Syria: From a regional giant to a pariah state

Looking back, Syria's 2011 Syria's influence once extended far and wide, but the regime's brutal response to peaceful pro-reform protests prompted condemnation from the Arab League and its former allies.

Anti-Assad protesters rally against the regime in Amude in August.
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DAMASCUS // For a month, almost two, it looked as though 2011 was going to be a good year, even an easy one, for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

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After a long boycott, the United States returned an ambassador to Damascus in January, elevating Syria’s standing on the international stage. Then, after three-way talks with allies Turkey and Qatar and a joint effort with regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, a new prime minister to Syria’s liking was installed in Beirut.

The role of Damascus in settling another round of the perpetual Lebanon crisis served as a reminder to the world, if one were needed, of the influence wielded by the Syrian president in the most hotly disputed region in the world.

Mr Al Assad managed all this while maintaining Syria’s longtime alliances with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, and keeping the United Nations special court investigating the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the UN probe into an alleged secret nuclear site and long-time antagonist Israel at bay.

Not even the distant rumblings of the Arab Spring seemed to trouble the regime in Damascus. Indeed, when the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, one of Syria's principal bête noires, was toppled, at least one Syrian official lit up a cigar to celebrate the fall of a vital US and Israeli ally.

The governments of Mr Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were different from his own, Mr Al Assad said. They had lost touch with their people and failed to reform in time – two mistakes he had not made.

As 2011 draws to a close, that confidence – or hubris – is less evident.

At least 5,000 civilians and defecting troops have been killed by security forces, according to the UN, and an estimated 40,000 people are in detention. Syrian authorities say “terrorists” have killed 2,000 security personnel.

In Homs, Hama, Idleb and Deraa, war is raging. Government officials blame “armed gangs”, while rights groups and dissidents say opposition groups are reluctantly taking up weapons in self-defence after months of regime brutality.

Similar conflicts are surfacing in other provinces, including the tribal east and the sprawling suburbs and declining rural areas surrounding the capital.

Internationally, the Arab League and Turkey have turned their backs on their one-time friend, saying Damascus has used disproportionate force against protesters and failed to implement serious political reforms. Even the Islamist movement Hamas has moved to distance itself from its patron.

For Syria, it has been a year of deepening divisions and new national identity, of bravery, mourning and optimism, of fear and the end of fear. It has also been a time of profound confusion, as political change arrived in a place that for more than a generation had lived with sameness.

In February, as that match flared at the tip of that celebratory cigar, this all seemed improbable. Yet even then, there were signs the status quo in Syria was wobbly.

The previous month, the government abruptly reversed a key economic policy of phasing out vast, unaffordable fuel subsidies and instead raised fuel payouts for two million public-sector employees.

Weeks later, import duties on staple foods were cut to offset price rises angering ordinary Syrians, and handouts were announced for the country’s poor.

On the surface, such populist steps appeared to be working, with two calls for protesters to take to the streets to demand reforms fizzled. A planned “day of anger” outside parliament on February 4 melted away in a winter rain.

Experienced activists said the security services had mocked them at the time over their failure to stage a demonstration.

But they also said the huge mobilisation of secret police was proof that the regime was as afraid of the activists as the activists were afraid of it.

The same month, an MP stood up in parliament and suggested draconian emergency laws be reconsidered. For 48 years Syria had been governed under martial rules that suspended all basic civil rights and put complete power in the hands of the president. The MP was shouted down and told it was neither the time nor the place to discuss a legal review.

Less than three weeks later, in early March, the first anti-regime protests took place. A dozen or so youths did the previously unthinkable, giving the subversive slogan “God, Syria, Freedom” its public debut in a busy central market in Damascus. Until then, the holy trinity had consisted of God, Syria and Bashar.

Meanwhile, the southern city of Deraa had already begun to boil after a group of schoolchildren were arrested for daubing Egypt-inspired pro-freedom slogans on walls.

Instead of quiet warnings to their parents, the local security services arrested the boys and tortured them.

Polite requests by their families and influential tribal leaders to free them were rudely and arrogantly dismissed and, on Friday, March 18, the city marched to demand the children’s freedom.

In response, security forces shot live ammunition into the crowds, killing at least four people. The next day, thousands took part in the funeral processions, chanting for “revolution”. The uprising had begun.

The initial response by Syrian authorities to events in Deraa would turn into a long-term recipe for dealing with the unrest, cast the demonstrators as foreign-backed Islamic terrorists, not peaceful reformers demanding basic freedoms. Make limited political concessions and promise much more to come. Now and then, sack an unpopular official.

Meanwhile, arrest protesters at the slightest whim, and deploy the security forces en masse, including the army, to crush dissent with deadly force.

That formula has failed to stop the spiralling cycle of demonstrations and violence from spreading throughout the country. To no avail, Mr Al Assad lifted the emergency law in April – a subject too sensitive to mention just two months earlier. It made no difference to the behaviour of a security apparatus accustomed to total impunity or to protesters, for whom it was too little and too late.

The victories of the security forces have usually proved ephemeral, with protests quickly returning to supposedly pacified areas as soon as troops withdrew.

At year’s end, a frenzied media war is being waged in which no event, no fact, is undisputed. Syrian protesters have become the reporters covering their own revolution, producing shocking images of violence and enduring images of change.

To a degree, Damascus has remained immune from the fires raging elsewhere in the country. Keen to avoid the glaring eye of the international media, officials have managed to prevent demonstrators from taking root in a central square. That was Mubarak’s mistake, they said.

Nevertheless, there is division in main suburbs of the capital, too, where the bulk of the city’s population resides. While crowds of presidential supporters have turned out at recent mass street rallies to shout “The people want Bashar Al Assad,” other groups have marched to the cry of “The people want to topple the regime.”

Despite the deepening bite of international sanctions, Syria is not completely isolated. Iran has stood resolute, and Russia has given its Cold War ally crucial diplomatic cover at the UN Security Council.

Yet even Moscow’s patience could be showing signs of wearing thin, as it pushed a reluctant Damascus to accept a team of observers to monitor progress of an Arab League peace plan.

Atrocities had scarred the year and atrocities closed it, with massacres reported in the north and two huge car bombs in Damascus opening a new and dangerous chapter.

“One way or another a new Syria is being born now and nothing can stop that,” as one Damascus resident put it. “The trouble is the old Syria is going to take a long time to die.”