Revolution in Syria

Dr. Radwan Ziadeh – Executive Director of SCPSS


The response was immediate and unequivocal: Weeks after the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and mere days after popular protests spread across Egypt, Syria’s president insisted his country would not be next. Assad claimed his regime was ‘very closely linked to the beliefs of the people’ and Syria was free of the ‘pollution’ and ‘microbes’ that had built up over decades of rule of ‘stagnant water regimes elsewhere in the Middle East[i]


Initially Bashar al-Assad’s prediction appeared to hold true. An Egypt-inspired “Day of Rage” protest planned for early February 2011 fizzled despite considerable buzz on social media sites.[1] While the streets of other Arab capitals echoed with calls for democracy and reform, Damascus remained conspicuously silent.


Syrian authorities, however, took the possibility of domestic conflagration seriously. Security forces quickly and aggressively ended any popular gatherings in major cities, no matter how innocuous. A Damascene candlelight vigil in support of those killed in the Egyptian revolution was immediately broken up when a single individual vaguely appealed to “winds of change” to “sweep away injustice and shame.”[2] The biggest demonstration of February, a spontaneous 1,500-strong assembly in reaction to perceived police abuse of a shopkeeper in the famous al-Hamidiyeh Souk, ended when the minister of the interior showed up personally to address the purveyor in question’s grievances.[3] Other, smaller demonstrations expressing support for Egyptians and Libyans were brutally quashed by riot police and, overall, the vast majority of Syrians seemed unwilling to directly protest against their government.[4] Whether because of popular fear of the security apparatus or genuine belief in the gradual “development and modernization” Bashar al-Assad had repeatedly promised his people since inheriting control of the Syrian government from his father in 2000, the Assad regime appeared to be well positioned to comfortably weather the Arab Spring storm.[5]


The spark


Following the arrest of 15 schoolchildren in Dara’a, a small city close to the Jordanian border, Syria was forever transformed. The young boys, seized by local authorities for aping revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt and spray painting, “The people demand the fall of the regime” on the walls of a local school, were beaten and tortured. When the children’s parents begged for their release, one local official was reported to have said: “Forget your children. If you really want your children, you should make more children. If you don’t know how to make more children, we’ll show you how to do it.”[6] It was an insult the people of Dara’a refused to accept. On March 18, thousands of protesters gathered at the al-Omari Mosque and marched at security forces, demanding the release of the children, greater political freedom, and an end to government corruption. When riot police failed to stop the protesters’ advance with batons and water cannons, members of the security services opened fire on the unarmed crowd with live ammunition, killing four and wounding a dozen.[7]


Protests spread to the nearby towns of Jassem, Da’el, Sanamein and Inkhil, as the Ba’ath party headquarters in Dara’a were burned to the ground. Hoping to quiet things down, the Assad regime took steps to appease the tribal leaders of the close-knit families in Dara’a. A delegation led by Gen. Rustum Ghazala, then head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon and a Dara’a native, promised to bring those who had fired on protesters to justice. Additionally, state security released the arrested children of tribal leaders and the government issued a decree cutting taxes and raising state salaries.[8] But it wasn’t enough. The boys, having spent weeks in jail, were returned bloody and battered, some missing fingernails. This enraged the citizens of Dara’a and the ranks of the demonstrators swelled further. On March 26, protests spread to the coastal city of Latakia. In the wake of the clashes with security forces, 12 people were killed.


