Nine years ago this week, Syrians broke a barrier of fear that had gripped their lives for decades. They took to the streets demanding dignity from a regime and a security apparatus that had imposed totalitarian control, terrorised its own citizens and sponsored terrorist groups throughout the region.
Their act of defiance was met with great cruelty and violence. Their cause was betrayed by the international community. The betrayal of their aspirations changed the international order.
The anniversary of the Syrian revolution this year is muted. The coronavirus outbreak has stunned the whole world, grounding the global economy to a standstill, leaving ordinary people scrambling to find enough food and household supplies to last them through possible quarantines. Fear is gripping all of humanity as we all grapple with deep changes to the way we live, work and be.
In addition, there are few left fighting for the cause of freedom from tyranny, besides powerless, ordinary civilians and activists. The intervention of so many regional and global powers, the myriad internecine conflicts, the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, the sheer destruction wrought by the regime of Bashar Al Assad in response to calls for reform – all of that disfigured the face of the uprising, whose spirit nevertheless endured under the suffocating violence.
But understanding how we got to here is nevertheless worthwhile. It goes to the heart of figuring out the kind of world we want to build together. The ongoing pandemic has illustrated how nothing in our world happens in isolation, how a butterfly’s wing flap can echo around the world and become a hurricane. It is the same with Syria, where nine years of cruelty destroyed long-cherished norms and laws that were meant to enshrine our decency towards one another.
Here is what happened, in as brief a recounting as possible. In 2011, emboldened by the Arab uprisings, Syrians turned out en masse to protest the Assad regime's abuses and injustices. They were met with relentless violence. Protesters eventually picked up arms to defend themselves, but the atrocities continued. Civilians were besieged and starved to death. Hospitals were bombed. Activists were arrested and tortured. Chemical weapons were used to kill hundreds of civilians. Barrels filled with shrapnel and TNT were dropped on civilian homes.
As it became clear that the regime’s crimes would not be punished, the armed rebellion gained steam, and radicals and extremist groups gained prominence and power. Some of these fighters metastasised into a primal, savage gang known as ISIS, which became an obsession for the international community, which sought to destroy the group but not to address the cruelty that created the conditions for their rise.
As outside powers intervened – particularly Russia, Iran and Turkey – the conflict became a battle of wills to assert dominance in a new regional and international order, atop the countless corpses of Syrian civilians who simply wanted to live with dignity.
Nobody knows how many of them died. The UN stopped counting when they were around 400,000 six years ago, and the figure is probably close to a million by now. Half of the country had to flee their homes, either displaced to towns and villages farther away from the frontline or seeking refuge farther afield, over the border in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, or beyond, on European shores.
Their arrival in Europe spurred long-dormant far right, anti-immigrant parties who transformed the politics of the continent, auguring Britain's Brexit vote and the rise of the ultimate populist in America, Donald Trump, who slowly but surely began dismantling the apparatus of the liberal global order and abandoned alliances that underpinned international peace and security.
All the while, the carnage continued in Syria. More chemical attacks went unpunished – there were 222 in total since the start of the uprising, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, most of which used chlorine. More than 14,000 people have died by torture. At least 130,000 are still forcibly disappeared in the regime’s prison networks, their fate unknown.
Now, the country is a failed state. The Assad regime has clawed back much of it from rebels, who are largely sequestered in Idlib, a north-western province bordering Turkey. Three million live there, most of them women and children, and a million were displaced in recent fighting. They have nowhere to go, and nobody to fight for them. In regime-controlled areas, people are going hungry, unable to afford basic necessities. Without political reform, justice, reconstruction and a lifting of sanctions, the future of the country remains uncertain, its society a fractured mosaic.
Over nine years, Syrians’ aspirations have been crushed by a dictator unwilling to let go of what he considers a family fiefdom, and an international community that has steadfastly refused to do what was right. The slaughter of so many, and destruction at such a scale, eroded international law and the human spirit.
Perhaps, after the pandemic, we will rebuild a world where what happened in Syria will not be allowed to go on for nine years.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada