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In the world’s political corridors, Hafez al-Assad’s rule over Syria between 1970 and 2000 was deemed a harsh, traditional dictatorship. Essentially, one party spread its branches across cities and villages, with multiple intelligence branches inhibiting the freedom to engage in politics and an economy entirely controlled by the public sector. Large segments of the Syrian population expected that Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in power, would be different. In particular, since he had not been the one nominated for this succession until 1994, when his older brother Bassel al-Assad died in a traffic accident. Moreover, unlike his father and brother, who hailed from a military background, he had studied ophthalmology in the United Kingdom.
The younger al-Assad initiated changes, especially in the economic sector, where he created private banks, companies and universities and, in a speech, called for openness to the rest of the world. However, as these reforms were limited, they were not enough to change the state of affairs in Syria. In one way or another, these so-called private institutions were owned by individuals, parties, and forces linked to the ruling regime. Furthermore, the intelligence services persisted, and the regime continued its policy of arresting opponents and those calling for political openness rather than shutting down political prisons.
In March 2011, some 11 years after Bashar al-Assad’s ascent to power, a pivotal confrontation took place with a mass movement calling for the overthrow of his regime. The consequences of this confrontation have left Syria one of the poorest countries in the world and resulted in 5.38 million internally displaced people (as of February 2022) and more than 5.72 million refugees (as of March 2022). According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the subsequent losses of 11 years of war amount to approximately $324.5 billion.
Deep roots of the revolution
One cannot view the developments in Syria starting in March 2011 without looking at the state of its economy and governance in the years preceding the start of the movement. According to a UN report, more than 30 per cent of Syrian society fell below the poverty line, with a significantly higher proportion outside the urban centres. In addition, the unemployment rate was relatively high, particularly among the youth who were therefore seeking to leave the country.
The class differences increased dramatically as a new stratum of businessmen, who had been granted control of markets and businesses, took the lead in entrepreneurship as part of the openness al-Assad had called for. This exacerbated the continued collapse of the middle class into poverty, which came in parallel to a rise in prices, low income levels, and climate changes that played a major role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic and social situation. These dynamics played a particularly significant role between 2006 and 2010, when droughts plagued the country’s eastern region, forcing thousands of farmers to migrate and settle on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo. Here, they formed a new class of poor living around industrial and commercial cities and working for low wages.
Numerous political and economic analysts agree that the economy’s deterioration, governmental corruption, and regime proponents’ control over public and private funds were the leading causes of the movement against the Syrian regime. At minimum, these dynamics instigated the mass rush towards street demonstrations, especially in rural areas where the difficult economic conditions were far worse than in the cities and development was insignificant.
The Arab Spring
Following the onset of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, in Syria, a semi-general sense that a revolutionary movement against the ruling regime was imminent prevailed. This feeling was reinforced when these revolutions overthrew political leaders in the region, such as Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali between 14 December 2010 and 1 January 2011 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. Contrarily, some Syrians noticed dissimilarities between the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and the regime in Syria. This observation was based on the regime’s methods under Hafez al-Assad in confronting domestic opposition movements. Additionally, the secret services and the monopolies allotted to the pro-Assad elites at that time played a pivotal role in creating the unique nature of this regime.
The massacre in the centrally located city of Hama in February 1982 underscores these practices. A confrontation between the al-Assad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood party, which the regime considered banned, resulted in the death of thousands of civilians. This, among other incidents, amplified people’s fears and resulted in their withdrawal from political life for decades. Yet, despite only sporadic opposition during both Hafez’s and Bashar’s reign, political prisons were full of detainees.
It was not before long that signs of popular movements opposing the regime’s rule appeared in Damascus’ central al-Hariqa area on 17 February 2011, as citizens gathered to protest the beating of a young man by traffic police. The protestors did not aim high with their expectations and slogans. While during street protests in other Arab countries “The people want the downfall of the regime” was the clearest and most famous slogan, in Syria the preferred slogan was “The Syrian people will not be humiliated.” Nevertheless, this heightened the government’s concerns and raised fears of expanding demonstrations.
