Syria's bleak decade

Syria's bleak decade
Comment: The international community failed Syria. Now they must make sure the next decade is not as bleak as the last, writes Chris Doyle.
6 min read
11 Mar, 2021
Syrians, forcibly displaced by regime strikes, seek refuge at a camp in Termanin [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.

Few anniversaries could be bleaker.

Ten years since the uprising started, the wars in Syria are far from over. Many fear the crises that have beset the country will last years, if not decades. Well over 500,000 have died, 5.5 million are refugees, and 6.2 million have been displaced. In Idlib, 3 to 4 million endure appalling conditions, many have been freezing to death out in the open.

Sit back and take a moment to absorb these stats. 

Perhaps for many Syrians, the biggest open question is what has happened to the hundreds of thousands of their people who have been disappeared, including those dragged from hospital beds? How many were tortured to death? 

Really think about not just the terrifying numbers, but the people, men, women and children, the destroyed lives and ruined cities. 

Did it have to be like this? Was the regime's only survival mechanism the complete brutalisation of the Syria people? Sadly this auto-response is hard-wired into the regime's DNA. It was never willing to find a compromise, to open up the political system and crack down on cronyism. 

All this seems a world away from 2011. Syrians can debate when the uprising started. The early protests in Syria in 2011 were small but significant. Few recall the Syrian Kurd from Al Hasakeh who burned himself to death in protest at the government in January 2011.

This became a conflict of no red lines. The laws of war were wilfully ignored with devastating consequences

On 17 February a spontaneous protest in the Souk Al Hamidiya in Damascus was followed by one on 23 February, when Syrians protested in front of the Libyan embassy. All such protests were forbidden. Yet the moment often pinpointed as the start of Syrian protests is the 15 March Day of Rage, with demonstrations in the southern town of Daraa. In fact there were protests elsewhere that day, including in Damascus.

As the peaceful protests turned into a brutal armed repression and armed uprising, this became a conflict of no red lines. The laws of war were wilfully ignored with devastating consequences. It is hard to think of a single human right that was not routinely violated.

The regime and Russian air forces have bombed schools, clinics, hospitals, markets and homes. The UN reports that at one point approximately half of all medical facilities had been damaged or destroyed, and Physicians for Human Rights documented 595 attacks on health care. By 2017, the World Report was stating that 7 percent of Syria's housing stock had been destroyed with 20 percent damaged.

Whole population centres were practically placed under starve or surrender sieges. Aid workers, UN workers were targeted. Islmaic State (IS) executed journalists and humanitarian workers, and exhibited it online in extraordinarily gruesome but well produced videos. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing reshaped entire areas. 

Read more: One in two young Syrians have lost a loved one, ICRC report reveals

But the thing that hits you hardest is the impact on children. After all, it started with the arrest and torture of children in Daraa. A whole generation is traumatised by the violence and displacement. Child labour flourished, and many girls were sold off into sexual slavery. Many will never recover. 

While the regime undoubtedly bears primary responsibility for the lion's share of the savagery, others must also be held accountable. Armed opposition groups have also violated the laws of war and not just the extremist Jihadist groups.  Opposition groups squabbled and bickered. The external groups in particular were too willing to become subservient to agendas of other countries who sponsored them, not least Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Yet all this does not tell the full story. Every single family has been affected. Everyone has a story. This is a country, a society and a people that has been smashed. To pick up the pieces will be a long rebuilding process, above all of the society itself, the shattered communities, the divided families. Who can trust who, not least with the brigades of regime informers lurking? 

There have been some occasional positive steps forward, or flickers of light. Some wanted military intervention after the massive August 2013 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, but at least the US-Russian deal led to the removal from Syria of 1,300 tonnes of lethal nerve and chemical agents in the middle of a war zone. 

Universal Jurisdiction holds out hope for some element of accountability, as the Koblenz court verdict in Germany against one of Assad's torturers shows. But Russia has prevented the International Criminal Court from mounting an investigation, and who knows if things will change in years to come.

The international community has failed Syria. The region failed Syria. It is more than time to have a debate as to what we should have done, as we try to work out how to help Syrians to exit these crises and eventually recover.

The fabric of society needs to be carefully stitched together once again

The danger is that rather than trying to rescue the situation, the Biden administration will take the lead in trying to ignore the whole Syrian quagmire. Political courage will be in short supply as will aid and reconstruction funding, with the Covid-19 pandemic being deployed as the get out clause, the lame excuse.  

Rebuilding Syria will be a huge challenge, but one that must be embraced. The regime's backers - particularly Russia - must force through political change in exchange for any reconstruction aid. Yet it is not bricks and mortar which pose the toughest challenge. How will Syrians learn to live with each other again, in a country with so many multiple identities, of ethnicities, sects, tribes and cities? The fabric of society needs to be carefully stitched together once again. 

When Barack Obama was in power, he repeatedly asked his officials, "How does it end?" It is quite something, that so many years later that question is still so apt and we are no closer to getting an answer. The greatest tragedy will be if we are asking the same question in 10 years' time, with as little idea as to the answer as we have now.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to the region.

Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

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.