"If the protests were as large as it's said they are, they would have already taken Damascus."
These were the first indications that what was happening in Syria would not be accepted or regarded as the other Arab uprisings had been. There was always a peculiar insistence on categorizing Syria with an asterisk, separating it from other revolts in the region. It has, from the beginning, been impugned or obscured by a narrative that would never grant it the basic concession that any domestic insurrection against a despot should be encouraged.
Now Syria tumbles lower into disarray. For many, there is a sense of validation for the positions they long ago took against the uprisings. It is said that the landscape of the opposition is enveloped in extremism, that Assad has emerged, truly, to be the lesser of two evils. The more tactful cynics will concede that perhaps the uprisings had, at one point, been worth supporting but that what we witness now cannot be endorsed. However, what has unfolded before us is not a revolutionary miscarriage; rather, it is a revolution that has been orphaned since its inception.
What makes this narrative so sinister is the claim that these positions are a reaction to the shifting characteristics of those fighting Assad. But the objections to the uprisings have not solely been birthed by the increased presence of Islamic fundamentalists. One only needs to revisit the trajectory of this rejectionist discourse to conclude that it precedes the pretexts that are offered today, that a sense of disenchantment wasn't developed over time because that would have necessitated that a time ever existed when they supported the call for Assad's downfall.
The initial whispers of rejectionism could be heard even when the protests were unarmed and peaceful. Let us not fool ourselves, there were signs even then that this revolution was not welcomed. Outcries about the slaughter of unarmed Syrian demonstrators were often interrupted with curious expressions of doubt regarding the size of the protests. It was bewildering to see how often a conversation about protesters being slaughtered would shift into a debate about the number of protesters that were actually out demonstrating. The inclination to obscure Assad's crimes and, instead, fixate on the grey areas that coat any uprising would go on to become a familiar tactic, increasingly employed as the carnage became harder to repudiate.
Non-violent demonstrators endured a savage crackdown. The understanding that Assad would never restrain his forces or himself had the predictable consequence: people began to arm themselves and fight back. The discussion once again shifted and no longer centered on the size of protests. In its place, bold declarations emerged insisting that the uprisings were composed solely of "armed thugs" that terrorized the local population. There should be no excuses made for the transgressions of any oppositional group. Still, it was clear that many were more interested in preoccupying themselves with the faults of the rebel militias than the vastly more prevalent and brutal atrocities committed by the regime. It was then that one first began to encounter the now-common preface to every, whether conscious or not, justification of support for Assad: "The regime is bad, but...."
Talk of conspiracy and Western proxy wars being fought against the Assad regime began to eclipse the essential point that these uprisings still maintained their aboriginality. And it seemed no amount of evidence could provoke an exorcism of these distortions and propaganda. Political forecasting is, to be sure, a juvenile industry that almost always proves itself incorrect. And yet, the outcome of neglecting the secular segments of the opposition was so obvious that even those only vaguely familiar with Syria began to warn of them. Assad had a consistent source of support and arms, the fundamentalists had their own too, and the only group faced with prolonged obstacles for any support were the secular rebels. As though a self-fulfilling prophesy, the secular oppositional militias became increasingly marginalized.
It was also during this period that it became clear that the perceived position of neutrality was, by default, an active stance that aided the materialization of the scenario that exists today. It is naive to judge that those who only purported to care about Syria when the West considered involving itself aren't complicit in the current ruin.
It is easy to now point to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant forces and conclude that the uprisings have been hijacked or compromised. But in no way does this serve as a validation of the rejectionist position. It is a development that was never inevitable; instead, it was one that was born from a betrayal and neglect of this revolution.
The Syria uprisings may not achieve what it was hoped that it would, any time in the near future at least. But it should never be characterized as a revolution that was lost; it is a revolution that has been abandoned, deprived of support and aid and basic compassion. And it will never have been the shortcomings of Syrians challenging Assad that generates any grim outcome; the shortcomings will have been all ours. It might be decades until the moment comes when we grasp this enormous failing on our part. And by then, of course, it will be too late. Grabbing our heads, we will futilely lament, "What have we done? What have we done?" And Syria, still reeling from this ruin, will stare hollowly back.