These posts on the Syrian revolution will seem long and complicated, but I hope you’ll read them through, think about them, and look for more information on your own for the sake of the almost 500,000 Syrians — men, women, and children — who’ve died just wanting freedom and dignity, unhelped in meaningful ways by the rest of the world. And for the sake of the 11,000 — half the population of prewar Syria — who’ve had to either leave their country or continually move around inside it seeking refuge from Assad’s bombs, shells, missiles, and poison gas attacks.
The mainstream media doesn’t report on Syria clearly, partly because the situation there is complicated and needs a lot of historical background to understand, and partly because nation states, including our own, care more about their own perceived (elite) interests than they do for people or democracy.
What you’ll find out in these posts is that because the original peaceful protestors in Syria received no support, they had to arm themselves in self-defense against the brutal Assad regime (which is still responsible for over 95% of the casualties). Then, as war tore the country apart, Islamic fundamentalists and regional states took advantage of the chaos — Russia and Iran allying with Assad, each for their own reasons, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states financing Islamist rebel groups for theirs — all of it drowning the original goals of the revolution.
Is it too late for us to help? I hope not. How can we help? Let’s start by getting truly informed. That’s what I hope to inspire and help you to do in these posts, which I’ve made as short and clear as I can.There are also additional resources — a timeline and glossary, maps, etc. under “Realities/Syria” in the top menu.
Okay — let’s get started. Here’s the first post:
In 2011, after 80 years of a repressive dictatorship, Syria “burst into speech, not in one voice, but in millions,” Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami tell us in Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (2016). “On an immense surge of long-suppressed energy, a nonviolent protest movement crossed sectarian and ethnic boundaries and spread to every part of the country. Nobody could control it – no party, leader, or ideological program, and least of all the apparatus of the state, which applied gunfire, mass detention, sexual assault, and torture, even of children, to death. Not silenced but goaded into fiercer revolt, Syrians began to call not just for reform, but for the complete overthrow of the system. Eventually, as soldiers defected and citizens took up arms to defend their communities, the revolution militarized. Where the state collapsed or was beaten back, revolutionaries set up local councils, aid distribution networks, radio stations, and newspapers, expressing communal solidarity in the most creative and practical ways.
For a few brief moments, the people changed everything. Then the counter-revolutions ground them down. The regime’s scorched earth strategy drove millions from the country and forced those who remained in liberated zones to focus on survival. Syria also became the site of proxy wars expressing Sunni-Shia rivalries and foreign interventions” uninterested in the welfare of the Syrian people.
When Bashar al-Assad was, as Burning Country says, “proclaimed leader,” after his dictator father’s death, Syrians hoped for better. “On September 27, 2000, a statement signed by 99 intellectuals “called for an end to martial law, an amnesty for political prisoners, and the rule of law, including a recognition of political pluralism and freedom of assembly, the press, and expression.” This was reinforced in January 2001 by The Statement of the 1,000, which called for “a review of the Baath’s position as ‘the leading party in society and the state,’ a more equitable distribution of the national wealth, and the abolition of legal discrimination against women under the sharia-based Personal Status Laws. The regime initially tolerated the nascent movement for democracy, but in the autumn of 2001, its key figures were arrested and sentenced to between two and ten years imprisonment on charges like ‘weakening national sentiment’ and ‘spreading false information.’” Media censorship also intensified, with many internet sites blocked. “Civil society resisted with a handful of protests and sit-ins, but the movement struggled to convey its message to a broad audience.
In 2004 a Kurdish intifada was sparked when clashes at a football match between supporters of the Kurdish and Arab teams were suppressed by live fire. The mass uprising was a spontaneous eruption of anger against long-term ethnic and economic marginalization, bolstered by developments in Iraq, where the March 2004 constitution had given Kurds control of three northern provinces. It was crushed after a week when the army moved its tanks into Kurdish majority towns. More than 2,000 were detained, often without charge, many were tortured in prison, and five detainees died.
Still, Bashar retained his personal popularity, many believing it was his father’s old guard that stood in the way of change. Unlike other Arab dictators, Bashar also used anti-Western and anti-Zionist rhetoric that resonated on the Syrian and wider Arab street. While he colluded with the US-led ‘war on terror,’ Syria becoming a popular destination for terror suspects illegally ‘rendered’ for torture,’ the US criticized his support for militant Islamist groups and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and the Bush administration talked about invading and taking over Syria as it had Iraq.”
