Beirut: It was on a bus ride home from college that Ahmad lost his faith in the Syrian revolution. The trip was long, about 650km across the desert from Damascus. As Ahmad swayed in his seat next to another man, the bus slowed and then stopped. Ahmad looked out the window.
There were about 50 black-clad militiamen at a checkpoint, rebel fighters whose cause he had passionately supported. Several entered the bus, gripping their rifles. They told the women on board, some without head coverings, to hide their faces.
They told the men to take out their IDs and fold their hands behind their heads. “We won’t joke about this anymore,” one warned. “This time, it’s not a problem, but next time, women should cover their hair and behave like good Muslims.”
Until that moment, Ahmad, a journalism student at Damascus University, had believed in the revolution. But as he watched the rebel soldiers, he saw his dreams of a democratic Syria being hijacked by extremists.
For Ahmad, at least for now, the revolution was over.
Many Syrian young people have followed a similar path in recent months. Excitement about the uprising that began in the spring of 2011 has turned to scepticism and fear as violence has grown and opposition militias, some funded by foreign extremists, have become increasingly influenced by fundamentalism.
As much as they may hate the violent, repressive regime of President Bashar Al Assad, these young people — largely educated and middle class — are horrified by the opposition’s alliances with radical groups such as Al Nusra Front, which has ties to Al Qaida.
They, along with many of their elders among Syria’s educated urban class, feel caught between two unacceptable extremes. The opposition movement once offered hope of a more democratic future. Now, in much the same way that many Arab Spring sympathisers in Egypt feel betrayed by their revolution, many Syrians worry that they could be trading one repressive regime for another.
“We won’t be with the regime, but neither are we with the opposition,” said Ahmad. “People like me are still here,” he said, “but who listens to the voice of reason when guns are shooting all the time?”
Many Syrians still support the uprising, and some welcome the shift toward religious fundamentalism. Activists close to the opposition’s umbrella military group, the Free Syrian Army, reject the notion that the population is losing faith in the revolution.
“The regime kills more people, so the people support the FSA,” activist spokesman Abu Hamza said by phone from Dariya, a Damascus suburb. But the malaise of young people like Ahmad appears to be growing among the people Syria most needs.
“Many don’t know who they hate most, the opposition or regime, because neither is offering a way forward,” said Peter Harling, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. “As they see it, they are both part of a system producing an absurd level of violence.
“A lot of people have paid a price and are not sure what it is for anymore.”
That is certainly the case for a woman named Sharihan, who is in her mid-20s and moved to Damascus from the port city of Latakia. Like the majority of Syrians, she is Sunni, and her family is orthodox. But Sharihan and her brother believed in a more moderate, secular Syria.
Both of them basked in the atmosphere of the demonstrations that swept across Syria in the spring of 2011. But late that year, her brother was seized by authorities and held for three weeks. When he was released, he had changed.
According to Sharihan, he had been brutalised while in detention, subjected to torture and humiliation. He took to the mountains and joined a rebel battalion.
She was in Damascus when she received the phone call saying her brother had died in combat. She screamed, then broke down in tears, cursing anyone she could think of for what had happened to him — including others in her family who encouraged him to take up arms.
“My brother was the most open-minded one among them and became the most radical,” she said.
Sharihan wonders if the new Syria has a place for her. “I am against the opposition; it’s very clear why,” she said. “I’m not with anyone.”
Al Assad has banked on the exhaustion of his fellow Syrians as a strategy to stay in power. In a televised address to Syrians last month, he presented himself as the only leader capable of restoring order to the country, contrasting himself favourably with armed Islamist groups participating in the war against his government.
He seemed to be appealing to educated Syrians when he said: “They call it a revolution when it has no relationship to a revolution. A revolution needs intellectuals and is based on thought. Where is the thinker?”
Whether for or against the regime, no one in Syria is content with the status quo. Some cling to a fraying hope in the opposition; others flit back and forth for signs from either Al Assad or the rebels that the war will end. But the violence worsens daily.
Some Syrians still hope that a spirit of civil society that emerged in the first year of the uprising has been silenced only temporarily, and that those who risked their lives in largely peaceful disobedience will reassert themselves when the fighting finally stops. Syrians, these people believe, have given too much to see their country destroyed by warlords or strongmen.
“But for now,” said Harling, “the extremists hold them hostage.”
That feeling of being trapped is all too familiar to Roula, 29, a member of the minority Esmaili sect of Shiism but agnostic. She attends university and distributes relief aid in Damascus.
Roula said she joined the demonstrations in the spring of 2011 full of optimism, ready to risk everything for freedom.
“It was dangerous,” she said, but she figured there was strength in numbers. “If there were many of us in the same place shouting the same things, we could protect each other.”
By the middle of last year, she had seen a change in the protests. Gone was the moderation; gone was any sense that change could come peacefully. Now there were chants supporting the creation of an Islamic state. “I don’t think it’s the fault of the protesters,” Roula said.
“They are under pressure and it is temporary.” Anyway, she said, “extremism is always met by extremism.” But for now, she does not feel as if she belongs. “I am against the regime,” she said, “but not part of the opposition.”
Walid, a 30-year-old rock and blues pianist, represents the Syrians who were thrilled by the movement in its beginning, but never got involved. Now he feels walled in on all sides.
Walid’s family had to abandon their house, in a battle zone, and he was forced to leave behind his beloved piano. Now, depressed and living in an apartment in Damascus, he fears his technique is deteriorating. He has fallen into a listless gloom.
“I wake up in the afternoon, eat, use the internet for a while, get miserable, get stoned and sleep while watching something fun,” he said.
At times, he wanted to be excited by the revolution; at times, he found himself hoping that Al Assad could pull the country together. But in the end, the violence of both sides repelled him.
“Someone would do something stupid in the revolution that would make me hate it,” he said. “And then I would see what the regime is doing, so I changed back to being with the revolution. Later I turned against them both.”
He hates what has already been lost. “I don’t really care if I die or not, but if I live, I will be a stranger,” he said. “Maybe I have always been, but I feel we’ll never come back to how we were.”