Today marks three years since protests began in Syria. Demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s government had many believing Syria would be the next in a series of countries that saw the toppling of authoritarian regimes in the region—the “Arab Spring,” as the West called it. But instead the country has become a battleground. For three years, the international community has watched as protests morphed into a full-scale civil war, killing an unknown number of people and displacing millions. A convoluted and complex situation on the ground, with extremist groups and foreign fighters joining rebels against Assad’s army, makes it difficult to see how the conflict will end. Even harder to predict is when a semblance of stability could possibly be established in the war-torn country.
For millennials, the Syrian conflict has much gravity. The Arab Spring, the wave of protests across the Middle East and North Africa that brought governments to their knees, was largely carried on the shoulders of the youth. It will define this period of time and this global generation. But it crumbled in Syria, and now a generation has been lost to displacement and fighting. If the Arab Spring was a shining moment for youth political action, it is Syria that has reminded us of the toll that action can take on an entire country if those in power should so wish.
Today, we look back at the Syrian conflict.
How It Began
In March, 2011 peaceful protests began in the city of Daraa, making it an anomaly in the otherwise capital city and urban based Arab Spring wave of uprisings. The initial catalyst for unrest was the arrest of 15 children, who were taken into custody for anti-government graffiti. Demonstrations quickly spread across the country, including marches in the capital city of Damascus, with the primary demand being democratic reform within the framework of the existing government rather than a full overthrow of the administration.
Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as president, first responded by offering reforms. Electoral reform and the ending of a 48 year state of emergency were promised as a means of pacifying protesters. At this time protests in Libya had erupted into a full scale civil war, drawing most international focus to the North African country. Syria, rather than immediately erupt, saw back and forth between demonstrators and the government that suggested a political solution could be possible.
But in April, as al-Assad formed a new government and ordered the release of arrested demonstrators, protesters began clashing with security forces, leaving over one hundred dead. Soon after the international community began placing sanctions on al-Assad’s government, and protests continued growing despite the dual reform-and-security crackdown path the leadership was taking.
Then the unrest morphed into what would become the civil war we know today. It was July when tanks rolled into Hama, and October when attention turned to the crackdown in Homs. In November the United Nations reported an estimated 3,500 people had been killed by security forces since protests began. The opposition Syrian Free Army carried out attacks in Damascus soon after, targeting an Air Force Intelligence complex. High level defections of military and government officials made many believe the al-Assad government was weakening and would not hold out against huge rallies and rebel militias.
Three years later we know his government was not weakening. We know he has not only held out, but he eventually decided to fully engage with the growing number of militias, both Syrian rebel led and those made up of foreign extremists. The shelling of rebel held Homs and fighting in Aleppo destroyed neighborhoods and drove civilians from their homes. Jarring images of dead children and bombed out buildings became the norm over the course of 2012 and 2013 as the international community failed to mediate a solution. As the violence increased, al-Assad’s government sought to keep observers away from the most egregious situations, resulting in a shocking lack of access for humanitarian groups and a chokehold on the world’s understanding of the full toll of the conflict.
Despite the indiscriminate killing by the Syrian Army and sprawling refugee camps in bordering states, it shocked the world to learn that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people on Aug. 21, 2013. Nerve agents were dropped on a suburb of Damascus early that morning, and although the final death toll remains a point of contention it is estimated between around 300 to 1300. Red lines laid by the United States and allies against the use of chemical weapons were scuffed out by al-Assad agreeing to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention and allowing for the destruction of all chemical agents in the country.
But by Aug. 21, 2013, the world was well aware of the horrors of Syria, the starvation and destruction and overwhelming hopelessness that seems to pervade every conversation about the country. When the red lines were laid down in a careful box around the al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile the world still thought perhaps intervention by world powers could turn the tide, as it did in Libya. By Aug. 21, 2013, Syria was a quagmire no country wished to become embroiled in. We bit our nails and wrung our hands, lamenting our inability to act. Which, make no mistake, does not absolve us. We are still witnesses. And so we learned once again that red lines can be negotiated, and the war continued.
Three years after protesters took to the streets of Daraa, what is left of Syria? USAID estimates that 8.9 million people have been displaced internally and to neighboring states, living in camps without proper schools or hospitals being looked after by aid organizations without the funding needed to provide necessary services. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble, families have been destroyed, and the United Nations has been unable to make a casualty estimate since July 2013, when they reported “more than 100,000” had been killed.
What constitutes rebel forces has become a point of contention, as al-Qaeda affiliated groups have been widely reported as active in Syria. Some rebel factions have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States, while others with extremist ties have been reported as the most organized in the fight against al-Assad. Video of a rebel leader eating the heart of a Syrian soldier brought to the fore the difficulty in determining whether those currently fighting in Syria were capable of ruling a state with any semblance of rationality or stability. Grave human rights violations on both sides have thrown shadows of doubt over the once unquestioned assumption that a power transition that resulted in Bashar al-Assad stepping down would be the desired outcome of a negotiated solution.
Despite negotiations between an opposition coalition and the Syrian government, there remains no clear end to the conflict in sight. Although able to agree on a ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians from the city of Homs, two rounds of talks ultimately made no other progress in Geneva last month. Meanwhile, the international community has been unable to translate agreement that the conflict must end with a viable means to find a solution. There is, quite simply, no end in sight.
What we are seeing in Syria today, as we’ve seen throughout recent history, is a human tragedy we are unable to stop. In a perfect world the community of nations would be able to unite and put an end to the cycle of violence that has reduced Syria to a shell of itself, if one could call Syria today even a shell. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in the kind of world where leaders use chemical weapons against their own people, where complicated layers of geopolitical strategy converge in places of unrest, and where human suffering alone does not constitute ample grounds for intervention.
We live in a world where the Syrian civil war is able to continue for three years, and the world can only watch as it burns.
Want to help? Consider donating to one of the many organizations working to help Syrian refugees. Find out more about ongoing aid efforts at Syria Deeply.