As the war has progressed, many of the young liberals who organized protests and beamed their images to the world as the winds of change first reached Syrian soil more than two years ago complain that they have been marginalized. They now have to fight on two fronts, they say — not just against the government, but also against extremist Islamist rebel groups, which, despite their supposedly shared aims, are increasingly targeting secular activists.
At a protest in Aleppo last week, demonstrators demanded the release of several activists detained by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the newly expanded al-Qaeda in Iraq. The squeezing out of moderates is playing into the argument of Assad’s supporters that the only choice facing Syria is between his rule and that of Islamic extremists, says Mustafa Haid, the Beirut-based director of Dawlaty, a nonprofit group that has provided training for more than 100 activists since being established last summer.
“We’ve lost many political activists,” said Haid, including some who were killed, others who joined the secular-leaning Free Syrian Army and others who fled Syria for Lebanon or other havens. “They are confused and say, ‘It’s not my revolution any more.’ ”
Ghaibeh was arrested by Syrian military intelligence in the summer of 2011, and his voice cracks with emotion as he talks about the harsh treatment he endured during five weeks in Syrian custody. He says he was made to stand for days on end, whipped with electrical wire and beaten on the soles of his feet. But the hardship only galvanized him, he said, making him more determined in his cause.
“I was just thinking of one thing,” he said. “That I’d be out one day and I’d be back on the street doing demonstrations. They wanted me to be silent, didn’t want to give them what they wanted.”
But Ghaibeh eventually fled to Beirut in March 2012. From outside Syria, Ghaibeh has continued to participate in demonstrations in support of the Syrian opposition, but he says the increasingly muddied makeup of the opposition has shifted his focus toward working with refugees and away from political activism.
“We need freedom but not like this,” Ghaibeh lamented as he sat in a coffee shop in central Beirut, the capital of neighboring Lebanon, where many of Syria’s secular activists have escaped.