No Syrian identity without shared memories

Over ten years after the Syrian revolution I ask myself: How has Syrian society changed after all these years, and which dreams have we realised? How does this affect the Syrian identity? And what do I wish for in the future?

Syrian identity
Fotograf*in: kohero Magazin

FB: Over ten years after the Syrian revolution: Hussam asks himself how Syrian society has changed after all these years and how this affects the Syrian identity today? And he tells us what his wishes are for the future.

“We dared to dream and will not regret the dignity” – many Syrians adorned their profile pictures on Facebook with this quote by an Arabic poet to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution. The quote was made prominent when Oscar-nominated film maker Waad al-Kateab wore it embroidered onto her pink dress that she wore to the 2020 Oscar celebration on the red carpet.

The quote also started big discussions on social media. Many were asking themselves: Which dignity do we have in the year 2021, when so many Syrians live in such bad conditions, whether in Northern Syria, the Lebanon or Greece?

Some facts and figures about the situation

  • Here are some facts to illustrate the situation:
  • Since 2011, 387100 people were killed through war and attacks by the regime
  • Experts estimate that the war has taken the lives of 22.149 children
  • 88.000 Syrians have died by torture
  • 2,1 million Syrians have been wounded in the war
  • 1,400 Syrians died because of chemical weapons
  • 6,5 million Syrians are displaced in their own country
  • 5,6 million Syrians have had to flee their country

When we take a look at these numbers, it makes sense to ask: What dreams have we realised? Can we who have survived say that we don’t regret it?

Remembering together and sharing experiences

On the other hand, I was reading a lot from Syrians who were excited, jubilant about the quote. They shared their and our dreams, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Clubhouse. They remembered together how the revolution started. And they pointed out that we live in freedom now (some in Germany, others in Canada or France), not under dictatorship. But there are also many who think that the quote could concern our future.

In my personal opinion: After ten years at war, on flight and in exile, this quote and the discussion surrounding it show how divided Syrian society is. The question remains whether we have one Syria, or multiple? Do we remember one revolution, or does each and every one of us have their own story of the revolution?

A look back into the past

In order to understand why we are where we are today, we should talk about the past together. It is important that we as Syrians come together and ask ourselves critical but fair questions: Why was the revolution not successful? How did the revolution evolve into civil war and a regional war zone? Can we find a way of answering these questions, without laying all blame on “the others”?

For me, there are a lot of issues that should be discussed by all Syrians, together. It starts with asking: How was Syrian society before 2011?

Many observers and also Syrians say that “we” had a functioning society before the revolution, with good cohabitation – no matter if  Christians, Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawites or Yazidis. That is sadly not true. What we are experiencing now shows that we were not living with each other, but next to each other, parallel in our fear of the regime. We weren’t honest with each other, didn’t talk about the difficult issues such as discrimination or cohesion. Instead, we just carried on with our lives – and the feeling of societal disappointment.

The meanings of freedom

When the revolution started and some Syrians were demanding their freedom, there was no coherent understanding of freedom. Nobody had the chance to discuss which freedom we want. For whom, and how far can it go? This led to the question of the definition of freedom in Syria. Is it freedom from the Assad regime? Freedom from the Ba’ath party? From the dictatorial system? Freedom in a political context, or also in society? In religion and in education? Or freedom solely in the hearts of the people?

The loosely defined term has led to the development of different groups – unsurprisingly. The problem in Syria, however, is that there was never the time to have these discussions in the media or with one another. Each and everyone extended the invitation to his or her freedom and after ten years, not much has evolved.

Say there were three groups in 2011 and 2012: One against Assad, one was pro-Assad, and then a group that for a number of reasons does not have a clear position. Some do not care, some have issues with both sides. Others are too worried to position themselves either one way or another concerning Assad. Although the third group is, in my opinion, the largest, its voice has not yet been loud enough in Syrian discourse. This could be because the boundaries between the groups are not always clear. Also the silent majority is not known for fighting with others on social media.

As mentioned, some people I know aren’t interested in what will happen, they concentrate on their survival. Even if they didn’t actively participate in the revolution or the war, they simply try to carry on with life as well as possible. Sadly almost nobody cares about this particular group, and the other groups don’t have much in common with them. Often they oppose their inactive countryfolk and try to judge them. „Either you are with us or against us“ – this is a motto of our discussions, especially on social media.

The economic reasons for the revolution

Many Syrians to this day ignore the economic aspects that were one of the reasons that fuelled the Syrian revolution. On Facebook, our discussions are mainly focussed on the political realm. For example, how many young people demonstrated against the dictatorial system. But the economic situation also had a large influence on the course of the revolution. In the beginning, the demonstrations saw large support from the rural areas and villages. This includes an important perspective on the revolution.

Nowadays we are instead fighting about which day should be reserved for anniversary „celebrations“ – either the fifteenth of March or the eighteenth. On the fifteenth of March, under the influence of the Arabic spring, the first demonstrations against Assad took place in Damascus. On March 18, the first demonstrations against the head of the regional secret service took place in Daraa. Secret service had tortured and killed eighteen children because they had written anti-Assad slogans onto their school walls.

This discussion about either March 15th or March 18th has been described by a journalist on as a symbol for the division of Syrian society. One part comes from the main town of Damascus and the large city Aleppo, carried by traditional politics that are influenced by the Arabic spring and against Assad. The other is made up by the farmers and workers from Daraa and other villages. A collective plan for the revolution did not exist.

Hopes and opinions at the beginning of the revolution

Many revolutionaries believed that Assad would be toppled soon after the first demonstrations. At the demonstrations where people were protesting for Assad you could hear slogans like „Syria al Assad“, which roughly translates to „Assad’s Syria“. They were supposed to show that the family Assad, the regime, the state and country all belong together.

Many revolutionaries were set on overthrowing everything, not just Bashar as president. That’s why a lot of people founded a new army against Assad. Many young people were against the Syrian flag of the Ba’ath Party, which is why they carried a new (which is actually old) flag.

Other Syrians have criticised the Syrian national football team for being a regular vehicle for Assad’s propaganda. There were campaigns online with the hashtag „The national team does not represent me“. I can’t blame anyone, but I do think it is a shame we didn’t get the chance to think further. If Assad had been overthrown then, how would Syria have looked like? Would we have had to live with two flags and two national football teams? The bombs of the regime, the weapons of the regional powers and the ideology of the militia have taken this chance from us.

10 years later – the situation today

And now? Those following the news will note that Syria is more or less split into three parts. One part pro-Assad, one part for Syrian Kurds and one for the Free Syrian Army (which is under Turkish command). In these parts, Syrian society continues to break apart even further.

And then there are also Syrian refugees all over the world. Many of them have started a new life, they live in new apartments and have found work. They speak new languages and have acquainted themselves with new cultures. Many experience loneliness, discrimination or their Refugee Life Crisis. Other Syrian refugees still live under catastrophic conditions in camps. Their children do not go to school, many are worried about the next generation.

All these developments have led to very different paths, tales of hardship, perspectives, opinions and memories. As the Syrian author Dima Wannous put it at a Heinrich Böll Foundation event: „We as Syrians have lost the common memory, and the memory is identity. How can we live together without collective identity and remembrance?“

I have hope that in the next ten years, we will be able to discuss more with each other. We can learn from our various political, economic, historical and social perspectives, and maybe even find solutions. Grounded in these discussions, new coalitions (maybe even political parties) can be built. Not as copies of European parties or systems, but rather these could grow out of the many Syrian social groups. With the hope that all Syrians can someday cast their vote, these parties can argue, discuss, coalesce and shape the hope for tomorrow.

Until then, we as Syrians should understand how we argue more with each other, discuss, and ask questions, so that we get to know each other better and build a new, shared and honest Syrian identity.


This article was first published in German and translated into English by Sassetta Harford.

Keine syrische Identität ohne gemeinsame Erinnerungen



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