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January 17, 2012

Syrian women, backbone of the revolution

 by Rime Allaf

Rime Allaf

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She is a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

(Monday, January 16, 2012)

“Syrian women have also been essential components of the now famous flash mobs that have so angered the regime with their speed and their efficient messages. Often, women will join the group and start chanting while wearing a headscarf, then separate at the first sign of the infamous “shabbiha” and yank their hijabs off their heads as they melt into the crowd.”

On January 10, while President Bashar Assad addressed his supporters in Damascus, Syrian authorities handed the tiny tortured body of a four-month old baby girl to her uncle in Homs. Arrested with her parents a few days earlier, one can only assume, knowing the Syrian regime’s documented brutality, that baby Afaf had been thrown into a cell with her mother and submitted to horrific treatment, terrorizing her and her mother and leading to her untimely death.

In its violent repression of the uprising, the Syrian regime has made no distinction between men and women or between adults and children. There has been equality in oppressing, and equality in suffering. But there has also been equality in protesting, albeit in varying degrees of visibility and in different forms.

For the last ten months of the Syrian revolution, many skeptics have repeated the tired refrain that women have been absent from the uprising and that it seems to be a male- dominated (read “Islamist-leaning”) protest movement. Such generalizations, meant to discredit the revolution, do much injustice to the women who have lived the uprising from the start at the side of their compatriots.

It is true that the initial Friday-centric demonstrations were, by default, overwhelmingly comprised of men. With no other possibility to gather freely, protesters met at the mosque and grouped at the end of Friday prayers to start marching and chanting, and week after week the presence of women in these demos was negligible. Moreover, there is little doubt that the sheer brutality of the regime, with its blind random shootings, would have led many men to insist that their female relatives remain at home in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s way.

In this, the Syrian revolution may have differed from others where women were visible from the start, especially as most other revolutions have begun in big cities. But no other revolution has been suppressed with the ferocity of the Syrian regime, nor has any other country (save for Libya after the military intervention started) endured so many casualties. Declaring the Syrian uprising to be woman-less, therefore, would reflect a rather skewed view on the situation and a superficial understanding of how the Syrian regime acts.

As repression got more brutal, the demonstrations spread throughout the country and extended beyond Friday prayers. This resulted in a noticeable increase of women on the streets of Syria, chanting alongside the men and running under fire alongside men. Some organized women-only demonstrations, others mingled in the mixed crowds and some took microphones to lead gatherings’ defiant chants, such as the woman who electrified Homs when she shouted to a roaring crowd that her children would not attend a school that had been used as a torture center.

Even when they weren’t taking to the streets, women’s participation in the revolution has been constant. They have made signs, helped give first aid to the wounded, and run charity networks to distribute aid to the neediest families under siege from the army. While these activities were not undertaken exclusively by women, they played an important role in the logistics behind the protests.

At the same time, civil activism began to develop into new forms, unveiling Syrian creativity and a pressing urge to raise the voice of the revolution. Initiatives included numerous film clips of women in nondescript interiors, their faces hidden with masks and scarves to protect their identity, holding signs that often centered around a single message that the viewer discovered as the camera went around the room. Such events made the rounds of the social networks in the most YouTubed revolution of the “Arab spring”, letting the internet amplify the power of these peaceful protests.

Syrian women have also been essential components of the now famous flash mobs that have so angered the regime with their speed and their efficient messages. Often, women will join the group and start chanting while wearing a headscarf, then separate at the first sign of the infamous “shabbiha” and yank their hijabs off their heads as they melt into the crowd.

Examples of such varied participation are plentiful enough and put to rest the shaky theories about women in Syria’s revolution. In fact, when considering the number of prominent female activists, Syria seems to be a leader rather than a follower, rightfully boasting of the women active in civil society and in revolution. Activists such as Suheir Atassi and Razan Zeitouneh, veterans on the socio-political underground scene at the grassroots level, and writers such as Samar Yazbek, have been part and parcel of the civil society movement challenging the regime openly from inside Syria. Since the revolution began, more women have become focal points for the protest movement, including actresses May Skaf, who was one of the first artists to participate in protests and to be arrested, and Fadwa Suleiman, who has been chanting defiantly from the heart of embattled and besieged Homs.

