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Syria's devastating decade of civil war

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East CorrespondentThursday 27 May 2021

Ravaged by ten years of conflict, conditions in the country are now worse than ever. Yet, the desperate Assad regime is using every conceivable means to cling on to power. 

In March 2011, Syrians had just finished watching two long-time Arab dictators fall in the neighbouring countries of Egypt and Tunisia under the weight of unprecedented mass protests. On the streets of Daraa, a group of teenagers went out and wrote a statement that no one had dared to write or say in that country for the 40 years it had been under the rule of the Assad family. ‘Your turn (to fall down) has come, Doctor’, read the graffiti.

For fear the sentiment expressed in the graffiti could spread across the country, the ‘Doctor’ in the statement ordered the arrest of those responsible for it. Bashar al-Assad was trained as an ophthalmologist and was known for his empathetic treatment of patients. But, after serving as Syria’s undisputed ruler for 11 years, corruption, economic mismanagement, rights violations and torture in military prisons became hallmarks of his style – like his father Hafez al-Assad, who took over in a coup in 1971 and passed away in 2000.

Assad sent his security forces to warn the teenagers’ families and the rest of Daraa not to take part in the wave of protests across Arab countries that was dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’. The tactic backfired. Peaceful protests erupted all over the country and lasted six months. Assad unleashed the full force of not only his notorious security agencies, but most branches of the military. The protestors responded by taking up arms, and Assad’s military saw defections to the opposition, thus starting a civil war that has now ravaged the country for ten years.

Unsure what shape Syria would take, a confused world hesitated to back the little-known Syrian opposition. Impatient for success, the armed revolutionaries welcomed foreign fighters, unwittingly losing the sympathy of Western powers in doing so. And as groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS saw an opportunity to fill the growing rule of law vacuum, Western powers decided to shift attention from Assad’s ruthless tactics to containing such groups. Iran and Russia saw an opening too and lent seemingly limitless support to Assad’s collapsing army.

The world’s largest refugee crisis

After ten years of conflict, nearly half a million people have been killed, at least six million Syrians have been made refugees and a further five million displaced internally. The total population was little more than 20 million in 2010. Syria now stands as the world’s largest refugee crisis since the First World War.

Despite the horrific humanitarian toll and the still-unresolved conflict, some have, nevertheless, declared Assad a winner. He is still in office with many foreign powers preferring the brutal dictator in Damascus to the possibility of radical groups having a foothold in the Mediterranean country.

Perhaps when we get freedom, we forget the bloody years. But will the mother who lost her children forget? And the boy whose father died? Will they forgive us?

Ammar Hamou
Senior Editor, Syria Direct

However, realities on the ground tell a very different story. Despite extensive support from Iran and Russia, the 55-year-old dictator controls only 63 per cent of the country. And those Syrians who chose to remain within his territory suffer significantly worse economic conditions than a decade ago, including lack of bread, gas, education and health services. Poverty and mismanagement prevail. Reports from Syria show Assad’s forces are increasing pressure on civilians to obtain bribes.

Worse for Assad, the regime is not fully in control of what is left of the country. Foreign Shi’ite militias, who hail from as far afield as Afghanistan, as well as Iranian and Russian troops have become the real power brokers on the ground. Pro-Assad commanders are subordinate to militia leaders and, reportedly, even to rank-and-file foreign fighters from the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah whose forces were a major boost to Assad’s troops.

Many Syrian army soldiers have to work for private security contractors, such as the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group or Iran’s Quds Force, which offers religious affiliation plus cash. On the other hand, Iranian and Russian troops visibly enjoy better access to services and amenities.

The devastation of the past ten years appears to have taught the dictator little. Assad has not found any political equilibrium to encourage the return of millions of Syrian refugees. If anything, he is doubling down on highly controversial legislation. Law 10 gives his regime the right to expropriate homes and property of Syrians who chose to leave the internecine conflict under the pretext of aiding ‘terrorists’.

Instead of offering economic plans to support both his base and other Syrians who may be considering a return, Assad is working to pay off the foreign powers and troops that have kept him in partial power. Now $1 buys more than SYP 3,200 when it bought SYP 50 before the uprising.

