Hopes for Syria's year ahead
Christmas reminds me of my childhood in Syria. It reminds me of my best friend growing up, a Christian girl from my school. We would go to the nearby church just to hear the Christmas songs and see the candles lit up.
And every year my family went to see the Christmas trees in "Bab Tuma", a Christian neighbourhood near my parents' home in Damascus. Bab Tuma is one of the most important sites of early Christianity and means the "Gate of Thomas", named after the Apostle Saint Thomas.
Syria was once seen as the centre of civilisation, known for its diversity, literature, art and architecture. Aleppo and Palmyra are among the most ancient cities in the world, thriving long before the Pharaohs and the Romans ruled the world.
It is painful to know that when people now think about Syria they think about war. These once beautiful cities have been turned to rubble, and their ancient temples have been looted by Islamic State (IS) militants.
Despite living through the horrors of terrorism, many Syrians continue to reject the Assad regime, as they had done in the revolution of 2011. Civilians also continue to reject the extremists who tried to poison the country with terrorism, when in reality, all they had wanted was democracy.
Anyone who cares about Syria should remember that IS does not represent the true wishes of Syrian people. They hijacked the legitimate aims of the revolution and legitimate calls for a fairer society, instead artificially implanting their own vision of repression, violence and cruelty.
|We must not present Syrians with a false choice between Assad's regime on one side, and terrorism on the other|
Under IS, sexual violence, beheadings and beatings were daily occurrences. Many of Syria's schools, mosques and churches were destroyed. Extremists like Islamic State are not wanted.
In defiance of this repression, a year ago Syrians gathered in major towns to celebrate the New Year, just as young people do around the world. But, as has become so normal, violence broke out.
Rather than the fireworks that light the skies of most other capitals, the skies of Damascus were alight with the fire of missiles and bullets. Cheers were replaced with screams. Instead of laughter, innocent civilians died. Rather than celebrating the coming year ahead, many Syrians feared what may lie ahead.
This year will mark the eighth year of civil war in Syria and many may wonder how 2018 will pan out. I have my own hopes for what the year will bring. I hope that as the new year dawns, a political transition for Syria will become a reality.
|Bahia Mardini is a human rights campaigner who was forced to flee the Syrian regime. [Bahia Mardini]|
This means delivering a new constitution created by the Syrian people and ensuring women can play their part in rebuilding the country, shaping Syria's future as decision-makers. This isn't just because it is "fair" or "equal" but because we need to show the next generation that every single life is valued - whatever your gender, faith or race.
We must also secure the safe return of refugees and the release of prisoners unfairly detained under Assad. I pray that 2018 will see democratic justice achieved for the millions who have been murdered, tortured, raped and forced from their homes. This means holding the regime and the extremists to account.
There can be no victory while Assad is still in power.
We must not present Syrians with a false choice between Assad's regime on one side, and terrorism on the other. We must continue to reject his claims over Syria and the claims of his allies. Syrians deserve better. Failing to do so does a huge disservice to all those who have struggled for the right to democracy.
Most importantly, 2018 must bring us closer to being able to hold free and fair multi-party elections. While the conflict may be hugely complex - the wishes of ordinary Syrians remain simple: We just want democracy.
These were the original and noble aims of the revolution.
Bashar Assad inherited the presidency of Syria from his father; Syrians did not elect him. The regime knows that if the country is free to elect its own leaders, Syrians would reject Assad once and for all.
|While the conflict may be hugely complex - the wishes of ordinary Syrians remain simple: We just want democracy.|
The right to hold free elections would also serve to suffocate any future attempts by extremists to opportunistically seize power through force. It is not enough to defeat Islamic State, we must defeat the conditions that allow them, and their affiliates, to thrive.
We enter this new year still optimistically searching for a diplomatic solution. The international community continues to gather around negotiating tables across the world, from Geneva to Astana to Vienna, and even on Putin's very own doorstep in Sochi.
As the former director of media for the Syrian Opposition, I have seen first-hand how the regime stalled progress at every turn, rejecting calls for change and desperately clinging on to their self-enforced status quo.
If other countries can enjoy democracy, why not hope that one day it may prevail in Syria?
Read more: Western media must understand there's more to Syria than Assad vs jihadis
I fled Syria with my young son after being threatened for speaking out against the regime. Although he is now only 10, he already knows that he owes a lot to the UK, the country which granted him safety when he was just five years old. We are grateful to have been given a second chance.
Our TV screens, smart phones and newspapers must continue to reveal the scale of Assad's atrocities and testimonies from those who have survived the brutality of IS. But we must not forget the individual stories of normal Syrians who simply hope next year will see more peace, and less violence. That is all most ordinary Syrians want.
My prayer is that one day Syria will once again be known for its talented people, its ancient history and its rich culture. For Syrians back home, but also for anyone who cares about Syria, please do not give up hope for the year ahead, and the rebuilding of the country we deserve.
Bahia Mardini is a human rights campaigner and the founder of Syrian House, an organisation dedicated to helping Syrians in the UK access information and support.
She specialises in human rights and democracy in the Middle East and was a media consultant in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and was the director of the media office of the opposition delegation in the peace negotiations in Geneva 2012.
Follow her on Twitter: @BahiaMardini
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff