Throughout history, violence has been a primary tool of totalitarian regimes. And when a tyrannical authority responds to legitimate demands for liberty with indiscriminate violence, its people must decide whether to flee to parts unknown or to stay and fight for their freedom.
In Syria, we live with this dynamic every day.
My group, the Syrian Democratic Council, is a multiethnic coalition that makes up the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces. We have resisted the Assad regime for years. But what began as peaceful protests soon evolved into a more complex movement that has been compelled to adopt violence as a means of protection and as the only effective way to establish liberal democracy in Syria.
The Syrian regime that portrays itself as a secular government established its power decades ago by using violence against its opponents and anyone who disagreed with it. It established a dynastic dictatorship — a far cry from the republican system that allegedly exists today. The real rulers in Syria were not politicians who could be held accountable by their constituents, but rather covert security forces that acted as the legislature, executive and judiciary.
Judge, jury and executioner were all in the hands of the secret police. Among the most infamous of its branches was the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, which saw the rise of Hafez al-Assad. Mr. Assad used his influence there, and his later role as minister of defense, to seize the presidency in Syria in 1970 before passing rule to his son, Bashar al-Assad.
In March 2011, young women and men marched in the streets calling for peaceful change and democratic transition in Syria. They were filled with hope and new ideas. None of these men and women thought that they would be forced to embrace violence — the same means used by the government to stay in power — in their struggle for democracy.
The Assad regime responded to these protests with brutality. Children who had been arrested for spraying antigovernment graffiti on a school were imprisoned and beaten. People took up arms to protect their families, their homes and their neighborhoods. The regime responded in kind, laying the groundwork for extremist groups to legitimize themselves as protectors of the people while mobilizing Syria’s youths under the banner of radical ideologies.
In northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Council realized the problem that this violent dynamic presented early on. The line between fighting for democracy and fighting for our lives is razor sharp, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
Yes, we use weapons to protect ourselves, but our society has not fallen into chaos. Those who use violence must be held accountable, even when they use it as a last resort. We have established supervised local units of fighters that are allowed to use violence only for self-defense. Meanwhile, Mr. Assad’s military continues to attack civilians with chemical weapons. Whereas we employ fighters whose power is limited by the rule of law, Mr. Assad’s weapons are the law.
We have not abandoned other means of struggle, either. We organize protests in Syria and abroad, and have set up fair elections in areas protected by the Syrian Democratic Forces. We have proposed a decentralized solution to governance, as we believe that power in the hands of only a few has been responsible for so much of the recent bloodshed and oppression in Syria.
Our efforts serve as a reminder of what democracy really is: the rule of the people, by the people, for the people. Since Mr. Assad’s ascent to power, democracy has served as little more than a cover for expanding his control. The government held elections in 2016, but only in regions it ruled. As a result, the vote overwhelmingly favored the regime, propping up its legitimacy. In the background, activists, journalists and even whole populations continued to be imprisoned, displaced or murdered.
Today, the Syrian Democratic Council helps maintain an educational system for more than 80,000 students in the Jazira region, and for more than 50,000 in the Afrin region. We provide education in Kurdish, Aramaic and Arabic, and have established universities in Afrin and in the cities of Qamishli and Kobani.
Building a new Syria helps ensure a proper balance between violent and peaceful resistance. While war may make a new democracy possible, a democratic society cannot survive in peacetime without infrastructure and education.
Managing such reconstruction amid the ravages of war is a constant struggle. We are literally rebuilding Kobani from ruins. Even while under Turkey’s economic embargo, we began industrializing and diversifying Afrin’s economy. Then the city of Afrin was invaded and occupied by jihadist mercenaries, sponsored by the Turkish government, who have displaced its people and engaged in widespread looting.
As long as Syria, or any other country, has a leader who desires more control than a liberal democracy can provide, violence will continue to spread. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people have been killed simply to consolidate power for a few, democracy must be defended by more than just rhetoric. To believe otherwise is to resign oneself to a world of nothing but tyrants and graves.