The president speaks


On March 30, President Assad spoke in a televised address to the nation from the Syrian parliament. The speech was widely expected to be conciliatory in tone; many believed the president would proffer a timeline for significant changes in government policy, including an end to a four-decade-old emergency law banning public gatherings.[9] But, rather than take an approach of reactionary appeasement, which had utterly failed to silence revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad chose to double down, insisting in his speech that reform would occur, but at a deliberate pace. The president repeatedly described the uprising as a “conspiracy,” an outside plot to destabilize the country. Assad also declared that those protesting initially had “good intentions” but were “misled” by “foreign conspirators” interested only in spreading “chaos in the country under the pretext of reform.”[10]


Syrians reacted poorly to this dismissal of their legitimate grievances. Not only had Assad refused to commit to a timetable for instituting governmental reform, but, to add insult to injury, he had neither apologized nor taken responsibility for the spilling of Syrian blood. That week, after Friday prayers, Syrians took to the street by the thousands in towns and cities across the country. The barrier of fear had been broken — the Arab Spring had arrived in Syria. But the Syrian government had faced popular revolt before.


Tactics, tried and true


From the moment Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, seized power in 1970, dissidents in Syria were subjected to a systematic campaign of political arrests. Although initially those targeted primarily included political rivals from within the Ba’ath party, which had taken control of the country via military coup in 1963, Hafez al-Assad’s security crackdown on dissent quickly expanded to include all of the Syrian opposition. The takeover had, according to Patrick Seale, “turned Syria’s social and political structures upside down.”[11] Syria’s new leader installed trusted friends in every position of power within the Syrian government. The Muslim Brotherhood, Syria’s main opposition force at that time — which had already been locked in a struggle with the Syrian Ba’ath party since its rise to power a decade before — reacted in protest, sometimes violently, and the Assad regime in kind responded decisively, utilizing security forces to brutally crack down on any and all brotherhood activities.


Arrests increased considerably after 1979, as the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood grew bloodier. There was a widespread campaign of arrests against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and a law was passed (Article 49) that prescribed the death penalty for any brotherhood member refusing to provide documentary evidence of withdrawal within one month. Arrests also included members of the independent syndicates (of lawyers, doctors and engineers) after they declared a general strike in 1981 and called for democracy, freedom, the principle of the rule of law, and respect for human rights. These syndicates were forcefully broken up and many of their members imprisoned. When the National Democratic Coalition, an alliance of moderate opposition groups, was established to advocate the pursuit of a middle way between supporting the regime and armed opposition, the majority of its activists, too, were arrested.[12]


Syrian opposition activity essentially evaporated after Hafez al-Assad’s confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood culminated in the Hama Massacre. In February 1982, the Syrian army laid siege to Hama, a brotherhood stronghold, completely encircling the city and not allowing any citizens to enter or exit. What followed could only be described as a nightmare: Assad’s forces bombarded the city for a month, leveling entire neighborhoods and killing, by some counts, more than 15,000 civilians. A haphazard campaign of arrests quickly followed, during which close to 100,000 activists, opponents, and even advocates of the regime were imprisoned. To this day, human rights organizations estimate that approximately 17,000 people remain unaccounted for.[13]


Setting the stage


After Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000 and the transfer of power to his son Bashar, the prospect for political reform seemed the best in decades. In fact, in his inaugural speech, Bashar al-Assad specifically mentioned Syria’s “desperate need [for] constructive criticism” and the importance of respecting the opinion of the “other.”[14] What followed would become known as the “Damascus Spring,” as prominent Syrian intellectuals, interpreting the president’s speech as tacit approval for an opening up of freedom of expression, began gathering to discuss the need to reactivate Syrian civil society and push for basic freedoms and democratic reform.[15] The authorities seemed to respond favorably, releasing some 600 political prisoners (whose existence before their release had never been acknowledged). Like-minded activists held countless forums for discussing further plans for improving Syria’s government, economy, and society. But this brief period of freedom of expression wasn’t to last. In hindsight, it was clear that Bashar al-Assad had used the first six months of his rule to consolidate his power — support from outside the regime would ensure his hold within. With the Syrian government fully in the young leader’s grasp, the calls for reform from Syrian activists became a liability and, by the end of 2001, the majority of Syria’s most prominent dissidents had been arrested.[16]