The dispatched interior minister told the crowd “This is shameful … this is called a demonstration,” indicating that protesting was prohibited in the country and that the gathering was not sanctioned. He subsequently moved among the demonstrating crowd in his car as regime supporters sought to change the slogans into messages supporting the president. This, however, failed as the demonstration was a clear indication that a popular uprising had started to emerge on Syria’s streets.
On 22 February, five days after the al-Hariqa demonstration, Syrians gathered in front of the Libyan Embassy in Damascus to support the movement that had erupted in Libya against its president, Muammar Qaddafi. During clashes between the protesters and security forces, new slogans such as “The one who kills his people is a traitor” began to emerge. This emergence represented an evolutionary change and paved the way for slogans to evolve further, eventually resulting in numerous slogans calling for freedom and change in the heart of the famous Hamidiyah market in Damascus on 15 March. The demonstration drew great interest due to the overwhelming participation of women and because the slogans centred around the concept of freedom.
In these small rallies, the protesters’ demands, which were relatively modest compared to what followed, escalated into the slogan “The people want the ouster of the regime” in Daraa, in the south of the country, on 18 March 2011. This was the first demonstration to be confronted with live ammunition, resulting in civilian deaths, and thus was considered the actual start of the revolution.
The protest was particularly unique and symbolic as children from the city wrote slogans against the regime and were subsequently arrested and tortured by security services, prompting their families to take to the streets in protest of these practices. Since it was the first time that demands for sweeping change crystallised, this particular demonstration holds symbolic value for Syrians, who, to this day, remember it as the true beginning of their revolution against the regime. In addition, it suggests that Syrian children, with their writings on the walls, were the ones to start the movement.
Mirroring the demonstrations in Daraa, protests erupted in other cities such as Homs, Duma, and Baniyas. Slogans usually began with demands for freedom, dignity and justice and ended with calls to overthrow the regime, especially in response to the escalation of violence against protesters. The movement spread day by day, and confrontations with live ammunition took place more frequently in various protests.
Meanwhile, marginal attempts, which proved futile, were made to meet protesters’ demands. The president’s advisor Buthaina Shaaban announced in a press conference that the emergency law, in force in the country since 1963, would be lifted, and the country would witness reforms and fight against corruption. The speech did not have the desired effect; on the contrary, matters escalated, and the number of demonstrators increased, as did the violence against them.
On 30 March 2011, some two weeks after the demonstrations spread to dozens of Syrian cities and villages, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared before the Syrian People’s Assembly, where he gave a speech that many Syrians, as well as the international community, described as frustrating. When many awaited clear-cut changes or a response to their demands, the speech instead came as an unpleasant surprise, as al-Assad portrayed the protesters as having been deceived. While he acknowledged the demands of the Syrian people, he asserted that a conspiracy targeting the country’s stability exploited these demands, and claimed he was not keen to see bloodshed.
The demonstrating masses, subjected to ongoing repression, rejected al-Assad’s speech, and the death toll kept rising. Fridays witnessed the most intense protests and, consequently, the most significant number of deaths. The scenes of crowds gathering in Hamma, Homs, Deir ez-Zor, Daraa and other cities foreshadowed a more intense escalation, particularly in the early summer of 2011, when media estimated the numbers of protesters in Hama alone in the hundreds of thousands.
Several factors contributed to an increase in the number of demonstrators and the movement’s geographical expansion, especially in the summer of 2011.
Firstly, many were killed during the demonstrations due to the use of live bullets by security forces, loyal militias, and later by the army. As a result, each day saw countless funerals of victims from the previous day’s demonstrations, attended by vast numbers of people. Slogans cried out at these funerals increased in intensity. At the same time, anger and defiance became more prevalent, especially at funerals marked by stories of victims’ shocking ordeals, such as 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib’s funeral, who died as the result of severe torture in Daraa on 25 June 2011. His photos, which spread worldwide and illustrated how the Syrian regime dealt with the movement, rendered the child an icon.
