Perhaps more than any other place in Syria, the rebel-held town of Daraya is the heart of the revolution. Or, at least, it was.
On August 26, 2016, after four harrowing years of resistance against a starvation siege and a bombing campaign enforced by President Bashar Al-Assad and his allies, the rebels and 8,000 remaining inhabitants of the Damascene town ceded control and were forced to evacuate. To quote freelance journalist, Sam Heller, in an article published by The Century Foundation on September 1, 2016, “Rebel Darayya is now finished.”
There is not much more that can be added to that curt analysis, except to say that Daraya’s loss undoubtedly crushed the hopes of many of the revolution’s supporters, both in Syria and abroad.
One day after Daraya’s fall, Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of Burning Country, published an extremely moving account in The New Arab detailing the town’s rise and fall. In his article, he reminds us that Daraya has a longstanding and impassioned history of political activism—even for non-domestic issues—that far precedes the uprising in 2011.
When the Second Intifada was underway, for example, Daraya’s residents took to the streets in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in occupied Palestine. A few years later, they marched on the streets once again to protest the illegal invasion of Iraq, led by the U.S. government. Unsurprisingly, when the uprising against the Assad regime took off, Daraya’s residents were among the very first to peacefully demonstrate for freedom and liberty.
Yassin-Kassab recalls these events in order to make an important point, namely, that while Daraya’s residents were fully aware of the consequences they would face for their activism, they, nonetheless, resiliently and consistently chose principle and passion over passivity. In his words, “Those who believe that Assad’s regime represents popular anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism won’t realise how brave these actions were. Independent demonstrations were completely illegal in Syria, punishable by torture and imprisonment, even if the protests were directed against the state’s supposed enemies.”
Until this day, Daraya’s only crime was that it stood up against the Assad regime for the sake of peace and justice. For this, its inhabitants were starved, tortured, and killed in unspeakable ways. But, even in the midst of their helpless suffering, and with little-to-no international assistance, the residents of Daraya subsisted. They managed, for example, to create a local democratic council that operated on a six-month election cycle, and that, according to Yassin-Kassab, “provided [many] services, including field hospitals, schools, a soup kitchen, [and] even an underground library.” Rebel groups operating in the town were partially subject to the edicts of the local council, while the largest rebel faction—the Martyrs of Islam Brigade—was under the council’s complete control. In these ways, Daraya managed to keep the revolution’s ideals alive.
Yet, despite Daraya’s incredible resilience against an otherwise ever-present horror, these stories have barely attracted the attention of mainstream media outlets in the West. In fact, on the few occasions that Western journalists did take notice of Daraya, they would often do so with antagonism.
Take the example of veteran journalist, Robert Fisk, who traveled to Daraya in 2012 to report on the bloodbath happening at the hands of the Assad regime. As Yassin-Kassab observes, instead of highlighting the Assad regime’s crimes, Fisk blamed the rebels for things they had not done, and concocted details of a story about “a prisoner swap gone wrong [which] was immediately rejected by Daraya’s Local Coordination Committee—nobody on the ground had heard of it.”
Sadly, Fisk is not alone in attempting to sully Daraya’s reputation. Reacting on Twitter to the news of Daraya’s fall, Salon journalist, Ben Norton, chose to ignore the pain felt by many Syrians, and instead suggested that the town was filled with “radical Islamists.” In the tweet, which has since been deleted, Norton sarcastically proclaimed that, certainly, “there were no radical Islamists in Daraya, just groups named ‘Martyrs of Islam’ and ‘Islamic Union’.”
This hysteric, Islamophobic perspective is no different from the claim, commonly espoused by Fisk and others, that there are virtually no “moderates” in Syria. Like Fisk, Norton is guilty of demonizing the rebels and lumping them all together as part of the same “radical Islamic” evil. The only major difference is that Fisk takes it a step further by explicitly supporting the idea that Assad is the “lesser evil.”
These Western-centric, propagandistic, obscurantist, and morally bankrupt approaches toward Daraya (and the Syrian revolution more generally) have helped entrench international apathy toward the suffering of the Syrian people. By spreading misinformation about the struggle for freedom in Daraya and across Syria, figures like Fisk and Norton foster discourses in which extremely irrational fears and hatred of the rebels thrive. In this way, they too are guilty for the loss of Daraya—not directly, of course, but rather through their intellectual justification.
Over the last four years, the international community has not only abandoned Daraya to starvation and siege, it has also failed to extend it the courtesy of fair coverage. But for those who still believe in the principles that sparked the Syrian uprising, hope for a brighter future remains. If after years of unmitigated suffering the residents of Daraya did not give up, then we have absolutely no excuse to give up on them now. The least we can do is combat the prejudices leveled against them, and we should do so whenever we reasonably can.
Daraya is gone, but not lost forever.