Ten years on and around half a million are dead, according to U.N. estimates, maybe more. Tens of millions of lives have been wrecked, with livelihoods and homes gone forever. Families are torn apart by barrel bombs and missiles. A country is ruined. Traumatized. Across the world, the Syrian revolt against President Bashar al-Assad is remembered this week.
During the years I covered the conflict across northern Syria, from Idlib and Aleppo to Kobane and Qamishli, both deep in the country’s Kurdish heartland, I witnessed prolonged strife, blood-letting and barbarity disfiguring and warping the rebellion, turning what started out as a secular-led effort to oust Assad into a toxic mix of Islamism and sectarianism that’s leached poison well beyond Syria’s borders.
The war gave rise to the Islamic State terror group, which visited even more savagery. It provided al-Qaida an opportunity for renewal. Foreign powers — Russia, Turkey, the Gulf states and Iran — were drawn in, eager to shape the war and its aftermath to fit their ambitions in the region. Western nations, distracted by the global financial crash, hesitated, fearing being dragged into another what some described as a “forever war.” They only eventually entered the conflict in earnest largely because of the global terror threat of the Islamic State group and the murder it brought to the streets of European and American cities.
Many around the world marked the conflict’s tenth anniversary on March 15 this week. But March 18th strikes me — and some Syrian activists — as a more appropriate date. For it was on March 18, 2011, that a series of minor demonstrations led to opposition groups and Assad’s opponents to call for the “Friday of Dignity.”
Large-scale protests were mounted in several cities including the capital Damascus, al-Hasakah, Hama and the southern city of Daraa, nicknamed the “Cradle of the Revolution.”
The protests had been building since the March 6th incarceration and torture in Daraa of 15 teenagers, who were detained for spray-painting walls with the anti-government slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime” — a trademark mantra of the Arab spring. Police responded to the Friday of Dignity with their usual thuggish assault. At least 6 people were killed and dozens injured in Daraa.
That day marked the crossing of Syria’s Rubicon. Assad had shown he wouldn’t heed the popular demands for dignity and reform, which would have unraveled his minority Alawite-led government. But it wasn’t the regime that would fall — but the people.
The brutal government crackdown became more militarized, triggering within weeks the start of an armed rebellion and the formation of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, FSA.
From then on there were two tracks to the revolt — an armed one, which most media coverage focused on, to oust the government; and another non-combatant one that aimed to establish civilian, democratic governance based on ideas of inclusivity in rebel-held areas. The tracks crossed over and frequently conflicted. The civilians, seeking to provide basic services and to lead by example, failed to persuade the increasingly factionalized armed groups that there should be a separation of powers and a unified political plan.
There wasn’t even much of a military strategy.
A revolution launched in the name of dignity gave rise to a conflict increasingly marked by unbelievable butchery and callous disregard for human life. Syria was on the wrack and tortured in every possible way — tormented by indiscriminate air strikes and suicide bombings, afflicted by targeted air-raids on hospitals.
ISIS competed with Assad’s prison-torturers and added its own macabre repertoire of murder — burning to death opponents, drowning them, flinging suspected gays off rooftops and gloatingly filmed ritualized beheadings.
Destined to fail
But by 2012, even before the arrival of ISIS, the early strains of a requiem for the revolution could be heard in the laments of bewildered and distraught civilians caught in the middle of a war that they had little doubt would last forever.
By the second winter of the conflict, farmers in the town of Tel Rifat, 30 kilometers north of Aleppo, were chopping down their best crop-bearing mature olive trees in a desperate effort to supplement the warmth they were getting from burning noxious crude oil in rickety aluminum stoves. The cold and hunger as well as the tenacity of Assad and the relentless warfare sapped confidence, stretched endurance and prompted some even then to argue the revolution was dying.
