How Syria's war defined a decade

How Syria's war defined a decade
Comment: A decade of war and displacement has left the root causes of Syria's revolution remain firmly in place, and its people no closer to liberation, writes Sam Hamad.
5 min read
13 Mar, 2021
Displaced Syrians return to the rubble of their destroyed home in Idlib [Getty]
This article is part of The New Arab's special coverage of the Arab Spring decade of upheaval. Visit our Arab Spring portal here.

It has now been a decade since Syrians, following similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, revolted against the dynastic regime of Bashar al-Assad.

When Syrians first took to the streets chanting "Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam" ("the people want the fall of the regime") they knew they were dealing with a regime capable of brutality. Many were prompted to take to the streets after the particularly cruel murder of 13-year-old protester, Hamza al-Khateeb in Daraa, whose tortured, mutilated, broken body regime forces callously dumped back with his parents as a warning.

It was indeed a warning. A warning of the unspeakable, unprecedented brutality that was to soon unfold across the entire country.

Nothing could have prepared Syrians for the ferocity of Assad's response - the militarised violence unleashed by Assad, Iran and eventually Russia against unarmed protesters and millions of innocent civilians.

These people have had everything thrown at them - chemical weaponsbarrel bombs and sectarian death squads, as well as the combined power of Iran and Russia.  Hundreds of thousands have been killedexterminated in prisonstortured and sexually assaulted, while millions have been forced into the cruel stateless precarity of refugee life.

Looking back over those 10 long years there is an understandable tendency to focus solely on these horrors, or to passively commemorate the roots of the revolution.  But the reality is that the root causes of what birthed the Syrian revolution not only remain firmly in place, but that they have been exacerbated tenfold - transformed into new avenues of instability and unrest.

Assad rules over a chronically unstable, violent and bankrupt rump state

This is not to say that there is going to be another uprising like that of 2011, but it does mean contrary to Assad's hopes, the discord that led to the revolutionary backlash against his regime is not going to simply melt away.

And while there's no doubt that Assad, due to the massive intervention of Iran and Russia, has achieved military victory against the rebels, his victory is somewhat hollow.  Assad, through his own apocalyptic methodology, rules over a chronically unstable, violent and bankrupt rump state. 

The Islamic State, whose creation he had a decisive hand in, are now impressively resurgent in areas that Assad simply doesn't have the resources to police. 

Even the much-depleted and allegedly more compliant populations are still being crushed by Assad's organs of tyranny, while foreign forces treat the locals they rule over with often fatal contempt.


The mass corruption that typified pre-war Syria has not only reached new levels of exploitation, but the ramifications of this kleptocratic corruption cut even deeper. The Baathist state remains bankrupt and unable to fiscally govern due to 10 years of diverting much needed resources into war. This is worsened by economic sanctions, the global economic crisis caused by Covid-19, as well as Iran and Russia cashing in their imperialist chips.

The cumulative effect of this is a Syrian population many times worse off than in 2011, with Syrians unable to afford basic foodstuffs, and food insecurity now a daily reality. Millions of Syrians rely on aid organisations for meals - without them, they would simply starve. Comparisons have been made to the conditions that led to the mass starvation that gripped Baathist Iraq in the 1990s. 

The cumulative effect of this is a Syrian population many times worse off than in 2011

It's of no surprise then, that there have been protests among the population, including among Druze and Assad's own Alawite base. Though these protests are not "revolutionary" in the same way as 2011, the main demands reflect both the long-standing deficiencies of Baathist Syria and the new deficiencies exacerbated by the crippling conditions of Assad's war.

The rebel presence has not been entirely expunged from Assad's rump state. Daraa was supposed to be the new template of Russian rule through its co-option of rebel groups via truce deals, to operate semi-autonomously of Assad. 

However, amid economic devastation and with Assad escalating tension in the semi-autonomous zone (with him considering it merely a transition phase towards his eventual total conquest of Daraa), the rebels have simply used the autonomy to organise against Assad.

Not only is Assad incapable of ruling his own rump state alone, but even his Russian masters can't provide anything other than "peace deals" destined to disintegrate. With Covid-19 hitting both Russia and Iran hard, they can't commit to bailing out Assad financially or with anything more than the forces they already provide for ensuring his rule.

Add into this the fact that Idlib, as precarious and wrought with internal tensions as it might be, remains out of Assad's grasp. Much like Free Aleppo before its fall, you have a model of Syrians living free without Assad.

Again, none of this means revolution will once again engulf Syria, and there is little cause for optimism. The population is hungry, weary and fearful of a regime they know to be capable of genocide. In Idlib, only Turkey stands between it and the kind of assault we know Assad and Russia have in store.

I've long argued that Syria is a truly global issue, in the sense that the quantity and quality of the horror that has been visited upon that country has concrete global consequences. Allowing genocide to triumph is like ignoring a festering open sore. Nothing has changed in this regard. 

As the Syrian conflict enters its second decade, the revolution as it existed in 2011 might very well be dead. But as long as its murderers continue to hold domain over the Syrian people - both those who live within the country or those exiled to the four corners of the earth - the regime will continue to poison the region, and the world. 

Sam Hamad is a writer and History Phd candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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