Argument

Assad’s Violence Started a Conflict That Will Burn for Decades

There’s no peace in Syria, only suffering.

Destruction from heavy fighting and pro-regime airstrikes in Idlib, Syria.
The town of Afis, which has sustained widespread destruction due to heavy fighting and airstrikes by pro-regime forces, in Syria's Idlib province on March 12, 2020. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the first anti-government protests that broke out in Damascus and Aleppo in March 2011. But this solemn date marks only the start of the Syrian revolution, not the opening shot of the Syrian civil war, which began only after months of a brutal crackdown that had already left thousands of people dead at the hands of the regime’s security forces. That violence, initiated by President Bashar al-Assad, began the largest human-made human catastrophe since World War II, on a scale so unfathomable that the United Nations officially abandoned trying to count the death toll in January 2014. It’s a conflict that isn’t over—and that never had to happen.

The U.N.’s last attempt at an estimate was 400,000 dead, issued by then-Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in 2016. Even at that time, the number barely reflected the actual human cost. It became impossible to count the death toll from the daily bombardments, and even more impossible to set a figure for those who later succumbed to their wounds, died from preventable diseases, or starved to death as a result of barbaric sieges—or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who disappeared, summarily executed or tortured to death in the Assad regime’s death camps. The circle of suffering goes beyond the dead: rape victims, torture victims, traumatized children, widows and widowers, displaced people. It’s a list with no end.

The world doesn’t even seem interested in counting anymore. But the least that outsiders can do is to speak of the start of the violence accurately and name the perpetuators.

The Syrian civil war must be defined not by the defiance and courage of those who took to the streets in 2011 but instead by the slogan Assad’s personal militias used to drive fear into the hearts of the Syrian people: “Assad or no one. Assad or we burn the country.” This is the only promise the regime has ever kept. This is why it is wrong to mark this date as the start of the Syrian civil war: Syrians did not choose to become the victims of a violent military crackdown for one man’s lust for power; it was a crime perpetrated against them.

The war didn’t begin when the marches started, and it hasn’t ended even as much of the opposition has crumbled or been crushed. Syria lies in smoldering ruins, with Assad sitting on top of most of regime-held territory, but in reality parts of the country are now effectively governed by Russian- and Iranian-backed militias. Far from “Assad or no one,” the Syrian people now have Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Russian’s Vladimir Putin to add to that list. This is not peace; it is a set of interlocking warlords who depend on daily violence to keep their power intact.

Syria’s economy has collapsed to depths unprecedented even during the height of the violence, with the value of the Syrian pound plummeting daily. As of March 16, it was 4,550 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar. For context, its prewar value was roughly 50 Syrian pounds to the dollar; comparatively, the Syrian pound was trading at roughly 600 to the dollar in 2016. But even before the recent spiral, the regime had done virtually nothing in the way of reconstruction, with areas it captured years ago still lying in ruins.

The regime’s allies in Iran and Russia will not fund reconstruction, instead looking to the European Union and others to foot the bill for their destruction of Syria’s infrastructure.The regime’s allies in Iran and Russia will not fund reconstruction, instead looking to the European Union and others to foot the bill for their destruction of Syria’s infrastructure. The West will not open the coffers, nor will it drop sanctions, without progress toward a political transition that the Assad regime burned the country to avoid pursuing.

Even if the moral and ethical horror of renormalization of the Assad regime could be negotiated or ignored, the regime, as all available evidence indicates from its behavior, would only use additional funding to rebuild its security state and continue to use aid as a weapon of war, something that the U.N. has shamefully enabled from its office in Damascus since day one.

The situation is equally as bleak in the areas outside of regime control. Idlib is the last standing opposition enclave in Syria, a de facto Turkish protectorate. It is home to more than 3 million people, the vast majority forcibly displaced from areas besieged and bombed with unrelenting barbarity.

The population there lives at the mercy of either Turkish-backed opposition forces, guilty of human rights abuses and summary executions, who have also been recently conscripted by Turkey’s own autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan into his foreign military incursions into Azerbaijan and Libya, or the fundamentalist former al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, again guilty of widespread abuses.

The people of Idlib are trapped on all sides, facing a closed Turkish border on one end and the regime’s forces on the other. Despite a Turkish-Russian cease-fire largely holding in the enclave, residential parts of the Idlib governorate are still subjected to artillery strikes from a regime that has never dropped its promise to recapture “every inch” of Syria. Idlib today faces a precarious future as a besieged, impoverished, and lawless Syrian Gaza Strip, living solely at the mercy of warlords and international powers almost indifferent to or actively enabling their plight.

What little influence the Western powers have on the ground in Syria is confined to small pockets surrounding U.S. forces, such as the Tanf border crossing with Jordan, and in northeastern Syria alongside their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), essentially a U.S.-backed offshoot of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a separatist movement with its own human rights issues that finds itself in an uncomfortable partnership with both its unreliable U.S. ally and the Assad regime and Moscow. The SDF also finds itself in the unfortunate position of managing the indefinite detainment of Islamic State fighters, despite having no infrastructure or political autonomy.

Syria today is a failed state, effectively Balkanized into competing spheres of influence. It is teetering on the brink of famine, with a staggering 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Even with those shocking figures, the regime and Russia continue to deliberately hamper international aid efforts, the cruelty acting as a critical component of the regime’s total grip on power.

While the future of Syria remains unwritten, the next 10 years look to be at least as painful as the last. It is not only Syria’s territorial map that has become locked in stalemate; the political and diplomatic process is almost nonexistent. The war is not over, just in stasis, and the suffering continues in a landscape so broken and chaotic that even the highest authorities on the planet cannot meaningfully quantify the dead.

Suffering is the only certainty left in Syria. Assad has not won anything. There are no victors in the country’s future, only victims and perpetrators, and an international community that stood aside and watched while millions of people were slaughtered and displaced.

When we mark the anniversary of those 2011 protests, we should remember the memory of those who marched arm in arm carrying flowers and singing songs of peace, not those who burned the country to stop them. That dignity is the very least we can still offer.

Oz Katerji is a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights & the Middle East.

Tags: Syria, War