In 2005 it appeared that, once again, Bashar al-Assad was prepared to open up space for a national dialogue on political reform. At the June Ba’ath Party congress, the president suggested that the regime would reconsider the 1963 Emergency Law, pass a new political parties law, and transition from a socialist to a “social market” economy. The rhetorical commitment to governmental reform inspired the divided Syrian opposition to issue a statement of unity. The “Damascus Declaration” was openly critical of the regime; in it the opposition demanded the lifting of the emergency law, the introduction of free elections, and of civil and political liberties, and a solution to the Kurdish problem. But, as it had done before, the regime abandoned political liberalization and harassed and incarcerated opposition leaders.[17]


Forced to violence


In light of the Assad family’s history of using violence to counter dissent, the government’s response to the Syrian “Arab Spring” should have come as no surprise. By the end of April 2011 (only a month after Syria’s protests had begun), Bashar al-Assad had run out of patience with the demonstrations. Although initially responding to protests with a combination of violent repression and reactionary promises of reform (lifting the Emergency Law, granting citizenship to Kurds — who had previously been considered “foreigners” — and cutting taxes), when protesters responded with greater mobilization, militant voices within the regime won out. Exactly as his father had done in Hama before him, Assad deployed the Syrian Armed Forces with orders to shoot to kill, first in Dara’a, where the revolution was born, but soon to much of the rest of the country.[18] As the brutal violence perpetrated against what the regime described as “armed terrorists” but who were in actuality peaceful demonstrators grew, so too grew the size of anti-government protests. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated across Damascus, Aleppo and Hama.[19]


But the crackdown continued. Syrian tanks laid siege to restive population centers, including Dara’a, Baniyas, Homs, Talkalakh, Latakia, Rastan, Talbiseh and Hama. The security forces deployed snipers on buildings close to demonstrations and used the notorious Shabiha Alawite paramilitary units to intimidate, torture, and kill protesters. Not all of Syria’s soldiers were happy to kill unarmed civilians in cold blood, however, and, despite government orders to execute any soldier refusing to fire on demonstrators, news of conscripts defecting from the army spread.[20]


Then, on July 29, 2011, Air Force Col. Riad al-As’ad, along with several other officers, announced his defection and the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).[21] In a video posted on YouTube, al-As’ad called on members of the government forces to “abandon their military units” and join him in the creation of “a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects.” The armed struggle for Syria had begun.

The opposition

Not all of the Syrian opposition is armed, however. From the beginning of the uprising, various groups, councils, committees and coalitions were formed to plan protests and support Syria’s revolution, both inside and outside the country.


Syrian National Council


Formed in İstanbul, Turkey on Aug. 23, 2011, the Syrian National Council (SNC) was described as “the biggest and most significant opposition grouping in exile, and the main point of reference for outside countries that support the opposition,” before being subsumed by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in 2012.[22] It consists of famous intellectuals and human rights activists from the days of the “Damascus Spring” and the “Damascus Declaration,” but also includes representatives from other opposition groups and demographic minorities, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Bloc (a group of prominent Syrian dissidents that went into exile following the Ba’ath coup in 1963), Kurds, Assyrians, local coordinating committees and independents.[23] Although the SNC was formed to play a similar role to Libya’s National Transitional Council, it found much less success than the organization that inspired it. This can be attributed to discord within the council itself, which has been plagued with in-fighting, particularly on the issues of how best to support the armed opposition, Kurdish minority rights, and the over-representation of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions in the council.


National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces


Created at the end of 2012 under intense international pressure, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces replaced the SNC as the official political voice of the Syrian revolution. International backers hoped that this new body, containing representatives from local councils inside Syria and even members of the armed opposition, would be a more inclusive and effective entity than the SNC. However, the coalition has struggled to coalesce into an influential force. Proxy political factions, backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar respectively, have made consensus building within the body next to impossible. Additionally, the coalition has named two different Syrian interim governments in the last year, neither of which has been able to provide even a modicum of services in the areas of Syria no longer under the control of the Syrian government.


Local coordinating committees and revolutionary councils


The local coordinating committees and revolutionary councils make up Syria’s internal grassroots opposition. The local coordinating committees were created for the sake of planning, documenting, and publicizing demonstrations against the regime and have little to no connections to Syria’s pre-revolt opposition.[24] The more than 400 different local committees in Syria’s towns and suburbs make up the “backbone of the Syrian revolution,” but operate only on the most local of levels, so some 50 revolutionary councils formed organically across the country to facilitate communication and planning over larger geographic areas and urban centers.[25] And, although the grassroots opposition has increasingly played a secondary role as the armed conflict has escalated, local councils are still instrumental in coordinating the activity of civilian populations, be it in anti-regime efforts, distributing humanitarian aid, or providing medical and legal services.[26] Most Syrians look to the representatives in these bodies as legitimate leaders of the Syrian revolution; however, the state security apparatus remains too strong and capable, and the danger for representatives and local leaders too great, for these councils to coalesce into some form of overarching authority.


Free Syrian Army


The FSA is not an “army” per se but rather the branding under which the majority of the armed opposition in Syria operates, consisting of a large number of loosely coordinated local militias, battalions, and brigades. The character of these groups varies by location. In some areas, the forces consist entirely of defectors from the army; in others, local residents that have chosen to take up arms to defend their families.[27] The FSA’s command hierarchy is much more horizontal than that of a traditional force. In fact, the leadership’s relative isolation in Turkey has led to an almost irreparable loss of credibility on the ground. Individual militias form temporary alliances with neighboring groups to plan operations and coordinate defense of territory. The formation of the Supreme Military Command in November 2012 sought to fix these issues, solidify the command and control structure, and unite the various disparate forces of the FSA. However, as the battle rages on, this new attempt at organization has found limited success.[28]


And the world watched


International reaction to the burgeoning Syrian crisis was delayed and disappointing at best. Although the US, the EU and other nations were reasonably quick to condemn the violence, impose sanctions, and place travel bans and asset freezes on the most notorious persons in the Assad regime, the international community could offer little else to support Syria’s revolutionaries. At the United Nations, despite near continuous debate, the UN Security Council repeatedly failed to pass resolutions criticizing Syrian violence. The Arab League took until August 2011 to issue a single statement critical of the Assad regime, but subsequently imposed sanctions on Syria and suspended the country’s membership in the league in November. Neither action brought an end to the violence, however, and after multiple failed Arab League-brokered peace plans in November and December 2011, the body decided to ask the UN to form a joint peacekeeping force to halt the violence.[29]


On Feb. 23, 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the appointment of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan as UN and Arab League envoy to Syria.[30] For the next three months, much of the international community’s efforts would be focused on Annan’s six-point peace plan, designed to negotiate a cease-fire between the Syrian army and rebel forces. But the plan was doomed to fail; Russia and China had blocked any measures that would ensure consequences should the Assad regime fail to implement the plan and in reality the fighting hardly paused.[31]


Even before the collapse of the Annan cease-fire however, it was clear that various international forces were implementing fundamentally incompatible foreign policies in Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Russia, China the US, the UK and France were all sparring over the country’s future.


The NATO-led military intervention in Libya had left Russia feeling hard done by and particularly unwilling to cooperate with any other Western initiatives in the Middle East. After decades of Western wars and an Arab Spring, Russia found itself low on allies in the region. Syria, home to Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East, would not be allowed to fall. Taking into consideration lucrative arms deals (Russia was repairing and upgrading attack helicopters on the Syrian Air Force’s behalf even while functioning helicopters were bombing civilian population centers) and Syria’s special status as Russia’s last bastion of influence in a rapidly changing Middle East shows that Russia’s reactive obstinacy at the UN has been, for Russian leaders, a necessity. With one eye on a restive Chechnya, Russia would support Assad’s government at all costs. Although the full extent of its involvement remains unknown, reports suggest that the Russian government continues to supply the Assad regime with cash and military hardware, in addition to diplomatic support.[32]


