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 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 longtime rulers 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. “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 Gathafi, 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 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.
– Worst conflict in decades –
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 the second world war.
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 — ISIS — 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 favour.
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 organisations 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 levelled.
The rapid militarisation 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 ISIS 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 organising 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.”
– A multiplayer conflict –
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% of the national territory, including most of its oil resources, and rebels were on Damascus’s doorstep.
With the support of Russia’s air force, equipment and advisers, and with the added manpower of Shia militia groups deployed by Tehran, Assad embarked on a vengeful scorched earth campaign to reconquer the country.
Siege after siege, every rebel town and pocket was bombed into submission and turned into fields of rubble. Footage of mind-boggling destruction drew comparisons with the 1945 bombing of Dresden.
Images of maimed children being pulled out of pulverised homes, schools and hospitals fed global news reports year after year, in scenes that the government and Russia’s growing army of social media trolls tried to claim were staged in Hollywood-like studios to discredit Assad.
In an interview in February 2016, Assad made it clear there would be little room for negotiation and that his goal was nothing short of a full reconquest.
“Regardless of whether we can do that or not, this is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation,” he said.
The bloody sieges of Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave near Damascus, ended with surrender deals that were replicated across the country.
Jihadists and rebel fighters were forced into the north-western province of Idlib, an enclave where around three million people now live in abominable conditions under the rule of jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
– Limited control –
Turkey has an estimated 15,000 troops deployed inside Syria and wields significant influence in the north.
And the Syrian Kurdish forces that the United States allied with to combat ISIS in 2014 have remained in control of the north-east since they retook the last dregs of the so-called caliphate in 2019.
“If today Assad doesn’t control the entire territory, it is in large part due to his obstinacy, to the fact that he never agreed to negotiate… and insisted on using force to impose a return to the pre-2011 situation,” a Western diplomat based in the region said.
A ceasefire deal reached a year ago by Moscow and Ankara, the two main brokers in the conflict, has held despite sporadic fighting.
The offensive Assad long threatened on Idlib looks increasingly unlikely in that it would send the two mighty foreign powers on a direct collision course.
The Damascus government controls less than two thirds of the national territory, and geographer Fabrice Balanche argues that a look at the country’s borders paints an even less flattering picture.
“Borders are the sovereignty symbol par excellence, and the regime’s scorecard remains nearly blank on that front,” he argued in a recent study showing that government forces controlled only 15% of Syria’s borders.
The rest is de facto controlled by Turkish, US, Kurdish and Iranian-backed forces.
External powers are “informally dividing the country into multiple zones of influence and unilaterally controlling most of its borders,” Balanche wrote.
“I would say the best of the worst options we have today is an extended stalemate,” said Dareen Khalifa, Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, in a podcast on Syria’s “frozen conflict.”
She argued that for this stalemate to turn into a more constructive attempt to end the conflict, the living conditions of the Syrian people would need to radically improve.
Last year saw the lowest number of casualties by far since the start of the war, with military operations having significantly wound down.
But while it may look to the outside world like the conflict has essentially ended, the lives of many Syrians have paradoxically never been worse.
“The war is over in the sense that the fighting and the battles are over,” said Hossam, a 39-year-old translator living in Damascus.
“But our wounds are still fresh… and now the economy is the crisis everyone is experiencing, so in fact the war may be over but the suffering is not,” he said in a phone interview.
– A quest for justice –
According to the United Nations, 60% of the population is now food insecure. The Syrian pound has lost 98% of its value in a decade and a World Vision report this month put the cost of the war at $1.2 trillion.
For many Syrians, there is little to look forward to in a country where extortionist war profiteers and security services are milking the people dry.
A court in Koblenz, Germany, last month sentenced a member of the Syrian secret police to four and a half years in jail for crimes against humanity.
The verdict was a first and offered a glimmer of hope that some form of justice could be handed down for the conflict’s victims, but Assad and his inner circle are in no immediate danger.
The 55-year-old, who came to power in 2000, is widely expected to secure another term in an election due to take place in the coming weeks.
His government has so far failed to include a wider cross section of society in any political process, including the civil society that handled major aspects of the crisis response during the war.
It is also reluctant to bring in the international organisations that could prop up its nosediving economy and manage some of the reconstruction for which Damascus’s war allies have insufficient resources and know-how.
“Syria is one of the youngest countries in the region and a significant portion of its population wasn’t even born in 2011,” said Gilles Bertrand, who heads the EU’s delegation to Syria.
“These girls and boys will be Syria’s young adults in five or 10 years and will, in turn, want a future, economic prospects and political freedoms that the system cannot give them if it doesn’t reform,” he said.
Mazen Darwish, who now lives in Paris, admitted that the picture was bleak 10 years after the revolt erupted, but he was also confident the revolution would outlive Assad’s rule.
“Huge changes require time and sacrifice,” said the 47-year-old activist, who was jailed in February 2012 and tortured for more than three years.
“I don’t think the revolution, including in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, has either succeeded or failed yet. The Arab world has embarked on a process that is just beginning,” he said.
“It was the first revolution we took part in. We made a lot of mistakes. We promise to do better next time.”
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