To Syria’s Revolutionaries, Assad Isn’t Looking So Bad After All

With their revolution hijacked by Islamists, many Syrian rebels are rethinking their stance against the man they've been trying to overthrow

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Vahid Salemi / AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on Aug. 19, 2009

It all started because Souad Nawfal wanted to wear pants. Every day, the 40-year-old schoolteacher turned antiregime activist would go stand in front of the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in the rebel-controlled city of Raqqa to protest the al-Qaeda affiliates’ harsh tactics in her hometown. She hoisted placards calling for an end to injustice, for an end to oppression. First they ignored her. Then they told everyone else to ignore her, and then they tried to beat her. Still she persevered. “A girl all by herself facing the Islamic State,” she sniffs in a recent video posted on Vimeo. “Talk about a state! It’s more like a small gang that takes advantage of people’s fear.” But the small gang was powerful, and when ISIS started threatening her life, Nawfal finally had to flee for Turkey, where she is now hiding in a safe house, wondering what happened to Syria’s revolution.

She is not alone. Hundreds of activists have watched in desperation as the revolution they launched to overthrow the repressive regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad threatens to deliver their country into the hands of equally oppressive Islamist radicals determined to turn Syria into an Islamic caliphate. “A lot of former activists are now saying to me, ‘When the choice is between Daish and Assad, I am going for Assad,’” says Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, using the Syrian Arabic word for ISIS. To be sure, not all the rebel groups share the same ideology, but the most effective fighting groups, with their ranks filled by foreign jihadists, funded by private donors in the Gulf and backed by al-Qaeda, are gaining ground. As they grow, they are squeezing out the activists who dreamed of a Syria founded on democratic representation, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

(MORE: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Al-Qaeda’s New Star Rises)

In March 2011, Nawfal joined the Syrian revolutionaries protesting the repressive regime of President Assad. When Raqqa fell to the rebels in April 2013, she was one of the first to cheer. But then she got a closer look at the rebels. Raqqa had been taken over by al-Qaeda sympathizers who immediately started implementing their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Music, photography and cigarettes were forbidden. Women were instructed to cover their heads and dress “modestly” — even though Nawfal wears the tightly wrapped headscarf of a conservative Muslim, the rebels objected to her wearing trousers. Anyone who objected to their ideology was tried, and punished, as an apostate. Dissidents disappeared. Nawfal started wondering what, exactly, she had been liberated from. So she started protesting and made a series of anti-ISIS videos.

In one she lambasts ISIS members in Raqqa for being so preoccupied by the fact she wears trousers to protest, while they conceal their identities with scarves and balaclavas. “I don’t ask why you are dressed the Afghan way,” she says. “How can pants be sinful and not the mask? They kidnap, they steal, they arrest. And no one can complain about anything because we don’t know who they are!” From her safe house in Turkey, she told Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabiya TV on Dec. 4, “I was standing against all those abuses that ISIS was carrying out. In terms of abductions, arrests [and] accusations, its behavior was the same as the regime’s.”

Her gender may have won her some time; scores of male antiregime activists who tried to take on ISIS have been thrown in prison, kidnapped, tortured or disappeared. Frustration with the rebels has driven many activists to exile while others have simply given up on the revolution. Some are even rethinking the revolution entirely.

(MORE: Syria Rebels Turn on One Another and That’s Not a Bad Thing)

Like Nawfal, 29-year-old Abu Samer from Tartous on the Mediterranean coast was an early supporter of the push to overthrow Assad. Now he thinks it was a mistake. Arming the rebels, he says, using a nickname to protect his safety, was akin to arming the next generation of sectarian dictators. In the early days of the revolution, he and his fellow rebels derided peaceful opposition groups as cowards for their attempt to effect change through dialogue and protest alone. “It turns out they were right. Arming the revolution brought ISIS to Syria,” he says with regret. He still believes that Assad has destroyed Syria, but fears that Assad’s overthrow may usher in something worse. The only way Assad can be defeated now, he says, is “by the armed Islamic groups, which are worse than the Assad regime.”