Most Syrian youth were disillusioned by the traditional elite political ideologies – nationalism, socialism, and Islamism. “Youth unemployment stood at a staggering 48%,” and the stultifying, overcrowded, and inefficient educational system was little help in finding work. “Another reason why the traditional opposition failed to build a popular base was its focus on political reform rather than on the increasingly desperate economic situation of ordinary people. A major source of state funding had been lost in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed; Syria’s oil reserves, an important income source, were rapidly dwindling; and economic growth was being dramatically outstripped by population growth. The regime was also trying to move away from the predominantly state-controlled model of the Hafez years toward a market economy and implementing wide-ranging neo-liberal reforms. In 2000, the state farms were privatized, leading to a wave of peasant evictions, and subsidies for food and fuel were reduced. In 2004 over 30% of the population (5.3 million people) lived in poverty, rising to 62% in rural areas. By 2010 severe drought had also pushed two to three million Syrians into extreme poverty, destroying the livelihoods of 800,000 farmers and herders, forcing hundreds of thousands off their land, and causing food supplies to run low. The effects of the drought were exacerbated by political corruption, leading to poor water management, wasteful irrigation practices, and a focus on water-intensive cotton and wheat farming.
The Syrian revolution arrived in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring. According to Asaad al-Achi, ‘People started gathering around the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan embassies in Damascus, asking, “Why not us?”’ Adam, a media organizer from Damascus, told the interviewers for Bridge, “When Qaddafi was going to let his army loose on the Libyan people, and they started calling for help, the international community intervened. And everybody in Syria got the message: people will back us up. Of course, we’ll have to make sacrifices and some people will die, but we’ll never have the army attacking us.” [Bridge stands for We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman (2017). BC stands for Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (2016).]
BC: “When police beat up the son of a local trader on February 17th, 1,500 people gathered to protest in Damascus’s Hareeqa, the central neighborhood named ‘Fire’ since the French colonial bombardment.” Rima, a writer, told Bridge: “In less than five minutes, hundreds gathered to protest against the regime, chanting, ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated!’ A friend at work told me about it. He was so excited. It was the first time in our lives that we saw or heard about anything like that. In less than an hour, videos of the incident were uploaded on YouTube. I watched them and was so happy I cried. It meant that the revolution in Syria had begun.” Later in Bridge, we hear about the first time Rima participated in a demonstration: “Others were shouting and I joined them. I heard myself repeating, ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom.’ And then I started shouting, ‘Freedom!’ When I heard my voice, mingled with other voices, I started shaking and crying. I felt like I was flying. I thought to myself, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard my own voice. This is the first time I have a soul and am not afraid of death or being arrested.’ I wanted to feel this freedom forever, and I told myself I’d never let anyone steal my voice again.” Sana, a graphic designer from Damascus, remembered how frightened she was on the way to her first demonstration. “It was nighttime, and we walked through the streets to the square. It was lit and people were playing music, with drums and flute. I don’t know who grabbed my hands from the left or the right, but we started singing and dancing and jumping. At that moment I didn’t care about anything, I was so happy. It was a moment I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: the moment I stood together with strangers, dancing and shouting to overthrow Bashar. My husband and I had agreed that only one of us would go to protest at a time, in case something happened. He went to a demonstration before I did, and came back home crying, ‘Anyone who doesn’t live this moment can’t consider himself alive.’ When I came back from my first demonstration, he asked me how it was, and I told him he was right.”
BC: “When a Day of Rage was called for March 15th, thousands gathered in simultaneous demonstrations across the country. In the Old City of Damascus, 200 people chanted, ‘God, Syria, freedom, and that’s all,’ and ‘Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh (peaceful, peaceful),’ words that would soon be heard across Syria. The response was anything but peaceful – the demonstration was violently dispersed, and the mukhabarat (secret police) made several arrests. When a protest calling for the release of political prisoners was held the next day outside the Interior Ministry, the demonstrators were attacked and 30 were arrested. ‘Most of the big names of the civil resistance were there,’ said Asaad al-Achi, ‘and it was from this gathering that the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) were born. Everyone was charged with returning to their own area and starting a committee.’ Protests continued around the country in the following days, each met by assaults and arrests.