China has provided Syria with diplomatic cover as well, though for slightly more opaque reasons. The Arab Spring frightened China, as it had frightened virtually every nation with large impoverished and disenfranchised populations. But China’s vetoes (and in the case of Libya, abstention) against resolutions at the UN Security Council can primarily be attributed to a long-held non-interference ideology. China’s leaders have consistently regarded the Syrian conflict as an internal affair to be dealt with by the sovereign government. To support any form of intervention would, according to the People’s Republic of China, violate the UN Charter (which does not grant states — or international bodies for that matter — the right to employ force in resolving international disputes) but also set a dangerous precedent under which the US or other nations could use international bodies to fulfill geopolitical agendas.[33] China will undoubtedly pay a future price for turning its back on the Arab Spring; but, to Chinese foreign policy makers, perhaps the cost has already been offset by a perceived increase in clout at the UN Security Council and a strengthening of the Sino-Russian relationship.


For the Western powers, the Syrian revolution has seemed to be more of an international inconvenience than a foreign policy priority. Although the US, the UK, and various other states continue to pledge and deliver humanitarian aid to support the more than 2 million registered Syrian refugees living in camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, no Western countries have committed to a consistent and decisive approach for ending the conflict.[34] US President Barack Obama declared as early as August 2011 that, “the time [had] come for President Assad to step aside” and yet, more than two-and-a-half years later, the regime is battered but nearly wholly intact — Western nations can claim no responsibility for any of the Syrian state’s gradual disintegration.[35] However, for much of the conflict, Republican hawks, inspired by the success of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, have called for the implementation of a no-fly zone across all or part of Syria in order to protect civilians from indiscriminate bombardment and catalyze rebel advances. The Obama administration has remained adamantly opposed to any such measures. To US officials, Syria, with its ethnic minorities, dense population centers, and conservative countryside, remains a foreign policy disaster waiting to happen, particularly in light of the horrible US experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus far, the extent of official Western involvement, beyond the provision of humanitarian aid, has included the training of digital activists in the use of secure communications equipment (and the providing thereof) and the provision of some non-lethal aid to the armed opposition (such as ready-to-eat meals and flak jackets). Following the chemical weapons attacks on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, the US seemed the closest yet to engaging militarily in Syria. However, the US was willing to seize any opportunity to avoid making such an investment and ultimately agreed to a Russian-brokered deal in which Syria would surrender its chemical weapons.[36] Rumors have circulated of French intelligence agents wandering through Syria bearing suitcases replete with cash and CIA operatives coordinating the arming of rebels from offices in Turkey. But this rumored action, even if true, has hardly had a tangible effect on the fight for Syria. Syria’s neighbors, on the other hand, have been much more intimately involved.


Since the start of the Arab Spring, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all struggled to decide what role they would play in the various uprisings of 2011-2012. In the Syrian context however, all three nations have committed to supporting revolutionary forces. Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometer border with Syria, has for much of the conflict served as a base of operations for the FSA command and welcomed the presence of political opposition members in İstanbul — not to mention the humanitarian burden that Turkey has borne providing safety and aid to Syrian refugees. Additionally, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used Turkish territory to coordinate the funding and arming of rebel militias, supposedly with the tacit approval of the US government.[37] This support of the armed opposition, though ongoing, has not been as extensive as sometimes portrayed. To date, the vast majority of the arms wielded by rebel fighters were either captured from regime weapons depots or purchased on the black market. Nevertheless, as the conflict continues, more and more weapons procured by the Gulf states — including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles — are making their way into areas of conflict.


