Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
In the beginning was the word. As the bracing winds of the Arab Spring hit the Levant, some teenagers in Syria were stirred into optimism. Having witnessed the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, they expected a similar fate for their own tyrant. “Your turn doctor,” said the graffiti they painted on a wall in Dara’a. The words would launch a revolution.
But what gave the words potency was the regime’s response. Syria had been known as a kingdom of silence — and the regime tried to stifle insurrectionary sounds with torture, killings, and disappearances. But each injustice spurred more protests; the protests grew larger — and the wall of silence was breached.
The protests were popular, peaceful, and exuberant. They quickly spread nationwide. They were youth-led and pan-sectarian. ‘Wahid, wahid, wahid, al-sha’b al-suri wahid’ — “one, one, one, the people of Syria are one” — was the common chant. The demand was dignity and democracy.
But the regime was not about to yield to the popular will, however irrepressible. Conscious of its political weakness, the regime tried to shift the contest to a stage where it had a distinct advantage. It tried to militarise it. If it could induce the opposition to pick up arms, it would have the justification to unleash its military might.
Less than three months into the uprising, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the regime had killed 887 protesters (418 in Dara’a alone, where the uprising started in March 2011). HRW’s judgment was unequivocal: these “systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces” qualified as “crimes against humanity”. It was in response to this that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was established in July 2011.
The regime, however, already had its narrative — a narrative that catered to Western fear and prejudice. Less than two weeks into the uprising, long before there was an armed opposition, in a speech to the parliament on March 30, 2011, Assad insisted that he was at war against foreign “conspirators”. The regime needed an excuse to justify its repression as a “war on terror”. The opposition that confronted it was secular and democratic. It had to be replaced by a jihadi threat.
Since the beginning of the uprising, the regime was detaining, torturing, and assassinating civil activists; but its attitude towards Islamist radicals was markedly different. It released many from its prisons in a series of amnesties. In January 2012, Al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, would be established by some of these radicals. And though in August 2012 the CIA could count only about 200 al Qaeda members active in Syria, by autumn, Nusra had emerged as a formidable force.
The regime also tried to compensate for its narrow support base by identifying its fate with the fate of minorities in general. A series of massacres perpetrated by regime forces in Houla, al Qubeir, and Darayya increased sectarian fear and resentment.
By the end of 2012, the conflict had assumed an increasingly sectarian character. Hizbullah had already stepped in to compensate for the regime’s manpower shortage; soon Iran too would intervene; eventually the regime would draw on the support of militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — all recruited and paid for by Iran.
The regime also had an ardent supporter in Vladimir Putin, who initially supplied funds and armament, and later an army and air force, too.
The Syrian opposition, by contrast, had few reliable backers. While the regime was receiving tanks, artillery, gunships and jets from its supporters, Western powers were sending satellite phones, night vision goggles and ready meals to the opposition. Arms shipments from the Gulf were initially blocked by the CIA, which did not want any game-changing weapons (such as anti-aircraft missiles) to fall into the hands of the opposition (lest they be used against Israel). The US finally did authorise shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles but supplies were sporadic and never sufficient to neutralise the regime’s military advantage.
Meanwhile, the regime’s air force continued to bomb with impunity. Its preferred weapon was the barrel bomb, a makeshift, low-tech, unguided weapon. Its main purpose was terror. Because of its unguided nature, it had no battlefield use. Russia blocked attempts at the UN to ban the use of this indiscriminate weapon. Men, women, and children continued to die.
The regime also used rape systematically as policy; and a report by a team of war crimes investigators documented “industrial scale killing,” with up to 11,000 prisoners killed “systematically” in detention.
The US was a spectator to all this. Its brave words were rarely matched by meaningful action. In 2012, much was made of Barack Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But Obama issued it at a time when no chemical weapons were being used. The “red line” was in fact a green light to conventional killing.
The US had no interests at stake in Syria and was reluctant to intervene. The regime tested this by deliberately breaching Obama’s red line — and Obama blinked.
The chemical massacre in August 2013 was a turning point. Western abdication emboldened the regime and left the population more vulnerable. The regime escalated its violence. It intensified its sieges, using starvation as a weapon of war — beginning with the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk and later using the same tactic in Madaya, Moadamiyya and Aleppo. It killed four times as many people in the two years after the massacre as it had in the two years before.
Obama’s abandonment had a far reaching effect. It discredited Syria’s nationalist opposition and empowered the Islamists; it provided ISIS an opening; it triggered a mass exodus that would displace over half the country’s population; and it destabilised the EU as the fear of refugees generated a xenophobic backlash that has empowered the far right. The inaction also created a vacuum for Russia to fill. An emboldened Putin is now encouraging centrifugal forces further afield.
With Donald Trump’s election, Syrians’ last hope has been extinguished.
Twenty years after Bosnia, the promise of “never again” has once again proved hollow. Nearly half a million people have been killed in what the UN calls the regime’s “crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape…torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”.
According to the Violations Documentation Center, 93 per cent of the civilians in the war have been killed by the regime and Russia. The UN has also accused them of the “deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities”. A survey of refugees by the Berlin Social Science Center has shown that the regime’s violence is the primary cause for their flight.
Aleppo may have fallen to this counterrevolutionary alliance, but victory will prove pyrrhic. The regime does not have the manpower to restore its authority over the whole country. And Russia does not have the resources to maintain an indefinite presence in Syria. Blowback has already started hitting Russia, and the regime will now have to contend with a displaced and radicalised population that cannot return but will not cede home to a mass killer.
The Syrian revolution pitted two radically different ideas against each other. Their ideas were embodied in their words. Backed by the forces of reaction, the regime’s word has triumphed — for now. “Assad or we burn the country” was the loyalists’ slogan. It is over a burning country that Assad lords over today.