Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Assad’s Regime and the Syrian Crisis (2011-2022)

Assad's Regime
A view of a damaged building housing internally displaced Syrians from Deir ez-Zor in Syria’s northern city of Raqa on June 18, 2022. Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Introduction

It is no secret to anyone who has followed the Syrian crisis closely that the regime has responded violently to the protests ever since their inception. The violence differed based on time and location. However, there is consensus among political analysts and observers of the crisis that the regime cracked down on protests, which in turn converted small manifestations into a revolution and a revolution into armed action. 

The first weeks following the onset of the Syrian revolution saw clear confusion in the regime’s hallways. The people heard officials call their uprising by different names. Since his first address regarding the situation, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to describe the events as a revolution. He, instead, deemed it a conspiracy targeting his country’s resistance against so-called imperialistic schemes. 

The regime, however, seemed inclined to make decisions that would defuse the tension among protesters, starting by lifting Syria’s emergency rule, in addition to other political reforms. These measures, nevertheless, did not convince the revolutionaries that the regime would fulfil any of its promises.

Regime Supporters and the First Losses 

Other manifestations took place in Damascus, Aleppo and other pro-regime regions to counteract the anti-regime protests. The regime was accused of organising and clearly backing these manifestations that included civil servants and union employees. On the other hand, opposition protests were met with live rounds of ammunition. 

Official state media provided ample coverage of pro-regime manifestations. A slew of political analysts was mobilised to appear on official TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers. The regime also employed semi-official, private sector media outlets to that end; the content they offered was no different from anything put forward by the official media. 

Political analysts justified the regime around the clock and established that the cause was not the president’s nor the government’s, but a national cause. They also agreed on a unified narrative, wherein the protesters were part of a bigger scheme targeting the region and originating in Israel, the United States, and at times, during their time of quarrel with Syria, member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

In parallel, other alleged opposition groups in Syria started appearing, and the term ‘national opposition’ saw the light, referring to opposition forces within the country. These groups’ leaders discussed the necessity of reforms and fighting corruption while attacking the opposition abroad in ways similar to the regime’s. Souria al Watan Party is one such group that started appearing consistently on Syrian TV channels inside the country. The national opposition was continuously accused of being a regime creation, used to give the illusion of political plurality in Syria.

The regime, in its defence, attempted to mobilise the people, glorifying the role of the Syrian army and describing its battles inside Syrian cities as part of its fight against Israel. Such mobilisation was happening in parallel with military operations against opposition regions, where opposing military groups slowly started forming. These groups eventually evolved into organisations supported by multiple parties.

Assad's Regime
Syrian former prime minister Riad Hijab, who defected on 6 August 2012, holds a press conference in the Jordanian capital Amman. Hijab said that the Syrian regime was collapsing and only controlled about a third of the conflict-ridden country. AFP PHOTO/KHALIL MAZRAAWI

The Syrian regime heavily focused on the role of the army. Attacking state institutions and mocking its officials became normalised, whereas the army was fiercely defended. The regime highlighted the importance of military operations and the army’s status as its last line of defence. At the time, foreign military interference did not yet have a role in Syria. Defections from the army indicated that the opposition forces’ military strength was about to increase. These events took place concurrently with political splits culminating in the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab in August 2012.

The Syrian regime incurred successive military losses, especially in 2013, when multiple opposition factions, including moderate and jihadist groups, assumed control of swathes of Syria. The areas involved were Idlib and its countryside, a large part of Aleppo and the surrounding area, a large section of the central and western regions, Daraa in the south, and part of Damascus and its countryside, which led to the presence of opposition forces just a few kilometres away from the capital’s heart.

At this point, the regime intensified its military attacks by committing atrocities in regions outside its control. The worst massacre was committed in Eastern Ghouta on 21 August 2013, where humanitarian organisations estimated that some 1400 civilians perished in an attack involving internationally prohibited chemical weapons. Multiple international reports, including by Human Rights Watch, confirmed the use of such weapons against civilians.