But it was the southern city of Deraa that would catalyze the revolution. The city’s conservative Sunni population traditionally supported the Baath [the official Baath political party], but had suffered increasing hardship as a result of state neglect and the influx of drought refugees. It was ripe for unrest, and again it was police brutality that triggered it. Fifteen schoolboys, all under the age of 15 and all from prominent families, were arrested on March 6th for writing revolutionary slogans on walls. They were tortured in detention, their fingernails ripped out. When their parents went to plead with the local head of security, Atef Najib, a cousin of the president, they were told, ‘Forget your children. Go sleep with your wives and make new ones, or send them to me and I’ll do it.’ Several thousand family members and their supporters gathered in from of the Omari mosque on March 18th, demanding the children’s release and the resignation of Atef Najib and the city’s mayor. Security replied with water cannons and live ammunition, killing at least four people, the first deaths of the uprising. The next day, the funeral for the victims turned into a mass demonstration chanting, ‘He who kills his people is a traitor.’ More were killed, and in a tactic that became routine, security forces occupied the nearest hospital, and any wounded who arrived there were detained or shot.” Bridge: “Muntaser, a journalist from Daraa, said no one expected anyone to participate in the funeral procession for the first martyrs, but ‘more than 150,000 people from the surrounding villages did. We knew that if we didn’t, the regime would come and arrest everyone who’d protested the first day, and they’d all die in prison. So, we entered a road with no return.’”
BC: “On March 20th, Assad sent a delegation to offer condolences to the bereaved families and to promise that those responsible would face justice, but on the same day, when thousands gathered at the Omari mosque demanding the release of all political prisoners and the repeal of the Emergency Law, 15 were killed. The enraged protestors set fire to the Baath Party headquarters and seven police officers were killed in the riot. Assad ordered the children released and removed Deraa’s governor from his post, but it was too late. Hundreds continued to gather in and around the Omari mosque, its walls now plastered with posters of the dead. On March 23rd, security stormed the mosque with heavy gunfire. There were a number of deaths and numerous casualties, with many of the wounded abducted by the army, but the protests continued. In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds were rounded up from their homes, the city’s mobile phone coverage was cut, and military and police checkpoints were set up.
The regime’s violent repression outraged Syrians, and the protests grew rapidly in numbers and geographical spread. Thousands gathered in Hama, Homs, and Aleppo, and in the north and along the coast – in Saraqeb, Jableh, Amouda, Baniyas – and in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor in the east. In Lattakia, home to many regime figures, several protestors were killed. Demonstrations were also held in central Damascus. Everywhere protestors chanted their solidarity with the people of Deraa.” Waddah, a graduate from Latakia, told Bridge interviewers that, waiting for a demonstration in the Damascus suburb of Douma, he “heard people chanting, ‘With soul and blood, we sacrifice for you, Daraa!’ Outside, we found 2,000 people demonstrating. I started to cry. I was sorry I’d rejected my nationality, insulted these people, and said they were cowards. I thought, ‘You’re my brothers. You’re my people. You’re extraordinary.’”
BC: “From the outset, the regime’s public response to the to the protests was couched in security discourse and conspiracy theory. When the state media reported the first deaths, it spoke of ‘infiltrators’ and ‘armed gangs’ causing chaos and damaging property, of ‘foreign parties’ inciting riots, and of ‘Salafist terrorists aiming to establish an Islamic emirate.’ When the Omari mosque in Deraa was stormed, state TV aired footage – denounced by locals as fabricated – of guns and ammunition found inside.
On ‘Friday of the Martyrs,’ two days after a televised speech by Bashar that failed to satisfy the protestors, tens of thousands of Syrians marched and were again confronted by clubs, tear gas, and live ammunition. The violence escalated through April, particularly in Deraa and Homs. On April 25th, tanks rolled into Deraa, firing indiscriminately into people’s homes as they slept. Snipers prevented ambulances from reaching the injured, and soldiers arrested medical personnel, set fire to pharmacies, and prevented medical supplies from entering the city. Homes were raided, thousands were held in makeshift detention centers, and many were tortured or executed. On April 29th, thousands marched on Deraa from the neighboring towns to try and break the siege, carrying food, medicine, and olive branches to show peaceful intent. Up to 62 were killed, most shot in the head and chest.
