Syrian Uprising Expands Despite Absence Of Leaders

Aug 3, 2011
Originally published on August 3, 2011 8:18 pm

Syria's uprising has been called the YouTube Revolution. The protest videos from cities across the country are a guide to how the movement works.

The banners and the slogans are remarkably similar, from the city of Dera'a in the south, to Hama on the central plain, to the eastern desert town of Deir Ezzor. Even in the capital of Damascus, the chants are the same: "It's time for President Bashar al-Assad to go."

Yet there are no leaders directing the chants at these rallies. There is no national leadership, even behind the scenes, says Rami Nakhle, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, the LCC, the most well known of the groups opposing the regime.

"Actually, we are doing our best not really to have leaders, because the classic leadership concept is really not working with this uprising," said Nakhle, who is operating from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon.

The reasons are practical. The Syrian regime has targeted anyone who is seen as an organizer of the protests.

"If we name them, we are really putting them in grave danger," said Nakhle.

But there is something even stronger at work, said Nakhle. This Syrian generation has grown up under an authoritarian system and distrusts any kind of leadership.

"If some leader or some person starts to behave as a leader, the crowd will knock him down," he said. "Everybody really feels anger towards leadership and authority on them."

The result is an uprising that appears improvised, locally based, and driven by young activists who are backed by large numbers of angry citizens.

"We don't need anyone. It's our freedom and we have to fight for it. We are not afraid," said Mohammed Ali, an activist in Damascus who connects with other activists through Facebook.

Another Damascus-based activist, Amer Sadeq, uses an assumed name, and communicates in code on Internet sites. "You cannot trust anybody," he said. "If you trust anybody and he makes a mistake, then you are detained, that means almost certain possibility that you will be tortured."

While the groups in different cities are in touch through Internet chat sites, they can take a week to decide on the Friday slogan and tend to coordinate little else. They agree on ousting the Assad regime, but so far, there is no grand structure or strategy beyond keeping up the pressure on the street.

"It is a strategy," says Rami Nakhle, "making it look to (President) Bashar al Assad that every day is worse than that day before and to keep pushing until something cracks."

But as the international community distances itself from the Assad regime, one question has become more urgent: Who is the opposition and can get their act together?

"I think the international community wants a list, a list of 20 people whom they can check their background, and then they can talk with," said Wissam Tarif, head of a Syrian human rights monitoring group. "Well, there is no list and there will not be a list."

Political organizing is new for Syria, especially under an autocratic system that prohibits any meetings not sanctioned by regime.

"There is an internal process, a process that is taking place in the street, which we will have to wait to see what happens there," he said. "No one can control that. The real show is taking place on the ground with the protesters. And they will decide. No one else."

Still, some activists feel they need a transition plan that answers the crucial question: What next?

At a meeting in Beirut, Nakhle, one of the founders of the LCC, opens his laptop and explains a complex chart that he's been working on for weeks. Every city has what he calls a central committee. There is an LCC parliament, and a list of "advisers." For the first time, the grassroots movement is reaching out to Syria's older generation of dissidents for help to map out a transition plan should the Assad regime fall.

It may look great on the screen, but Nakhle admits that less than half of it is actually in place.

"Today we are ... playing with politics, we need to be more mature," he said.

But the Syrian government is not playing at repression. And the protest movement may need to mature quickly in a country where the violence is growing greater by the day.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

And let's talk, next, about the uprising in Syria, which has continued for almost five months despite government crackdowns. Spontaneous and leaderless citizens brave bullets and tanks. They're demanding the end of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. But the very strength of this rebellion may be undermining its goals. NPR's Deborah Amos has the second part of our series on the Syrian uprising.

Crowd: (Chanting in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS: Watch enough protest videos from cities across Syria, and you begin to understand how the protest movement works. The banners and the slogans are remarkably similar, from the city of Dera'a in the south, to Homs and Hama on the central plain, to the eastern desert town of Deir Ezzor. Even in the capital, Damascus, the chants are the same: It's time for President Bashar al-Assad to go.

Crowd: (Chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: They're shouting. They're chanting. They have signs. They must've had them in the mosque, planning for this protest.

But there are no leaders directing the chants at these spontaneous rallies. There's no national leadership, even behind the scenes, says Rami Nakhle, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, the LCC, the most well known of the groups opposing the regime.

Mr. RAMI NAKHLE (Spokesman, Local Coordination Committees): Actually, we are doing our best not really to have, like, leader, because the classic leadership concept is really not working with this uprising.

AMOS: The reasons are practical - given the scale of the crackdown.

And is it because, its too dangerous for them, if you name somebody they will be targeted?

Mr. NAKHLE: Absolutely. Absolutely. If we name them we are really putting them in grave dangers.

AMOS: But there is something even stronger at work, said Nakhle. This generation that has grown up under an authoritarian system distrusts any kind of leadership.

Mr. NAKHLE: If some leader or some person starts to behave as a leader, like the crowd will knock him down. Everybody really feels anger towards, like, leadership and authority on them.

(Soundbite of protestor speaking on megaphone in foreign language)

AMOS: Consider these scenes again, and the uprising appears improvised; locally based groups of young activists, backed by angry citizens.

Mr. MOHAMMED ALI (Activist): Its our war and we will fight till the end, and we are not afraid.

AMOS: Mohammed Ali, an activist in Damascus, connects with other activists through Facebook. Amer Sadeq, uses an assumed name, he communicates in code on Internet sites.

Mr. ALI: And you cannot trust anybody. If you trust anybody and he makes a mistake, then you are detained, that means almost certain possibility that you will be tortured.

AMOS: Groups in touch across the country can take a week to decide on the Friday slogans but coordinate on little else. They agree on ousting the regime of Bashar al Assad, but so far, without a structure or a strategy.

Mr. WISSAM TARIF (Executive director, Insan): Well, I think the international community wants a list, a list of 20 people whom they can check their background, and then they can talk with. Well, there is no list and there will not be a list.

AMOS: Wissam Tarif, head of a Syrian human rights monitoring group. He says that as the international community distances itself from the Assad regime, one question has become urgent: who is the opposition and can they get their act together?

Mr. TARIF: There is an internal process, a process which is taking place in the street, which we will have to wait to see what happens there. No one can control that. The real show is taking place on the ground with the protesters. And they will decide. No one else.

AMOS: Some activists recognize they need a transition plan and they have to build an organizational structure.

Mr. NAKHLE: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: At a meeting in Beirut, Rami Nakhle, one of the founders of the LCC, the Local Coordination Committees, opens his laptop and he explains a complex chart. He's been working on it for weeks.

Mr. NAKHLE: Every city has what we call, now, a central committee. And this is the red ball, in the middle; its what we call the LCC parliament.

AMOS: It looks great on the screen, but even Nakhle admits less than half of it is actually in place.

Mr. NAKHLE: Today we are, I would say, like, in our, as teenagers playing with politics, we need to be more mature.

AMOS: But the Syrian government is not playing at repression. There's a need for the protest movement to mature quickly. Every day, the violence grows greater.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

(Soundbite of music)

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