On March 15th 2018, the Syrian civil war entered its eighth year.
More than 465,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, over a million injured, and over 12 million – half the country’s pre-war population – have been displaced from their homes.
In a brand new series of KJ Videos, we will take an analytical look at the Syrian civil war from the beginning to today. In this episode, we will take you way back in time when the Syrian uprisings all began.
In 2011, successful uprisings – that became known as the Arab Spring – toppled Tunisia’s and Egypt’s presidents giving hope to Syrian activists who began mobilising protests.
At first it seems everything could be easily contained without the need for Gaddafi-like crackdowns.
After all, a candlelit vigil held in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution in late January 2011 had been quickly broken up by police, while a Syrian “Day of Rage” planned for 5 February saw only a few hundred turn up.
On 17th February, however, the same day as the Benghazi protests began, things seemed more tense following an argument, between police and protestors in Damascus holding banners saying “The Syrian people will not be humiliated.”
But when the interior minister visited the scene in person to assure the crowds that the police officers involved would be investigated, and when Bashar announces a range of new social welfare programmes along with the unblocking of social media platforms, it still seemed likely Syria could avoid the fate of Libya.
By March, however, things seemed to be getting more out of control as the increasingly heavy-handed and undoubtedly nervous regime proved unwilling to take more chances.
That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, a 13-year-old, was killed after having been brutally tortured.
Dissidents in Syria’s southernmost city, Daraa, seemed poised to become the epicentre of an Urban revolt.
As the Syrian equivalent of Benghazi, Daraa’s message, soon spread to the historically restive Hama along with Homs and even parts of Damascus. A ‘day of dignity’ was held on 18th March, with an even bigger protest staged the following Friday.
As with Cairo’s Tahrir square, there were a mixture of protestors in Homs. Some were heard chanting ‘peaceful, Muslims, and Christians along with other such as ‘God, Syria freedom and nothing else.’ Other protests were calling for “the downfall of the Assad regime”
Although there were some reports of public buildings and Baath headquarters being burned down, in many cases the protests remained peaceful, with some even marching without their shirts to prove they held no concealed weapons.
Although Bashar made last-ditch attempts to avoid more confrontation by pledging to end the 48 year long state of emergency, increase public sector salaries, and allow new political parties to form, by April, it seemed the die was already cast with thousands of troops beginning to lay siege to Daraa, and tanks entering Homs.
Galvanised by the martyrdom of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy, who had been arrested and whose mutilated corpse was afterwards returned to his family, then protests gained a much harder edge.
The Syrian government responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more.
With dozens being killed every day and reportedly more than eight thousand arrested in just two months, mobile phone video footage began to go viral of soldiers haphazardly shooting protestors, including women and children.
Making matters worse, the regime resorted to temporarily disconnecting the internet and broadcasting television reports that claimed videos depicting brutal attacks on villages were in fact from Iraq and involved Kurdish militias, even though they clearly contained local landmarks readily identifiable to many Syrians.
Beyond such repression, the regime also engaged in another strategy in an effort to keep its core constituency as loyal as possible and also to ward off any attempted external influence.
With much the same goal as Yemen’s, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s encouraging of Al-Qaeda militants to take over certain towns, Bashar began a ‘highly selective’ amnesty of prisoners. According to a report prepared for the European Parliament, these were known to include numerous prominent Jihadis such as Muhammed Al-Jowlani, Abu Khalid Al-Suri and Abu Musab al-Suri.
Others released included Awaad Al-Makhlaf who went on to become a governor for the eventual “ISIS” Northern town of Al-Raqqah and Abu Al-Athir al-Absi, who first formed his own Jihadist group before becoming a governor of ISIS in Homs. Meanwhile in Lebanon, with the authorities appearing to act on Syrian instruction, approximately seventy other Jihadists prisoners were understood to have been set free.
Adding further weight to claims that Bashar was trying to radicalise then opposition by emptying Jihadists into their ranks, there were reports that even before their release such inmates had already been moved to more comfortable prisons so that they could mingle with other political prisoners.
According to one Jihadist fighter later interviewed by the Guardian this was because the regime “wanted them to be radicalised…if this stayed as a street protest, it would have toppled the regime within months and they knew it.”
Within months of Bashar’s spring amnesty, suicide bombings begun in Damascus and Aleppo and by February 2012, the al-Jowlani formally established a Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise known as Jabhat al-Nusrah. Now more easily able to frame opposition attacks as terrorism and marginalise any remaining peaceful protestors.
Some regime defectors including Syria’s former ambassador to Iraq, who even claimed that during this period elements of Syrian intelligence had been collaborating with then Jihadists to mount even large-scale terror attacks.
We will continue our analytical look at the Syrian Uprisings in the next episode where we will look at the political position of the international powers as they witnessed the Syrian uprisings quickly escalate.
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