It has been 10 years since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. What began as a popular uprising against dictator Bashar Assad has transformed into a proxy conflict with no end in sight. Dozens of trips to the country in the last decade have born witness to the destruction.
It wasn’t the heat that made every step on the well-worn asphalt into such a great effort, as if a sticky sludge were grabbing at your feet.
No. It was the fear. Fear that I felt too.
“You don’t have to go on,” said those who were already standing in the middle of the road, clearly visible in the light of the streetlights and completely exposed to possible gunfire. The demonstrators on that evening in mid-August 2011 were standing just before an intersection in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. If mobile units from the security services were to show up, they would have only seconds to reach the darkness of the side streets. Every foot forward could mean the difference between life and death.
For months, thousands of people had been taking to the streets in cities across the country every Friday for peaceful marches. The risk of being shot was very real. Frequently, several more people would then lose their lives the next day, shot at as they attended the funerals of those slaughtered on the day before. Things would then quiet down – until the next Friday. It went on like that for months after that evening in Homs, an evening on which it would remain quiet where we were standing. But only because the advancing troops were busy attacking a hospital where the injured from another demonstration were being admitted.
It has now been 10 years since Syrians took to the streets for the first time in half a century. In mid-March 2011, thousands of people marched in protest in the southern city of Daraa, despite shots being fired into the crowd. The immediate trigger for the march was the arrest of the teenagers responsible for daubing regime-critical graffiti onto the walls of their school. The adolescents were tortured, and authorities initially refused to release them despite pleas from their families. It was but a tiny precursor to the unconscionable horrors to come. Yet it marked the beginning of the fear – the same fear that photographer Marcel Mettelsiefen and I experienced for the first time 10 years ago in Homs.
These days, when the history of the uprising and the ensuing war is told, not much attention is paid to the beginnings, back when hardly anybody was thinking of chemical weapons, tanks, jihadists, Russian jets, more than 400,000 dead and the biggest refugee exodus since World War II.
But the first nine months are crucial to understanding what the protesters wanted. At the beginning, it seemed to us observers that the Syrians dared to continue their marches for an unimaginable stretch of time. Friday after Friday, they demanded reform, an end to the corruption and, ultimately, the end of the Assad-family dictatorship, in place since 1970. The regime’s response never changed: violence and lies. In Daraa, state-run television reported, “armed gangs” had taken to the streets, controlled and armed by the Israeli secret service. Everything, they insisted, was a Zionist conspiracy. A grotesque claim, to be sure, but all part of a strategy to avoid ever having to implement true reform.
The Threat of Destruction
In those months before the war, the marching Syrians truly believed that peaceful protest could trigger change. After all, autocrats in both Tunisia and Egypt had been forced out of power, while the UN Security Council had cleared the way for a military response to Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s advancing troops.
Across the country, local committees agreed on a joint motto for the demonstrations each Friday. The one for Aug. 12, 2011, was: “We will kneel before no one but God.” It wasn’t intended as an avowal of faith, but as a defiant response to the demands of the Assad dictatorship: “Kneel and submit! Or you will starve and be destroyed!” That, essentially, was the unchanging message delivered by the government troops.
Indeed, the threat of destruction had always worked quite well in the “Syria of Assad,” as a sign greeting new arrivals at the airport in Damascus would have it. In 1982, elite troops under the control of dynasty founder Hafez al-Assad completely destroyed large parts of the rebellious city of Hama, slaughtering thousands of its residents. From that moment on, the threat worked for the rest of the country as well. And it continued to work in Hama in 2011: After the city played host to the largest protest in the country that July, the city quickly fell into line once troops opened fire.
But in Homs, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Daraa, Zabadani, the suburbs of Damascus and hundreds of smaller towns, the threat lost its effect as the hopes for peaceful reform vanished. Or, as a businessman in the Idlib province told us: “I admire Mahatma Gandhi! But in Syria, he would be hanging dead from the fence within a week.”
