A Revolution’s Course Through a Revolutionary’s Trajectory
The path and fate of Abdul Baset al-Sarout
The course of the Syrian Revolution was reflected in personal destinies in many ways, making it difficult to speak of a model fate. But the path and fate of Abdul Baset al-Sarout, who was martyred on June 8 at the age of 27, seems exemplary of the complicated courses of the Syrian struggle and its tragic outcomes, and moreover, one of the most appropriate for viewing the dynamics and transformations of the struggle throughout its eight years. What confirms the attribute of “model” on Baset is that, behind the transformations, he kept his eyes fixed on overthrowing an exterminatory regime; a goal he suffered so much for, to the bitter end of paying for it with his own life.
The young footballer who at the beginning of the Syrian revolution was 19 years old — a goalkeeper for the Homs-based Karama soccer team and the Syrian youth soccer team — joined the revolution from its very beginning. He was recorded in a video saying that he began singing and chanting in protests in the early months of the revolution because he was already recognized as a football player, which made people rally around him. The handsome brown-skinned young man used to lead chants and song in the evening sit-ins in al-Khalidiya neighborhood came to be known as a rebel on a nation-wide scale. Baset gained more prominence when the Syrian actress Fadwa Sulaiman moved to Homs and appeared by his side in festive protests in November 2011, where thousands of young people rallied to protest the regime and demand freedom. The incident gained a high symbolic charge as Fadwa came from an Alawite background, and her opposition to the regime was (consciously by her and her hosts) a contribution to demonstrate the trans-sectarian nature of the Syrian revolution. In Homs, the city to which growing numbers of Alawites moved, especially in the Assadi era (1970- ), silent signs of tense Sunni–Alawite relations were felt for long.
The fear that the revolution would turn out to be a Sunni rebellion against the Alawite regime led many opponents of the regime to assert the opposite in various forms, including what the circumstances allowed for Homs’ revolutionaries with the arrival of Fadwa. She in her turn desired a trans-sectarian revolution for it’s in the general interest of Syria and all of its societal groups, including, naturally, the Alawites.
By the end of 2011, a military component emerged within the revolution, one that defined itself by protecting peaceful demonstrations. The regime had launched a war against the revolution from its very beginning, indicated by the Republican Guard’ storming of Al-Omari mosque on the morning of March 22, 2011, where hundreds of Daraa’s people were staging a sit-in. Dozens of protestors were killed, quite possibly a hundred, only a few days later after what will be known as the beginning of the Syrian revolution. This was the regime’s firm declaration of its intent to crush any dissent, the way its early discourse of “armed gangs” killing civilians and security men was an expression of its determination to wage war.
However, what came to be known as the militarization of the revolution was not an abstract transformation with regards to Baset; the regime attempted his life on December 14, 2011, and in the same month, the regime assassinated his elder brother Walid. The shift towards the armed struggle has often passed through tragic stories of this kind. Confronting a peaceful revolution with violence and sectarian incitement triggered a militarization mixed (though not entirely congruent with) radicalization and Islamization that makes Baset’s trajectory appropriate to examine.
Baset was well aware that demonstrations can “break the back of the regime,” and that “our words and demonstrations are stronger than weapons” which “we were forced to carry” to protect peaceful demonstrators at the beginning, and then later, to protect neighborhoods, especially after the massacre of Al-Khalidiya in February 2012.
There is, however, an important point to make in this context. While the violent and discriminatory nature of the regime forced the revolution’s militarization, this general tendency veiled a kind of militarism not forced but favored by Salafist groups that started to organize, borrowing at the beginning the language of the popular revolution. The “revolutionary theory” of these groups not only calls for carrying arms but disavows non-violence in principle. While the forced defensive armament of the Free Syrian Army rose out of relatively large individual defections from regular army units and formations in 2011 and 2012 (as opposed to special units that serve a security function, such as the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, who are better armed and highly sectarianized), Jihadism emerged from a meeting between optional armament and Salafist doctrine. Here, non-violence is not an unproductive approach to conflict, but rather, wrong and un-Islamic. The brutality of the regime’s war provided a social and psychological environment that facilitated non-differentiation between these two trends. In Baset’s experience , the two converged, mainly after the siege on the districts of rebelling neighborhoods of Homs in June 2012, wherein his own words, “liberated areas became a prison.”
It is crucial to keep in mind that carrying arms did not automatically mean the end of peaceful demonstrations, which went on until the second half of 2012 with the regime’s shift towards an open war against the revolution. This transition was, in my opinion, coupled with the victory of the Iranian party within the regime’s upper echelons. Two significant events indicated the “Iranization” of the regime. First, the assassination of officers from the crisis cell with the likely knowledge and collusion of Maher al-Assad, Iran’s strong man, who did not attend the July 18, 2012 meeting in which his cellmates were assassinated. The second is the regime’s withdrawal from areas with large Kurdish population in July to efficiently counter the revolution, that is, in agreement with the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which was invited to fill the vacuum with its armed members of both Syrian and non-Syrian Kurds. It is worth mentioning that the first use of barrels bombs dates back to that same month. Moreover, anti-terrorism laws were also issued earlier that month.
In its total, these phenomena are significant indicators of the collapse of the national setting of the Syrian conflict, where it was no longer an intra-Syrian conflict. Up till then, according to Baset, demonstrations had complimented the Free Army, and the Free Army was completing the demonstrations. But this was no longer the case after the collapse of the national setting. The regime has become part of a regional alliance led by Iran with support from Russia and China in the Security Council.