Moreover, the women who have been politically vocal and active in opposition, including in the main organized groups, seem to easily outnumber, especially proportionally, those in other revolutionary countries. There have been numerous Syrian women discussing Syrian affairs on pan-Arab media, and most are well-known among their compatriots.

While they never imagined that their children would be such easy prey for the regime nor intended them to be part of the movement, Syrian women have from the start been an integral element in the revolution. There is no doubt that they will also be an integral component of post-revolution Syria.


* First published by the

taken from here

Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong

Dietrich College News

January 2012

2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards

Prose: High School

First Place (Tie)

Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong
Jesse Lieberfeld
11th grade, Winchester Thurston

I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic. I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part of anything so flattering.

Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish was in no way possible to escape growing up. It was constantly reinforced at every holiday, every service, and every encounter with the rest of my relatives. I was forever reminded how intelligent my family was, how important it was to remember where we had come from, and to be proud of all the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.

This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about Israel’s spotless reputation to the back of my mind. “Our people” were fighting a war, one I did not fully comprehend, but I naturally assumed that it must be justified. We would never be so amoral as to fight an unjust war. Yet as I came to learn more about our so-called “conflict” with the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases, and other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason. “Genocide” almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner; they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or simply that it was a “difficult situation.” It was not until eighth grade that I fully understood what I was on the side of. One afternoon, after a fresh round of killings was announced on our bus ride home, I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. “We need to defend our race,” they told me. “It’s our right.”

“We need to defend our race.”

Where had I heard that before? Wasn’t it the same excuse our own country had used to justify its abuses of African-Americans sixty years ago? In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were—like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a “conflict”—the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/ African-American Conflict.” In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.

I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago, Martin Luther King. He too had been part of a struggle that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be “Not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who…lives by a mythical concept of time…. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” When I first read those words, I felt as if I were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had been conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the same apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too, held the role of an accepting moderate. I, too, “lived by a mythical concept of time,” shrouded in my own surreal world and the set of beliefs that had been assigned to me. I had never before felt so trapped.

I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could not answer my misgivings, no one could. The next time I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over the course of the seventeen-minute cello solo that was routinely played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep). When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked, “I want to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many killings?” I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me. “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it?” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.” I knew, of course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did not by any means commit murder for its own sake, but to portray our thousands of killings as a “fact of life” was simply too much for me to accept. I thanked him and walked out shortly afterward. I never went back. I thought about what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I could not hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the rest of my life as one of the pathetic moderates whom King had rightfully portrayed as the worst part of the problem. I did not intend to go on being one of the Self-Chosen People, identifying myself as part of a group to which I did not belong.

It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever it came to the attention of any of our more religious family friends that I did not share their beliefs, I was met with either a disapproving stare and a quick change of the subject or an alarmed cry of, “What? Doesn’t Israel matter to you?” Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me perceived me. It was worth it to no longer feel as though I were just another apathetic part of the machine.

I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be an African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as though I know exactly what it must have been like to be white during that time, to live under an aura of moral invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs, and to contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face simple everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it lasted, but I decided to pass it up. I have never been happier.

View the complete list of the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award winners.

Stay connected with CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Twitter and Facebook.

Other sources of Carnegie Mellon news include the university news service website and the Carnegie Mellon Today magazine.

Contact Shilo Rea, Director of Public Relations at or (412) 268-6094.


Syria now سوريا الآن


The film from the pain of the Syrian people الفيلم من آلام الشعب السوري

The Alternative to Assad? You’re looking at it


Khaled Abu Salah is a man that has appeared a number of times on al Jazeera reports, and I first saw him when he was courageously telling one of the Arab inspectors about the horrific situation in Homs. I like his reasonable, sensible approach to explaining what is happening, and I worry about what would happen to him if the security services ever captured him. Here is a video of a short speech that is said to have been filmed today. If and when this is all over, watch people like him very closely. These people have emerged from Syria’s streets and alleys and they are the future political generation that will help lead Syria – not some political dinosaur in exile abroad. When people sarcastically ask me who the alternative to Assad is, I think of people like Khaled Abu Salah. Why shouldn’t a man like him become a future president of Syria?
I’ve done my best to translate it below:
Today, we have all come here, but not to offer condolences to Abu Muhammad. No, we have come here to offer him congratulations for the martyrdom of Muhammad Rabee. And to tell Abu Muhammad that we are all his children.

