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The Stalled Revolution

Ten days with Syria’s besieged protesters.

On a Monday in late February, I received a Facebook message from a Syrian activist notifying me that a demonstration was due to start in half an hour in a heavily guarded section of Damascus. The occasion was a funeral, and so the protest was likely to be large. “Two of the five martyrs are children, and funeral processions for children are always big,” the message explained.

I took a cab to the Kafr Sousa district, an area that is home to many government buildings, and walked for 20 minutes, until I came upon about 75 casually dressed men toting machine guns. These were the shabiha—the plain-clothes, pro-government militia who have taken the lead in suppressing the rebellion. Their presence suggested that I was headed in the right direction.

I followed a barely perceptible trickle of young people down a residential side street. Old men stood around nervously, as if waiting for something to happen. A boy of about ten came darting up the middle of the street, his face partly obscured by a hoodie. “Allahu Akbar,” he shouted as he ran. I fell in behind him and, after passing another line of heavily armed men, there it was: a nondescript mosque with several thousand ululating mourners huddled outside.

The body of a twelve-year-old boy was being held aloft on a wooden board—he had apparently been shot by the army during a previous protest. I could see no Western journalists or anyone from Syrian state television. Locals had clambered on the back of a disused truck and were shooting footage on iPads and digital recording devices. When I took out my phone to take a picture, however, a masked man approached and suggested that I put it away.

For a time, the shabiha looked like they might not let anyone leave. Eventually, however, the funeral procession began to move, with a group of teenagers at the front. A bearded man told me that this was common: Young people “have more energy than us,” he said, “so they take the lead.” I approached a nattily dressed young man in his mid-twenties wearing a beret and a cardigan, and introduced myself as a journalist. “Have you Coke and onions?” he replied. This response was not as nonsensical as it sounded: When the demonstrations are targeted with tear gas, protesters rub Coca-Cola into their eyes and use onions to take care of the acrid smell.

The young man, Mohammed, told me as we walked that the demonstrators were shouting to the child, “Your father said, ‘Hold your head up high,’” and to his parents, “We are all your son.” At funerals, he explained, mourners avoid political statements so as not to provoke the army or the shabiha. A single mention of Bashar Al Assad could provoke a hail of bullets. He warned me that, if anything happened, I shouldn’t run forward or backward but tear off down a side road. “You can’t get arrested,” he said. “You are going to be our voice.”

As we marched through narrow streets, people congregated on their porches and balconies to watch and pay their respects. The adults were stony-faced, but the children were smiling, and one or two were dancing. A group of boys began pounding hard on the iron grille of a closed shop front, but Mohammed, who seemed to double as an informal steward, shooed them away. The owner, he explained, was suspected of working with the secret police: “We can’t give the government the slightest excuse. If we so much as light a fire, they will come for us.”

Five minutes later, they did. A brief funeral oration was read, during which the crowd stood perfectly silent. Shortly afterward, it tried to push forward and the shabiha charged. Everyone dashed for cover; Mohammed and I raced down an alleyway. After about 100 yards, we looked behind us and saw no one was following. We emerged at an incongruously pristine shopping mall, and I invited Mohammed for coffee.

This was my third trip to Syria. I first visited in October 2010 and again in November last year. This time, I was particularly eager to meet the young activists who are the heart of the movement against the Assad regime. Three out of five Syrians are under 25, and, beyond the lazy clichés about a new “Facebook generation,” there’s little understanding in the West of who they are and what they might want. And so I came back to Syria for ten days, not as an officially sanctioned journalist but as a civilian—living in ordinary Damascus hotels and meeting as many Syrian activists as I could.

I HAD BEEN NOTIFIED of the funeral procession by a young woman named Nadia—a sassy, fast-talking 21-year-old student at Damascus University. (I’ve changed the names of some of the activists with whom I spoke.) She’d shown up for our first meeting wearing a glamorous white hijab and a plastic raincoat. Nadia seemed well-to-do—her parents, she told me, were comfortable but not rich—and she spoke in perfect, American-accented English. She refused my offer of coffee. “In the coffee bars, someone’s always listening,” she explained. So we walked to the nearby Ummayad Mosque and sat down outside.

