Following the dramatic and quick deposing of Ben Ali in Tunis and Mubarak in Egypt, the younger and allegedly more popular Bashar al-Assad publically dismissed the possibility of himself witnessing a similar fate. Confident of his ability to navigate through murky waters and maintain a working relationship with the international community despite their previous attempts at alienation, Assad the son felt safe and irreproachable. This false sense of safety was also reinforced by ten successive years of positive GDP growth and a considerable increase in household income in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest urban centers. Indeed, for Assad and many observers, Syria was immune to the Arab uprisings.
If everything seemed calm on the surface, the reasons for earth-shattering political and social unrest were boiling underneath. Indeed, Assad’s Syria was ruled by one of the most oppressive and violent regimes in modern history. An aggressive rise of crony capitalism accompanied the liberalization of the economy, and the public sector was widely infested by corruption, patronage, and nepotism. The eruption of a widespread popular uprising on March 18th, 2011, may have taken the Syrian regime by surprise, but a large portion of the Syrian people had been waiting for any excuse to dispose of the 40 years dictatorship.
The Syrian revolution started as a cry for dignity and reclaiming autonomy with great hopes for change. Loyal to the aims of the Arab uprisings, the Syrian uprising called for democracy, the rule of law, fair distribution of wealth, political inclusion, and efficient nondiscriminatory governance. Activists embraced universal values to rally the Syrian population and obtain the support of the international community with a sincere belief that these values could serve as the foundations of a new Syria. In return, the Assad regime responded with extreme violence and did not hesitate to implement every trick in the book to ignite sectarian divide, ideological extremism, and ethnic tensions.
The result was the 21st century’s bloodiest conflict; half-million civilians were killed, half of the population was displaced, and the country’s infrastructure was left in shambles. The Syrian revolution’s evolution from a peaceful uprising to an armed conflict was the design of Assad’s oppressive reaction and foreign actors’ intervention to protect or change the regional status quo. Assad’s disposition to maintain his grip over the country drove him to seek destruction, disorder, and fear beyond Syria’s borders. The heaviest price of this conflict, however, has been paid by innocent and unarmed civilians.
As the conflict enters its tenth year, Bashar al-Assad has managed to remain in power. The struggle for freedom has transformed into a complex regional and international security imbroglio, triggering ripples across the region, affecting Syria’s adjacent neighborhood, and even reaching all the way to Europe’s shores. This paper presents a retrospective reading of the Syrian revolution, the main reasons that prevented and prolonged its triumph thus far, their consequences, and a set of recommendations for the Syrian people still hoping for a positive change.
Unable to unite
The Syrian people showed no shortage of courage or determination in seeking their political goals. Protestors flooded the streets and attempted to peacefully occupy the cities’ main squares and locations on multiple occasions. As the weeks progressed, the regime’s brutality increased, and activists and ordinary citizens were increasingly subject to torture and death upon capture by the security forces. Despite the lack of training and available weapons, some civilians took arms to protect the revolution and deter the regime’s attacks on their compatriots. Similarly, despite all dangers and threats to their families, officers defected from both the army and the government to protest the regime’s violence.
Nevertheless, this demonstration of bravery and resolve was not matched by the presence of reliable and capable leadership. Traditional and emerging opposition actors alike failed to overcome their ideological differences and forge a much-needed unity to present a credible alternative to Assad. Consumed by personal rivalries, all attempts to consolidate the political opposition fell short of forming an inclusive project that could rally sufficient popular or international support. Indeed, the opposition’s discord became a recurring theme and pretext for the international community to justify its inaction in Syria.
Similarly, encouraged by regional backers with conflicting aims, emerging armed actors privileged their autonomy over establishing a cohesive armed resistance. Empowered by their newly found force, the armed opposition felt entitled to seek ideological ideals. Factions sought to impose their utopias of governance and engaged in a fraternal struggle to protect their perceived political and social acquisitions as they entered the battlefield against both the Assad forces and other opposition groups. The Syrian armed opposition’s inability to unite ultimately resulted in its failure to resist the scorched land strategy adopted by the regime forces and led to it losing most of its territory after controlling nearly 60% of the country in 2014.
