The Syrian Civil War, and the consequent refugee crisis gripping bordering countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Europe, began with the commencement of popular demonstrations and political protests on March 15, 2011. The sudden birth of political dissent in Syria was predominantly inspired by similar political demonstrations taking place in Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian civil uprising occurred within the context of the 2011 Arab Spring, wherein pro-democracy and anti-totalitarian protests swiftly spread throughout the Arab world. In some cases these protests toppled regimes, or inspired the implementation of government reforms, but also tragically lead to widespread violence, and often, as in the case of Libya and Syria, to civil war.
Minor protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had begun as early as January by political dissenters and human rights activists. These initial protests were limited, and did not invoke the widespread civilian support that demonstrations had incited elsewhere in the Arab world. Nevertheless, by March, the movement had continued to gain support and momentum and began to be perceived by the Assad regime as a direct threat to their long-held hegemony.
It was the arrest and subsequent torture of 15 teenagers in the Al-Balad precinct of Daraa that acted as the initial trigger for widespread protests. The teenagers, motivated by a generic rebelliousness against authority rather than any specific political grievance, had graffitied revolutionary slogans on the walls of their school building in defiance of the Assad regime. These included the phrase “the people want the regime to fall.” Whilst the situation was escalating in Daraa, 13 high-profile political prisoners of the Assad regime went on a hunger strike, demanding the restoration of basic human rights to the Syrian people, including freedom of speech, and for an end to political arrests.
The reaction of the government only served to embolden and unite Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, resulting in the spread of civil unrest to Syria’s capital, Damascus, as well as Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo on March 15. Daraa’s pivotal role in kindling the sudden escalation of civil unrest throughout the country has caused it to be described as ‘the Cradle of the Revolution.’
Revolution also began to quietly simmer amongst Syrian Kurdish groups on the Syrian-Turkish border who sought an end to Assad’s persecution of this ethnic minority group. Inspired by similar anti-totalitarian movements throughout the Arab world, anti-Assad groups began to form in March 2011 throughout the country.
Major protests finally broke out on the March 15. This day was named the ‘Day of Rage’ by Syrian activists, wherein hundreds of Syrians demonstrated in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, calling for the restoration of basic civil rights, the implementation of democratic reforms, and an end to Assad’s oppression of the Syrian people. The mistreatment of the arrested teenagers from Daraa was a significant cause in the sudden transformation of minor protests throughout the country into large-scale and coordinated demonstrations against the Assad regime.
The violent crackdown and dispersal of the Damascus protests on March 15 by government security forces, inspired a sudden escalation in the demonstrations, resulting in further protests the following day in Marjeh Square in central Damascus, as well as in the cities of Daraa, Aleppo, Al-Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor and Hama. Clashes with security forces in Damascus resulted in the beating and arrest of scores of protestors. Whilst the protests were being organised and led by disgruntled domestic civilian groups, Assad’s state media organisation, SANA, publicly declared that the demonstrations were the work of foreign agitators. At a later point in the conflict, Assad specifically blamed Israeli agents and Palestinian extremists and saboteurs as inciting the violence and chaos that was swiftly spreading throughout the country.
Protests continued to escalate around the country from March 18-25, inciting further violent crackdowns on civilians by Assad security forces and other pro-government groups. Large-scale protests called the ‘Day of Dignity’ by demonstrators were held in Damascus, Homs and Daraa after Islamic Friday prayers and were consequently met with heavy police violence. The city of Daraa escalated into a war-zone on the 19th of March, as funerals of killed demonstrators were attacked by government security forces, dispersing the crowds with tear gas and shooting down mourners. The Al-Balad precinct of Daraa, where the protests had chiefly originated, were specifically targeted by Assad forces in an effort to quell the conflict through the use of excessive force. Whilst Daraa was increasingly becoming the spiritual home of Syria’s civilian dissent, protests consistently arose in cities and rural areas throughout the country in defiance of Assad’s totalitarian state.
Assad’s failed concessions
Assad recognised that the protests in Daraa had escalated beyond the capacity for local security forces to effectively contain. The inability of the police to prevent further demonstrations led to additional clashes with irate protestors, who burned down the city’s courthouse and other civic buildings as well as killing seven police officers.
Assad attempted to diffuse the street-war in Daraa, through the release of the arrested teenagers, and by additionally sacking the local provincial governor. These measures were unable to placate civilian demonstrators who were enraged by police brutality and violence. Protests in Daraa became increasingly violent between March 21-22, as protestors and security forces continued to clash, leading to further civilian casualties and exasperating any possibility of a resolution to the street-war that was on the verge of being transformed into a full-scale civil uprising.
Throughout the rest of March 2011, clashes between security forces and civilian demonstrators became increasingly violent, causing rising casualties and mounting instability. Anti-Assad groups continued to grow as apolitical citizens became increasingly enraged by the brutality of the Assad regime and its unwillingness to respond to the requests of the Syrian people. Assad desperately tried to reassert his control over the country whilst placating the people through the proclamation of several concessions. Assad released between 200-260 political prisoners and also 14 Kurdish prisoners on the March 26, and accepted the resignation of the Syrian cabinet including Prime Minister Naji al-Otari on March 29. However, these concessions to the anti-Assad demonstrators were unable to pacify the brewing revolution or to reaffirm the people’s trust in their draconian President.
Assad’s inability to appease the brewing conflict without the use of excessive force and brutality ensured that minor protests were transformed into major demonstrations that threatened the survival of his oppressive regime. Assad attempted to tactically beat the people into submission by deploying security forces and the armed forces against his countrymen. Fear and force, both well-used tactics of Assad’s regime to suppress dissent and to maintain control over the country, were unable to deter Syrian demonstrators and activists.
The declaration of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ on July 29, 2011 conclusively turned the conflict from a series of violent political demonstrations and resistance into a full-fledged civil war. The rebel army was declared by a colonel of the Syrian Army who had defected along with hundreds of other soldiers and military personnel. Civilian demonstrators armed themselves, in conjunction with defected soldiers, in order to effectively respond to the excessive and unlawful brutality of the government troops.
The peaceful character of the early protests was transformed by the brutality and oppressive crackdown of Assad and his police state into a major civil war that has killed upwards of 250,000 people, half of which are civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Syrian Civil War has resulted in the displacement more than 10.9 million Syrians. It allowed for the re-emergence of major sectarian strife in the Middle East, the birth of new and potent Islamist groups, created a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to expand rapidly, and also caused the breakdown of state borders that have existed since the end of the Second World War.