But the regime in Damascus is not without regional allies. Iran has been a friend to Syria for decades, along with the Lebanese political party/paramilitary group Hezbullah. Both entities have actively aided Assad in his fight against the opposition. Iran has provided tons of military equipment (ferried through Iraqi airspace), hundreds of elite Revolutionary Guard “military advisors,”[38] and extensive technical assistance to the Syrian government in its efforts tracking opposition activists on the Internet.[39] Likewise, Hezbullah has sent thousands of fighters directly into Syria to aid the regime.[40]


The battle for Syria


Initially, the FSA played an almost exclusively defensive role in Syria’s revolution. Small bands of local fighters, wielding weapons obtained through the black market or via defection, maintained a presence at demonstrations for the sake of protecting civilians. Any offensive operations were small-scale raids on checkpoints or local security offices. Insurrections in distant, isolated towns, such as Jisr al-Shoghour in Idlib province, were met with harsh crackdowns by regime forces; rebel groups were constantly outmatched in training, quality of weapons, and sheer numbers. For nearly a year following the announcement of the FSA’s formation, one could describe the armed conflict between the rebels and the Syrian army as a kind of guerrilla warfare game of “whack-a-mole.” Local militias would swoop in on regime positions in towns and rural suburbs, ambushing them and temporarily holding territory before being forced to flee by Syrian armor and reinforcements. This type of combat was prominently on display in January 2012 in Zabadani, a town a mere 30 kilometers from Damascus. There, rebels managed to destroy a number of tanks, and even hold the town for a few weeks, before being driven out by the Syrian forces.


This rebel attack, and ones like it, were beginning to take their toll. As FSA brigades grew in size and capabilities, Assad security forces began to change tactics. Rather than risk being constantly ambushed in urban warfare, the Syrian army used artillery to surround and bombard restive areas. In Homs, Syrian artillery laid siege to the Baba Amr neighborhood for weeks, causing a humanitarian crisis in which thousands were killed and wounded before a final ground assault allowed Syrian soldiers to retake the area at the beginning of March 2012.[41]


The armed conflict continued and the shift in regime tactics led to greater civilian casualties, most notably in the Houla massacre of May 2012. Voices from both inside and outside of Syria began to vocally demand an intervention, or at least more comprehensive arming of the opposition for the sake of bringing the conflict to a hasty conclusion.


The Syrian jihad


It is undeniable that extremist jihadi groups have played a role in the Syrian conflict. However, that role has been and remains on the margins of the revolution. Of the many rebels fighting independently or under the banner of the FSA, it is estimated that less than 10 percent belong to jihadi groups. This number was much lower — to the point of being negligible — at the start of the conflict, but, as the Syrian state receded, more space became available in which extremist groups could operate, and their influence has certainly grown. It has taken time for jihadi funding networks to be activated in the Gulf; so too has it taken time for some foreign fighters (not all of whom are Islamist) to trickle in from battlegrounds elsewhere. For much of the conflict, secular militias begrudgingly regarded the jihadi groups as a necessary evil — perhaps even an asset. But, in the case of Syria, can the enemy of one’s enemy really be counted as one’s friend? As recently as January 2014, nationalist rebel militias had begun a campaign against al-Qaeda linked groups in order to expel them from the country.


Jabhat al-Nusra


Formed in late 2011, Jabhat al-Nusra is the best known of the handful of Islamist groups currently operating in Syria. Al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for a number of high profile bombings in Syria’s urban centers while also conducting military operations across much of the country. Jabhat al-Nusra is the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria and its fighters are primarily Syrian.[42] This is in stark contrast to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS), which is considered by many to be almost entirely made up of foreign fighters.


Islamic State of Iraq and Syria


ISIS is a branch of al-Qaeda that first gained a major foothold in Syria in early 2013 when it began campaigns to seize control over the towns of eastern Syria. Since then, despite being directly ordered by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, to demure to Jabhat al-Nusra in the ongoing jihad in Syria, ISIS has gained control over large swathes of territory in northern Syria.[43] ISIS seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate and, according to activists, has rarely contributed to the fight against the Syrian government. Rather, ISIS has focused on controlling territory, establishing emirs as heads of local administrations, and attempting to spread its extremist ideology.


