Ten years ago this week, the Syrian Revolution began with peaceful pro-democracy protests. The first demonstrations broke out in the city of Deraa after local schoolchildren painted a mural depicting scenes and slogans from the recent revolutions in other Arab countries, and were detained and brutalized by the police. The Bashar Assad regime responded to the demonstrations with serial massacres. After months of this, the Free Syrian Army emerged, initially as a self-defense militia to protect protesters. But the situation soon escalated to an armed insurgency. The regime lost control of large areas of the country, and local civil resistance committees backed by the FSA seized control. Assad then escalated to levels of violence rarely seen on Earth since World War II.
Complete impunity for Assad regime
The logic of the regime’s response has always been to terrorize the populace back into submission—and ultimately to destroy society itself in the areas outside regime control. Massive aerial bombardment—including with illegal cluster munitions and crude but massively destructive “barrel bombs“—soon escalated to serial chemical weapons attacks.
The death toll in the war is now estimated at over a half million—with over 100,000 of those the “disappeared” who died in the dictatorship’s prison gulag. A similar number are still believed to be in detention. Photographs documenting the mass death and torture in this gulag were released by a regime defector known as “Caesar” in 2015. This resulted, at least, in passage four years later of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in the US, which imposes sanctions on individuals and industries directly linked to Assad’s military apparatus. It only took effect last year.
This year finally saw a landmark verdict in the German courts against a regime figure for detention and torture of protesters—but he was a low-ranking officer. There has been complete impunity for Assad and his generals and secret police commanders, despite a decade of documented war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Over 13 million have been displaced, nearly half having fled the country as refugees; more in precarious and impoverished camps within the diminishing enclaves of rebel control. Syria has long been the world’s greatest displacement crisis.
Civil resistance caught between regime, Great Powers, political Islam
Russia massively intervened on the behalf of the regime in 2015, bringing far greater firepower to bear in the air war and virtually destroying the city of Aleppo. When the rebel-held section of the city finally fell the following year, the population faced massacres at the hands of regime forces, in what one UN representative called “a complete meltdown of humanity.” The thousands who fled Aleppo to the remaining pocket of rebel-held territory in the north are still coming under Russian bombardment. Iran also has a massive military footprint in Syria, training and commanding pro-regime militias.
This is the little-recognized context for how ISIS and other jihadist elements were able to gain a foothold in Syria by appealing to the desperate and betrayed. But it is even less recognized that the secular and pro-democratic civil resistance that began the revolution a decade ago still exists—in spite of everything.
Since the pandemic began a year ago, the lines of control have largely been frozen in the remaining pocket of rebel control—principally Idlib province and a part of neighboring Aleppo province. Unfortunately, with the Free Syrian Army fractured, this pocket is now dominated by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which have divided it into spheres of control despite resistance from the enclave’s besieged pro-democratic forces.
Kurdish autonomy and the Great Power Game
The other significant area precariously outside regime control is the Kurdish region of Rojava in the northeast—where things have also taken a turn for the worse over the past year. Rebel Kurds with an anarchist-influenced ideology established an autonomous zone there in 2012. But this was greatly reduced by a Turkish invasion of Rojava (green-lighted by Trump) in late 2019. Now, much of the Kurdish-majority area in north which was the heartland of Rojava is under occupation by Turkey and its collaborationist forces, and partly “cleansed” of Kurds. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are occupying Raqqa to the south and the Arab-majority areas around the city, which they took from ISIS with US air support in 2017—with the inevitable grave toll in civilian casualties. This has yet further exacerbated Kurdish-Arab tensions in northern Syria, heightening the risk of ethnic war.
Most tragically, the Kurds were forced by the Turkish invasion of their territory into an alliance with the Assad regime. So the SDF have actually invited Assadist troops into “liberated” Raqqa—the first regime presence in the city since 2013.
US tilting to Assad
As well as a tragedy, this is a bitter irony: the regime’s return to Raqqa after a US-led campaign to take the city from ISIS is the clearest evidence we need of a US tilt to Assad in the Syrian war—the deluded conventional wisdom of left, right and center notwithstanding. The US provided some aid to the Free Syrian Army early in the war—but has actually restrained rebel forces from using this aid against Assad, insisting they only use it to fight ISIS and other jihadist forces such as Nusra Front and HTS.
Biden’s recent air-strike on an Iranian base in Syria was among but a small handful of times that the US has bombed forces aligned with the Assad regime—each time to requisite protest from the American “left.” Meanwhile, there was overwhelming silence from “anti-war” (sic) forces in the West over Trump’s virtual destruction of Raqqa, despite the massive civilian toll—because in that case, the US was fighting ISIS, not the Assad regime. Even the world media barely paid note to the destruction of Raqqa. This despite the fact that the Assad regime has certainly killed more Syrians than has ISIS.
World complicit with Assad’s genocide
The UN Human Rights Commission last month released a report finding that actions by the Assad regime during the Syrian war have likely constituted “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes, including genocide.” The UN and human rights groups have issued such findings repeatedly—to little media coverage. The charge of genocide officially requires the world to act under the Genocide Convention.
But the world is no longer even paying attention.
Image: Delawer Omar