While military operations and massacres claimed the lives of hundreds in Darayya, Banias, Rif Hama, Eastern Ghouta, and other places, official media continued to mobilise support by spreading the aforementioned theories and calling upon citizens to support the army that “protected them and was the source of their safety.”

No Dialogue With Opposition

Since the beginning of the revolution, the international community called for negotiations between the parties to the conflict. The regime, however, had already decided not to start any dialogue with “the terrorists.” The Syrian president described the opposition forces in terms ranging from spies to germs. His successive speeches paved the way for the use of such terminology against the opposition in local media, which described them as terrorists and agents affiliated to foreign countries.

As far as the regime was concerned, the dialogue was to take place internally, in Syrian cities and regions, and overseen by the state.

The official narrative justified all military operations targeting the opposition’s protests, followed by open war against opposition factions. When international intervention in support of the regime saw the light, the rhetoric switched to praising these foreign countries and thanking them for their cooperation. The flags of Hezbollah, Russia and Iran were raised in all regime-controlled areas.

Official media dedicated daily segments to discussing opposition forces’ treason, airing and criticising their debates and speeches, and linking them to jihadist organisations everywhere. These were not mere accusations but continuous attempts to paint opposition members in a bad light in front of the international community, and to justify the regime’s measures against them.

The official narrative against the revolutionaries culminated when massacres occurred, and the opposition was accused of culpability. Reporters affiliated with official state channels roamed among victims’ bodies in Darayya and tried interviewing survivors in a bid to capture statements incriminating the opposition.

During international conferences, spanning from Geneva in 2012 to Astana in 2017, where the objective was to find a political solution in Syria, the Syrian regime was relentless in its narration of events. It did not participate in these peace talks without the influential presence of its most prominent supporter Russia.

Balance Tilts Towards Regime

Assad's Regime
Busses intended for the evacuation of Syrians from one of the few remaining rebel-held pockets in Arbin, in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, arrive to the area on March 24, 2018. – Syrian rebels and civilians prepared to evacuate the penultimate opposition-held pocket of Eastern Ghouta, as the government moved ever closer to securing the outskirts of the capital. (Photo by ABDULMONAM EASSA / AFP)

In 2014 changes became apparent on the Syrian map, signifying that the balance was tilting in the regime’s favour. The most significant development was the Islamic State’s expansion in both Syria and Iraq, where it announced the ‘Islamic Caliphate,’ prompting an international decision to wage war on it by forming a coalition led by the United States. This development eased international pressure on the Syrian regime and, at times, portrayed it as one of the parties fighting terrorism. An image the regime had been propagating to its supporters and the world.

The interference of foreign forces also played in the regime’s favour, starting at the end of 2013 when Hezbollah intervened, followed by Iran in 2014, deploying thousands of its fighters in many Syrian regions. Russia joined the fold in 2015, a crucial development as the regime began to reclaim large areas it had previously lost to the opposition.

After the city of al-Qusayr, located on the Syrian-Lebanese border, was retaken by Hezbollah, the regime started reclaiming other regions one by one, including the city of Homs in 2014. The regime’s geographic expansion increased with Russia’s involvement, which was not limited to its military presence but included negotiations with opposition forces regarding the handover of their territories and the relocation of inhabitants. The fall of Aleppo in 2016 held great significance to the regime, as it was one of the major areas controlled by insurgents in the north and the largest city to be entered by the opposition in Syria. Eastern Ghouta and the remainder of the Damascus countryside were taken in 2018. 

The regime used to portray all military operations and agreements to relocate opposition forces and inhabitants from specific regions as achievements of the Syrian army. Between 2013 and 2018, all official propaganda was directed at glorifying the armed forces. The military boot became an unofficial symbol, continuously mentioned by the media. Statues were erected in its honour, and political analysts used to place it on top of their heads on television. 

Whenever Iranian or Russian forces advanced in an area, supporters took to the streets to celebrate Syria’s victory over its enemies. The areas which had been retaken, however, were empty and destroyed.