The fragmented opposition front not only hindered its inherent capacity to act but also encouraged the emergence of extreme cross-border jihadist groups. Taking advantage of the void, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq infiltrated the revolution and rallied supporters worldwide to join them in their new forms. Capitalizing on superior financial and organization capacities, they established safe havens in eastern Syria, chased away the mainstream opposition, conquered western Iraq, and eventually proclaimed a Caliphate in 2014. The rise of Jihadism on the Syrian scene distorted the Syrian revolution’s narrative of freedom and altered its discourse beyond repair.
The chaos, however, also did not benefit the Jihadists. It also encouraged the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), weakened in Turkey, to resuscitate in Syria. With the regime’s consent, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, seized northeastern Syria control and founded yet another administration, further complicating the political and governance landscape. The PYD’s quick territorial expansion on its southern borders sent ripple effects through Turkey, effectively ending the peace process with the PKK and eventually propelling the Turkish army to intervene in the conflict.
Following the Iraqi debacle, withdrawal from the Middle East became an essential part of the United States (US)’s political discourse. In contrast with Libya, the West contented itself with a passive role in Syria. Fearful of dealing with a security void, the US’s initial strategy consisted of containing the conflict within the country’s borders and preventing a rapid and dramatic regime fall in Damascus. Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin all expressed their political support for the revolution and demanded Assad’s departure on multiple occasions but never sought to force his ousting. Western support mostly translated to limited financial assistance for the opposition and drawing “red lines” in the hopes of deterring Damascus from using excessive force.
Obama’s failure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 demonstrated this strategy’s failure. The lack of an assertive stance on Syria has had enormous ramifications for the conflict’s development. Obama’s inaction was perceived as a strong signal that even in the face of chemical weapons, no global power would intervene against Assad. Consequently, Assad and his allies grew more brazen, and extremist actors exploited the people’s grievances to expand and assert their authority.
Indeed, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s newly established Caliphate threatened US interests in Iraq and carried out murderous attacks on European capitals and American soil. In response, Washington mounted an international coalition to combat the group, signaling a shift from the previous policy and focusing solely on the eradication of ISIS. This recalibration of priorities induced the US to have a higher tolerance of Iran’s regional role in exchange for its participation in the fight against ISIS. It also led to the significant empowerment of the PYD, who willingly volunteered to partner with the coalition in chasing out the terrorist organization.
Under the Obama administration, the US change of policy, coupled with the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aggravated the Arab Gulf monarchies, who felt betrayed by their traditional ally and at risk of a more decisive Iranian role in shaping the regional political and security order. Similarly, US support for the PYD also alienated Turkey and encouraged Ankara to seek a security arrangement with Russia to compensate for the lack of Washington’s sensitivity to its security concerns. The lack of US policy cohesion disrupted traditional alliances and paved the way for a remote war led by regional powers and fueled by local forces.
Regional Rivalries and Competition
In reaction to Syria’s growing instability, regional actors felt directly concerned with the conflict’s political and security outcomes. Directly impacted by the ongoing events, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf countries felt compelled to increase their footprint in the war when the geopolitical implications of their absence grew too costly to sustain. For Turkey and Qatar, as supporters of revolutionary forces, the Syrian uprising represented an opportunity to create and lead a new post-Arab uprisings populist order. As for the Arab oil-rich monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, their intervention in the conflict aimed to overturn Syria’s becoming part of the Iranian “corridor” and Iranian power projection spreading to the Mediterranean region. Inversely, Tehran viewed the Syrian uprising as a direct threat to its regional presence and identified the opposition as the tools of regional rivals and agents of the US and other western powers.
