Humour as a powerful weapon

In this endeavour, satire and graffiti are just as important as democratic participation. Activists add their own sarcastic comments to HTS propaganda videos and ridicule the jihadists in caricatures and texts. Humour is a powerful weapon, says activist Fares, who heads up an initiative to strengthen local institutions, adding "dictators and jihadists rule through fear, but people are not afraid of something they are able to poke fun at."

More dangerous than satire on the Internet is the battle for the public sphere. Just like the regime with its Assad portraits and flags, HTS is also trying to reinforce its territorial control with logos and slogans. Symbols emanate power and should not, therefore, be underestimated, explains trainer Mustafa. Activists are attempting to break the visual dominance of the jihadists with critical graffiti, for example, when women in Idlib and Maarat al-Numan spray the name of jihadi leader Al-Jolani on rubbish bins.

HTS regards local councils as its biggest competitors. In order to protect these councils from encroachment by the jihadists, the support of the local population is needed. In Saraqib, civil society organisations helped in the local council election. When HTS occupied the city directly afterwards, residents demonstrated until the jihadists withdrew. HTS did, however, return, and took over the city's electricity supply.

The example shows that there are limits to civil resistance. It cannot vanquish a terrorist group, writes Haid, but it can stem its influence. He calls for increased participation of women, among other things because they can prevent the recruitment of young people by radical groups.

Activists from Kafranbel hold up a caricature of Putin keeping Assad alive (photo: AP)
According to Kristin Helberg, activists in Idlib are trying to break the visual dominance of the jihadists's flags and symbols with critical graffiti. For example, women in Idlib and Maarat al-Numan are spraying the name of jihadi leader Al-Jolani on rubbish bins. Pictured here: activists from Kafranbel hold up a caricature of Russian President Putin keeping Assad alive

Those who bolster civil society combat terror

At the UOSSM conference in Berlin, Raifa Samia explains how this works. In 2015, the 45-year-old set up the women's organisation Barakat Amal (Glimmer of Hope). Together with around 100 volunteers, she looks after refugee women in Idlib who are without partners. "We boost their morale, we offer them vocational training so that they can provide for their children and send them to school," says Samia. Otherwise they would end up in the pay of one of the militias, as a way of feeding their families.

For the activist, who wears a headscarf, co-operation between authorities, NGOs and women's groups is crucial. "Anyone who wants to combat the jihadists must offer the people a better alternative – with education, work and health care."

The colleagues at the Idlib health authority have managed to do just that. "HTS can't control us," says Dr Khalil. The authority is too large, and its work too important for that to happen. At the new Avicenna hospital in Idlib (which has two subterranean levels as a protective measure against the bombs), medical staff are receiving training, a third of them women.

After the first cases of polio in children emerged in 2014, 175,000 children were vaccinated in a process involving 2,000 volunteers. Since then there have been no further cases. And in Sarmada, the first psychiatric clinic has opened in northern Syria, allowing patients with severe trauma to be hospitalised.

Civil structures in Idlib are manifold, and those who work to strenghten them are attacking terrorism not as a symptom, but at its very roots.

Kristin Helberg

© 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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