After weeks of abuses, people were increasingly demanding the fall of the regime, which continued to resort to rumors and false-flag operations to divide Sunnis from Alawis. [Alawis or Alawites are a Shia Muslim minority in Syria to which the Assad family belong and which tends to support the regime. I’ll mention here that you can go to “Realities” in the upper menu bar and find a glossary in the “Syria” sub-menu, along with historical background, a timeline, and maps and images.] In March, armed gangs called shabeeha, financed by the state and pro-regime businessmen, were unleashed, declaring themselves as vengeful Alawis in Sunni areas and Sunnis where Alawis lived. But the most basic and frequently used weapon in the regime’s arsenal was ‘shock and awe.’ On June 3rd, the UN reported that 1,000 people had died in the first three months of the uprising, and that at least 3,000 had been detained. More horrifying than the numbers were the details – corpses of activists and protestors were returned to their families bearing the marks of horrific torture, and videos were smuggled out or deliberately leaked of mukhabarat taunting, whipping, and electrocuting even primary school-aged children. On May 25th, the parents of Hamza al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old from rural Deraa, posted pictures of his mutilated body on the internet. In his final hours the boy had suffered gunshot wounds, broken bones, and cigarette burns, and his penis had been severed. But the horror wasn’t evenly applied – the sons and daughters of the rich and areas with large minority populations were treated more gently. Kurds in the northeast were rarely met by bullets, and demonstrations in central Damascus were dispersed by clubs and tear gas rather than live fire.
Still, the protests grew exponentially. In July some of the biggest were in the city of Hama, scene of the Muslim Brotherhood’s 1982 armed uprising and the regime’s retaliatory slaughter of 25,000. The army, security forces, and police had now withdrawn from the city, and activists were declaring it liberated. Checkpoints and barricades were thrown up to prevent the regime from re-entering, and neighborhoods began to organize themselves – directing traffic, allocating drinking water, and collecting waste. Activists distributed leaflets calling on people to shun sectarianism and violence and to avoid damage to property, while demonstrations swelled into crowds of hundreds of thousands. At the end of the month, however, the army returned, and a new national crackdown saw hundreds killed across the country, at least 100 of them in Hama.”
From the website creativememory.org: “The city of Homs [third largest in Syria] was one of the first to revolt against the Assad regime and was therefore nicknamed ‘the capital of the revolution.’ When a crowded demonstration took place at the New Clock Tower Square on March 25, 2011, the regime used brutal force to disperse it, leading to many injuries and hundreds of detainees. On April 18, 2011, the people of Homs reached a peak of anger during the funeral processions of martyrs killed the previous day by security forces. Tens of thousands gathered at the Clock Tower Square to protest were joined by thousands of others coming from Homs’ countryside and villages. The number of people demanding an end to the regime finally reached 100,000 of different ages and social classes: men, women, children, elders, traders, and students. Muslim and Christian religious figures took part in the protest, repeating the slogan “One, one, one; the Syrian people are one.” At midnight, security officers told the demonstrators, through mediators, that they’d been ordered to disperse the protest in any way possible, no matter the number of casualties, but this didn’t affect the protestors’ determination. At 2 AM the next day, security forces committed the ‘Clock Tower massacre’ when they started shooting live ammunition at the protestors. Whether tens or hundreds of people died is still unknown.”
Kareem, a doctor from Homs, told Bridge interviewers: “Home in bed three kilometers away, I woke to a sound that I thought was heavy rain. I went to the window and realized it was bullets. People were being slaughtered by security forces in the square. I called the hospital and asked them to send me an ambulance. What I saw on the road from my house to the square was extraordinary: all of Homs was in the streets – people running, afraid. Security forces opened fire on the ambulance, so it wasn’t possible to move a single injured person. Only one or two managed to escape and make it to the hospital. We just sat and cried. The next morning, the square had been hosed down and there was no trace of anything. All that remained were the bullet holes in the buildings. This was the turning point in Homs. After that, people felt that there was no going back.”
BC: “Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest cities and economic centers, had remained relatively quiet because of intense security, including rooftop snipers. Many influential Syrians in these cities, particularly from the merchant and industrial classes, benefited from the regime, either directly through bought loyalty or indirectly via neoliberal reforms. The capital had also gotten a disproportionate amount of resources, so the uprising was raging in comparatively disadvantaged rural areas and working class suburbs. Revolutionary Damascenes avoided security forces in the central zone by protesting in the suburbs or returning to their hometowns and villages. Suburbs like Douma and Harasta in the eastern Ghouta, Moadamiya and Daraya in the western Ghouta, and Tall in the hills north of the city were protest hubs that quickly experienced checkpoints, home raids, and arrests. The rural periphery of Aleppo, an agricultural region ravaged by drought, was also raging, as were working class city neighborhoods. All over Syria, demonstrators now called for revolution, protestors raising their right hands to swear to struggle till the regime toppled.”
