5 ways the Syrian revolution continues

Bashar al-Assad has “won” the war in Syria – or so many analysts tell us.

His regime has reconquered swaths of territory from rebel forces with starvation-and-surrender sieges, barrel bombs, chemical weapons and what one human rights investigator called “industrial scale” torture and killing of detainees.

Still, the regime might have fallen had Russia not stepped in and begun bombarding opposition strongholds in 2015.

In areas now under Assad’s grip, Syrians speak of exhaustion, forced complicity with government rule and the return of the very walls of fear and silence that they sacrificed so much to tear down.

No one should underestimate the crushing toll of this violence or overestimate the capacity of any people to endure more than Syrians already have.

“We’re tired and we can’t bear any more blood. We’re afraid for Syria,” an activist told me. And that was in 2012.

But that does not mean that the struggle for freedom, dignity and justice that Syrians launched eight years ago is over.

Since 2012, I have interviewed hundreds of displaced Syrians who championed the uprising. I have seen that their revolution persists wherever Syrians continue to believe in their capacity to make change.

Five realms of activism and resilience stand out.

1. Nurturing civil society

Forty years of dictatorships stifled independent civil society in Syria. But the years since 2011 have witnessed a flourishing of citizen-led activities in fields from education to media and the creative arts.

In Syrian towns where rebels forced the state to withdraw, communities labored to create local councils through which people governed themselves. The regime subjected these experiments in civic participation to siege and bombardment, and then collapsed them in areas retaken by its troops.

In this 2012 photo, Syrian shopkeeper Yasser Mamaar speaks about working as a member of his town’s revolutionary council to distribute fuel, broker a truce with the army and win the release of dozens of locals kidnapped by armed groups. AP/ Khalil Hamra
Still, civic work continues inside and outside Syria. Citizens for Syria, itself a Syrian initiative, identifies hundreds of organizations and projects spearheaded by and for Syrians.

Among them are the Molham Volunteering Team which, beginning as a group of students, is now an essential nonprofit provider of humanitarian relief. Women Now for Development offers vocational training, literacy courses and small grants that have empowered hundreds of Syrian women.


Read more: How the Syrian uprising began and why it matters


In these and other efforts, Syrians are demonstrating their will to build a democratic society from the bottom up, against enormous odds. This is a realm in which individual and state contributions can help.

For example, the Trump administration froze stabilization funds for Syria in 2018. That forced to a halt at least 150 civil society organizations. Some laid-off staff had no choice but to seek salaries with the only entities that offered them: armed factions, including those that the United States identified as terrorist groups.

2. Mobilizing for detainees

Syrians continue to take action on behalf of the more than 100,000 citizens who have become forcibly disappeared. Most of them were nonviolent civilians arrested arbitrarily by the government.

Copious documentation details the torture, death, rape and sexual violence synonymous with imprisonment in Syria, and even the suspected use of crematoriums to dispose of prisoners executed en masse.