Digested: The Syria Conflict In Brief


Bashar and Asma Al-Assad

Before the events of April 2011, Bashar Al-Assad was, for a dubiously elected autocrat, reasonably popular. It’s grim to think about now, but for a time al-Assad was seen as a reformer, a softer, sharp-suited New Labour dictator. He was PR savvy and had a photogenic, Western-educated, Christian Louboutin-sporting wife. He might have been thoroughly anti-democratic, but up against the mass-murdering Saddams of the Arab world he didn’t seem quite as bad.

Bashar had grown up with no expectation of being Syrian leader and trained as a doctor. His father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria for thirty years, turning the Ba’ath Party from a movement striving for socialism, nationalism, Arab unity and Arab renaissance into an oppressive pseudo-monarchy. But after the oldest Assad boy, Bassel, died unexpectedly in a car crash, his younger brother Bashar was suddenly next in line. When Assad Snr keeled over in June 2000, an election was held to decide his successor. Bashar was the only candidate and won with a blatantly-rigged 97.2% of the vote.

In power, behind the PR savvy, Assad continued what his father started – namely pillaging the economy to enrich his own family. He and his close associates are thought to own between 60-70% of Syria’s assets, and his personal fortune totals $1.5 billion. His wife, effectively his regime’s smiley PR screen, might have done work for UNICEF and campaigned against rural poverty, but she can also happily blow £270,000 on a single internet shopping spree while her husband blows people to bits.

Skip eleven years forward, and his government’s lacklustre response to drought in south-West Syria led disgruntled teenagers to spray anti-Assad slogans on a wall in Deraa. The ever-subtle Syrian secret police rounded up the culprits and tortured them in captivity. When people took to the streets in protest at their draconian treatment the security forces fired live rounds into the crowd. Fifteen were hit and killed. 

The state’s brutal retaliation turned a small-scale local grievance into the beginnings of a country-wide anti-Assad movement. By the end of March 2011, 100,000 people were marching in Deraa, government tanks were rolling in to meet them and protests had sprung up across the country. Seventy were killed in Deraa, and the secret police swooped in to arrest thousands of others in troublesome areas.

Even as it detained scores of opposition leaders, protesters and bystanders, publicly the regime tried to change tack, mindful of the despot-toppling ‘Arab Spring’ sweeping the region. Assad announced a series of reforms – he would cut the time citizens were required to serve in the army, fire the roundly unpopular corrupt governor of Daraa, release political prisoners, slash taxes and increase press freedoms. On April 21st, he even ended the 48-year state of emergency that had given his father dictatorial powers. 

Four days later, the Syrian army had encircled Daraa, the focal point of the fledgling anti-Assad movement. To make life as difficult as possible for those inside, the surrounding troops cut shut off water and power supplies, cut phone lines and confiscated any food they found. Then they assaulted the town. Within a month over a thousand people were dead.

But some Syrian soldiers refused to fire on civilians. They were executed on the spot. Desertions became more and more common. Troopers took their weaponry and military expertise and joined the anti-Assad resistance. It wasn’t long before a group of defected officers officially announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, dedicated to overthrowing the Ba’athist regime. 

Violence escalated throughout the latter half of 2011. The Arab League suspended Syria for its conduct, but Assad continued to crush protests with live gunfire. The city of al-Rastan provided the stage for the first major show-down between pro-government forces and the FSA – rebel defenders were eventually forced to retreat by a ferocious tank-and-helicopter offensive – before Assad shifted his attention to Homs, fast becoming another hub of resistance.

By early 2012, the original demonstrations had all but disappeared. Syria was now in a state of civil war, loosely organised anti-Assad militias tangling with official troops for control of strategically important towns and cities. In the new year, largely rebel-held Homs was mostly retaken after a full-scale assault. The death toll was predictably horrific. 

Now, though, clunky international bureaucracy had finally begun to chug into motion. The United Nations pushed for a ceasefire, and ex-Secretary General Kofi Annan was called out of retirement to devise a plan that would bring one about. Alas, Annan’s strategy for peace was irrelevant as soon as it was committed to paper. Both sides nominally agreed to it, and both flouted it repeatedly.

The situation was rapidly degenerating. In May, two opposition-held villages just north of Homs were hit with sustained government mortar-fire, killing 108 people, 34 of them women and 49 on them children. Continuing his bid to cast the insurgency as the work of Islamic extremist bogeymen, Assad blamed the massacre on Al Qaeda.

Human Rights Watch claimed to have uncovered at least 27 secret torture centres the regime has filled with captured rebels, Amnesty International reported widespread on-the-spot executions by both sides and, in June, the UN pulled its staff out of Syria as warfare intensified. By the end of July, the Red Cross had officially declared the conflict a civil war.

The state and the rebellion tussled for Damscus and Aleppo. Rebel bombs killed a former defence minister and the President’s own brother-in-law, who also happened to be a high-ranking intelligence chief.

Late 2012 to early 2013 brought a wave of successful FSA offensives, seizing key military bases. But reports from the ground seem to suggest, dismayingly, that Assad’s forces are gradually gaining ground. Victories by the ramshackle insurgency have slowed. The territories they seized were relatively easy-won, but the bigger strategic prizes – above all, Damascus, Assad’s capital – are proving significantly tougher to crack.

What’s more, the rebellion itself is looking increasingly fractured. Liberal, secular democrats sit uncomfortably alongside fanatical Islamic militants and, even with the injection of military hardware and tactical expertise provided by army deserters, rebel fighters are severely outgunned. Thousands are dead, thousands are wounded, and the regime has clawed back its supply lines. Every day, rebel-held territory suffers a rain of heavy ordnance, slaughtering gun-toting would-be revolutionaries and helpless civilians alike.

What happens now depends on how involved Western leaders are willing to get. Fears of another Iraq-style quagmire mean boots-on-the-ground intervention looks very unlikely. But without some kind of outside assistance the rebellion will probably be crushed. How that would affect the millions of ordinary Syrians sandwiched between the two factions in unclear – all that is at the moment is that until the conflict is resolved one way or another, they will continue to suffer.