When we returned to Homs in December 2011, it was like walking into a nightmare. After sundown, the wide, straight arterial connecting the neighborhoods of Khalidiya and Bayada turned into a death trap, with secret service sharpshooters – essentially death squads – firing at anything that moved. Every day, we experienced people being shot – not because they were demonstrating, but simply because they were there. Because they had stepped out to buy bread, or because they were trying to leave the city. Hundreds of thousands here and in other cities became prisoners of the regime, the president of which said laughingly in an interview with the American broadcaster ABC that only a crazy person would shoot at his own people.
“Cold, Starving Civilians”
The war in Homs began in the western district of Baba Amr, where a group of army troops had defected and declared three square kilometers to be the country’s first liberated zone. A local vegetable vendor, the manager of a perfume chain and an IT specialist arranged for the smuggling in of Western journalists. It wasn’t the Israeli secret service. Nor was it al-Qaida.
We left Baba Amr shortly before Christmas. Six weeks later, on Feb. 3, 2012, shortly before the 30th anniversary of the destruction of Hama, the carnage in Homs began. The 4th Division of the Syrian army attacked with tanks and heavy shelling, with detonations exploding every second at times. Hundreds died in their homes in the first days of the assault. “It’s a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists,” the Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin said in an interview with CNN, conducted via satellite phone out of Baba Amr. “The Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
Just a few hours later, on Feb. 22, she and her French photographer Rémy Ochlik died in targeted shelling on an improvised clinic. Assad’s troops were able to surround Homs, conquering it completely years later. But in 2012, Homs was no exception, and soldiers were deserting everywhere: Tens of thousands of them defected to the rebel groups popping up around the country while many others simply didn’t show up for service. But Assad still had the air force, whose jets were so busy bombing their own country that they didn’t just run short on ammunition, but also on tires.
Soon, though, the regime in Damascus no longer needed to claim a “Zionist conspiracy” to discredit its opponents. Radical groups began growing in size, obtaining funding from the Gulf states along with personnel in the form of more than 1,000 jihadists – al-Qaida fighters who had been released from Syrian prisons in early summer 2011. More sinister, though, was the assistance provided by Damascus for the Islamic State (IS), the forerunner to which had already been receiving discrete help since 2004 from the Syrian military intelligence agency under the leadership of Assef Shawkat. For years, it had been well-known that Shawkat’s people had been helping funnel terrorists from around the world into Iraq via Syria.
The windows of opportunity that had still been open at the beginning of the conflict went unused. Assad could have chosen to introduce reforms as a way of pacifying the country in 2011. But for him and the Alawite generals, it was more important to ensure the absolute hold on power enjoyed by the Alawites, the faith to which Assad belongs and which makes up around 10 percent of the Syrian population. The international community could have toppled Assad, but in the Security Council, Russia and China blocked every proposal. A deadly standoff ensued.
The United States and Europe imposed sanctions, closed down their embassies and sent humanitarian aid, while Washington also supplied a small amount of military assistance. In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would represent a “red line,” but Assad suffered no consequences when he crossed that line in 2013 by attacking Damascus suburbs with sarin. The Syrian dictator did promise to destroy his chemical weapons arsenal, though he never fully fulfilled that pledge, and Obama issued no more threats.
Extended Cacophony of War
Assad’s allies, by contrast, especially the leadership in Iran, sent militias, weapons and money. Yet despite the mobilization of tens of thousands of fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the scales tipped in 2015 as the rebels conquered the last city before the mountainous home territory of the Alawites. That advance, though, led Russia to get involved, with Moscow sending its air force into battle. The reconquest began.
City after city was bombarded, besieged and starved out. “Kneel or starve,” read an early 2016 graffito in Madaya, a former resort town near Damascus, a starkly accurate description of the options available. By the middle of 2018, Assad’s troops were able to retake control of Aleppo in the north, Daraa in the south and the bombed-out towns surrounding Damascus. Tens of thousands of rebels, doctors and opposition civilians were sent to the Idlib province in the north of Syria, the uprising’s last enclave, where 4 million people are now living, mostly under catastrophic conditions.