As a former revolutionary, he is loath to admit that the best solution in the end may have to be compromise. Still, he sees no alternative. The upcoming peace talks in Geneva, slated for Jan. 22, give him some hope. Assad, he says, is a criminal that must eventually leave power. Nonetheless, “Syrians in the opposition and in the Free Army [one of the early groups made up largely of defected government soldiers] should negotiate with the regime and accept a solution that leads to a government consisting of the regime and the opposition.” It’s not a popular conviction, he says, but it is the most practical. “Without that, the whole country will be destroyed.”

Even as ISIS forced her into exile, Nawfal says she will never compromise with the regime to defeat them. “You don’t fight injustice with even bigger injustice.” ISIS, she tells TIME via Skype, “is digging a hole in the body of the revolution to inject into it malignant diseases which harm the people and only the people. We are forging ahead until we bring down the regime and, with it, ISIS, God willing.” But the longer the war lasts, the fewer the numbers forging alongside her.

— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut; a special correspondent for TIME / Tartous, Syria

MORE: Syria’s Many Battlefields: Islamist Rebels Wage War Against the Kurds

22 comments
SaqrHajr
SaqrHajr

Bashar Al-Assad regime was surely a dictator. The regime was closed group of benefactors. What the regime people wanted is money and to remain in power, nothing else. However, it was clear since the beginning that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the leading armed opposition group. And of those who don’t know, the Syrian MB is the worst version of MB, alongside the Algerian branch, much more evil than any other branch. The Syrian MB started terrorists attacks since the 1960s and they have clearly stated in their literature that Shiia and Alewiits are infidels and that only Sunni should rule Syria. They have started their acts very long time before Bashar’s father (Hafiz) decided to crack’em down 80-82! The Syrian believers of democracy should’ve have read the Syrian MB history(63-82) and should have also known that a country with such demographic makeup (Religious Sunni Arabs- Secular Sunni Arabs- Kurds – Christians – Alewiits and Shiia ) can NEVER handle an armed revolution, period. The result is clear , you have divided the country to at least three groups with no trust towards each other.

Tiger-Pi
Tiger-Pi

Remember Saddam Hussein's Iraq now turned into a wasteland by sectarian violence? Remember the Iraqi-Iran wars and the terrible Gulf wars of the 1990s? What have the western alliance achieved in Afghanistan all these years? The Balkan Wars have left behind unabated rancor and hatred.  The continued unrest in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt are other examples of the foolishness of the western alliance's wrong policies and blatant interference  by politicians who are misled by their equally inept intelligence agencies. Syria under Assad has been a thorn to Israel and they have used this opportunity to get rid of him and bring in  radicals funded by  certain  Arab countries. Ultimately, the  hapless people of Syria will go on suffering whatever regime that overlords them. 

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

With all its faults, Syria under Assad was and is not an Islamic State where non-believers are threatened. The idea of Sunnis coming together because Assad was an Allowaite, has soon turned sour. The reality is that Islamic States believe in zero plurality and every State should become Talibans! Finally, sense will prevail and moderate people of all faiths will want to edge out the extremists

azmalhome
azmalhome

Syria rebels are not Muslim according to holy quran but satan, satan was muslim once upon a time, Syria rebels are muslim according to Obama.  muslim couldn't inhale cigarette at all. http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/smoke-biggest-problem-for-muslim/   Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:27    Who break the covenant of Allah after contracting it and sever that which Allah has ordered to be joined and cause corruption on earth. It is those who are the losers.
Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:7     Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/violence-is-a-biggest-sin-in-islam-religion/  

FaridGhadry
FaridGhadry

For those who have followed the Syrian Uprising closely know well that Assad's violence against Syrians (Many videos of Assad forces killing civilians while cursing Islam and posting them on YouTube) will eventually drive the Jihadists to pour into Syria. It was an intentional policy just to spark international outrage and lead Ms. Baker, and others, to write such articles. The Jihadists fell for it, the international media fell for it, but the real losers in all of this are the hapless millions of Syrians we now all want them to live under the brutal Assad regime and to simply co-exist with tyranny, torture jails, and unreal oppression as if they are a Sunday stroll to a nearby Starbucks. We can always defeat the Jihadists because they do not hide behind a legitimate Government protected by UN Resolutions, unlike Assad we cannot even send one drone to stop any of his terror. Not wearing pants temporary or get tortured in Assad's jails permanently? Aryn Baker has chosen for us.

callen34
callen34

Democracy and Islam are simply not compatible. 

ag20390
ag20390

Makes sense. I feel no sympathy for Ms Souad Nawfal.