My favorite protest of all the ones I’ve read about was led by Kinda, a Druze activist from Suwayda. She told Bridge interviewers that “by 2012, the FSA, Nusra Front, and other groups had emerged, and there were ugly incidents. My sister and I met with a few friends and came up with a wonderful idea. Four of us would wear white bridal dresses with veils to send the message, ‘Enough! End the killing.’ I told myself that if I died wearing that white dress in protest, I’d die on Syrian land with pride. The rest of the world would know we’re not terrorists.
The preparations took 25 days. We had a party the day before we went out. We decorated with jasmine flowers, as people do for weddings in Damascus, and we made signs. One read, ‘I’m 100% Syrian,’ another, ‘Syria is for all of us,’ and a third, ‘Civil society calls to end all military operations on Syrian land.’ The next day we went down to the Midhat Basha market, wearing black abayas over the wedding dresses. On the count of three, we took off our abayas, put on the veils, raised the signs, and stood there for about seven minutes. We were four brides in the middle of the market, and we brought it to a standstill. It was a wonderful scene, by far the most beautiful day of my life.
Then we started walking. Store owners came out to watch us, and everyone was silently filming with their cell phones. I said, ‘Why aren’t you ululating for Syria’s brides?’ and the crowd went crazy ululating and clapping for us. An elderly man began to cry, and people were saying, ‘God bless you. You’re the heroes of Syria.’ A security force member came, gun in hand, and told me, ‘Take that sign down and don’t cause problems.’ I raised it even higher.
The whole protest lasted about half an hour before a full security detail arrived on the scene and arrested us. They asked who we were working for and tried to scare us by threating to give us to the jihadists to be raped. We saw older men, barefoot and kneeling on the floor, and guys cuffed and hanging from rods. After a while, they took us away for interrogation, one by one. This lasted from three in the afternoon till eight the next morning. Then they took us down to the cell. Every day we’d hear the shots of executions. We got sick and got lice. My sister was on the verge of death. I beat on the door and cried, ‘I don’t need my sister. She will die for the sake of Syria, but you will be held accountable.’ They were afraid because we were from a religious minority, and the next day a doctor came.
We stayed in prison for two months. After I got out, I went back to Midhat Basha market and asked the shop owners about the bride incident. One said, ‘Yes, I remember. They arrested them.’ I told him I was one of the brides, and he hugged me and started crying. He said, ‘Do you know what happened the next day here?’ He told me there was an old man who used to sell children’s toys, displayed on a table. The day after our protest, he cleared everything off his table and put up only four dolls dressed as brides.”
BC: “The Syrian revolution wasn’t led by a vanguard party or centrally controlled – it originated in the streets among people of all backgrounds. In its first weeks, coordination committees sprang up in neighborhoods, villages, and towns across the country. Says Abdul Rahman Jalloud, ‘They were trust networks – five or seven full-time revolutionaries in each neighborhood, working in secrecy, but linked with other networks in the city.’ The committees were usually formed by young men and women from the working and middle classes, many of whom quit their jobs or studies to devote themselves to the struggle. Starting with organizing demonstrations and documenting events on social media, over time their focus turned to setting up makeshift field hospitals and collecting and distributing food and medical supplies to besieged and bombarded communities. Damascene Yara Nseir says leadership in her committee rotated every month. ‘Decisions were taken collectively and by vote. We included educated and uneducated people, secularists and moderate Islamists. We didn’t know what we were doing, but the experience made us think, discuss, and learn.’
This model of collective action and nonviolent civil disobedience greatly influenced the movement as a whole. Asaad al-Achi says, ‘On June 12th we issued a declaration to clarify the demands of the uprising. It was emphasized that the revolution’s first goal was regime change, with a national conference for transition to a democratic and pluralistic state within six months.’ The LCCs rejected sectarianism and foreign military intervention, and their nonviolent civil disobedience attracted wide and diverse participation. By July 2012 battles were raging in Damascus and Aleppo. Al-Achi says, ‘International aid organizations wouldn’t deal with us because were “rebels” and not a sovereign state.’ Local councils in liberated areas were funded by levying taxes and by donations from local or expatriate Syrians. As their needs increased, they became reliant on alternative sources, often NGOs or foreign governments, though most remained chronically underfunded.