Nadia had been involved with the anti-government movement for less than two months. She’d been quietly sympathetic to the protesters when demonstrations first broke out across Syria last March. But she hadn’t joined in, because of the horror stories about the way the Syrian regime treats female political prisoners. Then, in December, Arab League observers had arrived to monitor the regime’s treatment of the opposition. Baathist supporters of the Assad government decided to organize rallies to demonstrate their strength. One was planned for Damascus University; those who didn’t want to take part were ordered to leave the campus. Nadia told me that a friend of hers stayed behind and was raped by a shabiha. Not long afterward, Nadia went on her first protest.

Since then, she has become accustomed to the threat of violence. She told me almost matter of factly about one demonstration she’d attended in a district called Mezzeh—about 20,000 people gathered amidst falling snow. (Footage of this rally can be seen on YouTube.) Without warning, the shabiha opened fire. “I hit the ground immediately,” Nadia told me. “Most of the bullets went above our heads. I could hear them whizzing past.”

Together with a group of fellow students, Nadia helps organize demonstrations. She would occasionally send me cryptic text messages inviting me to check my Facebook account, where I would find directions to protests. Her texts tended to arrive at the last minute: The pervasive security presence in Damascus means demonstrations are frequently organized on the fly.

Her group also coordinates the delivery of medical supplies to beleaguered opposition strongholds like Homs, where activists fear hospital employees will turn them in to the authorities. Their caution is justified: In February, a report released by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that security forces “systematically arrest wounded patients in State hospitals ... to interrogate them, often using torture.” The report also noted that sections of two hospitals had been converted into “torture centers,” where security agents “chained seriously ill patients to their beds, electrocuted them, beat wounded parts of their body or denied them medical attention and water.”

As we sat talking outside the mosque, a posse of shabiha wandered past in green khakis, handcuffs jangling from their waists. Some appeared to be barely more than teenagers. But Nadia was more concerned by a pudgy, bearded man holding a camera and staring in our direction. “Secret police,” she said. Nadia estimated that one in four Damascenes have some kind of relationship with the sprawling Syrian security state. In March, documents allegedly leaked from the Syrian security apparatus and published by Al Jazeera noted that 1,000 security staff were deployed around the Ummayad Mosque alone. (The day after I met Nadia, I discovered that the secret police had been asking questions about me. “State security. They wanted to know who you were and who you’d been meeting,” a man told me. “It’s normal, but be careful.”)

Nadia suggested there might be fewer prying eyes in the mosque, so we removed our shoes and walked inside. Nadia belongs to Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. The political ruling class, however, is dominated by Alawite Muslims, a minority offshoot of Shia Islam. Nadia told me that her opposition cell contains both Christians and Alawites as well as Sunnis, but all the same, she is eager to see a democracy with a Sunni coloring. And, like many Sunnis, she sees a conspiracy in Assad’s apparent invincibility. She’s convinced, for example, that Barack Obama and the Israelis are working together to keep Assad in power.

It wasn’t long before Nadia lost her faith in the possibilities of a peaceful revolution. In the middle of December, Syrian opposition groups called a national general strike. Everything duly closed down in rebel strongholds like Dara’a, but participation in the main cities—Damascus and Aleppo—was patchy, either because of passive support for the status quo or because people were simply afraid. Nadia became deeply angry—at the government, but also at her fellow Damascenes, many of whom have been quietly keeping their heads down during the uprising. “How can they just sit around in coffee bars and enjoy themselves, pretending all this just isn’t happening?” she demanded.