‘Today, the situation in Syria, especially in the regime-controlled areas, is worse than ever’, says Ammar Hamou, a senior editor at Syria Direct. ‘A few days ago, I contacted a member of my family in Damascus, who told me that the price of a man's jacket is equal to the salary of an employee for two months.’

The international community, weary of the decade-long conflict, has also expressed relief at the lack of heavy clashes. But that too has not solved the root causes of the plight of millions of Syrians. The current lull has given Assad time to launch yet another internal witch hunt for relatives of opposition sympathisers. He remains bitter that his compatriots went out against him.

‘The regime is devoted to implementing a secure grip in its areas of control and is opening the files of the citizens who stood against it for ten years. Of course, this is not just a fear. I give you an example from my city, Douma in the countryside of Damascus. Today the regime is doing a study. We have documented the arrest of a number of people in that area’, says Hamou.

Syrian revolutionaries fault the West for the status-quo in part because they imposed a weapons embargo on anti-Assad factions for fear that those weapons might fall into the hands of anti-Western radical groups. A decision that, they say, essentially prolonged the conflict. Yet, they also say their desire to rid Syria of Assad hasn’t been diminished. And despite the humanitarian debacle, they say international intervention, particularly military intervention, should end in order to allow Syrians to define their own future.

For them, Iran and Russia bought Assad time, which he is using to cause further bloodshed, destruction and suffering. Whether in Sunni Idlib or the Kurdish-controlled territories, refugees lead a hard life but one devoid of Assad’s much-feared security forces nonetheless.

‘Yes, the day will come when we will live in freedom, but the problem is how much will we pay for freedom? How much blood and destruction will we pay?’ asks Hamou. ‘Perhaps when we get freedom, we forget the bloody years. But will the mother who lost her children forget? And the boy whose father died? Will they forgive us? Will they forgive the international community?’

Syria 2011 to 2021 – from revolution to devastation

15 March 2011

Assad’s feared Mukhabarat forces detain boys for spray painting pro-democracy slogans on their school walls.

28 March 2011

At least 60 people killed after security forces open fire on protestors.

April 2011

Syrian tanks storm Daraa killing at least 20. Rights groups say the death toll from spreading peaceful protests has reached 400.

July 2011

Death toll reaches 1,400. Syrian army defections begin.

18 August 2011

Despite lethal crackdowns, protestors are further emboldened after US President Barack Obama calls on Assad to step down. The US freezes Syrian government assets.

September 2011

Defected military officers begin to set up their own armed militias marking the beginning of armed opposition.

February 2012

Kofi Annan begins UN-sponsored mediation efforts. Annan ends these after five months as Assad refuses to implement his peace plan and opposition escalates military campaign.

July 2012

Assad’s forces drop barrel bombs on heavily populated, rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Over a million civilians flee. Another 500,000 civilians are displaced internally, starting a major global refugee crisis.

November 2012

Syrian opposition forms a coalition and wins recognition from the US and other international powers.

21 August 2013

Deadly sarin gas attack kills hundreds in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

June – September 2014

A previously obscure group declares caliphate calling itself Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US shifts attention to ISIS, launching airstrikes against the group inside Syria.

September 2015

Russia enters the war and is accused of deliberately bombing civilian targets, tipping scales in Assad’s favour.

August 2016

A UN panel determines that Assad’s military used chlorine gas in three attacks.

December 2016

Opposition stronghold of Aleppo falls to Iran-backed militias.

February 2017

China and Russia veto the UN Security Council resolution for sanctions against Assad for using chemical weapons.

May 2017

US President Donald Trump approves military plans to arm the Kurdish YPG, which has helped in the ground fight against ISIS. Turkey warns it will increase its involvement in response.

December 2018

The US announces the planned withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

January – December 2019

Russia targets civilian facilities, prompting exoduses from opposition towns. Assad back in control of two thirds of Syria.

March – June 2020

Turkey sends troops to stop Assad offensive retaking Idlib (last area in opposition hands with large refugee population). Ceasefire negotiated between Turkey and Russia.

May 2021

The tenth anniversary of civil war in Syria. During which, of the population of 20 million people, 500,000 have died, six million have become refugees and a further five million have been internally displaced.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at emad.mekay@int-bar.org