When Syrian activists launched an uprising in 2011, their goal was clear: to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad. Now, as the war grinds into a fifth year, with more than 200,000 dead and militant Islamists seizing more ground, their revolt is hardly recognizable.
“What we are doing now has nothing to do with what we expected to be doing,” says Rami Jarrah, who joined early street protests in Damascus. He eventually fled the country to avoid arrest. Now he runs a radio station from southern Turkey, funded by Syrians and Western governments including the U.S., that broadcasts to rebel-controlled territory in northern Syria.
“It’s been a long time since we challenged the regime,” he says.
The challenge now is to provide a lifeline for civilians in rebel-held areas, to help them navigate the chaos of war and a state in collapse.
Jarrah has watched his agenda — the fight for a democratic, civil, inclusive Syrian state — lose ground to Islamists who have been implementing Islamic rule in areas they’ve seized from the regime.
Jarrah’s focus is on the needs of Syrian civilians. “We neglected them in the past when we were trying to convince an international audience that we needed help in Syria,” he says. Now, says Jarrah, “We are tying to figure out how to support the local community in creating civil society resistance.”