Secondly, based on signals from the international community, demonstrators were convinced that the world would not abandon them. This belief was based on the emergence of an international discourse critical of al-Assad, calls for serious intervention in Syria, and the international community’s direct involvement in regime change in other Arab states, such as Libya. Moreover, the United States began imposing sanctions on al-Assad and his senior officials starting in May 2011. Later, in August 2011, they demanded that al-Assad step down, as did France, the United Kingdom, Germany and other countries.
Thirdly, local civilian initiatives started organising opposition work and coordinated among themselves in “Local Coordination Committees.” These sought to unite slogans at demonstrations across regions, coordinate civil action, and support besieged areas, resulting in the movement’s progression toward an increasingly organised context.
Lastly, confusion began to manifest in the regime’s ranks and institutions, starting with defection by officers and personnel from the military and security services who refused to aim their weapons at civilians. Additionally, the official vision for dealing with the situation lacked clarity. The regime, at times, especially in the early days of the uprising, appeared keen to respond to the demands for reform. At other times it seemed to take a confrontational stance, viewing the demonstrators as enemies of the state conspiring with the outside, which became more prevalent over time.
Al-Assad’s first speech, acknowledging the demonstrators’ demands, was followed by a series of further speeches in which he tried to maintain a balance between two different discourses. The first revolved around the continued allegations of a conspiracy and the demonstrators’ subordination to external parties hostile to Syria. The second concerned promises of reform that included the formation of a new government and the announcement of elections for the People’s Assembly. Neither one of the approaches affected the street protests in light of protesters’ continued confrontation with bullets.
In his third speech on 20 June 2011, at Damascus University, al-Assad spoke of the presence of a category of demonstrators with extremist ideologies who killed in the name of religion. He added that other categories comprised saboteurs targeting state institutions and included those making demands. This inclusion justified military actions that had already begun in several Syrian regions. In fact, cities such as Daraa in the south and Jisr al-Shughur in the north were already under siege. At the same time, armoured vehicles and tanks were deployed in dozens of Syrian cities, clearly indicating that the state was deploying the army to confront the popular uprising.
In terms of local media, all official television channels, radio stations and newspapers were employed to defend the regime. In addition, unofficial channels, owned by parties associated with the regime and known to conform to official channels, were used to send the same messages. These included news bulletins and political programmes broadcast without scheduling restrictions to feature political analysts.
The majority of the Syrian people grew accustomed to seeing these figures due to their frequent appearances on satellite channels where they analysed al-Assad’s speeches, discussed the upcoming reform and even the new Syria. They criticised corruption and the corrupt, holding them responsible for the developments, and cast doubt on the movement and its legitimacy while talking about the alleged international conspiracy targeting Syria’s steadfastness in the face of its enemies.
Specific channels operated under the premise that the demonstrations were fabricated. Some claimed that the protests were filmed in the studios of al-Jazeera using replicas of famous Syrian squares in Qatar. In another instance, a news anchor explained the crowd in the Damascus neighbourhood al-Midan as having gone out to thank God for blessing them with rain rather than to demonstrate. Such reports exemplified how the official Syrian media handled reality, perceived the opposition movement, and altered reality to deny facts it could not accept.
The militarisation of the revolution
Starting from April 2011, defections from the ranks of the Syrian army began to occur. Defected conscripts and officers called against aiming weapons at citizens and declared their support for the Syrian revolution in video recordings. However, no opposition military faction was formed until 9 June 2011, when Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Harmoush announced his defection from the army and formed a military brigade called the “Free Officers Brigade.” The brigade became known as the “Free Officers Movement” on the 24th of that same month. The faction initially included defected officers and personnel whose tasks, according to the Harmoush defection statement, were to protect civilians and public and private property.
In May 2011, Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty decree that allowed Islamists, extremists and criminals to be freed. These people were later recruited either by the Islamist groups or pro-Assad militias.
As more defections took place, other opposition factions began to form, and military battles began against the regime’s army. On 29 July 2011, the “Free Syrian Army” was established in what was a pivotal moment in the transition of the revolution to the military stage. The areas where protests took place were gradually militarised. During the spring and summer of 2011, some of the protestors and the people living in these neighbourhoods chose to carry weapons. From this point onward, the revolution was deemed a civil war, particularly in international media.