From teenage graf­fiti to a coun­try in ruins: Syria’s two years of rebel­lion

“No teach­ing, No School, Till the end of Bashar’s Rule.” The trans­for­ma­tion of the Syr­ian upris­ing from peace­ful method into armed rebellion.

By: Dominic Evans and Suleiman al-​Khalidi

On a cold winter’s night in early 2011, some Syr­ian school­boys drew a few slo­gans on a wall in a town the world had barely heard of. Two years on, more than 70,000 peo­ple have died in the bit­ter con­flict that ensued, and calls for the West to give more help to the Syr­ian rebels are rising.

 

It was in the south­ern town of Deraa that 16– ​year-​old Moham­mad and five friends gath­ered to scrawl graf­fiti demand­ing the over­throw of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-​Assad, whose fam­ily had ruled the coun­try for 40 years. They chose to vent their anger at the per­va­sive fear and repres­sion in the coun­try at their school in the Hay al-​Arbeen district.

“We never told our par­ents because we knew it would get them into trou­ble,” said the teenager, who fled to neigh­bor­ing Jor­dan last month. So on the night of Feb­ru­ary 22, 2011, one stu­dent scrib­bled on the school wall: “No teach­ing, No School, Till the end of Bashar’s Rule.” Another sim­ply wrote: “Leave, Bashar”.

“I started writ­ing ‘Your turn is com­ing, Doc­tor’,” said Moham­mad, using a pop­u­lar nick­name for the pres­i­dent, who stud­ied eye surgery before his father, Hafez al-​Assad, died in 2000, bequeath­ing him sweep­ing pow­ers over Syria’s 23 mil­lion people.

But Moham­mad was spot­ted by the ubiq­ui­tous secu­rity forces.

“We did not expect the school guard to see us,” said the youth, speak­ing in the north­ern Jor­dan­ian town of Ramtha three weeks after he crossed into Jor­dan with the help of Syr­ian rebels. He asked that his full name not be disclosed.

The boys fled their homes, but over the next few days Mohammad’s five friends — aged between 13 and 15 — were rounded up along with up to a dozen other young protesters.

Their deten­tion and abuse brought long-​buried anger in Deraa boil­ing to the sur­face. It erupted in protest on March 18 — exactly two years ago on Monday.

Secu­rity forces opened fire and four peo­ple were killed, launch­ing a cycle of protests and crack­downs across the sur­round­ing, agri­cul­tural region, where poor rains and sub­sidy cuts had brought a sharp fall in liv­ing standards.

A mon­u­ment por­tray­ing Assad’s father was torched, and the chants of “God, Syria and Free­dom” spread to the urban sprawl east of Dam­as­cus and other cities across Syria. As more demon­stra­tions were crushed, pro­test­ers took up arms.

In the ensu­ing car­nage, a mil­lion have fled the coun­try, and mil­lions more remain uprooted, home­less or hun­gry. Whole dis­tricts of his­toric cities lie in ruins, and Syria’s econ­omy will take years and tens of bil­lions of dol­lars to fix.

The sec­tar­ian ele­ments of the con­flict, with mainly Sunni rebels bat­tling a pres­i­dent from the Alaw­ite minor­ity linked to the Shi’ite Islam of Iran, are also strain­ing reli­gious fault­lines that cut through the heart of the Mid­dle East.

Moham­mad says he now lives in limbo: “My fam­ily and friends’ lives have changed,” he told Reuters. “I am in Jor­dan, liv­ing a wretched life and just count the days until Bashar falls and we return to our home.”

ENTER THE TANKS

Still seen as a poten­tial reformer, despite a decade of unful­filled promise, Assad waited two weeks to respond to the Deraa vio­lence. When he did, he offered no roadmap for change.

Scoff­ing at “a new fash­ion which they call ‘rev­o­lu­tions’”, he said Syria faced a con­spir­acy but would emerge vic­to­ri­ous. “Such con­spir­a­cies do not work with our coun­try or our peo­ple. We tell them that you have only one choice, which is to learn from your fail­ure,” he told par­lia­ment at the end of March.

