Syria: This Is Not a “Civil War”

October 9, 2012

Syrian artist Jaber Al Azmeh speaks to the dangers of using the label “civil war” instead of “revolution” when discussing the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Jaber Al Azmeh, The People, 2011. Photo taken in Damascus.

I left Damascus seven months into the revolution. I was working as a photographer for a living, but I had no income anymore. I knew what this regime was made of and how far it could go, and, of course, the safety of my family was most important.

The decision to leave was further intensified by the fact that I had to start working in secret—if I wanted my voice to be heard, I decided moving was my only option.

The regime brought the revolution upon itself, foolishly.

We knew the regime would have no problem hitting cities with missiles. It did so before in Hama, in 1982, when Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father, killed 20,000 or more of his own people. For a second, as we looked at images of the president and his wife, smiling, appearing civilized, we believed he might be different from his father. But only for a second. We are not surprised by Bashar al-Assad’s brutality: We are simply amazed that he has been able to survive this long. We believed this revolution would succeed much earlier.

We never thought this could happen today—massacres against civilians while the whole world is watching.

The regime brought the revolution upon itself, foolishly. The president had a lot of people who really bought his lies and liked him. After Cairo and Tunis, he could have simply fooled them again by making some slight changes and concessions. Without changing the country to a real democracy, he could have turned into a “hero.” But the regime said insolently, “Al-Assad or we burn the country.”

What I find insulting is that what is happening in Syria is referred to as a “civil war.” It is none other than a revolution of the people. While it is true that the regime in Syria is mainly composed of the Alawite sect, not all Alawites support it; I have many Alawite friends who are working with the revolution—Christians and Druze, too. For the past 40 years, the regime has worked behind the scenes to make minorities believe the rest of our society threatens them and only the regime is there to protect them. That is why many Christians, for example, do not support the revolution; they fear Islamists will come to control the country.

It is therefore essential to hold onto the term “revolution,” which is a positive one, associated with hope, faith and dreams…

In the beginning, however, there wasn’t the slightest hint of sectarianism in the struggle. The mukhabarrat (secret police) tried to turn it; that was their best strategy to destroy a united nonviolent uprising. They needed to justify their brutality, so they wanted people to carry weapons. They encouraged sectarianism, and they may have succeeded to an extent: the more the struggle goes on, the higher it risks slipping towards sectarian division. But I believe this is only temporary. The divisions will gradually disappear once the regime goes down.

It is therefore essential to hold onto the term “revolution,” which is a positive one, associated with hope, faith, and dreams of a better life and future. It means overthrowing any power that controls the people, and so it is a constant threat to any regime holding on to power, anywhere in the world. I think the Syrian revolution and the Arab Spring represent threats not only to the dictators but also to other regimes, because their success would show all the people of the world that they have power. The Occupy Wall Street movement is waging a similar struggle against Western banks and corporations, and in contrast to the U.S. democratic system the media tout, the American police were brutal—because the corporations in power were scared.

The term “civil war,” unlike “revolution,” is totally negative, associated with distraction and agony. It is much safer for those in power to label popular revolutions “civil wars” in order to distort the image of a revolution, or any movement of the people toward true freedom. Likewise, regimes around the world use the financing of extremism, whether from Arab or non-Arab sources—of course, from the West it is much more secretive, as in the case of the United States and Osama bin Laden in the past—to suppress popular sympathy for revolutions. So spreading word of the financing of “jihadists” is another way to damage revolutions, because people will start doubting the revolution and maybe start thinking that those dictatorships and regimes were not so bad after all!

The media comes in to complete the job of political regimes.

This is where the media comes in to complete the job of political regimes, disproportionately portraying “jihadists” on its screens and news bulletins so that no one can sympathize with the people rising up. I have lots of secular friends in the Syrian movement, and I have never seen a report about these people and what they are doing, even though they played a big role in starting the revolution. It would be giving too good an image to the revolution; it would ensure the sympathy of people from other countries, who would side with the Syrian people instead of fearing jihadist suicide bombings. It would show people how truly powerful they are against their own political system and ruling powers.

The mainstream media’s primary role, as always, is to manufacture what is called “world public opinion.” One of the strategies is to highlight extremists, who are also manufactured, because this will help the politicians justify spending so much on their militaries, or justify invading other countries or in some cases even bombing civilians and villages! Meanwhile, what they are truly doing is ensuring their interests and power all over the world and especially in poor and underdeveloped Third World countries.

People must remember lessons learned throughout history as they unite to create movements committed to freedom. As long as Bashar al-Assad, other dictators, and their financial and political supporters hold onto power, we must hold onto “revolution” as a word that inspires: It is our best hope.