She should have remembered the age-old saying - You sow a wind, you reap the whirlwind.


Besides we have seen amply what the cretin some call "the armed component of the opposition" are capable of. Ripping open their opponents' bodies, eating their organs, bombing the ancient Christian towns of Maloulaa and Sadad, pillaging through churches, smashing and ripping out age-old paintings and artifacts, slashing Christians' throats if they refuse to "revert" and holding nuns hostage. They even have zero respect for their own religion - they killed the Grand Mufti of Damascus and have bombed the Zeinab shrine.


Contrast that to Dr Assad who has maintained a strictly secular administration in Syria and gave shelter to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who fled the post-Saddam violence in Iraq.





AsperGirl
AsperGirl

It's always been obvious that the Syrian rebels had no idea what they were doing.  The Arab uprisings of the last few years are very destructive and short-sighted in that what they seek is to drive the current leaders out of power.  They have no plan, system or organization for how to change their countries after they are done attacking their leaders and the leaders are gone.  


Driving a leader that you hate out of power is not a plan for the future.  It's not a reasonable way to change your country.  The Arab uprisings in the past few years are just sad, ignorant attacks on authority by people who don't have the sense or intelligence to focus on politics.  


Armed rebels, especially young males, find release in taking up arms against a hated authority figure.  Violence against hated authority figures without a plan for leadership is just another way to destroy their country.  The Syrian rebellion is more about hating authority and love of violence, and has no focus on on what change means or how to make a future happen.

JFearing
JFearing

@US_exceptionality Except that Assad is nothing like he has been portrayed by the Islamist opposition who are really behind the bogus Arab Spring there. Under Assad women have equal rights so do Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis unlike the rebels who have been targeting Christians and Shiites for kidnapping, torture, murder, and exile. Under Assad every child was getting educated with a secular education unlike the 'rebels' who put boys under religious instruction and girls under the veil. Under Assad Syria is a secular nation that does not dictate religion for its people unlike the Islamist opposition that sets up Sharia law courts wherever they've 'liberated'. Under Assad Syria's economy was growing and so was tourism. Under Assad Syria has open internet and elections for parliament and had a ratification election for the new constitution. Under Assad, Syria went from one recognized political party to over 30. Assad doesn't eat little girls for lunch, instead he is a loving father to the children he has with his one wife who walks beside him, not behind him. Under Assad Syria had $0 foreign debt unlike all the so called organic revolutionaries who are dependent on Saudi Arabia or Qatar for their financing of 'freedom and democracy' in Syria.

JFearing
JFearing

@FaridGhadry Nonsense. The problem is that the revolution was always a veiled Islamist takeover of secular Syria driven by Muslim Brotherhood ex-pats who whined and cried about the atrocities of the Assad government while somehow managing to be alive to tell us all about it. Same thing has been happening since day 1 of this phony revolution that hides behind well intentioned but naïve reform wishers who think you can ward of salafists with rallies and signs. The REASON Assad has a strong police presence is BECAUSE he's been fighting these various internal and external factions who are trying to shred secular Syria and replace it with a fundamentalist religious regime who bows before the US and our demands. The jihadists who have come in at the request of the SNC and FSA are they ones committing the tortures, abductions, rapes, murders, beheadings etc. Not wearing pants temporarily??? Or not wanting your child murdered in front of you because the 'rebels' thought he made a joke involving the prophet? Not wearing pants??? Or watching as Christians and Shiites are routinely marked for deportation or kidnapping or torture or murder? Not wearing pants??? You are from another planet if you think an Islamist fundamentalist state is preferable to the solid reforms and progress that Syria is making under their legitimate president Assad.


JFearing
JFearing

 Nonsense. The problem is that the revolution was always a veiled Islamist takeover of secular Syria driven by Muslim Brotherhood ex-pats who whined and cried about the atrocities of the Assad government while somehow managing to be alive to tell us all about it. Same thing has been happening since day 1 of this phony revolution that hides behind well intentioned but naïve reform wishers who think you can ward of salafists with rallies and signs. The REASON Assad has a strong police presence is BECAUSE he's been fighting these various internal and external factions who are trying to shred secular Syria and replace it with a fundamentalist religious regime who bows before the US and our demands. The jihadists who have come in at the request of the SNC and FSA are they ones committing the tortures, abductions, rapes, murders, beheadings etc. Not wearing pants temporarily??? Or not wanting your child murdered in front of you because the 'rebels' thought he made a joke involving the prophet? Not wearing pants??? Or watching as Christians and Shiites are routinely marked for deportation or kidnapping or torture or murder? Not wearing pants??? You are from another planet (or the Muslim Bros or some Saudi backed group) if you think an Islamist fundamentalist state is preferable to the solid reforms and progress that Syria is making under their legitimate president Assad.


ag20390
ag20390

@FaridGhadry


Awww, such sympathy for the organ-devouring thugs some call "rebels"!


