For a glimpse into the future of opposition politics tolerated by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, visit the downstairs office of the politician-intellectual trying to realize social change while coloring inside the autocratic Assad regime’s “red lines.”

“We’re now practicing politics with a lower-case ‘p,’” Anas Joudeh told me.

Joudeh and I had met in Damascus’s central, upscale Malki neighborhood, in a refitted basement apartment that was home to Joudeh’s Nation Building Movement. The walls were decorated with photos of idyllic old Damascus, from a time before coups, counter-coups and the Ba’ath Party’s capture of Syrian state and society had, Joudeh told me, stunted Syrian identity.

Joudeh, the Movement’s 41-year-old founder and head, operates at what is probably the least-tolerated end of tolerated opposition politics under the Assad regime. And as the Syrian regime expands and solidifies its control over much of the country, Joudeh’s work likely represents the outer limit of what legal, above-ground politics will look like under a resurgent Assad.

Syria’s Split War and “‘Capital-P’ Politics”

Syria is a country at war, but it’s a sort of split, multiphasic war. In parts of the country, the gruesome, neighborhood-flattening civil war between the rebel opposition and the Assad regime has continued to rage. Yet in other areas, including the capital Damascus, the atmosphere seems closer to post-conflict.

When I was inside Damascus in October and November, the city was crowded with checkpoints and uniformed men, but the war felt distant. The regime had just snuffed out several more rebel enclaves west of the capital. I could hear no shelling or air strikes on the remaining opposition redoubts in the city’s suburbs, which, in turn, had mostly stopped dropping rockets into Damascus’s historic neighborhoods and shopping districts. Civilian life inside the city seemed mostly normal, if faded and damaged.

Within this hybrid wartime/post-war milieu, Anas Joudeh is one of the members of Syria’s domestic opposition trying to define what critical politics should look like inside Assad’s Syria, during and after the war. In Damascus, the jumble of individual opposition politicians and micro-parties that had been uncomfortable with armed resistance and state destruction must now identify the civic and political spaces they will contest as the Assad regime reasserts its overall control.

According to Joudeh, 2012 had been a moment for “‘capital-P’ Politics.” Syria was in the middle of an uprising, he said—it wouldn’t have made sense to talk about local governance, or about small- and medium-sized enterprises. But now, going into 2017, Syrians living under government control were primarily concerned with the economy, security, and the continuity of state institutions. “People considered ‘pro-regime’ are mainly anti-opposition,” he said. “Most people are pro-state.”

And in practice, he acknowledged, that broader support for the state’s continuing existence and functioning had buoyed the Assad regime. “They control the state, and we need the state,” he told me. “The regime benefits from the power and resources of the state.”

A “Social-Political Movement”

Within that institutional framework—the existing Syrian state, dominated by the Assad regime—Joudeh and his young team have been working towards more limited change through the Nation Building Movement, which he described as a “social-political movement.” (“Social before political,” he added.)

Joudeh launched the Movement in December 2015, after the implosion earlier that year of the Building the Syrian State Party. Building the Syrian State had been one of several opposition parties that periodically engaged the more rejectionist exile opposition but opposed the militarization of the 2011 uprising and maintained a presence inside Damascus. The party’s membership inside Syria, including Joudeh, resigned en masse in April 2015 after party head Louay Hussein fled the country for Turkey.

The Nation Building Movement’s vision for gradual, nonviolent change focuses on themes like a common Syrian identity, the shape of the Syrian state, and peace and reconciliation. So far it has organized a series of workshop-dialogues under the banner “Strategic Choices for Syrians” across the country, including in Damascus, Homs, and Tartous. The dialogues are meant to discuss both Syria’s ongoing crisis and its root social and political causes, in the hope of short-circuiting a national cycle of violence.

Participants so far have included softer opposition figures, academics, and parliamentarians. While representatives of the regime have not themselves attended the workshops, Joudeh said individuals who have influence within the regime have joined. Joudeh doesn’t regard the regime as monolithic, he told me, and he said the aim of his work is to shift political discourse from “pro- and anti-” to an “interests-based discussion.”

“Even some in the backbone of the regime might have the same economic vision as others within the opposition,” Joudeh said. He has publicly discouraged debate premised on ideas like “transition” or the “handover of power” he dismisses as impractical or political non-starters.

And Joudeh argued the space for critical political discourse had expanded over the course of Syria’s war, whether in President Bashar al-Assad’s rhetoric or the new presence of independent political voices in Syrian media. “There are margins [for political opposition]—space is a big word,” he said. “They came because of the uprising, this huge conflict—they weren’t a gift from the regime.”

“Syria can’t go back,” he told me. “It can’t be the same—everybody’s changed.”

Room for Political Dialogue?