And guys, the most important thing that we have seen in this revolution is that we have all become brothers and family. But we are all revolutionaries, and the most important thing is to avoid showing sadness, because by God’s will he is now a martyr. I don’t want anybody to offer me their condolences. Congratulate me, for martyrdom is a medal that we can pin to our chests. This is our path and we chose it on the 15th of March. We all – together – went to pray in the square and offered the “prayer of the departing” before we went out to demonstrate.

Gentlemen, the revolution is not one of rights and jobs, it is not a revolution for bread, the revolution is a cause. If we cry for our martyrs, or feel sad, that does not mean that our resolve has weakened, no! We cry for them to remember them constantly, and remember that their blood is a debt we owe to them, all of them. We are all the children of this country, and whoever loves his country will sacrifice his life for it. Abu Muhammad we are all your children today, and God bless you all.

[There is a brief interlude where the crowd cheers and he gives some instructions for organising the next Friday’s protests]

Guys, let me tell you something. I swear that as long as we are going out in the name of God, then we should follow his teachings and love each other. Let us love each other, and if somebody makes a mistake we should forgive him – we are all the same! If we love our friend and he makes a mistake, then we tell him that he made a mistake and forgive him. If we all continue to love each other, then no security, no army, no shabiha, no Iran and not even Russia can stand against us. God bless you all!

كيف يفكر بشار الاسد الجزء الثاني (in English)



Viewing cable 09DAMASCUS384,

If you are new to these pages, please read an introduction on the structure of a cable as well as how to discuss them with others. See also the FAQs
Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09DAMASCUS384 2009-06-03 13:23 2011-08-30 01:44 SECRET//NOFORN Embassy Damascus
Appears in these articles:
DE RUEHDM #0384/01 1541323
O 031323Z JUN 09


E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/07/2018

Classified By: CDA Maura Connelly for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d) 

1.  (S/NF) Summary:  As the U.S. continues its re-engagement
with Syria, it may help us achieve our goals if we understand
how SARG officials pursue diplomatic goals. Syrian President
Bashar al-Asad is neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his
father but he, too, prefers to engage diplomatically on a
level of abstraction that seems designed to frustrate any
direct challenge to Syria's behavior and, by extension, his
judgment.  Bashar's vanity represents another Achilles heel:
the degree to which USG visitors add to his consequence to
some degree affects the prospects for a successful meeting.
The SARG foreign policy apparatus suffers from apparent
dysfunctionality and weaknesses in terms of depth and
resources but the SARG punches above its weight because of
the talents of key individuals.  SARG officials generally
have clear, if tactical, guidance from Bashar and they are
sufficiently professional to translate those instructions
into recognizable diplomatic practice.  But in a diplomatic
world that is generally oiled by courtesy and euphemism, the
Syrians don't hesitate to be nasty in order to achieve their
objectives.  The behaviors they employ as diplomatic
"force-multipliers" are the hallmarks of a Syrian diplomatic
style that is at best abrasive and, at its worst, brutal.
End Summary. 

Gaming Out the SARG

2.  (S/NF) As the U.S. moves forward to re-engage Syria, we
are well aware that Syrian officials have long been famous
for their abilities as tough negotiators.  The late President
Hafiz al-Asad could wear down his interlocutors through sheer
staying power in 10-hour meetings without breaks; the wealth
of detail and historical perspective he brought to those
discussions also tested the mettle of those who were
attempting to persuade him to a course of action he
questioned.  His son Bashar is neither as shrewd nor as
long-winded as his father but he, too, prefers to engage
diplomatically on a level of abstraction that seems designed
to frustrate any direct challenge to Syria's behavior and, by
extension, his judgment.  Bashar's presentations on world
affairs suggest that he would prefer to see himself as a sort
of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus.  Playing to
Bashar's intellectual pretentions is one stratagem for
gaining his confidence and acquiescence; it may be
time-consuming but could well produce results.  Bashar's
vanity represents another Achilles heel:  the degree to which
USG visitors add to his consequence to some degree affects
the prospects for achieving our goals.  Every interaction we
have with the SARG is, in fact, a transaction and the better
equipped we are to understand the dynamics of our
negotiations the better able we will be to achieve our
objectives.  Post has assembled the compendium below in an
attempt to reflect our experience in dealing with the SARG in
the hope that Washington-based interlocutors will find it

