Creating new perspectives since 2009

Revolutions don’t succeed overnight; 13 years on, Syria is no exception

March 19, 2024 at 12:30 pm

Syrians, holding flags and chanting slogans, stage a demonstration against Bashar al-Assad regime within the 13th anniversary of the Syrian Civil War in Azaz district of Aleppo, Syria on March 15, 2024. [Hişam Hac Ömer – Anadolu Agency]

As we pass the 13th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, an uprising that was part of the broader Arab Spring movement that started in early 2011, feelings are bittersweet. It is clear that this revolution hasn’t produced the victory that the Syrian people were hopeful of in its early days. Whilst Egypt and Tunisia’s dictators were ushered from power within weeks, and Libya and Yemen’s took a little longer but faced death as a result of that popular fervour, that has not happened in Syria. Bashar Assad’s grip on power, while looser, is still there.

Revolutions, unlike our perception of time, are not linear. The aforementioned revolutions however did not, in fact, lead to the changes that their populations yearned for. Egypt, a precursor of things to come, demonstrated how powerful the counter-revolutionary forces truly are, as its first democratically-elected president, who started his term a year after the Arab Spring, was deposed in a military coup barely a year into office. The late President Mohamed Morsi was a flawed figure, but at the very least did not abuse his power and struggled against the forces of the Deep State.

Yemen and Libya deposed the unpopular dictators Ali Abdullah Saleh and Muammar Gaddafi respectively, but quickly fell into chaos due to the way in which these strongmen leaders had set-up state apparatus around themselves and their cronies. Essentially, they were the state. Tunisia, until recently the only “success story” of the Arab Spring, has also regressed seriously, with its president instigating a do-it-yourself coup, freezing parliament and firing the prime minister to consolidate power for himself.

When viewed through this lens, it is easy to become cynical; what is a revolution if it does not lead to a changing of the guard and a material improvement in the situation of its people?

The Arab Spring illustrated that even for those states which seemed to succeed early, a change in leadership did not mean a change in regime. It was the military which ultimately forced Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down after witnessing popular protests against him in early 2011, cementing its position in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. It was the same military which instigated the coup against Morsi in 2013. Sudan, the most recent Arab state to witness an uprising, albeit much later than the Arab Spring, is now mired in a civil war.

READ: Over 0.5m lives lost in 13 years of conflict in Syria

Revolutions take time. The best example of this is perhaps the French Revolution; the Bastille was stormed in 1789, and the first republic was set up in 1792. What followed was the reign of terror in which 30,000-50,000 were killed by the Committee of Public Safety, of which the infamous Maximilien Robespierre was a member.

In 1799, this government was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in a military coup and he ruled France as an autocrat who crowned himself emperor until 1814; he was defeated once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Following this, the allied winners at Waterloo installed a monarchy in France which lasted until 1848 with three monarchs reigning during the time. Louis Philippe (I) abdicated in 1848, the year of European Revolutions, and the second republic was formed.

Remarkably, after an election was held and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the nephew of the previous Napoleon) was elected, the legislature was still deadlocked and Bonaparte seized absolute power, ruling until 1871 when he was captured by Prussian troops as France lost to Prussia’s “minister president” Otto von Bismarck in the Franco Prussian War. France did not start to begin to resemble the state that it does today — which for all its flaws, has a functioning democracy and respects the rule of law — until more than 80 years after its revolution. This is not to say that all revolutions should take decades to succeed, and there were periods between 1789-1871 in which the people of France were far better off than under the “Ancien Regime”, but change does not happen overnight.

Hundreds of thousands demonstrate in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Hundreds of thousands demonstrate in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The Syrian Revolution was not an organised and coherent movement from the start. Whilst there were opposition figures who stood against the regime for decades and were imprisoned and exiled as a result, they were not behind the revolution. The uprising started organically on the back of the popular movements elsewhere in the Arab world, and the fact that it was a group of young boys in Daraa, south Syria, who started this by painting an anti-Assad slogan (It is Your Turn, Doctor) on a wall, demonstrates this .

Arguably, the revolution could have started years before; the death of Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father and the latter’s succession despite being the younger, less politically experienced son, could have been a turning point. The experiment of the so-called Damascus Spring, where Assad loosened the state’s grip on political debate ever so slightly and allowed the brief opening of muntadayat (forums) to open up in peoples’ houses to debate the political and social situation of the state, had finished by the end of 2001. The regime then went back to the same repressive methods it had always used.

Whilst the revolution hasn’t produced the victory the Syrian people were hopeful for, that does not necessarily mean that it has failed. The barrier of fear has been broken; the Syrian people know that a return to the status quo of pre-2011 Syria can’t happen. Too much blood has been spilled. Too many people have disappeared. Regardless of other states normalising relations with Assad and the Arab League recognising his regime again last year, it is ultimately the opinion of the Syrian people which matters.

And whilst Assad is still in office, he is not truly in power. He is propped up by Russia and Iran and leads a vassal state of the Russian Federation. Assad’s victory is a pyrrhic one, and the return of protests in Southern Syria over the past year demonstrates that the people haven’t forgotten why they rose up 13 years ago.

READ: UN calls on Syria regime to continue constitutional talks toward political resolution

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