In March 2011, as anti-government protests swept the Middle East, Syrians called peacefully for political change after decades of autocratic rule. Initially, the demonstrations in Syria were modest, but after 15 boys were kidnapped and tortured by security forces in Daraa for writing graffiti on some walls, they swelled, spreading to nearly every major city in the country. Three days into the demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad ordered the military to attack the protesters, dragging the country into a civil war which has claimed the lives of over 600,000 people, spawned the creation of Daesh, and resulted in international interventions. As the violence begins to wind down, the hopes of Syria’s revolutionaries hang in the balance.
What: The start of the Syrian Revolution
Where: Cities across Syria
When: 15 March 2011
Following successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by early 2011 protests were gripping most of the Arab world. Inspired by what they saw on television, in Syria’s southern province of Daraa, a group of schoolboys wrote pro-revolutionary slogans on a wall: “The people want the fall of the regime”.
The local secret police arrested 15 boys aged between 10 and 15, detaining them under the control of General Atef Najeeb, a cousin of President Bashar Al-Assad. The boys were beaten, electrocuted, burned and had their fingernails pulled out, prompting major unrest on 15 March. Three days later, security forces opened fire on protesters, killing three and injuring dozens more. The brutal crackdown intensified in the following weeks; on 23 March, Daraa’s Al-Omari Mosque, which had been a refuge for the injured, was stormed by Special Forces and five people were killed. Weeks later, in the town of Douma, a funeral was fired upon as mourners gathered to bury protesters killed just days before.
By 25 March, protests had spread nationwide. Security forces were despatched to respond; they not only used water cannons and tear gas, but also beat protesters and fired live ammunition. Thousands were detained and accused of perpetrating violent acts, despite many of the demonstrators carrying flowers to show their peaceful intent. The rallies called for political and economic reform and an end to the country’s 50-year state of emergency, as well as the release of political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions that had exiled Syrians belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
As military operations against civilians increased, on 29 July 2011, a group of army officers who had defected from the regime announced the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with the objective of removing President Assad from power.
As government forces continued to launch attacks on protesters across the nation, the FSA grew in number, and retaliated by attacking army bases and intelligence headquarters. By July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the fighting to have become so widespread that it should be regarded as a civil war.
What happened next?
The war escalated significantly in 2012 as a ceasefire agreement mediated by then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon collapsed following the massacre of over 100 people in the city of Homs by government forces. FSA fighters launched offensives against government forces and armed Islamist groups rose to the fore. Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) also moved to expel the regime from the oil rich governorate of Hasakah after weeks of fighting. Violence escalated further in 2013, with the year ranking among one of the bloodiest of the conflict; according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 73,000 people were killed.
In 2014, the Syrian civil war witnessed one of its most defining moments with the announcement of the establishment of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. At its peak, the group controlled a third of Iraq and Syria; it attacked the Assad regime as well as revolutionary forces, committed extrajudicial killing and ethnic cleansing, and enslaved religious minorities. The declaration prompted further global involvement in the conflict, with the US leading an international coalition to eradicate Daesh in Syria and Iraq.
In 2015, the war took another twist with Assad enlisting the help of Russia to drive back Daesh militants and revolutionary forces. Russian air strikes have been cited as one of the main reasons for the tide to turn in the government’s favour. In 2016, Aleppo was recaptured by the regime after years of a crippling siege and months of Russian bombardment.
Chemical attacks have also been a hallmark of the Syrian government’s operations against civilians. In April 2017 it launched one of its most deadly attacks on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing at least 80 people and injuring around 600. The incident prompted air strikes ordered by newly-elected US President Donald Trump against the regime’s chemical storage depots; Washington also imposed sanctions on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre for its role in producing chemical weapons.
Later that year, Russia, Iran and Turkey started the Astana process with the objective of reducing violence and creating a framework to work towards a political solution. In May 2017, the three countries and representatives of the regime and the opposition agreed to create “de-escalation zones” in four key rebel strongholds in Syria. Whilst the ceasefire held initially, by the end of the year the government had conducted several military campaigns against opposition territories and in 2018 besieged and recaptured Homs, Ghouta and Daraa, leaving Idlib as the last revolutionary bastion.
Meanwhile Turkish frustrations over America’s backing for Kurdish groups in Syria allied, said Turkey, with proscribed terrorist groups came to a head following a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, with Kurdish groups in Syria calling for similar autonomy. In 2018, Ankara undertook a ground offensive against the YPG as part of “Operation Olive Branch”, securing Afrin and northern areas west of the River Euphrates. Turkey has expressed a desire to move further west into Manbij, a move that has been rejected by Kurdish groups and their Western backers.
In recent months the US has zeroed in on the last Daesh-held territory in the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor, reducing the group’s presence to just one small town of Baghouz. With the operation set to end imminently, the fate of the thousands of fighters and their families has proved increasingly controversial for countries around the world whose nationals went to Syria in support of the extremist group.
With the Syrian government once again in control of some 60 per cent of the country, President Assad moved in September to launch an offensive on the last opposition stronghold of Idlib. His plans were halted, though, after Russia and Turkey moved to sign a demilitarisation agreement in Sochi, with joint patrols on the border. However, air strikes in the Hama countryside and rural Idlib have continued; around 100 people have been killed in bombing campaigns since the deal was signed.
Despite this setback, with the violence winding down the Assad regime has been keen to present itself as the victor of the conflict, meeting with regional leaders and expressing the President’s keenness for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League. Assad has also called for refugees to return home, despite the ongoing reports of reprisals against supporters of the revolution, with hundreds facing arbitrary arrests, forced conscription and repossession of their properties.
However, Syrians within and beyond their country emphasise that they will not accept an ugly peace, and have called instead for the international community to hold Bashar Al-Assad to account. With some 14,000 Syrians killed in detention, and a further 82,000 “disappeared”, as well as six million refugees outside the country, there is a mass of evidence proving that the government in Damascus has committed war crimes with, it seems, impunity. Nevertheless, as people around the world mark the eighth anniversary of the revolution, the dream of justice and freedom lives on.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.