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The beginnings of the Syrian revolution

January 22, 2016 at 3:25 pm

This is the first article of a three part series examining the Syrian revolution and the five years that followed it. Part II looks at the decline of the Free Syrian Army. Read it here.

Part I

The uprising in Syria did not begin in one of its major cities like Damascus or Aleppo, as would be expected. The Arab Spring came to Syria in March 2011 after 15 boys, inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, spray painted anti-government slogans on the side of their school building in the dusty border town of Daraa in southwestern Syria. They were arrested by Syria’s notorious secret police sparking an outcry that would quickly spread across the nation.

In Daraa, several hundreds of protestors who took to the streets to demand their release were met with live fire, three were killed. Those who attended their funerals also found themselves in the line of fire. The arrest and subsequent torture of the young boys, and the heavy-handed response to calls for their release, soon became a symbol of the unchecked brutality that has ruled Syria for decades.

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Attempts to restore calm were made by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who sent a delegation of high-ranking officials with family ties to Daraa to reassure tribal leaders that he was personally committed to bringing to justice those who had opened fire. However, just 48 hours after they met, Syrian security forces stormed the Omari mosque, which had become a focus for the growing protest movement, killing five people, including a doctor who was working to treat those injured in previous protests. An estimated 37 people were killed in the demonstrations that followed his funeral.

Syrian authorities promised to investigate the killings, but at the same time denied any responsibility and blamed the violence on “terrorist groups”, “armed gangs” and “foreign elements”. Daraa’s angry protestors demolished a statue of the president’s late father and predecessor Hafez Al-Assad and burned official buildings, including the ruling Baath party’s headquarters and the governor’s office. More protests led to more deaths, and funeral marches swelled into mass rallies.

Meanwhile, Syrians in cities including Baniyas, Damascus, Al-Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor and Hama were protesting in the streets, demanding the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law (which gave the government a free hand to arrest people without charge and extended the state’s authority into virtually every aspect of citizens’ lives), more freedom, and an end to pervasive government corruption. The protests were also met with unprecedented brutality by the security forces.

Bashar Al-Assad’s inauguration speech 11 years earlier had promised the reforms many people were looking for. While, in the early days of his leadership, hundreds of political prisoners were released and the first independent newspapers for more than three decades began publishing, the Damascus Spring, as it became known, was short lived and he soon returned to his father’s method of ruthless suppression to keep hold of power – paving the way for the uprising he was now seeing.

On 30 March 2011, Bashar Al-Assad addressed the nation for the first time since the protests began. Protestors were expecting an announcement of reforms but his long-awaited speech failed to announce any concrete changes. The next day, he launched a probe into deaths in Daraa and Latakia and established a committee to study the lifting of the emergency law. However, in what would become a familiar pattern, reform promises by Al-Assad were accompanied by more repression, as security forces carried out mass arrests of activists and journalists. Dissatisfaction grew and two days after his speech, the first of mass, weekly protests across Syria began.

Although Al-Assad did repeal the emergency rule at the end of April, alongside decrees to abolish the state security court and to recognise and regulate the right to peaceful protest, at least 110 protestors were killed the day after they were passed.

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Shortly after the decrees were issued, military vehicles rolled into Daraa and enforced a siege. Checkpoints were erected, snipers placed on rooftops, electricity cut and mass arrests carried out. This pattern would be repeated in a number of places, with varying degrees of military involvement. During the siege, 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khatib from Daraa disappeared. His body was returned to his parents a month later covered in the marks of torture. He became the poster boy of the Syrian uprising and his death rallied protestors.

The militarisation of the response led to the militarisation of the people (a militarisation possibly deliberately provoked by Al-Assad in order to justify even harsher crackdowns). In the summer of 2011, the Free Syrian Army was formed by army deserters based in Turkey. Led by Colonel Riad Al-Asaad, it had the stated aim of bringing down the regime. By December 2011, the FSA estimated it had attracted 15,000 to 25,000 defectors from the armed forces. By mid-2012 new factions were being declared at a rate of several per week. It was starting to look like Al-Assad could join the likes of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak.

Read part 2: The decline of the FSA

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.