I still regard it to have been an honour of the highest degree to have grown up surrounded by Damascene reformers. Men and women who had mastered that impossible equation of trying to do something meaningful in a country where no change can be introduced without the prior approval of the security apparatus.
Some of them were relatives, and others close family friends. Lawyers, western-educated doctors, Azhar-educated religious scholars, economists, engineers, and teachers. I have memories upon memories of listening to them, observing them and, above all, noticing over time the changes, subtle yet significant, that they were remarkably able to introduce.
I often find myself wondering what it is like to be one of those reformers today. The fortunate had already departed, but what about the legacy of these reformers? What about those who associated themselves with them, who built their lives on the basis of the changes introduced by them?
In the minds of Damascene reformers, the map was always clear. There were four possible paths that could be pursued in Syria, and only one of them promised a meaningful harvest.
The first was to become one of those Syrians who were willing to do anything that would result in wealth, power, and status.
The second was to become a member of the opposition, and since all opposition was treated as criminal and treacherous, it was a willingness that had to take into account the repercussions, not only on the individuals who choose this path, but also on those associated with them.
The third path was in essence, to survive, to do nothing other than those aspects of daily life that didn't mean anything to anyone.
And then, finally, there was the fourth path. The path of those who would not benefit from the regime nor confront it; the path of suspending the regime's security fears and then proceeding to work quietly in the shade; the path of signing an agreement, as it were, with the security pillars of the regime:
We will not work against you, we will say those things you like us to say in public, we will even allow others to regard us as your supporters, but in return, you will allow us to truly work for this country in a manner that reflects our own values and moral sensibility, and you will allow us to do so outside the framework of your politicised institutions. Furthermore, we will accept that we will be regularly harassed, especially when our achievements become too noticeable. You will harass us, yes, but you will not eliminate us.
This, in essence, was the operational philosophy of Damascene reformers and their colleagues in Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and other urban centres. It explained the choices they made, and it provided the rationale for these choices.
Ask a random group of Syrian revolutionaries today how they feel about those Damascenes who chose the fourth path described above, and the majority will respond by saying that the fourth path was the path of cowards; the path of those who provided the regime with legitimacy, and who taught Syrians to appease their oppressors. Not only were they cowards for choosing this path, but they were also cowards for having not spoken out in categorical terms against the regime.
With every day that passes, not only is Syria further polarised between the revolutionaries and regime loyalists, but also between the reformers and the revolutionaries. It is the latter polarisation that troubles me the most. My mind is cluttered with noise from both sides. I can hear the revolutionaries scream: "How dare you be silent when children are being killed?" And I can hear the reformers respond: "If only screaming helped. You have been screaming for over four years, and this tragedy has only become worse."
The revolutionaries reflect the duality of their perception, the black and white worldview that energises them. The reformers reflect their complex lenses. It's not just about what should be done, it's equally about when it must be done and how it must be done.
Stories come back to me. Stories I heard over and over again about respecting the principle of time, about the price of harvesting a field that isn't ready, about the danger of unleashing a beast without having the power to effectively subdue it. But these reformist principles, wise and insightful as they felt at the time, cannot change the fact that it must be extremely difficult to be a Damascene reformer today.
To be a Damascene reformer is to watch over 40 years of planting - of development, education, and infrastructure - burn within the flames of TNT bombs and mortar shells.
To be a Damascene reformer is to watch a war glorified by both sides that has killed over 200,000 Syrians, and created wounds in Syrian society that may take decades to heal.
To be a Damascene reformer is to watch the enlightened, spiritual, moderate Islam, so carefully sculpted since Syria gained independence, handed over to those who regard beheading as the grand symbol of their medieval cult.
And finally, to be a Damascene reformer is to stand for the very first time stripped of the capacity to even contemplate reform; watching the country being torn at its seams, and waiting … waiting for when the last of the reformers will finally be eliminated for daring to believe that reform was ever possible.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.