By Leonard Bektas, Melwin Martinsson & Emil Lewenhaupt
Monday the 15th of March marks ten years since the Syrian revolution began, when the Syrian people took to the streets to demand freedom and democracy. The slogan that echoed through the streets was “ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām!”, which roughly translates to “the people demand the downfall of the regime”. The regime answered these calls for freedom with bullets, bombs and torture. What followed was a brutal civil war that has left half a million dead and half the Syrian population displaced.
The first nationwide protests started on March 15 2011 after 15 young students had been detained and tortured after spraying anti-regime graffiti in the southern city of Dara’a. The protests spread across Syria and there was hope that Bashar al-Assad would step down. The Assads have ruled Syria ever since Bashar’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, came to power through a coup d’etat in 1971 and ruled the country with an iron fist. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar took his place. The Assads are a port of a minority group called the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. While roughly 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni-Muslim Arab, only the Alawites and Assad family loyalists have been granted governmental and military power. As the protests were spreading, Assad framed the revolution as an Islamist uprising that sought to create an Islamic state and to kill Syria’s minorities, such as the Alawites, Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Druze, and Yazidis. To further this narrative Assad released Islamists from Syrian prisons in order to frame the revolution as a radical movement. This largely helped strengthen groups such as Daesh (ISIS) and al Nusra (the Syrian branch of al Qaeda) as this move bolstered their numbers.
The Syrian regime, with Assad at its head, has during these past ten years waged a brutal war on its population. The regime has bombed cities to rubble, used chemical weapons on civilians, and starved cities into submission, all with the help of Iran and Russia. Political disappearances are used commonly to intimidate the opposition and are gaining an increased influence in Syria every day. The regime uses its secret police, the Mukhabarat, to disappear, torture, and kill political opponents and civilians. This was illustrated when “Caesar” a Syrian army defector, leaked over 50 000 photos showing evidence of the systematic torture and killing of detainees.
As the war has raged on, many western governments and institutions have largely stood by and watched the bloodshed unfold before their very eyes. This was best exemplified on the 21st of August 2013, when Assad gassed over 1000 people to death in Ghouta outside Damascus in the deadliest chemical attack since Halabja in the Iran-Iraq war. The Obama administration had drawn a red line at the use of chemical weapons, yet refrained from intervening while Assad escalated the conflict even further. Military intervention was eventually ordered by the U.S, France, and Great Britain, but not against the Assad regime. The military intervention was ordered to combat Daesh and to stop their reign of terror. The intervention in combination with Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian fighters eventually defeated Daesh’s so-called caliphate and helped stabilize north-eastern Syria. North-Eastern Syria is now under the control of the Kurdish-dominated SDF, which neighboring Turkey views as a threat to its domestic security, due to the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey.
While Daesh had brought terror and devastation to Syria, it is the ruthless warfare and countless war crimes committed by the Syrian regime that accounts for the majority of the casualties. It is quite ironic that the once-promising ophthalmologist, who apparently could not stand the sight of blood, now has his hands stained with it.
Today, ten years from the onset of the Syrian civil war, Assad still holds onto power over the war-torn country. Assad seems to walk free from his crimes against humanity. Even though there is enough evidence for the said crimes, no global power has shown interest to take any meaningful action. While Daesh is largely defeated, war is still continuing in Syria. Due to the retracting U.S involvement in the region, a power vacuum has been created, which has led Turkey and Russia to further cement their position in the region.
It has become clear that neither side has any regard for the Syrian people’s life. The United Nations has noted that Russia and Syria are deliberately targeting hospitals and schools in the rebel-held territories. Erdogan has shown no mercy either, Turkey’s strategy has led to a revival of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Throughout this, the Syrian people have persisted. They have protested the regime, as well as extremist groups, and have endured sieges, barrel bombs, and chemical warfare. Even though it seems like the world has given up on Syria, these people have not. There are many examples of heroism. People like Anwar al-Bunni who helped convict a former Syrian regime official was in Germany for crimes against humanity, Wafa Ali Mustafa who has campaigned tirelessly for the release of political prisoners in the hope that she might get to see her father again, and Yusra Mardini who risked her life to save tens of refugees when their boat started sinking in between Turkey and Lesvos (and who is now an Olympic swimmer). The Syrian people have persisted and will continue to persist with the hope of one day seeing a free Syria.
To the brave Syrians who took to the street ten years ago, we will never forget you!
Cover photo: Aladdin Hammami
Leonard Bektas is studying the peace and development program at Uppsala University. He is also a board member of the Liberal Youth Party’s International Committee. In his spare time, Leonard plays football, studies conflict in the Middle East, and listens to Arab and Turkish music. Rumor also has it that he is decent at making bulgur with köfte and piyaz.
Melwin Martinsson is studying English at Uppsala University. He is a board member of the Liberal Youth Party’s International Committee. He plays ice hockey and is the founder of Uppsala University Eagles, the first ever student-only hockey team that represents Uppsala University.
Emil Lewenhaupt is currently studying at the Peace and Development Program at Uppsala University. Alongside his studies he also works for the Liberal Party in Stockholm and is active in their youth organisation’s international committee. He loves traveling to distant places, working on his arabic, eating well made dumplings and learning more about Middle Eastern politics.