But for many Syrians who championed the peaceful protests that began in March 2011, the story is more nuanced than this catastrophic picture implies. While they deeply mourn immeasurable losses, they express pride in a people’s courageous demand for change. They also voice a determination to continue building upon the uprising’s achievements, including the birth of a vibrant new civil society.
These complexities come to the fore in the reflections of Syrian activist Oula Ramadan. Ramadan has lived the stages of the uprising, as have hundreds of thousands of Syrians: participating in demonstrations, joining grassroots efforts to support a national revolt, confronting the danger of being wanted by regime security forces, being forced to leave Syria, becoming displaced multiple times and now grappling with an uncertain future. Along the way, Ramadan founded the organization Badael (Alternatives) in 2013 as a response to skeptics who doubted the existence of a viable alternative to the Asad regime. A free, democratic and participatory alternative, the organization argues, exists in the vast potential of Syrian civil society.
The emergence of a thriving civil society after 2011 was no small feat. For more than 50 years, Syria’s security state has prohibited independent political parties, associations or other spaces in which citizens might speak freely and act collectively. The uprising thus marked an extraordinary break with decades of imposed silence and atomization. In the early months of the protest movement, local committees emerged to organize demonstrations and sustain communities under siege. Citizen journalists established networks and collectives to document events. Creatives forged new forms of self-expression. Activists built alternative systems to provide health care and obtain and distribute medicine. Without the persistence and resourcefulness of civil society activists, the uprising would not have survived—nor would countless numbers of civilians.
Civil society took on new forms as the unarmed revolt evolved into a multidimensional war. As the state withdrew from large swaths of the country, activists in areas under rebel control contributed to local institutions to provide self-governance and essential social services. As thousands and then millions of Syrians fled the country, many organizations established roots in exile. Often operating on just the other side of the border, these organizations supported rebel-held communities in the fields of humanitarian relief, technical assistance, economic sustainability, education and vocational training. They also built projects to serve and empower refugees themselves. As a result of these efforts, four years into the revolt, “Citizens for Syria,” itself a new civil society initiative, identified more than 900 civic organizations and initiatives spearheaded by and for Syrians and operating in rebel-controlled areas or in exile.
Badael and other civil society initiatives have adapted to changing societal demands and political circumstances in Syria, as well as to the need to develop their own capacity and sustainability as organizations. They have grappled with dependency on foreign funding, including the fact that international donors’ agendas and short-term orientations often differ from their own sense of Syrians’ needs. At the same time, they have pressed Syrian priorities at the level of the international community, including by demanding accountability for atrocities and greater attention to the fate of detainees. Civil society organizations also increasingly engage in research and memory work as a form of documenting grassroots perspectives, creating a historical record for eventual restorative justice and ensuring that the story of the uprising is not forgotten or maligned.
These activities are some of the many ways in which those who championed the 2011 protest movement continue its core project and promote its core values, even as the uprising moves into its second decade. Ramadan reflected on these activities and other related issues when I sat down with her in Berlin in September 2021. The interview below is a condensed transcript of our conversation.[Wendy Pearlman is professor of political science and the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. Oula Ramadan is the founder and director of Badael with over 14 years of work experience in the fields of human rights, peacebuilding and sexual and gender-based violence.]
Wendy Pearlman: When you hear “the Arab uprisings, ten years on” what comes to your mind?
Oula Ramadan: I think of our failure. It is as if I’m watching a videotape of ten years: the first two years, full of hope, energy and people loving each other; from there, the development of solidarity, then militarization, then gradually losing hope, things becoming super complex, a lot of tragedy and betrayal from the outside world. And finally, this sort of static situation, where there is no end to war and things just get worse.
It makes you depressed but at the same time it encourages you to think. After we lost the revolution, what can we do now so that it will pay off in 20 years? Sometimes you feel helpless. You feel like you’ve been saying the same thing for ten years and nothing has changed. But we don’t have the luxury to stop. As long as there are still people dying under torture in Asad regime prisons, you don’t have the luxury of not talking about it. Even if the international community is not listening. You just have to continue saying the same thing again and again and again.
Wendy: What do you think we should call the current stage in the struggle for freedom in Syria?
Oula: The revolution as it started in 2011—with thousands of people mobilizing in demonstrations on the streets—is of course no longer. But while you don’t have extreme direct actions, there is so much happening underground. It is growing and just waiting for the moment to flourish and pay off. There is continuation because things cannot and will not go back to what they were before 2011. There has been deep change in people’s perspectives on the rights to which they are entitled. No one can take this from the Syrian people. Not Asad. Not the extremists.
Wendy: What do you see as the achievements of the Syrian revolution?
Oula: There is catastrophe and tragedy, but if you look at how people are transforming as human beings, you see a lot of opportunity. We think so much about the collective but at some point, we need to put the individual at the center of change. At the individual level, there has been a lot of learning and newly acquired skills. People now have space to write and talk. Space to sit with others, hear other opinions and generate new ideas.
