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How the Syrian revolution was lost

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A decade on from the beginning of mass protests in Syria, Nick Clark investigates how murderous state repression and Western imperialism drowned resistance
Issue 2749
Syrians protesting in Daraa in April 2012
Syrians protesting in Daraa in April 2012 (Pic: Freedom House/flickr)

If Egypt’s Tahrir Square is the lasting image of the excitement of the Arab Spring, the devastated streets of Syria’s suburbs are that of its defeat.

Today Syria is mostly split in two. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies control most of the south, while a large chunk of the north is in the hands of Kurdish groups backed by the US.

The disparate armed groups that occupy two small pockets of Syria’s north west now have little connection to the mass protests of 2011.

The revolutionary movement was suffocated long ago.

But the early days of the revolution showed how it could have been different.

The Arab Spring reached Syria later than in other countries where people rose up in the Middle East and North Africa. Mass demonstrations and strikes had already overthrown dictators in Tunisia and Egypt before protests began in Syria.

But every regime was afraid of revolution.

Relatively small-scale protests that began in Syria in March 2011 were met with severe repression. Regime security forces kidnapped a group of young teenagers just for writing the slogan of the revolutions on the wall of their school, “The people want the downfall of the regime.”


The following day there were protests in the capital Damascus and the city Aleppo demanding freedom for political prisoners on hunger strike. Riot cops attacked the protests, beating and arresting several protesters.

The army fired live bullets at protests in the southern city of Deraa, where the teenagers had been arrested. The victims’ funerals became even larger demonstrations.

By 25 March there were large protests across the country. Despite repression—or because of it—the uprising gained momentum and mass demonstrations became common in the cities’ suburbs.

Anger at years of poverty and dictatorship had finally boiled over.

Al-Assad had ruled Syria since 2000. He had pushed through many of the same free market policies that lay behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

People high up in the regime benefited from “partnership” between the state and big business. Meanwhile, life for ordinary Syrians became much harder.

The attacks on Syria will only bring more horror
The attacks on Syria will only bring more horror
  Read More

The regime held down resistance with laws imposing tight control on political organisations. Only those approved and monitored by the regime were allowed.

It had been decades since the last significant demonstrations or strikes—crushed with a military crackdown under the previous dictator, Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad.

So when the revolution began, Bashar al-Assad tried the same. After the first tactic of shooting demonstrators and targeting activists failed, the regime laid siege to the towns and suburbs at the centre of the uprisings.

It bombarded the streets where people lived with shelling, airstrikes and barrels filled with explosives.

Local Coordinating Committees of activists also began organising food, medicine and security in the areas under siege.

They—not the Syrian National Council, a supposed government in waiting of exiles backed by Western governments—were the real leadership of the revolution.

Ordinary people—many of whom had never fired a weapon in their lives—joined militias to defend their neighbourhoods from the regime’s forces.

These were often formed by soldiers who refused to fire on the demonstrations and defected to the revolution.


Though these militias took the name the Free Syrian Army, they never managed to become a coherent, coordinated organisation. But in the face of the military assault, they became the centre of the rebellion.

Assad’s war on the revolution was meant to make a mass movement impossible. Activists were forced to flee along with millions of other Syrians as entire suburbs and neighbourhoods emptied.

At the same time, he encouraged sectarian divisions to try and undermine the unity of the demonstrations. State media branded the demonstrators Islamist extremists, and painted itself as a protector of religious minorities.

Assad’s plan was to drown the revolution in blood—and it worked. But blame for the horror also lies at the feet of rival powers whose interventions fuelled the civil war.

Regional and global states funded rebel militias in the hope of buying influence in whatever came out of the chaos.

The strength and power of militias came to depend on their relationships with competing states—not from the support of a mass movement.

In turn, they were overshadowed by Islamist groups, armed and funded by Arab states in the Gulf. In 2014 Isis, which had grown in neighbouring Iraq thanks to the disastrous legacy of the US’s failed occupation, captured huge parts of northern Syria.

It smashed any remnants of the popular revolution and executed activists.

The civil war became openly a site of competition between rival powers. They all saw the war as an opportunity to boost their power in the Middle East.

The West, led by the US, threatened airstrikes against Assad in 2013.

Then in 2014 they began a bombing campaign against Isis, whose growth across Iraq and Syria had become a threat to US power. They also backed Kurdish-led forces in the north, where the Assad regime had abandoned control—then betrayed them when the Turkish army invaded.

Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes and soldiers helped to rescue the Assad regime and massacre Syrian people.

Iran also sent military forces to join the fight—so Israel began bombing them in response.


Western governments cheered Donald Trump when he pounded a Syrian airfield with a barrage of missiles in 2017.

Amid all this, ordinary Syrians were forgotten. The civil war, driven by competing states, robbed them of their chance to take control for themselves.

It’s even harder to see hope in Syria than it is in Egypt, where a new dictatorship has crushed the revolution. There have been occasional signs of protest.

But it’s much harder to organise resistance.

One big difference is that activists and trade unionists in Tunisia and Egypt had already begun organising strikes and protests before the Arab Spring erupted.

There wasn’t that organisation in Syria, and none of the mass strikes that had brought dictators down.

The uprising in Syria depended on the success of the revolutionary wave across the region.

The counter-revolutions, backed by the West, helped stamp it out.

Protests humiliated the warmongers

Warmongers in the Western countries didn’t get it all their own way.

Anti-war protests forced them to retreat from plans to launch airstrikes against the Assad regime in 2013. David Cameron, then Tory prime minister, wanted parliament to vote in favour of airstrikes.

But the Labour Party—and some Tory MPs—voted against after protests organised by the Stop the War Coalition.

Cameron was humiliated, and his defeat encouraged US president Barack Obama to retreat from his own plans for bombing.

Later in 2015 the Tories did force through intervention, with the support of the Labour right.

The favourite smear warmongers liked to use was that anti-war campaigners supported Assad. Politicians who threw up barbed wire to stop refugees coming to Europe used Syrians’ suffering to browbeat the left.

In reality, the strength of the protests came from the legacy of the movement against the Iraq war.

Iraq showed what Western intervention in the Middle East meant.

But there were real arguments. A section of the left—even if they didn’t support the regime— ended in a position that saw opposition to Assad as implicit support for war.

Some argued, because Assad was sometimes opposed to the US and Israel, his regime was a force against imperialism in the Middle East.

That was never true—the regime had supported the US if it thought it could boost its own standing.

For others on the left, the flipside of supporting Assad was to support some form of intervention such as arming the rebels or the Kurds.

But hopes that Western intervention would help ordinary Syrians proved tragically wrong.

The alternative to both is to look to resistance by ordinary people—which is a challenge to the Assad regime and imperialism.

It’s not easy to see where that might come from. But a starting point is building solidarity with refugees and opposing intervention so that resistance from below has the space to grow.

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