It seems you have chosen for us (and no doubt many will support your pathetic and evil stance) the policy that the Syrian government should be subjected to drone strikes and bombings to enable those gangs (who no doubt cheer Islam as opposed to cursing it) to seize control of Syria. Have you seen what the gangs have done to Maloulaa and Sadad?


A bunch of morons who "talk" in hotels (Hope the USA doesn't foot the bill) who'd do a worse job than Mohammed Najibullah of running Syria and a number of armed gangs who take pleasure in killing Christians, Alawites and even Sunnis who oppose them and want Shariah law VS a Baathist republic, strictly secular (which is a miracle in the Middle East) which gave shelter to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who fled Iraq after Saddam Hussein's government was bombed out of power there and the radicals wreaked havoc. 

A difficult choice, isn't it?

FaridGhadry
FaridGhadry

@ag20390 @FaridGhadry No. You misunderstood. I favor arming the rebels to defeat Assad first because we can defeat the Islamists later with done attacks. We need a UN Resolution to defeat Assad with the same drones. 

vetramon
vetramon

@FaridGhadry @vetramon I forgot, mr farid, Why don't you ask the Syrian Christians and the other Syrians that profess a distinct faith than the islamists, if  they prefer the terrorists, or the secular Assad? mr farid, you that know so much and hate so much, you didn't answer what I asked you, why, after 3 years, Assad is still standing in spite of efforts and support of the WE, not only with money, but with mercenaries and arms?

vetramon
vetramon

@FaridGhadry @vetramon Besides you being ignorant, you are more than naïve. If you go to the DOHA discussions that you can watch on You tube, you can hear a retired CIA man that used to " WORK'' in Iraq and in other middle east countries, regretting the fall of Hussein at the hands of this CIA man's bosses due to the present situation.

    Now, mr farid, who designate the enemies and the friends? Who are you, mr farid that so arrogantly includes yourself in the WE and the rest as THE OTHERS? Have you no knowledge of the bloody deeds that your WE have done in the middle east? And by the way, the WE continue blindly doing the same horrific deeds, led only by the hatred that the cold war mentality give them.


FaridGhadry
FaridGhadry

@vetramon Let me explain it again because I seem to be misunderstood by everyone. It's Monday, so it's OK. 

We let our weaker enemy defeat our stronger enemy using methods Russia will veto if we act directly, then we move-in to defeat our weaker enemy using methods the world will favor under any circumstance. 

Read the last part again because it clearly says we defeat the Jihadists, after they defeat Assad, with drone attacks. Unless you think Assad, the mass murderer, is the answer.

vetramon
vetramon

@FaridGhadry @ag20390 Mr farid, you have closely, by own admission, followed the strife in Syria, but let me tell you something, sir, you know nothing of the intromission of " CERTAIN POWER'' in the affairs of the hot spots in the world. This is because this certain power still considers the world at large as its domain. The cold war mentality is still alive and kicking in its brutal view of the world. Geopolitics reigns in every cell of the rulers of this entity. When China, Russia, or any country that is emerging in this neoliberal world, try to put a foot in any country that this power considers its backyard, then immediately is considered an enemy and the demonizing starts to try to defeat the ruler that dared go against its power. Assad is no more brutal than the other Islamist tyrants (Even though Assad is a secular dictator), but the difference is that the other tyrants are secured, with their oil, in the American Camp.

    You have, mr Farid, followed closely this struggle, but you understand nothing. Do you know what is the future of Syria if Assad is defeated by these fanatics? Do you know what is the future of the Syrians that have a different religion than these fanatics. It is not a matter for a woman to abandon her pants, she has to abandon her freedom as a woman for the freedom of the Sharia law. That is very peachy for you, mr Farid.