On March 22, 2011, Syrian writer and publisher Louay Hussein was arrested by the Syrian security forces after a raid on his house in the Damascus neighborhood of Sahnaya, apparently because of Facebook postings he had made calling for protests. Hussein, a political prisoner from 1984 to 1991, had issued a call for solidarity with the demonstrators in Deraa. He was released a few days later.
Hussein is still active on Facebook. He is still calling for demonstrations and voicing support for besieged cities and towns. He knows that he is not safe, but that can't be helped, because for him, this is a revolution, not a protest.
According to Hussein and many others, there is no turning back. If they end the protests and go home, the regime will survive, and it will make sure that the people who organized or participated in the demonstrations will be arrested, tortured, or killed. Their only choice is to go on and die with dignity.
"There is a difference between a demonstration and a revolution. The authorities are asking us to obtain permission before demonstrating; but what's happening in Syria is a revolution. This is not about making demands of the authorities, whom we do not trust. This is about changing the regime, because we don't believe it is capable of reform," Hussein wrote on his Facebook page a few days after he was released.
In a phone interview with Hussein, who is still in Damascus, he told me that although the number of protesters is small in comparison with those in Egypt, Yemen, or Tunisia, we should look at the extent of the demonstrations. "Week after week, the scope of protests has widened to cover most Syrian cities and towns. And we mustn't forget how much courage it takes for a Syrian to participate in a demonstration. Quite simply, they are putting their lives at risk."
Hussein confirmed that there have been many trials in Damascus and Aleppo in the last few weeks, but the heavy security presence in these two cities makes it extremely difficult for the protests to take hold.
"The protesters will not go back home," he told me. The reforms promised by the regime do not involve any changes in the current political system. Therefore, as long as the regime refuses to take seriously this new political force—that is, the street—the proposed reforms are useless."
According to many activists in the streets of Syria, on Facebook, and on Twitter, as long as there are political prisoners in Syrian prisons, and as long as protesters continue to be humiliated, arrested, and killed, any talk of reform or dialogue is pointless. But they all know that if the regime survives, it will systematically go after the activists and protesters.
There were large-scale demonstrations all over Syria the last two Fridays in response to the regime's crackdown. The regime's strategy did not work. After realizing that extreme repression had failed, the regime decided to use the Israeli card.
Last Sunday, on the occasion of the Nakba, for the first time, a large number of Syrians and Palestinians residing in Syria marched to the Israeli border in the Syrian town of Majdel Shams. Many saw this as both an attempt by the Syrian regime to divert attention to an anti-Israeli movement and a message to Israel from Bashir Assad, indicating that his regime can choose whether or not it wants to protect Israel.
The same thing happened at the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern town of Maroun el-Ras. Fifteen Palestinians were killed, and many more were injured.
Hussam, a Syrian activist from Homs found it ironic that Assad's regime allowed and encouraged the march to take place and then attacked the Israelis for killing peaceful protesters when it is doing the same thing inside Syria. "This happened on the same day that a mass grave was found in Deraa," he pointed out.
According to Rana, a young activist from Damascus, the international community must realize that if the regime survives, it will not be weak and ready to make compromises around the peace process, Iran, or Hezbollah. "This regime survives on conflict, and after murdering the protesters in the name of resistance, and after accusing them of being traitors and agents, this regime will not go for a peace agreement," Rana said.
Both Hussam and Rana welcomed recent U.S. measures against the regime and President Barack Obama's Middle East speech, mainly because it did not include any hint of military intervention in Syria. "As long as they are decisive and tough with Assad, that's enough. We can do the rest," said Hussam.
However, the killing of peaceful protesters is generating anger and a desire for revenge. The regime is harvesting this anger and will probably use it to create sectarian conflict, especially between the Sunnis and Alawites. This will help justify its use of force against Syrians, as it will be "preventing a civil war" instead of simply suppressing peaceful protests. It has used this strategy in Lebanon for 15 years and won't hesitate to use it again inside Syria. It will push the same formula: freedom or security, never both.
But the Syrian street is aware of this. They have been using anti-sectarian slogans and rhetoric. And although there is as yet no clear Syrian opposition front, the protesters are using the same slogans everywhere. "Young Syrians have managed to use modern technology and knowledge to organize, and that's why there are unified slogans, which gives hope in an organized opposition," says Aref Dalila.
Dalila is a Syrian economist and former dean of the faculty of economics at Damascus University. He was a political prisoner 2001-08, and he was one of the Syrian intellectuals involved in the Damascus Spring, the period of political activism that started after the death of former President Hafez Assad. After he was released from jail, he was not allowed to return to his post at the university, and he has since been banned from teaching.
According to Dalila, the young people organizing and protesting in the streets have very little political experience, because the regime has successfully prevented the creation of an opposition movement for almost 50 years. "When this is over, it might be very difficult to create a modern and democratic system without going through a thorny process that could involve turmoil and unrest," he said. However, Dalila added, the most plausible scenario is that after a long complicated process, the Syrian people will have a new system, and the struggle will have been worth it.
Mohammad Abdullah, a U.S.-based Syrian journalist, agrees. "I'm sure there is no way back. Syrians are aware that the cost of stopping now is much heavier than that paid for protesting."
When asked how he thinks things are going to develop, Abdullah said, "I don't know what's next, but when I ask people inside Syria what's next, they say, 'Freedom!' "