An inspiring social revolution was also underway in the Kurdish regions. Following the withdrawal of Assad’s forces and the transfer of control of most security and administrative bodies to the PYD (Kurdish: Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, Democratic Union Party) in July 2012, an autonomous region was set up in the Kurdish-majority areas of Afrin, Jazeera, and Kobani, collectively known as Rojava or Western Kurdistan (the other parts of Kurdistan are in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey). The PYD, established in 2003 in northern Syria, is the leading political party in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. It’s closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane, or PKK) in Turkey, and is the only Syrian-Kurdish group allowed to control an armed force – the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel or YPG). The PKK, originally a Marxist-Leninist party, has in recent years adopted the concept of democratic confederalism, inspired by anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin – as has the PYD.
In November 2013, a transitional government was established by the PYD in Rojava that stressed the desire to build a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism, and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs. Its Social Contract promotes unity and coexistence among the region’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, a respect for human rights, and an end to gender discrimination; it also affirms the right to self-determination and the principle of self-government for the cantons. Councils and public institutions have been established in each canton through direct elections, and the cantons are linked in a decentralized confederation. Local problems are usually quickly resolved at the lowest level, that of the commune, with decisions supposed to be made at the grassroots level. In the Kurdish areas, however, the process has been more top-down and party-led, sometimes by the use of force. [For more on all this, see “Rojava” under “Realities/Syria.”]
All over Syria, as the revolution militarized, the original popular movement lost its prominence. Civil revolutionaries continued their work and tried to keep their ideals alive, but had to focus first on personal and community survival. On August 29, 2011, the LCCs issued the following statement: ‘In an unprecedented move over the past several days, Syrians in Syria and abroad have been calling for Syrians to take up arms, or for international military intervention. This call comes after five and a half months of the Syrian regime’s systematic abuse of the Syrian people, whereby tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have been detained and tortured, and more than 2,500 killed. The regime has given every indication that it will continue its brutal approach, and the majority of Syrians feel unprotected in their own country in the face of the regime’s crimes. While we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position.’ The LCCs felt that the regime would emerge victorious from any pitched battle, and that oppositional violence would alienate the constituencies the uprising had tried to win over. It would also lessen international pressure against the regime and poison the future. ‘We believe that the overthrow of the regime is the initial goal of the revolution, but it is not an end in itself. The end goal is freedom for Syria and all Syrians. The method by which the regime is overthrown is an indication of what Syria will be like post-regime.’
Peaceful means were still popular on the streets, but by the spring of 2012 the armed struggle dominated. In June 2012, the UN Head of Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous referred to the Syrian situation as a civil war, and in July the Red Cross formally declared it to be so. Activists responded angrily to the designation on the grounds that the conflict remained essentially a one-sided regime assault against a civilian population only occasionally defended by poorly armed and uncoordinated militias.
In the months and years that followed, everything the LCC’s statement had feared came to pass. Militarization – specifically, the scramble for weapons and funds – transformed the revolution from a leaderless movement into a cacophony of a thousand competing leaders, and from horizontalism to a jostle of hierarchies. The work of the horizontally organized committees and councils increasingly focused only on basic community survival. As indiscipline and opportunist criminality tainted the resistance, and as jihadism flourished, the regime found an excuse for its violence and gradually persuaded many at home and abroad that its survival was the least worst option for Syria and the region. Still, abstract criticisms of the revolution’s militarization miss the point. Syria’s revolutionaries didn’t make a formal collective decision to pick up arms – quite the opposite; rather, a million individual decisions were made under fire. As Ziad Homsi says, ‘It was a matter of self-defense. Everyone defended his own home, his own alley.’ According to Asaad al-Achi, the threat of sexual violence in particular pushed people toward arms. ‘Syria is a conservative, traditional society. Rape is something that will outrage people – it’s very emotional for them. By December 2011 rape had become a standard practice not only in prisons, but by the army. When it went into towns, the first thing soldiers did, on orders from their superiors, was to rape women in front of their fathers, brothers, and husbands.’
