Paul Hockenos meets an non-violent resistance group in Germany inspired by the Arab Spring and other successful pacifist revolutions.
Solidarity group in Berlin advocates non-violent resistance in Syria
The Syria solidarity group Adopt a Revolution keeps a low-profile, especially in Germany's capital city, where the Syrian government operates a fully staffed embassy. "Syrian activists living here have been badly beaten up in their own homes," explains Andre Find, a polite, soft-spoken German who works full-time for the NGO.
Although there were no arrests, insiders are convinced the attacks are the work of Syrian agents. Moreover, not far from the run-down quarter of Berlin where Adopt makes its home, there are clubs where Hizbollah supporters congregate. They are friends of the Assad regime, says Find.
That's why, in order to meet them, I first get a phone number and address from Adopt a Revolution via email. On a wintry day, Find meets me out on the street in a worn sweater. We head indoors to a ramshackle courtyard office with several young men hunched intently over laptops.
In fact, even though Adopt a Revolution doesn't advertise its office's whereabouts, the group itself is no secret - nor is it a supporter of any one faction in the fighting that engulfs Syria today. As its multilingual website attests, Adopt advocates non-violent resistance in Syria, opposition in the spirit of the Arab Spring. Activists such as Find, an online campaigner who has worked in Kurdish northern Iraq, were inspired by the Arab Spring and other successful pacifist revolutions, from Eastern Europe to the Occupy Movement.
How, I ask him, can there be non-violent opposition in the midst of one of the world's worst conflict areas? "It's gotten lost in the war's media coverage but those who initially took to the streets in the tens of thousands against the Assad regime were students, young people, intellectuals and families," explains Find. "This lasted 15 months."
In early 2011, local citizen's committees formed in opposition to the regime in almost every city and town across Syria. Their goal, explains Find, was a secular, democratic Syria based on human rights and the rule of law, much like that of their counterparts in Tahrir Square in Egypt. "But there had been no civil society in Syria for 42 years," explains Find. These structures were fragile and eventually, says Find, they were marginalised by the armed struggle.
"But the committees and other non-violent grassroots groups still exist and they're active," says Fine. "Their strikes, demonstrations and creative protests are extremely valuable. They're working to keep Syria from falling into sectarian factionalism." Adopt a Revolution, he says, is backing "those forces that are trying to prevent an all-out civil war after the regime is finally toppled."
These groups are also involved in local democratic reform, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the provision of medical services and citizen journalism, among other activities.
Adopt a Revolution is the brainchild of Elias Perabo, a German political scientist who was travelling through the country when the Syrian Spring, as he calls it, broke out in 2011. Perabo decided to stay and help the activists build a network with contacts to the wider world.
The idea of Adopt a Revolution came to him in a discussion late one night in a club in Beirut. In autumn 2011, Perabo, together with Syrian and German activists, including Find, launched Adopt a Revolution to support peaceful resistance and plan for a democratic future in Syria.
Adopt's primary aims are two-fold: to bring the plight and hopes of the non-violent resistance in Syria to an international public, and to raise money to support the local committees still working on the ground.
The group's most innovative strategy is a fund-raising gimmick that enables private donors to make monthly contributions to a particular local citizen's committee or NGO in Syria. In the past, it has been possible to "adopt" via long-distance philanthropy an individual child in the developing world or a stuffed mammal in a natural history museum. Now donors interested in furthering Syria's democratic revolution can choose from nearly 30 possibilities on Adopt a Revolution's website. Just click the button "Donate" under your favourite initiative and have your credit card at the ready. The donations are even tax deductible in Germany.
One can then choose between local committees from Derik in the country's north-east corner to Al Yadudah along the Jordanian border, or the likes of the Union of Free Syrian Students in the university cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Deir ez-Zor.
One option, for example, is the provincial town of Suwayda, 100 kilometres south of Damascus. Suwayda's majority is made up by members of the Druze, a Shia sect that had been allied with the Assad regime until it began using force against the civilian population. Now Suwayda is part of the resistance and its activists need support. The involvement of groups with different ethnic and religious backgrounds is key to Adopt's approach.
Each organisation receives US$800 (Dh2,900) to $1,200 a month from Adopt a Revolution. Adopt provides the donors with regular, in-depth reports on their chosen group's activities.
"All of our donors are private individuals," says Find. "We don't want to give any credibility to the Syrian government's claims that the uprising is somehow funded by foreign governments." The group works together with a number of pacifist and citizen empowerment organisations but remains fully independent of them.
The funds are used to buy IT and communications equipment, as well as posters, other propaganda material, and, in one Damascus suburb, even a communal soup kitchen. The money is sent via couriers to the activists, who buy what they need on the ground in Syria. So far, say the organisers, not a dollar has gone missing.
The positive response to Adopt a Revolution surprised even its creators. It currently has 2,000 regular contributors who have sent Dh1.44 million to grassroots revolutionaries in 2012.
In light of the full-blown war, many of the citizens' groups are struggling just to stay alive. "Some of the committees are barely running because so many people have left the country," explains the lawyer Christine Schweitzer of the Hamburg-based pacifist group Bund für Soziale Verteidigung, who serves on Adopt a Revolution's advisory board. "We're always trying to assess what's working, what's not, and how to move forward."
Schweitzer believes that the time for non-violence resistance may still be to come. "It was a catastrophic decision to resort to arms in the first place," she says.
According to the group's reports from the frontlines, many Syrians are disillusioned with the armed struggle and the many radical factions that comprise it.
Adopt a Revolution had long argued that arming the anti-Assad forces would only prolong the war and exacerbate the bloodshed. Now, though, it seems to them that the rebels may finally have the upper hand - this even Find admits. At the moment, Adopt is not commenting one way or the other on calls from some European politicians to arm the rebel forces in a final push against the Assad dictatorship.
"We want to help the people committed to a secular civic society be empowered so that one day they can build their own state," says Find. "They've risked so much that there's no going back. They're the future of a democratic Syria."
Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.