Nadia told me that she believes the only way forward is to keep up the pressure on the regime with demonstrations but also, if necessary, to topple it by brute military force. “If we’re going to have a war, we need proper arms, not the few Kalashnikovs that the Free Syrian Army has,” she said. Despite her enthusiasm for armed insurrection, however, she’s never actually met anyone in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

THREE DAYS LATER, an activist named Khalid, whom I’d met on my first trip to the country, arranged for me to interview two members of the loose collection of armed units who make up the FSA. Khalid took me to a huge, ornate building, where, in a small annex, two soldiers sat on plastic chairs. Damascus was in the middle of a power outage—a symptom of the economic sanctions imposed on Assad’s regime—and so, for the next half hour, with Khalid as my translator, I interviewed the pair in total darkness.

What I knew of the FSA came largely from the brief period in January when Western journalists had managed to accompany Arab League observers around the country and interview rebel soldiers. But these ruddy-cheeked young men looked very different from the hardened fighters I’d read about in the papers. Both were from farming families in Kafr Batna, a suburb about three miles east, and both had defected from the Syrian army. Grim-faced but unfailingly polite, they told me they’d quit because of the brutal military response to civilian demonstrations in their areas. Soldiers had broken away from the army in small groups, joining with civilian volunteers to protect their communities from the security forces and the shabiha. The men said they only took orders from the officers who’d defected with them, but, when communications permitted, they were in touch with similar groups around the country. As their numbers increased, the FSA grew bolder—they’d lay ambushes and booby traps to meet the army when it showed up to quash demonstrations. The regular Syrian army retreated, and for a brief time the FSA was able to move freely around the towns and countryside surrounding Damascus. I asked if they’d killed shabiha, and both said they had.

But, at the end of January, the Arab League monitoring mission was suspended because of the increasing violence, and the regime made its move. The Syrian army shelled Kafr Batna and then followed up with a ground assault. Both men had been on the run for a month, moving between safe houses to avoid detection. If apprehended, they faced execution. The economic sanctions against the Syrian government, they believed, were worse than useless—they took a long time to work and only hurt ordinary people. The soldiers claimed that the FSA was 20,000 strong in the countryside around Damascus—but was badly in need of heavier weaponry than Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Right now, the men admitted, they weren’t capable of taking and holding territory from the regular Syrian army. As things stood, they weren’t even sure they should be going on the offensive: After all, they’d defected to defend their families and communities from injustice, not to launch a civil war. “We have many chances to attack,” said one, “but we won’t do it: The reaction would be harsh and terrible.” If anything, it was now the people who were protecting the soldiers, rather than the other way around. “People have been arrested just for making us a cup of tea,” one told me. One of the soldiers said 13 members of his family had been arrested because of his activities; anyone with his surname, he added, would automatically be arrested at a checkpoint. At least for the time being, these soldiers were emissaries of a temporarily defeated guerrilla force.

OVER COFFEE after the funeral procession, Mohammed told me, in his halting but careful English, that he grew up in the southern city of Dara’a, where the first protests broke out last March. There, he and his brother had published an informal newsletter they called “The Hall of Shame.” It contained a list of the people in his village who they believed were passing information to state security in return for favors or contracts. “If you’ve been giving information to the secret police, then this is a friendly warning to stop—or face the consequences,” one of the newsletters said.

For the last few years, Mohammed had been working for most of the week in Damascus for the government. The pay was lousy, but he counted himself lucky to have work at all. His friends and family are scattered over both sides of the conflict. His girlfriend is a government supporter, he said, from an area where almost everyone is pro-government. I asked if he told her about his opposition activities. “Most of them,” he said with his laid-back smile. Things were easiest in Dara’a, where everybody knows everyone. In Damascus and Aleppo, the population is more transient and thus more paranoid: No one trusts anyone. His mother was a staunch supporter of the Assad regime; Mohammed warned her that she’d only change her mind when the trouble arrived in her own house.