Militarization wasn’t solely a response to regime brutality; it also grew from the realization that civil resistance wasn’t enough, that the regime, supported by Russia and Iran, and most of the Alawi community, would go only if forced. Alongside civilian volunteers, army defectors formed the core of the growing anti-Assad force. On June 9th, in what became a paradigm for a thousand similar videos, Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush held his ID card toward the screen and declared his defection from the regime’s army to the ‘ranks of Syrian youth, alongside a number of the Free Syrian Army.’ He gave as the Army’s purpose ‘the protection of the unarmed protestors demanding freedom and democracy,’ and ended his statement by repeating the anti-sectarian slogan, ‘One, one, one; the Syrian people are one.’ Six months into the protests, tens of thousands of conscripts and lower-ranking soldiers had deserted. Many congregated in rural Idlib, a neglected province between Aleppo and Lattakia reaching the Turkish borders. Sometimes the new militias held off regime incursions with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, or laid roadside bombs. Their most important work at this stage, however, was to encourage and assist further defections, and in the cities, to defend protests.
The Free Syrian Army was a collection of militias, some mobile, but most local and defensive. A Red Cross index of armed groups listed a thousand operating by late 2012, half of them associated with the FSA. The FSA wasn’t centrally recruited, trained, armed, funded, or commanded, and couldn’t enforce a code of conduct among its troops. When regional states turned the taps off, successful fighters lost ground and even went hungry. Still, gradually, the FSA took the countryside, with the regime withdrawing from areas it found too expensive to control. Bombs continued to fall on liberated areas, however, and their depopulation sped up, ensuring that no successful alternative could flourish.
The armed uprising had grown in strength and geographical reach, and the regime’s troops were overstretched and exhausted, able to focus on only one city at a time, even with Iranian help. A strip along the Turkish border was almost entirely liberated, including the towns north of Aleppo. The regime was also losing territory in the deserts and mismanaged agricultural plains of the east, particularly in Deir al-Zor, a province rich in cotton, wheat, and oil. Aleppo, briefly, was the armed resistance’s greatest success, its liberation having a definite class dimension, as armed farmers and workers of the rural hinterland were welcomed by militants in the city’s working class zones. Serdar Ahmad says, ‘Three quarters of the activists in Aleppo in 2011 were secularists, and the rest were moderate Islamists. They were just people who wanted freedom.’ This was liberated Aleppo before the barrel bombs, black banners, and beheadings, when revolutionary committees and councils did their best to manage the city.
From February 2012, heavy artillery beat down on Homs, the other large rebel city, often in civilian neighborhoods containing no military targets. By June 2012, helicopters were also firing missiles and machine gun rounds on rebel-controlled quarters. The jet bombing of Aleppo was underway by August, and later in the year cluster bombs and ballistic missiles were added. In January 2013 the first scud missiles were being directed at densely packed civilian zones in Aleppo and Damascus. And by the spring of 2013, the revolutionary suburbs of the western and eastern Ghouta were under siege. In October 2012, Assad’s forces began a total siege on the town of Moadamiya, where Qusai Zakarya was living, blocking all food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies from entering. ‘Food began to run out as winter set in, and the children were dying.’ In the eastern Ghouta, beset by missiles, barrel bombs, mortar fire and snipers, ‘people were eating leaves,’ according to Lubna al-Kanawati. ‘The water supply didn’t work because the electricity needed to pump it was switched off, so people were digging wells in the streets. There was no medicine, no internet, and no kind of phone service.’ Speaking in southern Turkey in December 2014, Lubna said, ‘Hunger is the most effective weapon of all. A hungry person is an angry person who acts impetuously. Hungry people are incapable of helping each other. In the end people fought in the streets over food.’”
Andel-Halim, a rebel fighter from Homs, described the regime’s two-year siege of the city for Bridge: “The first six months were mostly good. Then we ran out of fuel for our cars, and there was no electricity, except for one generator per battalion. The doctors in the field hospital took care of us as much as they could, but there was no medicine. The operating room wasn’t even sanitized. If someone got shot in the hand, they’d have to amputate. Same thing for an injured leg, foot, or eye. Real hunger began, too. In the beginning we didn’t feel the loss of nutrients, but by the last three months of the siege we could hardly walk.