Indeed, all the previously mentioned regional actors have shaped the conflict’s outcome in one form or another. Their ability to play such a role could be partially explained by geopolitics and Syria’s strategic value in a polarised region festering with rivalries. However, such an impact would not have been possible were it not for the complex Syrian demography and the social rifts between religious and “secular,” Sunnis and Alawites, Arabs and Kurds. These divisions were often craftily manipulated by emerging and traditional regional powers.
The Syrian conflict started with two main camps: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in support of the opposition, Iran and its local allies in Iraq and Lebanon in support of the regime. As military operations intensified, new dynamics emerged, creating new alliances and alignments among these foreign actors and changing the nature of their interventions and objectives. The most significant event was the Egyptian coup-d’état on July 3rd, 2013. Even though not directly related to Syria, this event signaled the start of a Saudi-Emirati-led counter-revolution in the Middle East. The Arab Gulf monarchies exploited the Syrian conflict to counter-Iran, but they were also very wary of the wave of democratization promising to sweep the region. These fears increased as Turkey and Qatar seemed more in tune with the revolutionary movements, thus threatening Riyadh’s leadership of the Arab Sunni states. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates anticipated a possible opposition victory and directed their support to amenable groups polarising the opposition and weakening its unified stance against Assad.
Assad’s Loyal Allies
Assad demonstrated a strong desire to rely on foreign assistance to overcome the opposition from the conflict’s outset. The regime pursued foreign military and intelligence assistance to compensate for its losses on the ground and eventually allowed foreign battalions to fight alongside its forces. Reports suggest that Assad requested Iranian technical assistance as early as 2011, mainly in an advisory role to train the regime forces in containing the protests and providing financial aid to the regime.
In 2013, the concerted Iranian efforts to preserve Bashar al-Assad in power significantly increased following the rapid advance of the Syrian opposition in northern and central Syria. Hundreds of Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) experts and equipment were deployed to prevent the opposition’s victory. Iran shipped Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani militants to Syria and encouraged the formation of Syrian loyalist groups.
Trump’s election and the new recalibration of US policy towards Tehran also impacted Iran’s ability to support Assad. Financially, new sanctions impeded the IRGC’s capacity to maintain its military expenditure in Syria, and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani also considerably shook Iranian-backed militias. Nevertheless, despite all difficulties, Tehran has remained loyal to Assad and sustained its support, without which he could not have survived thus far.
This level of support was only matched by the Russians in September 2015, when their aviation and military experts stepped in to compensate for the losses among the Syrian Army and Iranian-backed militias, allowing them to endure and eventually reverse the opposition’s military gains. Russia’s initial diplomatic support to Assad was motivated by the need to preserve its international status after NATO’s perceived “betrayal” in Libya. Previously engaged in preventing Assad’s fall, Putin escalated his investment in the Syrian regime only in 2015 after identifying the conflict as an opportunity to increase Russia’s role in the Middle East.
The Russian intervention constitutes a turning point in the Syrian conflict and has theoretically ended all possibilities of foreign involvement in regime change. Moscow’s commitment to Assad has placed him in a stronger position vis-à-vis his opponents. The Syrian regime’s current objective is to reconsolidate its authority nationally and rehabilitate Assad internationally. Moscow, undoubtfully, has thus far played a significant role in mainstreaming Assad’s efforts.
Using a mix of diplomacy and military force, Russia portrayed itself as a seemingly more reliable substitute to the US’s retreat and unresponsiveness. Frustrated with Washington’s indifference towards their geopolitical and security aims, the US’s traditional allies in the Middle East turned instead to Moscow to appease their concerns in Syria. To achieve this goal, the Russian leadership is open to accommodate some of the regional powers’ demands in Syria, but only in exchange for burden-sharing in the Syrian problem and recognition of Russia’s new role in the region. Moscow’s predisposition to engage others in Syria’s political and security new order further encourages the region’s capitals to recalibrate their policies towards Assad. More than ever, Russia seems to be the force to negotiate within Syria.