I told Mohammed about a trip I’d recently taken to Douma, a populous commuter town outside Damascus. Douma had effectively been taken over by its residents late last year, but, in January, the Syrian army stormed in, and, when I visited, the area was clearly back under government control. The mobile phone network was still cut off, and, on a balmy Saturday afternoon, in a town with over 100,000 people, there were more soldiers than civilians on the main thoroughfares. The only visible sign of the uprising was the graffiti: “GET OUT, WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE BASHAR” and “BASHAR IS A BABY KILLER.” To my surprise, however, Mohammed chuckled at my bleak description. “Bashar treats us like a chicken farmer, you know. He thinks he can pen us in, turn the electricity back on, and we’ll keep laying eggs.” Even though the opposition was suffering, the regime was losing its power to cow people, he said. Once, he and his fellow activists would lower their voices as they walked past government informants. Now they talk louder, to show they are no longer afraid.

Mohammed could be critical of his own side, too. “This movement likes to talk big,” he said. Referring to the funeral procession we’d attended earlier, he observed: “There are three people being buried today, but, by the time the news reaches Al Jazeera and YouTube, it will be hundreds. In Dara’a the government switched the electricity off for a week and everyone was saying it lasted thirty days. It doesn’t help.” Nor did he have a very high opinion of the FSA. “Look at the pictures of the demonstrations,” he said. “It’s the people who usually are in the first line, with the Free Syrian Army behind them. When the army attacks, they have to run away and leave the people behind. It’s dangerous.”

As we chatted, Nadia texted to make sure that I was safe. I invited her to come and meet my new friend. “Be careful,” she replied. “Spies are everywhere. Don’t trust anyone.” When she arrived, she and Mohammed began an animated but friendly discussion on the state of the revolution, occasionally breaking off to translate the highlights into English. Nadia favored arming the rebellion by any means necessary. “Who cares about the agenda of the Saudis or the Qataris?” she demanded. “We just need the weapons.” Mohammed, however, was suspicious of armies of any kind and of outside intervention: He didn’t want to see one armed gang replaced by another. He seemed more like an old-fashioned community activist: His goal was to help build up an indigenous opposition large enough to sustain a revolution. For now, neither had thought much about what a post-Baathist Syria might look like.

THE NEXT DAY, I took a taxi to Homs, a city of about a million people in the heart of Syria. Within 20 miles of the city, my cell phone went dead. Around the same time, I noticed an enormous cloud of black smoke sitting high above the city: fumes from an oil pipeline that is regularly blown up by one side or the other.

Homs was once where Syrians went to escape the hustle of Damascus, to unwind in cafés and restaurants. In the autumn of last year, however, after the Syrian army turned its guns on peaceful opposition protesters in the center of the city, the conflict there became more violent and spread to residential areas like Baba Amr. In November, I’d spent a few days in Homs, when the city was under total military lockdown. I knew a good deal about what had happened in the intervening three months, but I was still shocked at how much the place had changed.

During my previous visit, people were still going through the motions of normal life, at least in the government-controlled center of town. Shops were open, and in the morning people would venture out to buy food before scurrying home to avoid the snipers. But, just like it had done in Kafr Batna, the Syrian army began a renewed offensive against Homs in early February, and nearly a month of constant shelling had left it shattered. On the road into the Old City, glass and debris lay everywhere; huge piles of garbage bags marked every street corner. At 10 a.m., everything was closed. When I returned to the hotel I’d stayed in before, it looked like it had been hit by a shell, and the surrounding area was so devastated and unkempt that I didn’t recognize it.

My driver was trying to find another hotel when we were stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier asked us to step out of the car and follow him around the rear of a disused public building. In a tiny makeshift office a swarthy man in a tracksuit, flanked by three teenagers dressed in khakis, invited us to sit down. On the table was a loose picture of a smiling Assad and a few glasses of neglected green tea; in the corner there was a shabby bed, beside which lay a small arsenal of Kalashnikovs and an RPG. In good English, the man in the tracksuit inquired if I was a journalist. “Journalists are always welcome in Syria, as long as they tell the truth and don’t tell lies,” he said, and everybody laughed. I asked if I might stay a night in the city, but the man pointed out that I didn’t have the correct permission. “You know,” he added, “we treat foreigners even better than our own citizens, and we treat our own people very well.”