 Multiple regions that were taken fell under the direct control of Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian militias. In other words, the Syrian military did not directly rule over all the reclaimed areas. Inhabitants of reclaimed areas were relocated to Idlib and its surrounding areas that were still dominated by the opposition. It was rumoured that demographic changes were taking place in the regions taken over by militias affiliated to or backed by Iran.

With every region regained, TV channels aired public images and videos showing extensive destruction in said areas. More than 80 per cent of certain neighbourhoods in cities like Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta, and Deir ez-Zor was destroyed. The devastation was blamed on opposition forces that the regime portrayed as terrorists. In contrast, it was well known that Syrian and Russian air forces were primarily responsible for the urban destruction, while the opposition did not own military aircraft.

Poverty, Emigration, Re-election

The regime and its supporters enjoyed a victory that was at the same time bitter as the country was plagued by hurdles increasing on a daily basis. Successive economic crises and poverty spread in all regime-controlled areas and the rest of Syria. A growing number of people started to leave the country as regime supporters themselves sought to obtain passports to legally or illegally leave Syria. Life in Syria was becoming more unbearable year after year, despite the military victories celebrated in pro-regime areas.

The military triumph did not feel like a complete victory to the Syrian population, as their country was destroyed, and rebuilding depended on international agreements.  The country’s infrastructure was destroyed, and public services could not fulfil people’s basic needs; a water and electricity crisis was followed by fuel, bread, and sugar shortages and a rise in prices that most Syrian families could not endure. The true economic cost of the war differs from one study to another.

Two social classes stood out in a country bending under the weight of foreign sanctions and invaded by militias; the poor, who made up most of the population, and a wealthy minority who had taken advantage of the war economy. In the eyes of the majority, the elite was responsible for the country’s situation, the youth’s emigration, and the long queues of people waiting to get their share of gas cylinders, bread and other subsidised goods.

Amid these crises, Bashar al-Assad was re-elected in 2021 with 95 per cent of the votes. The election results were deemed by many a masquerade that had taken place multiple times in Syria during the era of both al-Assad presidents, father and son. The election results were heavily celebrated in pro-regime areas. Meanwhile, people kept blaming the corrupt elite for everything that was happening, without mentioning their head of state and his soldiers who had ‘liberated the country from terrorism.’

Calls For The Return to Syria

Since 2014, presidential decrees have been issued to pardon certain ‘crimes,’ followed by a call for those who left the country to return. However, as expected, Syrians abroad did not respond to this call for several reasons, including a lack of trust in said decrees, as political prisons were overflowing and the number of enforced disappearances had not diminished.

At the end of April 2022, a pardon decree deemed the most inclusive since 2011 was issued, and detainees started being released. The number of released people, however, did not exceed a few dozen, according to multiple media outlets. The regime did not disclose any numbers either, nor did it release any list of names. Prisoners’ families waited on the streets of Damascus for their children, many unsure if their relatives were still alive, as thousands had perished from torture in Syrian jails over the past decade.

Following the decree, official media called on Syrians who had sought asylum in other countries to return. The decree stated that whoever had received a conviction or notice would be pardoned if his past actions did not cause someone’s death.

Syria’s economic situation is the main reason preventing Syrians from returning to their home country. The country’s current state is disastrous, from poverty and destruction to poor services, worsening healthcare and education, and a lack of employment opportunities. Moreover, most Syrians abroad, whose numbers have exceeded 7 million after 2011, are the primary breadwinners for their families remaining in the country. Today, a Syrian person’s income in their homeland, whether working in the public or private sector, barely helps make ends meet. Remittances, on the other hand, from which the Syrian regime no doubt benefits, play a major role in sustaining livelihoods.

In addition to all the above, many of the Syrians abroad have seen their homes destroyed by the war, meaning they have nowhere to return to. Additionally, nothing could be further from the minds of refugees than trusting pardon decrees, as records exist of arrests targeting Syrians who returned based on the regime’s previous pardon decrees. Amnesty International published a report in September 2021, documenting the arrest and detention of Syrians who had returned to their home country and described their return as a journey towards death.