After the Assad regime’s chemical attack in Idlib and the US cruise-missile strike on a Syrian airbase on April 7, the familiar round of questions is again being asked: What should the United States do next? Should we hold diplomatic talks with the Russians and the Syrian government, or should we continue military action against Assad? These are both tired tactics that reinforce a false dichotomy of either militarism or big-power diplomacy. It’s a conversation that caters to both US and Russian imperialism rather than Syrian agency—and we should look beyond this state-centric binary for ways to elevate Syrian self-determination more directly.
Luckily, there’s a way to do exactly that.
If we truly want to help Syrians end the war, we need to put them at the center of our discourse. There are other possibilities beyond appealing to the same regimes that have been responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people over the past six years. Syrians need and deserve our solidarity at a grassroots level right now. Activists have already established a framework to build a free civil society. All we need to do is to help reinforce their efforts.
All across Syria, groups of organizers have been building alternative social and civic infrastructures since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. In mostly rebel-held areas, these groups have formed autonomous city councils, set up their own unique systems of governance, and developed their own networks to keep schools running, maintain open and safe public spaces, and facilitate a free intellectual life.
Among the examples: Al Qiyam Cultural Foundation, a grassroots institution that has initiated educational projects in Homs since 2013, launched a public lecture series in January on the political history of Syria. In eastern Ghouta, a suburb outside of Damascus, activists are starting a new initiative called Bidi Madrasti, or “I want to stay in school,” which will work to keep children from quitting school and encourage them to continue their education. In Inkhel, a suburb near the southern city of Deraa, the Ajyal (“Generations”) Cultural Center recently opened a public library with 7,000 books on its shelves.