What is being called the “final offensive” is underway as the Assad-led Syrian government remains committed to its goal of finally wiping out all remnants of the rebel forces and the civilians that joined them seven years ago. An estimated three million civilians live in the crosshair. What will become of them? And what has become of the dream of the Syrian people for a better future?
Because indeed it was a dream for a better future that began the Syrian civil war seven years ago. And, its origins bear a potent lesson for us as to how a democratic, populist movement can spin completely out of control, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The Syrian Civil War Death Toll
The precise number of deaths that have accumulated since the Syrian civil war began is difficult to compile. The U.N. stopped counting. As of 2014, it claimed that 400,000 had been killed. The Syrian Center for Policy Research reported in 2016 that there had been 470,000 deaths, a number widely accepted by the international community. The Syrian Observatory more recently stated that since 2011, the Syrian civil war has resulted in at least 511,000 deaths. Approximately 12 million Syrians have been displaced. The numbers are staggering.
So, how did it begin?
Peaceful Demonstrations for Change
When we look at the sectarian warfare that has unfolded in Syria, it is easy to forget that the original uprising had nothing to do with sects. A gradual erosion of democratic rights that began in 1973 when the Ba’ath party came to power resulted in the denouement of political parties and erosion of all pathways for expressing political discontent.
Decades of government policies succeeded in shifting power and financial resources into the hands of a ruling class. Labor unions, student groups, and other interest groups gradually lost their access to the halls of government. Lacking the ability to bring about change through political action, disenfranchised Syrians turned to peaceful protests.
In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” was born. Populist movements succeeded in ousting presidents in Tunisia and Egypt. These successes gave hope to a Syrian populist movement of mostly students, who rose to challenge the government’s policies which were creating economic hardship and stripping people of their democratic rights.
The government responded with an iron fist. It arrested 15 students for writing graffiti in favor of the Syrian Arab Spring. The boys were tortured and one, a 13-year-old boy, died as a result. A peaceful, democratic protest against the tortures and murder took place in March. Under President Bashar al-Assad’s leadership, the Syrian government ramped up its response by imprisoning the demonstrators and killing hundreds of them.
A Peaceful Movement Loses its Compass
In the summer of 2011, the Free Syria Army was born. This group consisted primarily of defectors from the Syrian Army. Their mission was to overthrow the government. If it had ended here, with only the Free Syria Army leading the push to bring about reforms, things might have been better.
But several anti-government militias sprung up and there was no coordination between them. The militias tended to be more tribal, attracting army deserters and civilians who were eager to join the uprising. Once foreign jihadists joined the militias, the original goals of the uprising became lost as each group was motivated by its own agenda.
And here the nightmare began. Public anger intensified as Assad’s responses became harsher and deadlier. The chaos that ensued became fertile ground for extremists in the region, including Iraqi based al-Qaeda, which later became ISIS.
Syria’s non-sectarian exercise of the right to peacefully protest quickly spiraled into sharp sectarian divisions. Shia faced off against Sunni, and to complicate matters even more, Assad and Syria’s security establishment are Alawite. Peaceful opposition morphed into outright attacks on civilians aligned with “the other side”, as well as against government forces.
Ultimately, the entire Middle East region jumped in, with Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia backing the rebels and Shia countries such as Iran and Iraq supporting Assad.
The landscape divided into four basic teams: Hezbollah, Iran and Russia aligned with Assad, vs. the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria vs. the Kurds vs. America, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf States aligned with the Rebels. But, make no mistake about it, each of these “aligned” partners has their own agenda too.
And What of Syria’s Struggle for Democracy?
After the alleged chemical attack on a village outside of Damascus, the international cast of players increased. The United States led a coalition of NATO allies, including Canada, France, and Germany to carry out airstrikes against the Assad regime.
Iran is eager to take over what it sees as a vast ownerless landscape. Russia is equally keen to use this real estate to move its gas to Europe. And Israel is determined to keep Iran and Hezbollah outside of striking distance.
The cast of competing interests widens, and no one seems to remember the Syrian people and their quest for democracy. As the battle unfolds in Idlib, with Russian and Israeli planes in the air, there is little hope that Syria’s Arab Spring will be seen ever again.