Before 2011, how much did we know about each other, as Syrians? After 2011, we started to learn about each other and about Syria itself. You got to interact with people from different backgrounds of class, generation, geography. Knowing others means that you also start to think about things that, previously, were never even there for you to think about.
Without a revolution, these would be the sort of topics discussed only in elitist circles. So, in thinking about what we achieved, it is about people. People across the spectrum are discussing. Agreeing and disagreeing. Thinking, reflecting, learning. And this is what change is about.
Wendy: What are the priorities at this stage in the Syrian struggle for political change?
Oula: We continue to push for political transition, accountability, justice, release of detainees and knowing the fate of the missing persons. We can’t forget about the hardship that people are facing inside the country, between the climate crisis, the collapse of infrastructure and having no water, electricity or money to buy bread. We need to think about alternative ways to make people’s lives better, in the sense of meeting their basic needs.
But I think the priority should also be taking a step back to try to learn lessons from our own experience and the other experiences around us. Until 2016 or 2017, everything was happening fast, and you needed to work just as fast. There was urgency: If you don’t do this today, tomorrow will be too late. The feeling of failure and losing hope makes you slow down, reflect and think strategically. If the revolution didn’t work, how do we create change?
In addition, how do we keep the memory alive? I think that we need to invest more in knowledge production of all types, including books, broadcasts, visual works, building archives, etc. You might not see the impact of this now. But in 20 or 30 years, many people will want to know what happened. The new generation, especially, will want to know what their parents went through. I think our job is to make knowledge available for them. We can do our best to open new horizons and opportunities, and maybe they will carry on to make the change that we didn’t manage to create.
Wendy: Why is knowledge production important at this stage?
Oula: Every time you want to write something, you go to literature in English. We need more resources produced in the region, in Arabic. We have to be the ones owning our narrative and history.
In addition, living under dictatorship means that there is a lot of knowledge that you cannot access. People are afraid of expressing anything that can put them at risk. But a space has been created because of the Syrian revolution and the result of this space is new ideas and an accumulation of knowledge. This collective will for freedom of speech needs to be protected and preserved in a way that makes it accessible to others.
Wendy: You mentioned accountability and justice. What do you see as the role of that issue, today and moving forward?
Oula: At the same time that there is deadlock at the level of a political transition, you have these small steps in Europe keeping the accountability issue on the table. That is itself an achievement. In many conflicts, trials start only after the war is over. The fact that something has started, even while the conflict is ongoing, is a very good step. It gives people hope.
But let’s not call it a justice process, yet. The Koblenz trial in Germany [to prosecute Syrian regime officials for state torture] is tiny and symbolic when you compare it to the scope of the catastrophe since 2011. Universal jurisdiction is a limited tool. How many trials can they have in Europe? Maybe ten?
A lot of the importance of accountability efforts today is the work that goes into the trial. Documentation, investigations, analysis … It might not all be used for trials now, but it accumulates and can be used for a broader, more inclusive accountability process in the future.
Wendy: How do you view Syrian civil society today?
Oula: The fact that, after ten years, we have a functioning civil society is an achievement in itself. Syrian civil society is super diverse. You can’t talk about it as one entity. Some organizations are less resilient in the sense that they’re more influenced by the international community. Others are very principled and independent. They are still fighting for the goals of the revolution, even if there is no more revolution as it started in 2011.
Civil society can be divided into needs-based groups and rights-based groups. If we talk about needs-based, we have all of these humanitarian operations that have been crucial in the past ten years. There was a time where something like 60 percent of Syrian territory was outside regime control. In the absence of the government, there was a need to provide governance and services. Civil society addressed these gaps in various ways. For instance, humanitarian organizations established field hospitals that were vital in sustaining medical care.
Then there are organizations in which rights are integrated into all aspects of their work. There are human rights organizations that have done an amazing job on documentation, lobbying and advocacy. One example is the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which produces up-to-date information and reports that are used by other advocacy groups. There has also been very good work educating the international community on issues of accountability and justice, or on people who remain missing in detention. For example, Syrian Road to Justice, a coalition in which Badael is involved, advocates for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in regime prisons. Families for Freedom, an organization founded by families of detainees and missing persons, advocates for the return of their loved ones.
Civil society has also provided opportunities for alternative education, contributing to finding solutions for a generation that has lost access to schooling. Most civil society groups are involved in technical and vocational education to different extents and in different forms. Kesh Malek, for example, is one of the many groups that has provided education and opened schools in areas not controlled by the regime.
Sometimes you might not see the impact of this work immediately. But its contribution is essential for a future, democratic Syria.
Wendy: Badael recently published a report on feminist movement-building in Syria in 2011. What do you see as the significance of those movements, specifically?