A Compendium of Diplomatic Behaviors

3. (S/NF) Capacity:  SARG scope of action is limited the
President's span of control.  He is generally able to monitor
 the activities of his foreign minister, political/media
advisor, intelligence chiefs, and brother Maher.  At various
times, his vice president and national security advisor are
also active and therefore under his direct supervision.
While communication flows between him and his subordinates,
it appears not to be formalized and information is highly
compartmented.  Subordinates' portfolios are not clearly
delineated; overlapping areas create tension and competition.
 There is no "interagency" policy development process that
lays out advantages and disadvantages of policy choices.
There are, as far as we know, no briefing or decision memos.
The bench is not deep; beyond the principals lie only a few
trusted staffers.  Bashar and his team also find it difficult
to juggle more than one major foreign policy issue at a time. 

4. (S/NF) Protocol:  SARG officials are sticklers for
diplomatic protocol, although they are not experts on the
international conventions from which it is derived.   The
SARG places a high value on protocolary forms that ensure
respectful treatment of state officials (despite bilateral
differences) because such forms guarantee that the President
and his representatives are shown proper courtesies by a
world that is often at odds with Syria.  (This focus on
protocol underlies the continuing Syrian unhappiness over the
absence of a U.S. ambassador.)  Protocol conventions also
reinforce the notion of equal relations between sovereign
states and the SARG insists that communications between it
and foreign embassies comply with traditional diplomatic
practice.  The MFA receives a flood of diplomatic notes from
Damascus-based foreign missions daily which are apportioned
out to various offices for action.  The diplomatic notes,
translated into Arabic by the senders, become the paper trail
for SARG decisions.  The MFA bureaucracy does not appear to
generate cover memoranda that provide background to requests
or recommendations for decisions.  Many such notes, possibly
all notes from the U.S. Embassy, are sent to the Minister
himself for review.  The MFA does not have internal email,
only fax and phone.  Instructions to Syrian missions abroad
are often sent by fax; sometimes the MFA fails to provide
instructions at all. 

5. (S/NF) The Suq:  In dealing with the U.S., the Syrians see
every encounter as a transaction.  The level and composition
of the Syrian side of any meeting is carefully calculated in
terms of protocol and the political message being sent; a
lunch invitation must be interpreted as more than just the
Arab compulsion to hospitality ) who hosts the lunch is as
important as who attends the meetings.  When it comes to
content, the Syrians seek to gain the highest value
deliverable for the lowest price or no price at all.  During
the re-engagement process, the SARG has attempted to extract
high profile USG gestures in exchange for relief of
operational constraints on the Embassy.  The SARG has been
uncharacteristically forward-leaning in allowing discussions
on a New Embassy Compound site to develop as far as they
have; actual closure on a land deal, however, is probably
contingent on U.S. delivery of a SARG desirable, e.g., the
announcement that a U.S. ambassador will be sent to Damascus.
 The SARG's focus on embassy operations is in part rooted in
their paranoia over USG intelligence collection and
penetration of Syrian society but the imposition of
constraints on mission activities has also conveniently
created an embassy list of desiderata that the SARG seeks to
use as cost-free concessions.  FM Muallim candidly
acknowledged this approach when he commented in February to
Charge that he had not yet decided what he needed in exchange
for permission to reopen the American School in Damascus. 

6.  (S/NF) Vanity and Self-preservation:  The President's
self-image plays a disproportionate role in policy
formulation and diplomatic activity.   Meetings, visits,
trips abroad that enhance his respectability and prestige are
pursued; encounters that may involve negotiations or
difficult debate are declined or delegated to subordinates.
The President responds with anger if he finds himself
challenged by visitors, but not until after the meeting.  He
seems to avoid direct confrontation.  When engaged in summit
diplomacy, he often seeks to include allies to bolster his
confidence (e.g., Quadripartite Summit in September 2008,
Riyadh Summit in April 2009).   His foreign policy
subordinates are all "employees" without constituencies or
influence independent of the President's favor.  Their
overriding concern when engaging foreigners is to avoid the
appearance of overstepping or violating their instructions.
They are particularly cautious in the presence of other
Syrians; requests to meet one-on-one often yield more
expansive and candid responses.

