The Story

Syria's Independence Flag raised in Aleppo
Syria before 2011
Syria obtained its independence from French colonial rule in 1946. It established a parliamentary republic but underwent a highly tumultuous period characterised by a number of military coups over the subsequent years. In 1958, Syria entered into a brief union with Egypt in which together, they established the United Arab Republic. However, this union was dissolved by a military coup in 1961. The Baath Party thereafter seized control of power in 1963 and ruled the country with an iron fist. One of the means by which it did so was the introduction of an Emergency Law which curtailed the civil liberties and fundamental freedoms of citizens. This Emergency Law would remain in effect until 2011.

Hafiz al Assad, father of current Syrian president Bashar al Assad, seized rule in 1970 through a bloodless coup. He consolidated his power under a single-party system and transformed the country into a police state, subjecting the country to extreme political repression and the complete eradication of fundamental human rights. Bashar al Assad assumed his father’s role as president in 2000 after the latter's death and ruled through the same security apparatus that his father had relied upon. Any aggregation of individuals for political or social causes was prohibited (unless given the blessings of the government). The use of provisional arrests and at-will investigations meant that citizens could be arrested for an indefinite amount of time without being charged. Virtually all media channels were under the direct supervision (if not ownership) of the government, and freedom of speech was severely curtailed. With no option but to vote for the president in the staged elections (which he typically won with over 99% of the popular vote), the people were left with an unrepresentative and repressive government over which they had no rights to pursue their political aspirations.

Assad brothers
Economically, one-half of the Syrian population lived at or below the poverty line before the outbreak of the revolution in 2011. It was also well-known that no business venture could survive within the country without the direct support of a government official, which would be granted only after the official was promised a share in the project or a percentage of the profits. The president’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, became the icon of government corruption, with reports alleging that he controlled 60 per-cent of the Syrian economy. Such was the situation in Syria for over 40 years: a blatant denial of the people to their right of political and economic self-determination. Although fear and repression effectively suppressed the population for several decades, it was inevitable that a people deprived of their most basic and fundamental human rights would one day demand these rights from their government.

The Uprising
Hama city 2011

As part of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the Syrian uprising began on 15 March 2011 with the arrest and torture of fifteen young boys in the town of Daraa for writing anti-government graffiti on school walls. When the locals non-violently took to the streets in protest, state forces indiscriminately fired upon the unarmed demonstrators, arbitrarily detained and tortured civilians, and shelled entire villages and neighbourhoods. This extreme and disproportionate government response led to the spread of non-violent protests to other cities throughout the country. Meanwhile, the government's escalation in its use of force against civilians were deemed to reach the threshold of crimes against humanity in June 2011 by Human Rights Watch, and again in July 2011 by UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect.

Armed Struggle
The increased brutality of the Assad regime pushed some soldiers to defect from its army and to create a Free Syrian Army (FSA) in August 2011. The FSA took control of a number of areas throughout Syria, which in turn became subject to continuous attacks by the Assad regime that continue until the present day.

The situation in Syria continued to deteriorate and increasingly militarise as the Assad regime employed weapons of all types against opposition-held areas. This created a refugee crisis of disastrous proportions with over half of the Syrian population now either refugees or internally displaced persons. It also led to the emergence of armed terrorist groups which pursue agendas that conflict with the Syrian demands for freedom and dignity from a forty-year dictatorship (for example, some have been implicated for committing war crimes against the Syrian people). The most notorious of these groups is the so-called Islamic State (also referred to as IS, ISIS, or Daesh), which has declared statehood and has subjected civilians under its control to extremely stringent and brutal laws.

The Assad regime has also been propped up since the beginning of the revolution by foreign support and foreign fighters. This initially began as financial support from its Russian and Iranian allies and proceeded to involve armed militias, training, and weapons from Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah (in Lebanon). In September 2015, faced with the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, the Russian army intervened directly in Syria and has since been leading military campaigns against cities throughout the country. Its intervention marked a turning point in the conflict which has allowed the Assad regime to regain control over city by city. Russia’s aerial campaigns have been supported by ground militias from Iran, Iraq, and the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group. The patterns of attack have been overwhelmingly consistent: opposition-controlled cities are subject to ferocious aerial bombardment and brutal ground onslaught until residents are forced to negotiate agreements with the regime for the full evacuation of the city. This has given rise to a systematic pattern of forcible displacement and demographic change in opposition-controlled areas.

The Syrian revolution also reignited Kurdish Syrians’ dreams of regional autonomy and federalism, and thus they formed their own militias to secure Kurdish areas and to instate local rule. There have been claims of demographic changes conducted by Kurdish forces in areas under their control against Arab residents. The Assad regime’s initial strategy was not to militarily engage Kurdish forces so as not to alienate the Kurdish community. Hence, many Kurdish forces have been backed by the regime or its Russian allies, and all have the blessings or direct support of the US. However, the expansion of Kurdish-controlled territory across Syria’s northern border was perceived as a threat to Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, which has long been apprehensive with respect to Kurdish expansion in the area. In 2016, Turkey intervened directly in Syria against ISIS as well as against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to attempt to disrupt their geographic expansion.

International Response
The situation in Syria seems very bleak. On the one hand, the international community has failed to take any meaningful action to alleviate the crisis. Russia and China continue to exercise their veto power within the UN Security Council, obstructing the adoption of binding resolutions in the name of state sovereignty and non-interference. The rest of the international community, encompassing of Western countries, has hidden behind these vetoes and has used them as an excuse from taking meaningful action on Syria. On the other hand, the level of violence exhibited from the Assad regime has continuously escalated, encompassing the use of indiscriminate airstrikes, barrel bombs, and chemical weapons against innocent civilians. The use of chemical weapons on Ghouta in August 2013 led to an international outrage and an imminent US intervention. The issue was subsequently resolved diplomatically, meaning that Syria has since handed over some of its chemical weapons stockpiles while continuing to massacre its people through more 'conventional' (and even chemical) weapons.
In September 2014, a US-led coalition intervened militarily in Syria against ISIS. While ISIS undeniably poses a grave problem for the lives and welfare of civilians in Syria and beyond, the international community's obsession with this group has directed attention away from the root of the Syrian conflict, namely the Assad regime, which continues to be the primary driver of terrorism and is responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties and destruction in Syria. Unfortunately, it appears that Western leaders are increasingly coming to regard Assad as a potential ally in the war against ISIS, thus completely ignoring the realities on the ground as well as the demands of the Syrian people for freedom and dignity in the face of an oppressive dictatorship. Additionally, after the inauguration of US President Trump in January 2017, attacks conducted by the US-led Coalition came to hold less regard for civilian life, and hence came to be responsible for increased civilian casualties.

The international community remains adamant that a political solution is the only way forward to achieve a resolution of the conflict in Syria. However, endless rounds of such political negotiations have failed to yield any results given that they are not backed by any enforcement mechanisms. Numerous ceasefires have been concluded, for example, which are routinely disregarded by the Assad regime and its foreign backers. The international community is either ignoring the realities on the ground, namely the pressing need for action to uphold international agreements, or is intentionally leaving Syrian civilians to their fate at the hands of the Assad regime.

Statistics on the humanitarian crisis in Syria as of April 2017
  • Over 470,000 people dead
  • Over 50% of the population displaced
    • Over 6.3 million internally displaced persons
    • Over 5 million registered refugees
  • 36% hospitals destroyed
  • 290 heritage sites damaged or destroyed
  • Almost 4,000 schools destroyed
  • Tens of thousands of detainees in regime prisons dead under torture
  • Millions of children without education

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