Thursday, 24 September 2015
The Saints and Smugglers of Syria’s Civil War
'Two years into the revolt, opposition supporters inside Syria had self-organized into coordination committees, or tansiqiyas. In villages and neighborhoods, the citizen groups called for demonstrations, organized civil defense, and shared information on social media. Soon, a revolution that began with unarmed demonstrators quickly grew in need of an ever-expanding list of equipment: Samsung cell phones, better cameras, satellite phones. As early as the summer of 2011, when the regime first cracked down on protests, the opposition needed medicine.
The first place activists turned was overseas; some 10 million Syrians already lived abroad by 2011. Many members of the diaspora were longtime opponents of the Syrian regime; a few had made fortunes for themselves. And just as spontaneously as the local uprising had organized, the diaspora began to coalesce into their own tansiqiyas — in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Kuwait City, Doha, Jeddah, and elsewhere. Like so many of the first activists in 2011, many in the Syrian diaspora saw the initial uprising as a singular chance for a different kind of Syria. Mostly of an older generation, they watched, awestruck — even embarrassed — by how young people stood up to the regime they had run from. But while those who fled Syria hadn’t fought Assad and his soldiers back then, they could do so now using a weapon few inside the country could wield: money.
Their story is one of the Syrian conflict’s most invisible — and most important. The diaspora crowdfunded the early days of the uprising, kept activists and families sustained as times got rough, and sent vital remittances to breathe life into a destitute state. At times, they dabbled in weapons; they formed key links between regional governments and militias on the ground. It is unlikely we will ever know exactly how much money the Syrian diaspora poured into fighting the Assad regime. No accounting exists of its hundreds of decentralized networks spread across dozens of countries. But one thing is clear: Four years into a bloody civil war, the only reason that many in the country are still fighting — and surviving — is because of money and assistance provided by those who fled decades ago.
Amid it all, Abu Dhabi’s tansiqiya is expanding as the existing diaspora absorbs hundreds of thousands more Syrians. In the UAE alone, expats estimate that some 100,000 Syrians have recently arrived. Some of the tansiqiya’s aid is now focused inward, supporting the parents, sisters, nieces, and nephews who have arrived to the Gulf on visit visas without work.
Unlike the middle-class businessmen who fled decades ago, the new arrivals are often destitute — and increasingly dependent on their more established relatives and friends. “Each one of us here is sustaining 50 people,” says Abu Akhram, a member of the Abu Dhabi group. “The diaspora has been able to help the people and the revolution to survive.” '