BEIRUT — To the extent that the still-leaderless Syrian uprising can be said to have any leaders at all, Ghiyath Matar, a tailor with a fondness for flowers, was one of them.
His name was little known outside the Damascus suburb of Darayya, where he lived and worked and soon was to become a father. But there he was regarded as a hero, an inspirational organizer of anti-government rallies whose passionate commitment to nonviolence earned him the nickname “Little Gandhi.”
When his brutalized body was delivered to his parents’ home Saturday, four days after Syrian authorities detained him and a month shy of his 25th birthday, the shock waves rippled far beyond.
A man who had encapsulated the youthful idealism of Syria’s grass-roots protest movement, pioneering the tactic of handing out roses and water to the troops sent to shoot demonstrators, had died in custody.
And with him, a little piece of the Syrian revolution also seemed to die.
Activists across the country shuddered with outrage — and with fear. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford showed up at Matar’s wake, as did other Western envoys, to express support for his pacifism at a time when many frustrated protesters are clamoring for arms. Twitter exploded with tributes, many of them quoting the testimony he delivered to his activist friends in anticipation of his death.
“Remember me when you celebrate the fall of the regime and . . . remember that I gave my soul and my blood for that moment,” he wrote. “May God guide you on the road of peaceful struggle and grant you victory.”
Whether his wish will be heeded seems in grave doubt, however. Matar is by no means the first protest organizer to die in detention since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began in March. But his death comes at a critical moment for the uprising, which is entering its seventh month amid few signs that Assad’s government is in danger of falling.
The mass protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people in cities such as Hama and Deir al-Zour earlier in the year have been crushed by highly publicized tank assaults, in which hundreds died. Demonstrations continue on a daily basis nationwide, but so do the killings — 54 have died since Matar was buried Saturday, human rights groups report.
And out of the spotlight, a systematic sweep of activists in the Damascus area has netted dozens of key players in recent weeks, including Matar, chilling the protest movement there and casting into doubt prospects that the capital will one day be able to muster the momentum needed to seriously challenge the Assad regime in the one place where it really matters.
The momentum is “dying” in Damascus, said Alexander Page, an activist based in the capital who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity. He said he knew Matar and has seen nearly 20 other colleagues disappear into detention. “A lot of people have gone into hiding, and a lot of people are not taking part in protests,” he said.
Many activists suspect that informants have penetrated their ranks. Some believe captured protesters have divulged names under torture. Increasingly, the security forces seem to know in advance when a protest is planned and are on hand to round up the participants. Other activists have been caught in sting operations similar to the one that snared Matar, who had been in hiding for months after his prominent role leading demonstrators in chants of “peaceful, peaceful” drew the attention of authorities.
On Sept. 6, security forces raided the hideout of another activist, who was apparently forced to make a call to his brother, Yahya Sherbaji, a veteran activist, in which he said he had been shot and appealed for help, according to witnesses and relatives. Colleagues suspected a trap, but Sherbaji and Matar insisted that they had to go to see whether they could help. They did not return.
Exactly how Matar died isn’t clear. A video of his body shows what relatives suspect are burn marks caused by electric shocks. There appeared to be bruising around his throat. There were also two bullet wounds to his abdomen, and some witnesses reported a car chase and shooting as the men were captured.
Official Syrian media reported that the men had been killed by “armed gangs,” the phrase usually used by the government to describe protesters. No one who knew Matar believes that.
But as word of Matar’s death spread, despair deepened among some activists that peaceful protests alone won’t be enough to bring down the government, Page said. And calls for the protest movement to acquire weapons have grown, he said.
“We know how peaceful this guy was, and he was tortured to death, and it shows that if we continue like this, we’ll be treated like anyone who had a gun and was a terrorist,” he said. “Everyone’s really, really angry.”
Ford and seven other envoys to Damascus attended Matar’s wake because they hope that his death will instead serve to reinforce the commitment to peace that has finally earned the Syrian protest movement a measure of international support in recent weeks, according to a Western diplomat in the capital.
“There’s a growing frustration in the streets that a lot of people are being killed and wounded and that they should take up arms,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects. “This young man understood the importance of the protest movement staying peaceful, even as he was confronting a lot of violence.”
Minutes after the ambassadors departed, security forces attacked the tent in which the wake was held, firing live ammunition and tear gas and shouting curses against Ford and the other envoys, according to a witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Matar’s relatives and friends pledged to uphold the pacifism he preached. His wife, who is seven months pregnant with their first child, has been receiving condolences at her home dressed in white, not the traditional black. Mourners handed out flowers at the wake, in honor of Matar’s chief legacy — the practice of distributing roses to soldiers.
“There are many views, and one of them is to take up arms,” said a close friend of Matar’s who asked that his name not be used because he fears for his safety.
“But for me, and for his friends, and for his family, peaceful resistance is the only option.”
“His death is a grave loss for us,” he added. “But there are many people who have been killed before, and there are many more deaths yet to come. The revolution is still there, and it cannot be shut down.”