The man made a few calls to find out what to do with us, but they seemed to go nowhere. After a while, he took me outside to sit in the courtyard as if to explain what he was up against. In the distance, I could hear the dull thud of shells, and he rolled his eyes wearily: “They shell us, we shell them.” He told me that the “terrorists” had better weapons than he does—they get them from NATO, and he had evidence that some of them are made in Belgium. It was the standard Syrian government line: that the uprising was the work of “armed gangs,” many of which were inspired by or indistinguishable from Al Qaeda. “No one believes us, but the people we’re fighting rape girls and chop people up with rusty swords, like something from a Hollywood film,” he insisted.

More than an hour later, the man tired of us and gave us permission to leave. On the drive out of the city, I could see a fresh plume of black smoke rising low to our right: a still-smouldering Baba Amr, where the American journalist Marie Colvin had been killed six days earlier.

THE MORNING AFTER I got back from Homs, I ran into Mohammed on the street. We laughed and hugged, and went to a tiny coffee bar in a nearby alley. The place was no bigger than a living room, and we were the only customers; Mohammed ordered Turkish coffee and an ashtray from the boy standing outside. When we first met at the funeral procession, Mohammed had mentioned that he had once been arrested. I asked him what had happened, and, in a conversation that took nearly seven hours, he told me the story.

It was the twenty-sixth evening of Ramadan—August 26—and he was at home watching YouTube footage of a crowd inside the Rifa’i Mosque chanting for God and freedom. Security police blocked the exits and barged in, beating the protesters and manhandling the imam. Mohammed isn’t very religious, but what he saw infuriated him. The next day, he joined about 50 young men outside the same mosque. They shouted explicitly political slogans: “The people don’t want Bashar!” and “He who kills his own people is a traitor!” Soon enough, they were set upon by several hundred men in plain clothes.

Mohammed remembers being grabbed by three men—one holding each arm and one holding his belt at the back, almost lifting him off the ground. He was forced to run a gauntlet of jeering secret policemen who were swinging at him with their fists and then he was hauled onto a waiting bus. While the bus was moving, Mohammed remembers being bent over a seat with his arms tied behind his back in plastic handcuffs and an elbow being brought down repeatedly on his neck—his assailants shouting, “You want freedom, I’ll show you freedom.” At the end of the bus journey, Mohammed and the others were fitted with makeshift blindfolds—made, he thinks, out of tire rubber. They were told to perform strange exercises—to take off all their clothes and then put them back on again in quick succession. After a while, they were taken up eight flights of stairs. Entirely naked, they were instructed to raise both hands and hold one leg up above the floor for minutes at a time. Anyone who allowed his leg to drop was immediately beaten. The next thing he recalled was being taken to a kind of wooden bed, where he was held down by a number of men and beaten on the legs with what seemed like an iron bar. When Mohammed tried to stand up, he found he couldn’t walk. In the coffee bar, he paused and then tried to distract himself by blowing a smoke ring across the room. “At this time, I was crying,” he said, and we sat in stillness while, very quietly, he cried again.

With 14 others, Mohammed was taken to a different prison. Each man was assigned a number—Mohammed’s was 17—and ushered into a large windowless cell, about 25 by 15 feet, which housed 45 men. His captors took a particular interest in him. For one thing, his identity card showed that he came from Dara’a, the starting point for the uprising. Then, they found his mobile phones, which contained some pictures of “The Hall of Shame” newsletter he’d written with his brother, as well as a recording of one of the protest songs that have become increasingly popular among Syrian activists.

When he found the newsletter and the song, Mohammed’s heavyset interrogator went ballistic. He brought down a lit cigarette on Mohammed’s palm, making him clench his fist around it. Then he began playing the protest song repeatedly on the cell phone, beating Mohammed in time to its rhythm. The interrogator demanded to know who was recording and distributing the songs, but Mohammed refused to tell him anything. By the fourth day, they’d discovered photos of a corpse on one of his phones, a relative who’d been shot dead by security forces. “Why do you have it on your phone? Were you going to send it to Al Jazeera?”

