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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

It was Deraa that sparked the revolution and it is the flame that the regime hopes to finally extinguish

The ideals of the revolution, born in the cradle of the uprising, will need to be rekindled in exile or underground in Syria, writes Faisal Al Yafai

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Deraa. Alaa Al Faqir / Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Deraa. Alaa Al Faqir / Reuters

For years, the southern Syrian city of Deraa has been expecting this moment. Now into its second week, the Assad regime's offensive against the rebel-held area has already killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. There will be more deaths as government helicopters continue to drop barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets patrol the skies above.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which still controls the city, has vowed to keep fighting but with the eyes of the world turned elsewhere – and with the regime intent on using the same brutal tactics it has used to retake other rebel areas – it might only be a matter of time.

Deraa has long expected the wrath of the regime to fall upon it because, of course, that was where the uprising first began. It was in the southern city that in 2011, as uprisings swept Egypt and Tunisia, the first graffiti, then the first chants, then the first protests demanding the fall of the regime began. It was Deraa that sparked the revolution and it is the flame that the regime hopes to finally extinguish.

What started in Deraa spread to every corner of the country and the uprising that became a war has devastated Syria. The southern city is one of the last places that still has a significant FSA presence but, with a “de-escalation” agreement falling apart, with Russian jets pounding the city and with the US telling the FSA that Washington will not intervene, it certainly appears to be a matter of when, not if, the FSA is driven out.

Certainly the regime thinks so. In the run-up to this latest – and the regime hopes, last – offensive against Deraa, the Syrian army dropped leaflets warning that “being stubborn and persistent with carrying your weapons won’t change the end result”. The Assad regime is intent on killing the revolution in the city in which it was born.

Whether or not it can do that does not depend on the weapons of the regime but on the ideas of the rebels.

There has long been a distinction between the armed opposition and the “revolution”, between the means of achieving the fall of the regime and the ideas that animate that desire.

The ideals of freedom and justice that still motivate many Syrians around the world exist mainly through an amorphous collection of activists, civil society practitioners and journalists. The ideals certainly continue to exist but what that “revolution” would look like in practice today is very difficult to say.

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The Syrian revolution is not dead, say its most implacable supporters. And yet most of the political vehicles for the ideals of the revolution – the opposition-run councils in rebel areas – have gone or been taken over by armed militias. The civilians and civil society activists who started the intellectual and political side of the revolution have been killed, jailed or exiled.

As the war devolved into brutal fighting between hydra-headed militias, outside funding dried up to all but the most effective and extreme groups.

Even those inside and outside Syria who started off sympathetic to, or even openly supportive of, the revolution have walked away, repelled first by the brutality of the conflict and then by the sheer destruction the revolution unleashed. It began to seem as if the slogan of the Assad regime was really true: it was “Assad or we burn the country” – and the country was burning.

If the revolution still exists, then, it will need to be rediscovered, and in exile or underground within Syria.

It will mean taking the ideals of the revolution, of throwing off the chains of a security state and building a society rooted in (as the early protestors repeatedly demanded) dignity and translating that into both a political platform and one with a road map to power. That will not be easy for a divided, exiled and leaderless group of activists.

Yet the number of civil society initiatives and councils that were set up across Syria in rebel-held areas, even under extreme military pressure, suggests there remains a desire to see the revolution work in a concrete way. If that revolutionary spirit can be channelled, then the revolution might survive.

The Syrian revolution –at least, this stage of it – will not end with Mr Al Assad leaving power. It will not lead to the fall of regime, in the way the first protesters in Deraa hoped. But if those who still believe in the ideals of the revolutionaries can find a way to rethink its goals and organise an opposition movement, it can still have an impact.

Part of why the revolution struggled to succeed was because it did not have an answer to what Syria would look like without Mr Al Assad. Now those who still believe in the aims of the revolution must ask what it will look like with him still in power.

If they can do that, the revolution does not need to die in Deraa.