Martin Chulov reports: One evening in January 2011, Mohammed Rias, a hulking taxi driver and head of a family clan, called his close male relatives to a meeting in their village home in northern Syria. There were 13 men in all, sitting on thin cushions on the floor of a cold and frugal living room. Nine were his brothers, the other three his cousins. The loyalty of the men, tested through more than a decade of underground dissent towards the Syrian government, was about to be called on again.
Rias, 37, who is known by his siblings and cousins as Sheikh Nayimi, remembers the moment well. “I told them that the Arab Spring marked a moment for us,” he says. “It was not yet time to go public, we had to then remain private. But we could sense that something was coming. Everything we had waited for might soon be upon us.”
By the time of that first gathering, revolution was rumbling through North Africa. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis had fallen and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was teetering. The stirrings of popular revolt had also begun to unsettle Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Yemen’s leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Something remarkable was happening; the incontestable strength of the region’s one-man autocracies was crumbling. The might of the street had exposed the fragility of absolute rule. Such a powerful new reality electrified societies long conditioned to think otherwise. And though it was yet to get there, the shift was fast dawning on communities throughout the most uncompromising of the Middle East’s police states, Syria.
“We talked about it among ourselves and we knew that it would also get to Syria,” Sheikh Nayimi says, two years after the fall of Cairo. Coals spark from a rusting tin drum in the centre of a row of plastic chairs on the road outside his makeshift office in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and he leans forward to warm his hands. January is frigid and powerless here this year. Keeping warm is as much of a challenge as staying alive for the Sheikh and his nine brothers near one of the many frontlines of Syria’s civil war.
“We weren’t sure what would start things,” he recalls of the tense seven weeks it took for the arc of revolution to reach from Cairo to Damascus. “We couldn’t move before then.” The brothers did not have to wait long. The spray-painting of anti-regime slogans outside a mosque in the southern city of Daraa, and the withering response from the military, was Syria’s Tahrir Square moment. On March 15, several young men and boys from the southern town of Daraa were arrested for leaving the graffiti and then tortured in prison. The increasing protests – unarmed in the early months – were met with ever-escalating violence by a regime that had never brooked dissent and wasn’t about to do so now.
The Nayimi brothers knew their moment had arrived. “We didn’t have to hide any more,” Sheikh Nayimi says. Within days, he had been joined by his siblings and their elderly father, all of whom had left jobs in Aleppo or in their home village of Sarmada in the countryside near Idlib. Their transformation from peasant sons of the northern plains to revolutionaries at the heart of the war for Syria’s future has been honed ever since. [Continue reading…]