A Weakened Teethless Diplomacy
The conflict’s toll on civilians’ lives and regional security prompted the Arab League and UN to intervene just a few weeks after the revolution’s outbreak. Since 2011, the UN security council has put forth 42 resolutions to enforce truces, define a framework for political negotiations, condemn acts of violence, and allow cross-border humanitarian assistance. Russia and China have vetoed 16 council resolutions and blocked all attempts to hold Assad accountable for his crimes. The 26 resolutions that passed only succeeded in granting UN agencies temporary exceptions to deliver aid through border crossings controlled by the opposition.
Since 2011, two principal initiatives have shaped mediation in Syria, UN-sponsored talks in Geneva and the Astana process sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. While recurrent meetings in Geneva and Astana have kept a semblance of the peace process alive, mediation has not made substantive progress towards a political settlement. Seasoned diplomats such as Kofi Anan, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, Staffan de Mistura, and Geir Otto Pedersen took successive roles to convince Damascus and the Syrian opposition to negotiate an end to the conflict. Discussions have been preoccupied with preliminary formalities and political posturing rather than earnest engagement with the core issues.
If the opposition has proven to be more reasonable, Assad has only confirmed his obstinacy and obsession with power regardless of the cost. Indeed, the Syrian regime has shown considerable reluctance to engage in any serious and credible negotiation to end the conflict due to the regime perceiving such negotiations as recognizing the Syrian opposition. Moreover, Damascus has never subscribed to the primary negotiation objective, i.e., establishing a transitional government.
Assad believes that his government’s survival depends on maintaining unchallenged and undivided control of the Syrian state. Assad believes that such control would force the international community to engage with him on low-politics, security arrangements, and economic issues, eventually leading to his rehabilitation on the international scene. The regime perceives any political resolution as a direct threat to its legitimacy, and ultimately its existence.
Instead, the US and EU states compensated for their lack of decisive intervention by sanctioning the regime. Current sanctions focus on individuals, technocrats, and business networks working with Syrian authorities. Their stated objective is to induce a change in regime behavior. On the other hand, sanctions have successfully pushed even more civilians under the poverty line, while the regime’s capacity to control the economy has remained highly intact.
No Quick Solution
Ten years have passed since the Syrian people first took the streets to demonstrate against the Assad regime’s oppression and demand a representative and elected government. The prolonged political, security, and economic crises born out of the Syrian conflict result from unmatched regime violence, an incompetent and unorganized opposition, the rise of extreme actors, the international community’s failure to intervene, and regional rivalries.
Support for establishing a credible alternative to Assad has transformed into a set of temporary and conflicting fixes to security threats. The political framework for conflict resolution has downgraded into technical talks revolving around refugees’ return, countering terrorist organizations, and conditioned lifting of sanctions.
The Syrian people primary concerns have changed as well. Their current needs are re-establishing normalcy, recovering their livelihoods, and stopping the bloodshed, but not at any price. Meaningful political change may be postponed due to insufficient and adequate international support, but the reasons that motivated the Syrian revolution still stand and have even been aggravated. The only guarantees for establishing a sustainable, peaceful resolution are ultimately conditioned by transitional justice and fair governance, both of which demand Assad’s departure.
Meanwhile, the Syrian people deserve an urgent intervention to relieve their immediate pain and needs. The recent decrease in battlefield hostilities should be capitalized on and transformed into a sustainable ceasefire supported and implicating both the US and Russia in addition to Turkey and Iran. To reinforce such an agreement, the de-facto devolution of authority should be cemented into a realistic decentralized governance structure that preserves foreign actors’ stakes in Syria while ensuring local communities’ participation.
Finally, the Syrian people’s dire economic situation living in regime-controlled areas necessitates a collective international response to alleviate their suffering. However, the US and EU should push the UN to fill a more permanent role in Syria rather than extending new life support to Assad by lifting sanctions. The UN assistance should solely benefit the most vulnerable individuals, including women, children, and the millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forced out of their homes by the regime’s war machine. There is no quick solution to the Syrian quagmire, but Assad should not exploit this powerlessness to rehabilitate himself.