New Internationalist

What do Syrians want?

September 2015

Not many people would attempt a public survey in a war zone. But Rafif Jouejati wanted the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard.

24.08.15-Syria-children-590x390.jpg [Related Image]
Children pose for a picture in the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan. © Jeff Mitchell / Getty Images

When the Arab Spring began several years ago, Syrians looked with envy at the freedom movements sweeping Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Change seemed unthinkable in Syria, where everybody knew that you could be imprisoned for merely criticizing the president. And yet the unthinkable happened: in March 2011, Syrians began protesting against more than 40 years of tyranny.

The revolution began peacefully, with Syrians from all backgrounds and walks of life calling for freedom, dignity and democracy. Expatriate Syrians joined the movement and staged demonstrations in national capitals. Peaceful Syrian protesters – often numbering in the hundreds of thousands in a single demonstration – demanded change. ‘One, one, one, the Syrian people are one’ was a common chant, as was the Arabic rhyme, ‘We want freedom, Muslims and Christians alike.’

Four and half years later we can see the results of Assad’s savage assault on his people. Some 11 million are displaced. Barrel bombs, indiscriminate shelling, and mortar attacks have destroyed approximately 80 per cent of the country’s infrastructure. More than 150,000 prisoners of conscience languish in regime prisons and routinely undergo unspeakable torture. The overall death toll surpasses 240,000.

In a country torn apart by violence, our call for democracy has been lost – the narrative of ‘Assad versus extreme Islamists ISIS’ leaves little room for the aspirations of millions of peaceful Syrians. Yet they must have a voice, not only to demand freedom but to articulate and understand what it would mean for all Syrians.

Constitution in waiting

Today's narrative of ‘Assad versus ISIS’ leaves little room for the voices of millions of peaceful Syrians

The Freedom Charter project set about filling this gap. Inspired by South Africa’s 1955 Freedom Charter, the central document of the ANC’s long struggle against apartheid, we trained over 100 grassroots activists who then interviewed ordinary Syrians in every governorate of the country, as well as those now living in the refugee camps of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The results were astounding. In the midst of a savage civil war, 50,333 people of different social, economic, political, religious and ethnic backgrounds dared to say what they want from a future Syria.

Both activists and interviewees took huge risks. Many of these interviews took place under threat of injury, imprisonment, torture or death. One activist conducting surveys in Quneitra was killed, while two others were critically injured in Lattakia. In eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, operations were forced to cease after threats by extremist groups.

And what did people want? The right for all Syrians to live in peace and dignity; to freely practise their religious and political beliefs; to be equal citizens before the law.

The Freedom Charter is the most comprehensive effort of its kind. It represents the first step towards a national-unity document based on the opinions, hopes and aspirations of our people.

The Charter is now being circulated among parties with an interest in Syria – governments, NGOs, armed militias – even the Assad regime, and extremist militants.

More Syrians are now signing up to the Charter, adding their voices to those of the 50,333 men and women interviewed. With enough support – our target for signatures is 1 million – the Charter will be a stepping stone in the long process of drafting a new rights-based constitution for all Syrians.

At some point, Assad’s assault on Syrians will come to an end, as will his regime. The future of Syria will be negotiated. At every stage in this process we will present the Freedom Charter to all those who have a hand in the rebuilding of the country. They must hear us. We Syrians must be the ones to shape our destiny.

Rafif Jouejati set up The Foundation to Restore Equality and Education (FREE-Syria), architects of the Freedom Charter project. To join or support the Charter’s #1Million1Year project, visit

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 485 This feature was published in the September 2015 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Marls 15 Sep 15

    Certainly, Syrians want what they had five years ago, a peaceful pluralist society.
    The wahhabis, foreign and Syrian terrorists have destroyed most of Syria, targeting 70%+ of the health facilities. They want Syria destroyed and the people of Syria enslaved to their commands.
    The poll is on the social web, e.g. Hands Off Syria facebook page, where thousands of Syrians contribute and speak freely of what they want.

  2. #2 getalife 16 Sep 15

    you must be joking rearranging ,deleting and simply lying about facts. YOU, together with Israel and US caused this crisis. YOU wanted weapons to go to rebels, get rid of Assad so you could put puppy regime bowing to Israel, US and Saoudi Arabia in power.
    Incredible! Now that your ploy doesn't ’look’ so successful you reverse the blame....
    Western tactics to destabilise Arab countries that were no poodles to US/Israel's wishes and threatening demands had to go, didn't they? outcomes of your interventions in Iraq, Libya,Syria,etc have worked out brilliantly: these countries are now in so much disarray that they can't spend any energy anymore to stand up to US/Israel/saoudi s chenanigans....
    In the meantime Israel gets away with bombing Gaza, instituting more apartheid, stealing even till these days from Palestinians by chucking them out of their homes...obstructing their easy movement etc.....
    You are much better versed in propaganda than Nazi Goebbels ever was. His moto of ’if you tell a lie often enough and with good intensity, it will be believed by most...WELL DONE!!!

  3. #3 figment 16 Sep 15

    @getalife I think you missed the point... you are talking to the British government not the publishers of this article, and you certainly cannot hold the British people as responsible - of course our government has its hands in this situation, but we are not our government!

  4. #4 Puzzled 16 Sep 15

    And ISIS will just vanish?

  5. #5 Simon Wolfers 17 Sep 15

    Another carefully selected survey that betrays the bigger picture on behalf of those that pursue regime change in their own interests. The vast majority of displaced Syrians are in Gov held areas. This would not be if they were, as claimed by 'activists', being killed by their own gov. Syrians overwhelmingly elected their gov in free elections, they are the ones with the right to choose their gov.
    Demonising the head of state in order to attack the whole state is a failed tactic that directly leads to the chaos we have now - see Iraq and Libya. Degrading legitimate state security forces has provided the vacuum for extremism to flourish which threatens us all and increases the refugee crisis. The answer has to be to stop interfering. Stop training and arming Syria's assassins and stop the sanctions, this will allow Syrians to restore the peace an rebuild their nation.

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This article was originally published in issue 485

New Internationalist Magazine issue 485
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