Yet while Joudeh described the Movement’s work and focus on concrete interests as “politics as politics,” it seems, from another angle, almost apolitical. Its workshops are closer to the sort of programming one might expect from an NGO, not an active political opposition. The small, elite format and the subject matter—ranging from astute but diplomatic points about the need for public sector employees to be hired based on competency, not demonstrated loyalty and security approvals, to more abstract discussions of Arabism and Syrian identity—are basically non-threatening to the regime. Yet this is likely the safe extent of critical politics inside Syria today.

And even if the Assad regime is now willing to tolerate some limited opposition, there’s no indication it is actually interested in sharing power or engaging that opposition in any substantive political dialogue.

And even if the Assad regime is now willing to tolerate some limited opposition, there’s no indication it is actually interested in sharing power or engaging that opposition in any substantive political dialogue. “The regime can only think in terms of deals in closed rooms,” Joudeh told me. The regime is transactional; its more amenable, constructive-minded domestic opposition has nothing to offer in trade, and so the regime seems comfortable disregarding it.

In an interview Bashar al-Assad gave to a Russian daily shortly before I met Joudeh, Assad had assured the Russian journalist that Syria had a legitimate political opposition—but couldn’t recall any specific politicians or parties. “Their names aren’t coming to me now, but we have some figures,” Assad said. “You can look for their names. We have political trends and movements.”

“If they were thinking seriously, they would bring someone from the opposition and give him some space,” Joudeh said. “They could at least make a game of it. A good play, a film. People could cry, they could laugh.”

In December, the regime reportedly vetoed Russian attempts to invite exiled politicians to an opposition conference in Damascus, although the conference went forward without them. In an interview, Joudeh said he and his Movement attended but withdrew after the program was abruptly amended and the Iranian ambassador was added to the list of speakers.

With or without the encouragement of the regime, Joudeh seems committed to building and defending a “democratic, secular, liberal center” in Syria, and to the incremental work it would require. “We want to work on these margins [for opposition], widen them centimeter by centimeter,” he said.

The Opposition’s Legacy

But it was somewhat disorienting chatting comfortably over tea in Malki and talking about expanding the gap for political discourse by centimeters when, elsewhere inside Syria since 2011, a more strident opposition had wrenched that aperture wide open.

The revolutionary opposition, in all its forms, had articulated a critique of the Assad regime that went far beyond the measured advocacy of Joudeh and others in the permitted Damascus opposition. Yet that more assertive opposition—the opposition of kilometers, not centimeters—had also, inadvertently, invited terrible but predictable retribution by the Assad regime; the intervention of ill-intentioned regional and international powers; and the commandeering of the resistance to Assad by toxic, illiberal armed actors.

Now that revolutionary opposition seems likely to lose the battle for the country. To the extent it survives, it will be as something that has little in common with the ideas of its original activist leaders, or with the secular, democratic vision of people like Joudeh.

Joudeh seems to walk a line between realist and defeatist. He and others in the approved opposition are pushing for change, but change within what is, compared to the revolutionary opposition, a dramatically more limited understanding of the possible.

To the extent that the war had expanded the bounds of Syrian politics, Joudeh said it was small consolation for the wholesale destruction of the country. “All this blood and disaster is not equal to this change,” Joudeh said. “It is the minimum of the minimum of the minimum.”

Joudeh had gambled that activism inside Assad’s Syria—even surrounded by the flexing, constricting coils of the Syrian security state—might ultimately be more meaningful than something less compromising but doomed to defeat or exile. And as the regime continues to draw confidence and political strength from its gains on the battlefield, what happens next to Syria’s domestic political opposition will do a lot to tell us whether Joudeh was right. Maybe the regime will allow a continued role for a small, safe opposition, one whose existence allows the regime to claim some limited political pluralism, to sow divisions within the broader opposition, and to confuse the international community. Or maybe, as the regime works its way through its many enemies, people like Joudeh are just further down the list.

Joudeh told me he would keep going as long as he safely could. “Of course, it’s a daily fear that something will happen,” he said. “We’re in moving sands.”

But he wanted to engage in politics alongside his fellow citizens, he told me. Based inside Syria, he said, he could hold a workshop in coastal Lattakia province for $600. If he wanted to do the same thing in Paris, he’d have to spend $30,000 on attendees’ airfare. Being inside the country allowed him to do more that was more relevant, he argued.

“Real politics is here, not outside,” Joudeh told me. “Outside you can shout in the media, but you won’t change anything. You can invade people with tweets and posts, but nothing will change. Even if you get 10,000 ‘likes.’”

Cover Photo: Joudeh Homs Workshop December 2016, “Joudeh (center) presides over Nation Building Movement dialogue in Homs”.