazes will shift once their military objectives are secured.

Eventually, Hussain hopes to return to Damascus and pick up where she left off in 2012. That likely won’t be possible for several years. Nonetheless, once again, there is no shortage of hope.

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