BEIRUT: After a decade of unfathomable violence and human tragedy that has made Syria the defining war of the early 21st century, the fighting has tapered off but the suffering hasn’t. In 2011, Bashar al-Assad and his government briefly looked like another domino about to fall in the whirlwind of pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Middle East.
Ten years later, Assad is still there, a pyrrhic victor offering no credible prospects of reconciliation for the Syrian people and exercising limited sovereignty over a land left prey to foreign powers. In late January 2011, the uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya became known as the “Arab Spring” and the contagious nature of the region’s revolts became obvious.
It took time for the wave of protests to take hold in Syria, where demonstrations had been banned for half a century and the government seemed more entrenched than anywhere else in the region. Some of the first gatherings, such as vigils outside the Libyan embassy, were ostensibly in support of the other uprisings and not a direct challenge to the four-decade-old rule of the Assad clan.
“We would call for freedom and democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but we were actually chanting for Syria,” prominent Syrian activist Mazen Darwish recalled. “We became obsessed with finding the spark that would put us next in line,” he says, retracing the beginnings of Syria’s revolt in a phone interview with AFP. “Who was going to be Syria’s Bouazizi?” The closest equivalent to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young street vendor whose self-immolation was the trigger for Tunisia’s revolt, turned out to be youngsters who spray-painted the words “Your turn, doctor” on a wall in the southern town of Daraa.
The slogan was a clear reference to Assad, wishing the London-trained ophthalmologist the same fate as Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had to flee into exile-or perhaps even Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who was later that year lynched by a frenzied mob. The graffiti led to arrests and torture, which in turn caused an uproar that rallied a critical number of Syrians behind the protests.
March 15, the date which AFP and many others use for the start of the Syrian uprising, was not the first day of protests but the day that demonstrations happened nationwide and simultaneously. Journalist and author Rania Abouzeid describes the moment that gives its title to her book on the Syrian war: “No Turning Back”. “The great wall of fear had cracked, the silence was shattered. The confrontation was existential-for all sides-from its inception,” she wrote.
What came next led to the planet’s worst conflict in a generation. The displacement, which saw half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million forced to flee their homes, was the largest induced by conflict since World War II. Half of those displaced fled the country, some of them swelling a wave of refugees reaching the shores of Europe, a phenomenon whose scope affected public opinion, politics and the outcome of elections on the continent.
In the chaos that followed the eruption of civil conflict in Syria, the most violent group in modern jihad-the so-called Islamic State-proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq that reshaped global terrorism. Arch foes Iran and the United States both sent troops to Syria to protect their interests, as did Turkey. Russia for its part launched in 2015 its largest military intervention since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a move that turned the tide in Assad’s favor.
Almost 400,000 people were killed in 10 years, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor that has continued to keep count after international organizations gave up. Most of the 117,000 civilians in that grim tally were killed by the government, whose willingness to turn against the population surprised even its fiercest opponents.
“I didn’t think it would reach this level of violence,” said Darwish. “But I was mistaken.” The government has used chemical weapons on civilian areas to subdue pockets of resistance, it has raided densely inhabited areas with crude barrel bombs that sow indiscriminate death, and systematically resorted to siege and starvation tactics.
Countless strikes were carried out against medical facilities in defiance of global outrage. Huge swathes of Aleppo, once the country’s economic hub and a heritage jewel considered one of the world’s longest continuously inhabited cities, were leveled.
The rapid militarization of the government’s response to the initial protests and the emergence of jihadist groups-helped by the government’s mass release of Al-Qaeda militants-turned the Syrian uprising into the Syrian war. The ultra-violence that the Islamic State group projected and its ability to attract fighters from Europe and beyond instilled a fear in the West that wiped out the early pro-democracy enthusiasm.
The world’s focus shifted to the fight against jihadists and away from the Syrian people’s struggle against Assad, who quickly recast himself as the best rampart against terrorism. “We were very naive when we started the revolution,” said Darwish, who was among those who created the first coordination committees organizing the anti-government movement. “Our outlook was sentimental, poetic, romantic. We thought our moral high ground alone would be enough. We had no tools when the others-the regime and the Islamists-had real partners and huge resources,” he explained. “We entered the revolution naked. All the others turned up armed to the teeth.”
What red line?
The protest camp’s voice was gradually drowned out and outside support only ever came for the conflict’s many other players. In 2012, US president Barack Obama described Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a red line. But when it was crossed a year later, he stopped short of deciding on the military intervention many had hoped for, in what remains a defining moment of his administration.
Assad had survived the pro-democracy protests but there was no guarantee he would survive the chaotic conflict that arose when he started to put those protests down. Rebels and jihadists fighting under a myriad of different banners, some receiving funding and weapons from abroad, were gradually bringing a Syrian army weakened by mass defections to its knees.
But the intervention of Iran and its proxies-first among them the Lebanese Hezbollah-and the massive Russian expeditionary operation of 2015 stopped the rot. At one point, the government had lost control over almost 80 percent of the national territory, including most of its oil resources, and rebels were on Damascus’s doorstep. – AFP