BEIRUT – Abed Hakawati spends his days in a devastated, rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo, writing graffiti on the walls to remind residents and rebels alike of the original goals of the uprising that erupted four years ago: "Freedom, dignity and social equality."
The 37-year-old, once an actor in the theater, is now a fugitive, on the run both from President Bashar Assad's forces and Islamic State group militants who have taken advantage of the civil war to take over much of northern and eastern Syria.
Hakawati is among the secular activists with a dream of a democratic Syria who were the backbone of the peaceful protest movement that erupted in March 2011 against Assad's autocratic rule. Their dream didn't just fail, it exploded. They watched it perverted in ways that reached new depths of horror year after year, from barrel bombs smashing historic cities to Islamic radicals beheading and burning opponents.
Four years later, many Syrians believe the conflict has become a choice between rule by Assad and rule by Islamic radicals, and many, the activists admit, prefer the former. Hopes of democracy seem distant in a wrecked nation where more than 220,000 people have been killed, countless others maimed and millions dispersed in the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. The conflict has bred extremism that has touched countries across the globe and instilled chaos that may redraw the map of the Middle East.
Those original activists lucky enough to have survived or escaped abroad now struggle to come to terms with what went wrong. Many say the chaos is exactly what Assad wanted to preserve his rule.
"Quite simply, all the moderate voices that have called for a civil, democratic state have been either silenced or radicalized," said Hakawati. "This was Bashar Assad's plan, and it worked."
Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syria's revolt erupted in March 2011, when security forces arrested a group of teenagers who scrawled anti-Assad graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa. A small protest took place in Damascus' old city on March 15 calling for reforms, considered by many the start of the uprising. Three days later, security forces opened fire on a protest in Daraa, killing four people, the first deaths of the revolt.
Protests grew and spread in towns and cities across provinces, met by batons and bullets. Protests were often joyous. In the central city of Homs — one of the worst hit by the crackdown — exultant crowds of protesters danced arm in arm and singing to the beat of a drum "Yalla Irhal, ya Bashar!" — a simple yet powerful lyric translating to "Come on, Bashar, leave."
Raed Fares remembers the day the uprising reached his hometown of Kafranbel in northwestern Syria, a month after the Daraa protests. About 60 protesters came out of the Grand Mosque and walked to the main square, shouting: "God, Syria, Freedom!" They were met with about 150 security agents who took down their names and sent them home. A few days later, the police raided homes and arrested dozens of young men.
Protests swelled from a few dozen to thousands.
Across opposition areas, the army moved in, terrorized protesters and closed down mosques, and residents began to take up arms to defend themselves, joined by defectors from the military.
Assad's security forces deployed tanks, snipers and eventually warplanes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs. Activists, bloggers and opposition figures went underground to avoid arrest. Ghayyath Mattar, a rights activist, was killed under torture by security forces. Mazen Darwish, a Syrian writer and leading activist, was imprisoned. Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a secular revolutionary who spent 16 years in political imprisonment, fled to Turkey after living underground for months.
In Kafranbel, Fares and a group of friends began drawing witty, colorful protest signs skewering the Assad regime and satirizing the war. The posters were an instant hit on social media and shot Kafranbel to fame.
But as moderates were suppressed, radicals moved into the void. Fares remembers his first encounters with them. The opposition succeeded in driving government forces out of Kafranbel in August 2012, a moment of victory. But as they tried to organize a local administration, "the beards entered the fray," he said, referring to Islamic militants. Within months, the euphoria was clouded by worries over the extremists taking over.
In opposition-held areas around the country, mini-wars erupted between moderates and extremists, first the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, then the Islamic State group, distracting from the fight against Assad.
Fares, 42, refused to fight, insisting the word was stronger than the gun. He runs a media center and "Radio Fresh," a station funded by American NGOs described as the only opposition station operating from inside Syria. In January 2014, Islamic State militants tried to assassinate him, spraying his car with 40 bullets. He was hospitalized for three months. In December, he was detained and beaten by Nusra Front for three days.
Now extremists control about half of Syria. The Islamic State group, which also holds about a third of Iraq, is imposing its brutal rule in the large swath it controls, and the Nusra Front's rule over its own areas is hardly better. In that light, some Syrians see Assad as the lesser of two evils, with his grip bringing a degree of calm in Damascus and other main cities.
Activist Kassem Eid admits with regret that the millions of displaced, the devastation of cities, the suffering and the hunger have all become sideline issues for many in the face of the radicals. "That's absolutely not fair. They're looking at the side effects and forgetting about the cancer. The cancer is the Assad regime," he said in an interview by phone from the United States.
Eid, who went by the activist alias of Qusai Zakarya, fled Syria in early 2014. He had survived the deadly August 2013 chemical weapons in the Ghouta region in Damascus, and a two year government siege of his hometown of Moaddamiyeh where people died because of lack of food and medicine. Since arriving in the U.S. a year ago, he has been giving presentations at universities and meeting with American politicians to tell them about his experience in Syria.
As the death toll mounts, some young activists acknowledge some naiveté in their decision to challenge one of the region's most brutal police states, but defend the right to take up arms in self-defense.
They acknowledge that lots of mistakes were made from the beginning, including taking money from outside sources, which introduced outside agendas. They argue that it was Assad's brutal suppression and the United States and the West's failures to support moderates that created the space for jihadis to move in.
Fares says moderates like him far outnumber extremists but have been put down by both the government and the militants.
He believes Syria's future for the next 20 years is "black."
But he is convinced moderates will prevail in the end. "Everything else has been tested and tried. It failed."
Eid agrees. "I know four years seems like a long time, but four years in the scale of history is nothing," he said of the conflict so far. "This is the will of history. Dictators always fall. People always win, sooner or later."
Hakawati remembers the carnival-like atmosphere of the early protests with a smile, but sadness washes over as he remembers friends who were gunned down.
"The regime infiltrated every space for freedom and happiness and planted an ugly memory in it," he said.
Still, he refuses to give up.
He was arrested twice and wounded five times in the past four years, fled to Turkey but returned to Aleppo five months ago and rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr. There is no water or electricity and "death visits 24 hours a day."
But he works with other media activists and trains photographers. Sometimes, he draws the names of dead friends on the walls, and other graffiti reminders.
"It was a revolution for dignity," he wrote on a recent day.
Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.
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