To the extent that the revolution lacked a recognized central leadership that could respond to this huge challenge, the dynamics of the de-Syrianization of the struggle led to the modestly-organized Free Army groups to be fitted into regional and international support links who have money, weaponry, and their own political preferences. But it was mostly scarce support, as reported by the rebels in Homs more than others (I witnessed that myself in the Eastern Ghouta between April and July 2013). Under the guise of supporting the FSA, the US established two chambers in Jordan and Turkey to control the Syrian fighters and spy on them. The story of this criminal page has not been written yet.
After months of besiegement, Baset managed to leave Homs to its countryside in an attempt to lift the siege from outside. He did not succeed. In July 2013, the young man, who was then 21 years old, sneaked back to live among the besieged. This is heroic. While returning to besieged Homs, Baset was severely injured. We see him in the film “Return to Homs,” still anesthetized, screaming, “kill me, but break the siege!” Here, for about ten months, Baset will live in the besieged neighborhoods of Homs, experiencing real hunger with the families and fighters. Moreover, he would lose two brothers, an uncle, and many of his comrades in the tragic ‘Battle of Mills’ where the besieged people tried to get their hands on what could save families and themselves from death by starvation. Sixty-four fighters fell in the battle. The siege by starvation was a military strategy adopted by the regime, and we know of other examples in Yarmouk camp, Madaya, Al-Zabadani, and the Eastern Ghouta.
In a videotape recorded, following the evacuation of besieged Homs and the departure of families and fighters in green buses in May 2014, Baset speaks of “preserving blessings.” He said that we were used to throwing our food leftovers, which would seem unforgivable for anyone who experienced extreme hunger, not realizing what blessings they had when their stomach was full. Baset bestows an Islamic sacredness to the experience of hunger throughout the principle of preserving blessings rooted in Islamic traditions. The fighting itself, which he justified by defending demonstrations and later neighborhoods, came to be justified by Jihad for God’s sake, as he started saying.
At the end of “Returning to Homs,” we see Baset with his companions in a car box singing a jihadist anthem. Here, we see the peak of the dynamic of radicalization, militarization, and Islamization unleashed by the destruction of the Syrian revolutionary environment. However, Baset’s biography serves as a basis for distinguishing between two versions of the Militarization–Islamization complex: first, a form closely related to the aforementioned dynamic, i.e., a local grass-root jihad, associated with the conflict’s processes and trajectories and harsh experiences of siege, hunger, near-death experiences, and loss of friends and loved ones. The second is Jihadism, a form independent of the dynamics of the Syrian conflict; a mobile network structure that lives independent of any living social environments, and even requires their collapse for it to thrive. 2013 was the year of confusion, or, non-differentiation of the two forms of Jihad; a grass-root form that defends society while using religion as a language for mobilization, and a mobile form; globalized and anti-societal.
It was impossible for Baset to distinguish between the two, and we see him in a video recorded just before the final exit addressing al-Baghdadi, al-Julani and al-Zawahiri, apparently considering them to be representatives of the most-principled forms of opposition to injustice in Syria and the world. At the time of the final departure from Homs, he went and pledged allegiance to ISIS, something many people felt embarrassed by and tend to deny. I do not agree. Not only that Baset did not deny this himself, but when he was asked about it he honestly said: there’s no smoke without a fire, and went on to talk about the details of that allegiance. He says he was looking for “work,” and explains that “work is the only solution during a siege,” and that “the State (ISIS) was in the northern countryside.” It is apparent in the recording that by “work,” he means fighting the regime.
Eventually, the allegiance was severed, most likely due to Baset’s resolve to face the enemy that he and his people in Homs had suffered from its discrimination, aggression, and siege, rather than to engage in a nihilistic project that lives off of the most brutal of conflicts for its project of “managing brutality.” Syria is just another front for ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra’s never-ending war, but Baset always spoke of a homeland, a criminal regime, an armed struggle (though at times about Jihad as well), and “the fighting” Homs. “They did many bad things,” he says, referring to ISIS and al-Nusra, and “I chose to keep away.” Baset created the Martyrs’ Brigade of Bayada (the name of his impoverished neighborhood in Homs), a battalion composed of former demonstrators. When he was imprisoned by al-Nusra Front for thirty-seven days, he told them, “I do not fight the (Islamic) State, and neither do I fight you. I fight the regime until the last drop of blood.”
The last drop of blood was shed in action on June 8, in the context of “armed struggle” against the old enemy itself; the Assadi protectorate state and its protectors.
Schematically, four stages can be distinguished in Baset’s course: a ‘peaceful protestor’ stage which lasted until fall of 2011; the ‘fighter who continues with peaceful protests’ until June 2012; ‘the fighter under siege,’ who develops an Islamic discourse, especially after the return to the besieged Homs in summer 2013, up to the level of pledging allegiance to ISIS; and finally, the ‘return to fight the regime,’ following a break partially-spent in Turkey, until his martyrdom forty days ago.
These are stages in the Syrian conflict itself: a peaceful revolution; followed by a revolution both peaceful and armed which can be called the Syrian Civil War; followed by the collapse of the national setting and the Iranization and Shiaa’tization of the regime, and the Islamization and Sunnization of the people fighting it; and lastly, the dispersion of fighters with the most loyal amongst them continue a desperate fight for Syria.
There are two departures in Baset’s revolutionary course; one out of the siege and the other out of the country (to Turkey, for months), and there are two returns; one back to the siege and one to fighting. That is all before a final heroic departure from an epic life despite its brevity.
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer and a former political prisoner. This article is published concurrently with Al-Jumhuriya.