The beatings and interrogations become routine—an hour at a time, once a day. When one of the prisoners returned to the windowless cell, his fellow inmates would throw water at him from all directions—their way of trying to lighten the mood. The 45 men only had six mattresses between them, so they’d sleep in shifts. When a guard entered, everyone had to stand and face the wall; those who didn’t stand up quickly enough were beaten.

The men eventually figured out that they were being held not far from the Damascus airport, by the Palestine Security Branch—one of the most feared of the many labyrinthine agencies that exist to protect the Syrian state. Before long, they were all listening to each other’s stories. There was a history teacher from Damascus University, a pharmacist, a doctor, a lawyer in the finance industry. Then there was a Turk who couldn’t speak any Arabic and a disoriented Syrian exile who claimed that he’d been kidnapped from nearby Lebanon. Most were well-educated and all were Muslim, but few were very devout. There was one bearded, deeply religious man from Homs, Mohammed recalled, and one day he took Mohammed aside when he came back from a beating. “Don’t scare, be strong,” he told him. “You are in the right!” Five minutes later, this man’s number was called, and Mohammed never saw him again.

Finally, Mohammed was invited to put his fingerprint to a printed confession. When he asked to read it, the interrogator began slapping him about the head, and eventually Mohammed added his fingerprint to the document. After that, the beatings mostly stopped, and instead the guards set about having fun at his expense. By his tenth day in prison, they were taking him out of the cell and telling him to pretend to be a monkey in front of other guards and inmates. They made him sit on top of another prisoner and pretend to ride him like a donkey. On the sixteenth day, he was transferred to another facility, where some 300 prisoners were crammed into a room about 25 by 20 feet. Mohammed would sleep standing up and spent most of the rest of the time hunkered down on his knees. But there was a window—which gave him hope.

The following day, along with 200 other men, Mohammed was taken to a military court and charged with incitement against the government, burning government buildings, and making and distributing videos against the government. Basically, Mohammed says wryly, “lots of things against the government.” He told the judge he’d been kept in conditions fit for an animal and that he hadn’t done anything wrong. At that point, he was transferred to a different court, told not to do it again, and then released.

THE SYRIAN REGIME is winning every battle it picks with the armed opposition. Two days after my trip to Homs, the FSA in Baba Amr announced it would “strategically withdraw” from the neighborhood: It was running low on weapons, it said, and wanted to spare what remained of the civilian population. The army is now trying to clear Homs of what it calls “armed gangs,” just as it did in Douma, Kafr Batna, and Harasta. After that, it will likely turn its attention to other pockets of resistance farther afield. According to the United Nations, about 9,000 people have been killed so far, and, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, 230,000 have been displaced from their homes; 18,000 are thought to be detained in government prisons.

Like Nadia, an increasing proportion of Syrians feel that the only way to overcome the government is to meet force with military force. But many others, like Mohammed, fear Syria might degenerate into another Iraq—a virulent hotbed of sectarian fiefdoms and armed gangs. Some older activists I met, rendered powerless by the daily catalogue of death and suffering, have become depressed and fatalistic.

And yet, despite the increasingly grim situation, I was struck by the optimism of Syria’s new opposition. As Mohammed and I had hastily departed the funeral procession on the day we met, our sprint slowing to a stroll, I’d pressed him on whether he resented the country’s religious minorities, many of whom didn’t seem to be taking any interest in the uprising or were quietly taking the government’s side. “Our revolution isn’t a race, it’s more like a marathon,” he responded, jokily imitating the labored jogging of a long-distance runner. “Some people are there from the beginning, and many others join only half-way through. But, by the finish line, we’re all going to be moving at the same pace and running along together.”

James Harkin is a London-based writer. His latest book is Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream. This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.