Oula: The revolution opened doors. It made us realize that everything is political, whether we are fighting patriarchy or social norms. Political change means that we have to deal with all this structural violence and discrimination against us. It means going deeper into the root causes of inequality and injustice.
In 2011, women were in the streets like everyone else. Since then, they have done many things at various levels, from fighting for inclusion of women at the negotiating table in formal political processes to politicizing everyday life and recognizing the struggles of women at the family, individual and community levels.
Women’s movements are diverse. And their focus is not only about women’s rights. Women have played an active role at the grassroots level, talking to people about violations against children or people with disabilities. They have pushed for an intersectional approach to bring equality into all aspects of life. This is absolutely thanks to this revolution. Everything started with this movement demanding change and human rights. It opened space for women to come together, think and link our personal struggles to political goals.
Wendy: You are currently developing a project on Syrian oral history. What do you see as its purpose?
Oula: We grew up with Asad’s propaganda. We had only one perspective. This shift from dictatorship to a revolutionary way of thinking invites a more bottom-up approach. Oral history gives power back to people in the sense that they tell their stories and contribute to how history is written. It puts their memory and lived experience at the center. Collecting oral histories also means that more, diverse perspectives will inform the new generation. This will help people understand the complex social, political, economic contexts in which Syrians lived or continue to live.
Our oral history project started in 2018. Women from the Syrian refugee community in Turkey conducted interviews with other women in their communities. At the start of the project, we trained 30 women to conduct oral history interviews. Thus far, over 160 testimonies of Syrian women have been collected.
Currently, we are developing an oral history network that spans the Middle East and North Africa to establish a space for oral history actors in the region to come together and share experiences and knowledge.
Wendy: What do you see as the challenges or possibilities of the new Syrian diaspora?
Oula: As an activist in exile, you are far away geographically but not in your heart or mind. Many people in the diaspora, however, do not want to think about Syria anymore. They want to establish a life and have some sort of sustainability and stability. This is normal. It s not easy to be in exile and be in a different culture, try to learn a new language, find a job, integrate and find your own way. In addition, many Syrians have experienced trauma. Sometimes you want to stay away from whatever caused you that trauma.
Still, there is a lot of work happening. Look at the diaspora activists collaborating with local allies to try to influence the governments of the countries where they live, like the action around Denmark’s decision to send refugees back on the pretense that it is now safe.
Civil society is also building in the diaspora. Many organizations based in Turkey or Lebanon faced huge challenges and relocated to Europe, where they have more space to work from a legal perspective. They are finding ways to establish a presence in Europe and still have teams work inside Syria through cross-border, remote management and operations.
The question is: how long can you continue to do that? Asad is gaining control over territory. Running an operation in an area outside regime control is very different from running an operation in regime-controlled areas. You need to change your approach to support people inside the country.
Wendy: Can you say more about the difference between working inside or outside regime control?
Oula: Civil society actors in regime-controlled areas either work underground—putting their life at risk every minute—or work under the eyes of the regime, in which case the regime is aware of their work and approves it. Outside regime-controlled areas, the working environment for civil society actors varies according to the de facto authority in the area. Working in Turkish-controlled areas is very different from working in areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, for example.
Due to the highly volatile environment, there is always the potential for developments that inhibit the work of civil society. For instance, a notable Islamic scholar Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai made comments about individuals and organizations working on gender and gender-related issues during his speech at Friday prayers, which incited violence against women peacebuilders and activists. Organizations developed new methods and tools to deal with this challenge, devising approaches to continue their work while ensuring the safety of their staff and partners.
Wendy: Is there any possibility for a political movement that effectively challenges the regime, from the diaspora?
Oula: I think that our task, as people outside, is to keep doing whatever we can to keep the cause alive. But, at the international level, things have become extremely complex. Changing the regime itself is no longer in the hands of the Syrian people. That is, unless people inside the country make a second revolution because they get fed up with living in poverty and not having water and electricity. Maybe there will be something that makes people explode and say, “We can’t take this anymore.”
Wendy: What is your message to the outside world when it comes to Syria at this stage?
Oula: I feel that there is a tendency to simplify the Syrian conflict, such as this binary narrative that the choice is between Asad or ISIS. Just focusing on extremists takes legitimacy away from people who rose up because they wanted to have democracy and a better life.
People need to look at the root causes that keep this tree alive and not just look at the leaves. And they should have a sort of intersectional approach to understand its complexity. People should keep educating themselves about Asad’s crimes. The moment you ignore those crimes is when you become ready to normalize the regime.
 Wendy Pearlman, “Civil Action in the Syrian Conflict” in Deborah Avant et. al, eds. Civil Action and Dynamics of Violence in Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). Wendy Pearlman, “Mobilization From Scratch: Large-scale Collective Action Without Preexisting Organization in the Syrian Uprising,” Journal of Comparative Political Studies 54/10 (September 2021).