Islamic Front


The Islamic Front is a large and powerful alliance of conservative Salafist brigades and militias seeking the immediate overthrow of the Syrian government.[44] The Islamic Front consists of a number of famous fighting groups, including Suqoor al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jeish al-Islam and Liwa al-Tawheed, but notably does not have any member groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and does not seek the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Because of its strength on the ground (some analysts estimate it has over 45,000 fighters under its command), some Western nations have reached out to the Islamic Front as FSA influence diminishes.[45]


From Aleppo to Damascus


Starting in the summer of 2012 and following the utter failure of the Annan cease-fire (which was used as an opportunity to regroup by both sides), the FSA went on the offensive, carving out large liberated zones in the Syrian countryside. On July 19, 2012, the battle for Aleppo, northern Syria’s largest city, began. At this point, the size and effectiveness of opposition militias had grown to such an extent that Syrian government forces were routinely relying on fighter jets and helicopter gunships for support. With the Syrian army strained and overstretched and regime military commanders unwilling to redirect too many troops away from Damascus for fear of a major strike at the heart of the government, FSA forces made progress in Aleppo, seizing control of approximately half the city. Across much of the rest of northern Syria, loyalist troops could not travel without fear of being ambushed and overwhelmed. However, for months these areas remained dotted with regime-held military airports and bases from which Syrian artillery and aircraft bombarded rebel positions. Where before regime forces would hunt down the perpetrators of sporadic attacks, the conflict reached a stalemate in which the Syrian Army lacked the human resources to retake rebel-held territory and neighborhoods, while the FSA lacked the military hardware and ammunition to conduct a decisive death-blow against the hardened bases of the Assad regime.


That stalemate has continued despite the capture of a number of important bases around Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus, and intense fighting in the Damascus suburbs.[46] The FSA remains woefully under-armed in comparison to regime forces and the momentum of the conflict does not seem poised to swing in anyone’s favor.


The future of Syria


The fall of the Assad regime is inevitable. One cannot imagine a path by which Syria could return to the pre-conflict status quo. And yet, the circumstances of the Syrian government’s ultimate collapse remain nearly impossible to predict. Although the armed opposition continues to force a slow contraction of the Syrian government’s sphere of influence, the hundreds of militias collected under the banner and branding of the FSA (and those, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, which remain independent) are united only in their desire for Assad’s ouster, not in a common vision of Syria’s future. And, as liberated Syria gradually increases in size, the need for a legitimate, well-supported and centralized authority to direct revolutionary efforts and later handle the post-Assad transition will grow in urgency. Neither the FSA, the internal opposition, nor the opposition abroad have seemed capable of forming such an entity. The increased involvement of ISIS, which seeks neither the removal of Assad nor the preservation of Syria as a nation, further complicates the situation.


Outside of Syria, the UN remains a dead end thanks to Russian and Chinese veto power on the security council. Neither country will support any form of heightened international involvement in the conflict — a position stemming from a geopolitical ideology adamantly against the expansion of Western influence, as opposed to the protection of more tangible national interests inside Syria itself. Syria’s regional neighbors will likely continue to support their own proxies inside of Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will provide the cash, arms, ammunition and logistical support that has kept the FSA functioning. The Obama administration, distracted by domestic politics and acutely cognizant of war-fatigue, will continue to avoid becoming militarily involved in the conflict at all costs. Current small-scale US programs supporting activists will continue indefinitely, despite mixed results, and humanitarian efforts will expand slowly in reaction to the mass exodus of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Iran will continue to provide the regime with arms, training, and military advice but will certainly avoid crossing any line that would draw too much ire from the West — the sending of thousands of Revolutionary Guards to Syria would probably not be tolerated by Western powers and could in fact solicit a military response.


That being said, there is a tragically belated sense in the international community that the current situation is untenable and that more coordinated involvement will be necessary to bring the conflict to a conclusion. To that end, many Western powers, including the US, have pushed hard for a political solution to the conflict. This approach has brought the US into conflict with backers of military forces inside Syria and also elicited disdain from the Syrian opposition. They contend that the Assad regime has been given no incentive to negotiate itself out of power. To meet the government at the negotiating table, particularly with a stalemate on the ground, would only serve to elevate the government’s position and ensure no solution to the conflict.