Though reforms trick­led out, includ­ing a new cab­i­net, con­ces­sions to state­less eth­nic Kurds and an end to decades of emer­gency rule, oppo­nents said the polit­i­cal moves were empty ges­tures, under­mined by the vio­lent crackdown.

By the end of April, tanks were sent into Deraa to try to crush dis­sent. Thou­sands were arrested. Rights activists later reported that tor­ture and sum­mary exe­cu­tions were rife.

As the protests spread to Syria’s Mediter­ranean coast­line, the rural north­ern regions bor­der­ing Turkey and the east­ern oil-​producing province of Deir al-​Zor, so the demands quickly hard­ened to call for “the exe­cu­tion of the president”.

Syria said it faced an inter­na­tional con­spir­acy and accused foreign-​backed mil­i­tants of foment­ing vio­lence. That accu­sa­tion was at odds with scores of videos released by activists show­ing peace­ful protests appar­ently bro­ken up by gunfire.

In Hama, where 10,000 and pos­si­bly many more had been killed in 1982 under Assad’s father, a human wave began tak­ing over the city’s cen­tral square in June for protests after Fri­day prayers.

“I remem­ber hun­dreds of thou­sands of peace­ful peo­ple that were demand­ing, above all, less cor­rup­tion, more free­dom,” said Eric Cheval­lier, the French ambas­sador to Syria who vis­ited Hama at that time.

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambas­sador, said he toured Hama one Fri­day morn­ing that month and wit­nessed a largely calm city.

“The police were sit­ting on white plas­tic chairs in the shade under the trees, drink­ing tea,” he said “We went by the Baath party head­quar­ters — it was entirely normal.”

The Baath is Assad’s rul­ing movement.

Esti­mat­ing the crowd after Fri­day prayers at a more con­ser­v­a­tive 50,000, Ford said pro­test­ers told tales of cor­rup­tion and mis­treat­ment by authorities.

“Peo­ple wanted to bear wit­ness to what they had under­gone. But there was a lot of fear, too,” he said. “I told every­one: You have to keep this peace­ful, because if you don’t and it becomes vio­lent, the whole coun­try will be dragged into a ter­ri­ble conflict.”

He was right. Local upris­ings began spi­ral­ing out of con­trol. That month, June 2011, the author­i­ties reported that 120 secu­rity per­son­nel were shot dead in the north­ern town of Jisr al-​Shughour.

HOMS: SEC­TAR­IAN CONFLICT

The move towards a mil­i­ta­rized revolt crys­tal­lized with the announce­ment that an army offi­cer, Lieutenant-​Colonel Hus­sein Har­moush, had defected and joined “the Free Syr­ian Army”, which was to become the main rebel umbrella force.

Assad ratch­eted up his mil­i­tary response with a crack­down in the restive cities of Deir al-​Zor, Homs and Hama. As the death tolls rose, a divided U.N. Secu­rity Coun­cil was stymied: China and Rus­sia blocked draft res­o­lu­tions con­demn­ing Assad, leav­ing West­ern coun­tries to fall back on rhetoric and sanctions.

The West, quick to help in the rebel­lion against Libya’s Muam­mar Gaddafi, was reluc­tant to inter­vene in Syria, see­ing poten­tial for regional con­flict in its com­plex sec­tar­ian and eth­nic mix and Assad’s close ties to Iran, Hezbol­lah in Lebanon and to Pales­tin­ian militants.

Reports from the cen­tral city of Homs, home to Sunni Mus­lims and a large Alaw­ite minor­ity, spoke of esca­lat­ing kid­nap­pings and tit-​for-​tat killings. Sunni dis­tricts became increas­ingly for­ti­fied rebel strong­holds. Alaw­ites said they were dri­ven from their homes in mainly Sunni areas, and Sun­nis said army snipers had turned their neigh­bor­hoods into death traps.