In the extended cacophony of war that has repeatedly gripped Syria, Assad’s dichotomy of submission or destruction is something like the refrain: from the destruction of Hama by Hafez al-Assad to the crushing of Homs exactly 30 years later; from the pawning of Syria’s sovereignty to Russia, Iran and, indirectly, to the Islamic State, the U.S., Turkey and Kurdish separatists to the consequences that has had for the country; from the expulsion of half the population to the current unwillingness to allow them to return and attempt a minimum of national reconciliation.
The new wars that broke out within the larger Syrian civil war also have their origins in Assad’s willingness to sacrifice everything except his grip on power: the expansion of IS in the north drew the U.S. into the conflict, which fought the Islamists from the air while the Kurds helped on the ground. The Kurds, meanwhile, hold almost a third of the country as a de-facto autonomous zone thanks to the U.S. troops who have remained stationed there to continue the fight against IS, which is still active underground. At the same time, though, they act as protection against the further advance of the Turkish army, which controls the western part of northern Syria and is slowly transforming it into a protectorate. Militias under Iranian control operate in the east and south of Syria, where they are regularly attacked by Israeli warplanes.
Yet no matter what side the foreign powers are fighting on, their priority is not the reconstruction of a destroyed country. Syria has become the arena for all kinds of proxy wars. When the U.S. Air Force bombed Iranian troops in southeast Syria in late February, it was retaliation for Iranian attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq.
Around half of the Syrian population consistently remained silent in exchange for continued provisions. But right at the moment of Assad’s greatest triumph, when he had regained control of two-thirds of the country in late 2019 and looked poised to overrun the rest, the economic underpinnings of his advance crumbled. The reasons for that collapse had been apparent for quite some time: the destruction of industry, particularly in Aleppo and Homs; the depletion of the country’s hard currency reserves; the sanctions; and the majority of the country’s oil and gas reserves and grain fields lay in territory controlled by the Kurds. The plundering of reconquered cities and the extortion of the families of those in detention has not been enough to compensate.
But it was the collapse of the Lebanese banking system in October 2019 that delivered the knockout blow. Some $30 billion of Syrian money could suddenly no longer be accessed. Since then, the Syrian pound has plunged in value, to an exchange rate of over 4,000 to one – 80 times what it was in 2011. Prices have shot up and the average salary of a public servant is just $15 per month.
Undertone of Horror
Bread, cooking gas and diesel are subsidized, but are often not available, and endless lines can often be seen in front of bakeries and gas stations. In early 2020, a video made the rounds showing dozens of desperate people in Aleppo running after a bread truck. That was just before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which has served to make everything even worse.
Women in Damascus sell their hair or their bodies. A bookkeeper from Latakia says she has sold everything she once owned: “Land, car, jewelry. We are only surviving because our relatives in Germany send us $100 per month.” A doctor is trying to emigrate to Somalia “because I don’t need a visa.” In 2021, the amount of money international aid organizations have earmarked for Syria will be larger than the country’s budget for the first time. “Kneel and starve,” is the new social contract in Syria, Elizabeth Tsurkov, one of Israel’s leading experts on the neighboring country, recently wrote.
Iran is facing difficulties itself and has stopped providing Syria with affordable oil. Russia has cancelled numerous grain deliveries because it could get a better price elsewhere. Assad’s negotiators at the UN have spent the past months blocking talks over a constitutional reform, much less real change. There is no movement at all.
Ten years. It feels almost as though this war has always been with us, an undertone of horror that we have all become used to. But two dozen trips to the country over the last decade offer a different perspective. So many of the people who helped us through the labyrinthine roads through the country, through the combat zones, are dead. Almost all of the men and women from the Media Center in Homs have been killed. Same with the Dutch Jesuit priest who brought us to the city in 2011. And the Syrian reporter who accompanied me for two years. Others are in exile from Berlin to Mauretania.
All paths into the country are currently blocked to me, forcing reliance on long WhatsApp conversations. I recently contacted acquaintances from across the country to ask them about their hopes for the future. “That the Turks stay, and hopefully annex us completely,” says a person in Idlib. “For the Americans to stay,” say the Kurds. “That the Russians assert themselves against the Iranians,” said someone in Damascus.
Nobody, though, mentioned Syria.