Regardless of when the Syrian tipping point is actually reached, there are several steps that will clearly need to be taken following the creation of a post-conflict transitional governing authority. First, the general structure of the army must be maintained in order to ensure the safety of all of the Syrian people. The regime’s four intelligence branches should be consolidated into two, and their efforts should be directed toward stabilizing the country and restructuring and refocusing the domestic police force in the role of protecting Syrian citizens. State media should be completely dismantled, along with all of the special and field courts which were formed by Syrian State Security to quickly handle the massive number of individuals arrested in the regime’s crackdown on the revolution. All political prisoners should be released.


Political reform in Syria should begin with the writing of a new democratic constitution — one that guarantees the fundamental rights of all citizens, and emphasizes a strict separation between legislative, judicial and executive bodies. Furthermore, the constitution must include fundamental reforms to the Syrian justice system, which is utterly corrupt and lacks the trust of the Syrian citizens. Moreover, the state of emergency should be lifted, a new modern law should be issued to ensure the participation of all Syrians in a variety of political parties, media censorship laws should be lifted to guarantee the freedom of media, a new election law should be established, a national truth and reconciliation organization should be formed to investigate the status of missing Syrians, and all Kurds should be granted the basic rights denied to them for the past 50 years.


Since March 2011, over 100,000 Syrians have died. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country seeking refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. Untold numbers of Syrian homes, businesses, schools and hospitals have been utterly destroyed. Syria is in tatters; she has paid a steep price in blood. And it is a price that Syrians will be paying for many years to come.


[1] “‘Day of Rage’ for Syrians Fails to Draw Protesters,” The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2011, accessed March 3, 2014,

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Muthahirat al-Ghadab al-Soria…,” accessed March 3, 2014,

[4] Lauren Williams, “Syria clamps down on dissent with beatings and arrests,” The Guardian, Feb. 24, 2011, accessed March 3, 2014,

[5] Cajsa Wikstrom, “Syria: ‘A Kingdom of Silence,'” Al Jazeera, Feb. 9, 2011, accessed March 3, 2014,

[6] Joe Sterling, “Daraa: the Spark that Lit the Syrian Flame,” CNN, March 1, 2012, accessed March 3, 2014,

[7] “‘We’ve Never Seen Such Horror’: Crimes against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces,” Human Rights Watch, June 2011.

[8] Hugh Macleod, “Inside Deraa,” Al Jazeera, April 19, 2011, accessed March 3, 2014,

[9] Martin Chulov, “Syrian President Sacks Cabinet in Effort to Quell Protests,” The Guardian, March 29, 2011, accessed March 3, 2014,

[10] Joshua Landis, “Speech to the Syrian Parliament by President Bashar al-Assad: Wednesday, March 30, 2011.,” Syria Comment, accessed Sept. 16, 2012,

[11] Patrick Seale, “Hafez al-Assad — Obituary,” The Guardian, June 14, 2000, accessed March 3, 2014,

[12] Radwan Ziadeh, Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East, (London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2011), 28.

[13] Ziadeh, Power and Policy in Syria, 29.

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[15] Ziadeh, Power and Policy in Syria, 63.

[16] Gary C. Gambill, “The Myth of Syria’s Old Guard,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin 6, no. 2/3 (February-March 2004): 9-13.

[17] Radwan Ziadeh, “A Multifaceted Response to Syria’s Brutality,” Project on Middle East Democracy Policy Brief (May 5, 2011).

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[26] Ibid.

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[44 Loveday Morris, “Seven Syrian Islamist rebel groups form new Islamic Front,” The Washington Post, Nov. 22, 2013, accessed March 3, 2014,

[45] Stacy Meichtry, “U.S., Allies Reach Out to Syria’s Islamist Rebels,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 2013, accessed March 3, 2014,

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