7. (S/NF) Deceit:  SARG officials at every level lie.  They
persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the
contrary.  They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie.
While lower level officials often lie to avoid potential
punitive action from their own government, senior level
officials generally lie when they deem a topic too
"dangerous" to discuss (e.g., Al-Kibar, IAEA) or when they
have not yet determined whether or how to respond (FFN,
Hezbollah arms supplies, etc).  When a senior SARG official
is lying, the key challenge is not demonstrating  the lack of
veracity but discovering the true reasons for it.
8. (S/NF) Passivity:  SARG foreign policy is formulated in
response to external developments (changes in regional
leadership, initiatives from the West, etc).  The SARG does
not launch initiatives and generally seeks cover from allies
when exploring new courses of action.  The SARG is much more
confident on the Arab level than on the international level.
SARG policy responses are generally tactical and operational,
exploratory rather than decisive, oblique instead of direct.
Strategy, to the extent it exists, emerges from a series of
tactical choices.  The lack of initiative appears rooted in
an underlying sense of diplomatic powerlessness.  Every
foreign policy embarrassment in Syria's history lies under
the surface of a generally false projection of assertiveness.
 That assertiveness is sometimes read as arrogance. 

9.  (S/NF) Antagonism:  Every Syrian diplomatic relationship
contains an element of friction.  There is some current
friction, for example, in the Syrians' relations with the
Turks and the French.  The Syrians are not troubled by
discord; they seek an upper hand in any relationship by
relying on foreign diplomats' instinctive desire to resolve
problems. By withholding a solution, the SARG seeks to
control the pace and temperature of the relationship.  SARG
officials artificially restrict their availability  and can
engage in harsh verbal attacks to intimidate and rattle
foreign diplomats.  SARG officials delight in disparaging
their interlocutors behind their backs for allowing
themselves to be cowed.  On the international level, the
President has indulged in personal criticisms of foreign
leaders; unlike his father, he deliberately makes enemies
when he doesn't necessarily have to.  FM Muallim can behave
similarly but he probably does so on the President's

10. (S/NF) Complacency:  SARG leadership genuinely believes
that SARG foreign policy has been, is being, and will be
vindicated by events.  They also genuinely believe their
foreign policy is based on morally defensible and
intellectually solid principles, although it is usually
reactive and opportunistic.  Existing policy choices are
immutable unless the President decides to change them, in
which case, his new policies, despite any appearances to the
contrary, are consistent with "traditional" principles.
Baathism infuses foreign policy principles (Pan-Arabism) but
pragmatism is more important.  More recently, Bashar's like
or dislike of other leaders plays a role in policy

11. (S/NF) The Non Sequitur:  When Syrian officials don't
like a point that has been made to them, they frequently
resort to an awkward changes in subject to deflect perceived
criticism.  Syrian officials seem to think they've scored a
verbal hit by employing a facile non sequitur, usually in the
form of a counter-accusation.  When the SARG's human rights
record is raised with Muallim, for example, he often raises
Israel's December-January Gaza operation or, more recently,
asks if the U.S. will accept the 1300 Al Qaeda sympathizers
in Syrian jails.   The non sequitur is intended to stop
discussion of the unwelcome topic while subtly intimidating
the interlocutor with the threat of raising a subject that is
putatively embarrassing to him or her.  When the non sequitur
is deployed, it is clear that the SARG official is on the

12.  (S/NF) Comment:  Given the apparent dysfunctionality of
the SARG foreign policy apparatus and its weaknesses in terms
of depth and resources, the SARG's ability to punch above its
weight internationally is noteworthy.  Much of its strength
appears to lie in the talents of key individuals and their
ability to collaborate with each other, despite tensions and
rivalries.  SARG officials generally have clear, if tactical,
guidance from Bashar and they are sufficiently professional
to translate those instructions into recognizable diplomatic
practice.  But the behaviors they employ as diplomatic
"force-multipliers" are the hallmarks of a Syrian diplomatic
style that is at best abrasive and, at its worst, brutal.  At
the end of the day, there are few who really like to deal
with the Syrians.  The SARG, well aware of its reputation,
however,  spends much of its energy ensuring that we have to. 


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