In the beginning the FSA didn’t have commanders and conscripts. We were just a bunch of friends. Then dollars started flowing into the commanders’ pockets. The good ones got killed or pushed aside, and the bad ones became more powerful. They had heating and hidden food rations. They even cooperated with the regime army to get cigarettes. Things became like they used to be under Bashar. There were informants among us, too, for the regime or the FSA leadership. By the end, I was just waiting for death.
Then a deal was made to evacuate us from the old city to the countryside on May 24, 2014. The Homs governor and the army were present. Our bodies were weak, but we were filled with dignity. We’d defended Homs to the best of our abilities. I hoped that I’d put something forth for God and for my parents. I looked at Homs and thought, ‘I’m not going to see her again.’ And it’s true, I’m not. She’s gone now.”
BC: “Another area where people starved to death was south Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp, housing the largest Palestinian population in Syria. Protests were limited there both because the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) acted as shabeeha and because of a genuine desire for neutrality in the struggle for Syria’s destiny. The camp offered refuge to Syrians displaced by repression elsewhere, however, causing its population to grow from 200,000 to 900,000 in 2011. Activists and protestors from the camp were detained and often tortured to death, and shells and sniper fire rattled nearby, but neutrality was preserved until December 16, 2012, when regime jets targeted a mosque, a school, and a hospital, killing 40 people. The camp responded with furious protest, and resistance fighters arrived from neighboring areas. Yarmouk was now a rebel area subjected to the full force of Assad’s collective punishment. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were allowed to leave, but tens of thousands remained, immobilized by illness or age or having nowhere to go. The partial siege of the camp became total on July 8, 2013. The regime forbade the entrance of food or medical supplies, and by the end of February more than 170 people had died of siege-related causes, including starvation. After this, international humanitarian organizations and the UN Relief and Works Agency began to distribute supplies. Still, dozens were arrested by regime forces in the delivery area at the camp’s entrance, and dozens more were killed either by snipers or in clashes between regime and opposition forces, both indifferent to the presence of civilians. The siege was reinforced shortly afterwards, and in June 2014 the water supply was cut off.
By the summer of 2013 opposition offensives had brought the Damascus front line to the edge of the city center, five miles from the presidential palace. This resulted in the most dramatic escalation yet in the early morning of August 21st in the besieged western suburb of Moadamiya and in areas of the city to the east: a poison gas (sarin) attack. Men and women foamed at the mouth and nose, children convulsed, and row upon row of white-shrouded bodies lined the pavement and hospital hallways. Razan Zaitouneh, who witnessed the attack, said, ‘I haven’t seen such death in my life. There haven’t been enough medical staff to treat them, or enough medications. Doctors were crying because they couldn’t help. Paramedics broke down doors in Zamalka and Ain Tarma, and found whole families dead in their beds. Most of the children didn’t make it. In the cemeteries we visited, there were 15-20 dead bodies in each grave because of the large number of people killed. People were searching for their children in every town in Ghouta. Children at the medical points were crying and asking for their parents. It wasn’t believable.’ It was the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq war, the greatest single poisoning of civilians since Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds at Halabja. Estimates of the dead reached 1,729.
Even as its spokesmen made official denials, regime-associated web pages were celebrating the attack. The regime clearly believed that Barack Obama’s threat to intervene if the chemical weapons ‘red line’ was crossed was empty, and events soon showed this to be correct. Not only was no punitive action taken, the very possibility of such action was removed from the table, and the Russians were assigned to oversee the subsequent chemical decommissioning deal. The message heard by resistant Syrians was: no one’s coming to save you, not in any circumstances. Lubna al-Kanawati, who’d been injured by mustard gas a week before the sarin strikes, says, ‘A profound sense of depression and isolation afflicted the people. They knew they’d die hungry and in silence, ignored by the rest of the world.’
Hundreds of barrel bombs dismantled Aleppo – more bombed than any city since World War II – and Deir al-Zor, Homs, Deraa, and suburban Damascus. Women feared the roads lest they be raped by shabeeha at checkpoints; men feared detention or forced conscription. The most obvious consequence of this terror was the mass exodus of the population from liberated areas, creating the greatest refugee crisis in 70 years.
If the FSA had been seriously supported from outside, and if Assad hadn’t been so generously armed and funded by Russia and Iran, the armed struggle might have lasted months rather than years, and civil activism might have quickly regained its role. But the war stretched on, and the liberated areas became death zones in which jihadism would thrive.