“The FSA can’t win this,” Mohammed, a high school teacher before the rebellion told me in 2012. Eating grilled chicken with seven male friends in a small room fronting a house stretched around an open-air compound, he told me all that would save Syria from ruin was someone in Assad’s inner circle “deciding to be a hero and pulling an assassin’s trigger.”
As he spoke, outside in the courtyard women were braving the strong rain pulling wailing children to an outhouse. These children, lithe and fresh in body and limb, had aged eyes. Nearby a local had spray-painted, “Save the people from the FSA.”
As the winter set in anger mounted in Aleppo province —against the Assad regime, the increasingly high-handed FSA and some of the more corrupt armed factions, the Turks for making it harder to cross the border to reach safety, sometimes shooting at them, and the West for failing to provide more aid and for not intervening to halt the carnage.
And that was less than two years into the revolt.
As the agony continued, opposition activists started to warn about foreign fighters arriving in the war-torn country and the hardening of sectarian attitudes among Syrian rebels and the adoption by fighters of much more pronounced Islamist views. “People are suffering and experiencing terrible things and it is natural for attitudes to harden as this goes on,” an opposition activist told me as I crossed back into Syria from Turkey one day.
Our conversation was halted abruptly by the approaching roar of a Syrian government jet. It strafed the ground near us after unleashing a missile that impacted perilously close to a Doctors Without Borders clinic. For good measure as the pilot turned his warplane he targeted in his strafing the makeshift tents of refugees who had huddled close to the border with Turkey for safety.
A small boy, his teeth chattering and his shoulders shaking, stood transfixed to the spot as the bullets churned up the dirt near him.
And the terrible stories kept on coming, desperate, despairing stories that would fill a library to tell.
Stories like Saima’s, a 38-year-old Syrian Sunni, who, as her husband shifted uneasily by her side, detailed to me the slaughter of her husband’s first wife and her own near-death as well as the rape of a friend in their hometown of Homs in west Syria. It took a great deal for her to narrate what happened when members of the pro-government Shabiha militia, the ultra-loyal enforcers of Assad’s regime, stormed their home.
Dressed in black, her head covered by a hijab, Saima (not her real name) displayed a badly scarred hand. She had raised it instinctively as bullets were flying to shield her daughter. “I recognized some of them. They were from Alawi districts nearby. They were our neighbors, too,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief and disgust. “They raped teenage girls,” she confided in a whisper, saying she had seen naked girls in a pile dead in a hospital.
Coexistence no longer viable
Such searing experiences added to the seething anger and sectarian hatred, providing fertile ground for the arrival of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and then a further, yet another warping of the rebellion and what motivated it. As the sectarianism deepened, between Alawi and Sunni Muslims, between Kurd and Arabs, who faulted the Kurds for not joining forces with the FSA, so did the realization for many of the five million Syrians, among them Christians, who had fled to neighboring countries that there might not be a country worth returning to, one that they would ever feel able to live in again.
Syrians were caught in the crosshairs of a growing series of mini-conflicts — although not so mini if you happened to be caught up in any of them. Government helicopters dropped barrel bombs, in the suburbs of Damascus Assad unleashed a chemical-weapons attack and his Russian backers tried out their new weapons of war. In the northeast, young Kurdish men and women fought off the Islamic State, pulling off a remarkable defense of Kobane.
In 2016, a then 60-year-old Syrian woman with gray hair and dark animated eyes sat opposite me in her small, sparsely furnished apartment in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, half-an-hour from the Syrian border, and cried, shedding tears for her now-abandoned home in Damascus and for the remembrance of Syrian things past.
She swiped her cell phone, trawling through photographs of happier times. She talked of the dispersal of her family. “I am surprised we have not used up all our tears,” Raja Banout said, apologetically.
As she prepared an evening meal in the twilight, Raja started singing traditional Syrian songs, doing what she was teaching other refugee women in southern Turkey: overcome pain with music. The leader of an all-female choir called Haneen (nostalgia), Raja, it struck me, was singing a requiem for a revolution lost.