Aleppo: The end of Syria's revolution?

Aleppo: The end of Syria's revolution?
Comment: Syria continues to be a chessboard upon which Syrians themselves are mere playthings for regional powers, writes Noor El-Terk.
6 min read
16 Dec, 2016
Member of the FSA holds a burning portrait of embattled President Assad in Al-Qsair [AFP]

It is hard to believe that a child's dare, made on the playground, would blaze a trail for the country to be torn apart, with repercussions that would shake the entire world.

As Tunisians revolted and Egyptians protested back in 2011, hardly anyone expected anything to come out from Syria, with a president that was held in good favour by a significant portion of his people, and an efficient secret police known throughout the entire region.

But things changed after a solitary elderly man, Ghassan Najjar, attempting to heed the calls of the Arab Spring, was swiftly taken away in the middle of the night.

It was in Daraa, a small farming town in Syria's southern border with Jordan, two weeks later, where young schoolchildren echoed the chants of Cairo and Tunis, picking up graffiti cans and spraying the familiar slogan, "the people want the removal of the regime".  The response was swift.

Local secret police descended on the town and arrested fifteen children aged between ten and fifteen. In detention, the boys were beaten, burned and tortured, returned bloodied and battered to their parents. It was with that act, that Daraa became a rallying cry, and the Syrian people tentatively began to protest.

But unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the region, their calls were for "reform", not for the removal of the regime.

The grievances back then were still local. Families had approached Bashar al-Assad's cousin, Atef Najib, responsible for the security apparatus in Daraa - only to be told brusquely to forget about their children, to have new ones, and "if you can't, send us your wives, and we will get them pregnant for you".

The response caused anger, and things only became worse when security forces under the command of Maher al-Assad, stormed the Omari mosque and opened fire, killing five people.

The assumption was that the Syrian government, eager to maintain its good name, would find a way to settle the matter, in a move not too dissimilar from the Jordanian king's efforts. For him, fear of the spread of the Arab spring, led him to promptly sack everyone in parliament, only to reinstate them a few days later when things simmered down.

Calls for reform however, and for Maher al-Assad to be held to account, were met with shocking brutality, and the calls swiftly changed to shouts of "freedom", as hundreds were gunned down.

The Syrian revolution, once a rallying call for freedom and dignity, is now remembered as a litany of disappointments, the greatest of which is the divisions between the groups that have been left to fester

The brutality and speed with which the Assad government reacted to the people revealed telling signs of the weakness of the Syrian state. In less than two years, rebels had successfully taken control of large swathes of Syria, and revealed cracks in the existing structure.

Senior Damascus figures were defecting, and it appeared that the revolution had neared its completion. In a desperate bid to cling to power, foreign fighters from Hizballah and Iran arrived as reinforcements - and, with this, the landscape of the country transformed, from a people calling for freedom, to a playground for regional powers.

After a buoyant beginning, the revolution came crashing down. Beyond the common demands of freedom, Syria quickly descended into sectarian rhetoric as age-old methods of division were employed.

From chants of, "one, one, the Syrian people are one", came an us-versus-them attitude. Sunnis were pitted against Shia. Rural against urban. Secular against Islamist.

As the differences grew into an irreconcilable chasm, Syria was left to lie in pieces, a graveyard of crushed hopes and broken promises. The Syrian revolution, once a rallying call for freedom and dignity, is now remembered as a litany of disappointments, the greatest of which is the divisions between the groups that have been left to fester.

Regional powers dominated the narrative and used Syria as their backyard in which to play out their own agenda. The initial Syrian demands were lost under the furore of foreign power struggles. The world in its entirety failed Syria, letting one tragedy unfold after another, from Hamza ElKhatib to Aylan Kurdi to Omran Daqneesh.

In Syria, humanity has reached an all-time low, with people waiting to learn the origins of the drone strikes and destruction before deciding if they should feel outraged at the death inflicted upon innocents.

From chants of one, one, the Syrian people are one', came an us-versus-them attitude. Sunnis pitted against Shiites. Rural against urban. Secular against Islamist.

As the regime forces surround east Aleppo and talks of a ceasefire continue to fall through, one thing remains certain; the fall of Aleppo will not mean the end of the war for the people of Syria.

The memory of Homs is not far from people's minds. Described as the capital of the Syrian revolution, the city was unable to withstand the two-year siege and ultimately fell into Assad's hands, with rebels hoping to curtail the suffering endured by the civilians. Those hoping for relief and a safe exit were in for a shock. Hundreds were arrested and sent to Assad's torture chambers, many more disappeared and the luckier ones were displaced, only for the cycle to repeat itself.

The future is stark; as regime forces continue relentlessly to pound Aleppo, civilians already know the fate that awaits them. Those who escaped death and detention will be forced to flee to Idlib, where death likely waits at the hands of Assad's henchmen.

While, for Aleppo, there is some international concern, some semblance of outrage - all of that will change when Assad's forces turn their sights on Idlib, given carte blanche by the world so far. With the presence of "extremists" in Idlib, international attention will shift away and civilians will not stand a chance.

Not a single eyebrow will be raised when Assad's forces and their allies flatten Idlib, and those who would have fled, hoping for reprieve, will only be met with more death, destruction and even more international silence.

The promise of change was made, and it cannot be taken away.

As Syrians make their way out of Aleppo in a country racked with divisions, it is easy to feel that the revolution has failed.

In this dark moment, it is worth remembering how the events of the Arab Spring, whether successful or not in their demands, were able to deliver one thing: They shattered old notions of the regime and despotic rule.

The promise of change was made, and it cannot be taken away.

Noor El-Terk is a keen advocate for social justice with a particular interest in the MENA region. She holds a masters degree in Chemical Engineering and tweets at @kelo3adi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.