Assad stepped up mil­i­tary action in Homs early in 2012, rain­ing mor­tar and artillery fire on insur­gent strong­holds. Rebels pulled out of Baba Amr, their last big bas­tion, after 26 days of siege that sym­bol­ized the conflict’s new ruthlessness.

“We could smell the bod­ies buried under the rub­ble all the time,” said a res­i­dent who fled Baba Amr. “Bod­ies are in the streets, many are decom­posed, but we could not bury them.

“We saw so much death that in the end the sight of a dis­mem­bered body of a rel­a­tive or a friend no longer moved us.”

ALEPPO STALE­MATE

Six months after the bat­tle for Homs, a new front opened in Aleppo when rebels poured in from the rural hin­ter­land to fight for Syria’s biggest city and north­ern com­mer­cial hub. Already in con­trol of much of Aleppo province and Idlib, the rebels seized bor­der cross­ings with Turkey and Iraq, rein­forc­ing a sense that Assad was los­ing swathes of Syr­ian ter­ri­tory as he focused on hold­ing Dam­as­cus, Homs and two Mediter­ranean coastal provinces.

Within days his forces had lost half the city of Aleppo and, for the first time, resorted to deploy­ing heli­copter gun­ships and jets against the lightly armed insurgents.

As the front­lines hard­ened into stale­mate, rebels acquired more effec­tive weapons — some seized from mil­i­tary bases and oth­ers smug­gled in from Turkey, Jor­dan and Lebanon. In response Assad’s forces raised the stakes again and by early 2013 were fir­ing mis­siles, some pos­si­bly Scuds, into res­i­den­tial areas.

Sev­eral mis­siles slammed into Aleppo neigh­bor­hoods in the last week of Feb­ru­ary, bury­ing whole fam­i­lies, activists said. Human Rights Watch said 141 peo­ple were killed.

THE LAST STAND?

Though the rebels are out­gunned, the 47-​year-​old Assad has seen his power severely eroded. The Inter­na­tional Insti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies (IISS) in Lon­don says now that his army’s strength has halved to around 110,000 men due to defec­tions, deser­tions and bat­tle­field losses.

“The régime could only be cer­tain of the loy­alty of the mainly Alaw­ite spe­cial forces, Repub­li­can Guard and elite 3rd and 4th Divi­sions — per­haps 50,000 troops in total,” it said.

At the same time, how­ever, Iran and Hezbol­lah have built up a 50,000-strong army of Syr­ian mili­ti­a­men to sup­port the army, Israel says.

Assad’s forces face an upris­ing that is slowly becom­ing bet­ter trained and equipped. A senior Syr­ian rebel com­man­der said U.S. offi­cers have almost com­pleted train­ing a first con­tin­gent of Syr­ian rebels in Jor­dan to use anti-​tank and anti-​aircraft weaponry. Rebels, now con­trol­ling an arc of land from the east­ern sub­urbs of Dam­as­cus to the south-​west of the cap­i­tal, also have armor-​piercing ammu­ni­tion and tanks com­man­deered in their bat­tle with Assad’s forces.

Nev­er­the­less, the pres­i­dent, clearly freed from any lin­ger­ing qualms over the use of force — he has com­pared the blood on his hands to that of a sur­geon oper­at­ing to “save his patient” — has so far man­aged to keep the rebel fight­ers away from tak­ing ground in the cen­tre of Damascus.

The rebels still appear unevenly matched against their oppo­nents — hence moves in recent days by some EU coun­tries to ease the arms embargo on Syria in order to help them.

Assad’s options may be nar­row­ing, but he has repeat­edly vowed to crush the rebels and rejected any notion of seek­ing asy­lum abroad as part of a deal to end the conflict.

“I am not a pup­pet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other coun­try,” he said in an inter­view with Russ­ian tele­vi­sion in Novem­ber. “I am Syr­ian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”

Source: Reuters

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