Amal Hanano

Aug 29, 2012

Syria, the crossroads of civilisation, has become a land of crossings. Refugees cross borders to overcrowded camps; displaced families travel from destroyed towns and cities to others still being destroyed; officials and diplomats defect from the Assad regime to form alliances with the loosely defined “opposition”. And thousands of people have crossed from life to death.

Some of these crossings are devastating and heartbreaking to watch. But a few are euphoric. As the regime began its offensive against Aleppo, a short video emerged, showing some young Syrian Army soldiers who had just defected to join the Free Syrian Army.

They huddled together in the back of a lorry en route to Atareb, a nearby town. It was dark, but their faces glowed with relief as they lit cigarettes. When they alighted, opposition fighters showered them with welcomes, their voices rough yet comforting. “Thank God for your safety,” they said, the common greeting to those returning from a trip. Crossing over was like coming home.

Another video, emerging around the same time, told another story, one of vengeance. In Aleppo on July 31, the FSA-affiliated Tawheed Brigade captured members of the Barri clan. Seated in a line on a dirty floor, they faced the cameraman, one by one. Most of their faces were bloodied. Ringleader Zeyno Barri, stripped to his underwear, looked forlorn and humiliated – and like a man who knew the end was near.

The Barri tribe has been known for years for criminal behaviour – a dirty clan with dirty ties to the regime. Since early 2011, their thuggery and intimidation have aimed at suppressing the uprising in Aleppo. Asked why the city took so long to join the revolution, many Allepians answer simply: the Barris. In Aleppo, the Barris are the definition of shabbiha, the “ghost” militia that supports the regime.

Supposedly after a field trial, of which no video has been released, the men were marched outside and executed in a hail of bullets. When the dust cleared, only bodies remained. The fighters scattered. Even the cameraman hid behind a wall as he continued filming.

I wondered: were we watching brutality seep from one side to another? When was the line between justice and vengeance crossed? When they decided to execute the men? When they decided that one bullet per man was not enough but used round after round?

Afterwards, the video’s details were dissected in social media. Some activists were surprised that the Barris had not been tortured first. They said that the punishment could have been much worse, and emphasised that after the first fatal shots the men could not have felt the other bullets, fired only for show to warn the rest of the shabbiha. But some believe the brutal scene killed more than men; it killed the great expectations of an idealised revolution, and it set a disturbing precedent.

The executions opened new rifts among supporters of the revolution. Accusations divided those who think the FSA is faultless, those who argue that this is not the time to talk about a “mistake”, and those who separate the revolution from the FSA. Aleppian activists were unfairly reminded of their silence (meaning acceptance) when other cities were being bombed. Those who did not unconditionally accept the FSA’s actions were labelled hypocrites, at best, and traitors, at worst.

And so the “Rambos” who justified the violence as necessary separated from the “Gandhis” who denounced some of the FSA’s tactics. Both sides were right and both were wrong, and all of us knew it.

There are regime supporters who call for reform and dialogue without acknowledging that they would dare not utter those words but for the courage of the revolutionaries. In the same way, diehard FSA supporters refuse to acknowledge that the FSA finally signed and implemented a code of conduct, after the Barri executions, only because of the voices of the critics.

The regime is still strong, but power is shifting. And with shifting power comes greater responsibility – and stronger criticism. The FSA will capture many more pro-regime criminals, leading up to the top. Now is the time for the difficult conversation about how to act justly.

For people like me, watching the revolution from afar, insisting on the revolution’s original principles seems impossible. How do you ask a person who has experienced such bloody horrors to show restraint? To practise compassion? To extend dignity? It seems impossible. But didn’t a Syrian revolution against the Assads seem impossible once?

The next time an FSA criminal act is exposed, we should remember that thousands of people who died hoping for a peaceful transition to freedom and dignity may not have supported armed revolt, just as most Syrians did not support armed revolt three decades ago during the Hama revolt.

Last Saturday was the worst day of the revolution, in a sense: over 300 bodies were discovered in Daraya. But still regime supporters display a unified front. Routine summary executions in Artouz, the shelling of peaceful funerals in Dael, the bombing of breadlines in Aleppo, the reduction of residences to rubble in Azaz – are all accepted in the name of “security”.

Meanwhile, the opposition seems divided about justice. But the reality is different. For decades, Syrians gave the regime fear disguised as love. The revolution is about reversing that, abandoning blind support for anyone and building a new society founded on accountability and responsibility. Our actions today ripple into the Syria we will inhabit tomorrow.

Like the defectors in that lorry, we all have internal boundaries to cross. For us, as for the few men who have become brothers after being enemies, crossing over, without vengeance or betrayal, is our only option. We must reject what we have inherited from the regime and act like who we are: a complex society not always in agreement, but united as a people, united as Syrians.

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer