Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2494

Revolt and war in Syria five years on

This article is over 8 years, 3 months old
Five years ago Syrians rose up against the regime. Socialist Worker explains how the revolution’s defeat led to horror, and Razan Ghazzawi looks back at its hopeful beginnings
Issue 2494
Syrians protesting in Daraa in April 2012
Syrians protesting in Daraa in April 2012 (Pic: Freedom House/flickr)

Five years since Syrians took to the streets in their thousands against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, the country has been torn apart by war.

This is a far cry from when the Syrian revolution began in 2011.

The revolution was a genuine popular revolt and part of the revolutionary wave that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.

In Syria discontent was already bubbling to the surface and many ordinary Syrians took inspiration from the Arab Spring.

When a small group tried to hold a solidarity vigil with Egyptian demonstrators, they were quickly beaten up by regime thugs. In Deraa cops arrested 15 school students for spray painting, “The people want to topple the regime.”

Their torture by Assad’s secret police helped spark protests across the country.

Hundreds marched in the capital Damascus on 15 March demanding political reforms. Assad’s troops opened fire and he tried to blame the unrest on “foreign conspirators”.

The protests rapidly spread and people’s demands moved from political reforms to toppling the regime.

As Assad’s forces retreated across the country popular committees were created to run basic public services. Ordinary people as well as activists took part in these initiatives.

But the devastation caused by the regime’s bombing forced the retreat of the mass movement as the struggle became increasingly militarised.


The West was desperate to regain the initiative as the Arab Spring had weakened imperialism in the Middle East.The US backed the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Initiative. But these were formed of politicians who had little connection with the people on the ground.

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the organised working class did not play a key role in the popular revolution.

Workers in Syria had not been able to gain experience in organising themselves through mass strikes before 2011.

There was a “general strike” as late as December 2011. But it came out of a call for civil disobedience by the opposition, not workers organising themselves.

In response to the popular revolution Assad launched a brutal crackdown and a sectarian civil war. In this context groups with the largest arsenal could gain influence.

Defecting officers and troops had broken away and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At first they did the bulk of the fighting. But different Islamist groups with better access to funding began to gain influence.

In order to focus on crushing the popular opposition, the regime abandoned the north-east of the country. Coming from neighbouring Iraq, ISIS was able to establish a base in this region. World and regional powers—from the US to Russia and Iran—jockeyed to bolster their influence by supporting rival factions in the civil war.

The West tried to intervene in August 2013. Only an international campaign by the anti-war movement forced them to back down, but the tide has since turned.

Russia intervened to bolster its ally Assad last year. After the Paris terror attacks in November last year Western powers, including Britain, joined the imperial carve up under the guise of “fighting Isis”.

The combination of counter revolution in Syria and imperialist intervention is what’s responsible for the horror.

A revolt that shook Syrian society

Razan Ghazzawi was in Damascus at the start of the revolution. Now in Britain, she told Anne Alexander what happened

“There was a sense of inspiration from the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt in 2011,” said Razan.

“At the beginning of the year there were some small-scale protests organised by bloggers. But the sign that something had really changed came with a protest at the Al-Hamidiyya souk in February after police beat a shopkeeper.

“It was the first of its kind, a completely spontaneous protest by local people in a high profile area of central Damascus. The main demand in the Souk was, the Syrian people will not be humiliated.

“There were no other clear demands at the time, people were wondering what to do, experimenting with the movement. The movement was still ‘finding itself’.

“People started having political discussions, away from public spaces for fear of informers. Often activists met in homes, in small circles where personal relationships were the basis of trust.

“The people who were cultural, writers, journalists, intellectuals—the upper middle-class opponents of the regime—had access to all kinds of tools like the internet.

“Working class people didn’t have the same access but were central to the movement.”

The spark which transformed these small scale gatherings into a mass revolt came from Deraa, a town on Syria’s southern border.

Demonstrations erupted after a group of school students were arrested for writing “the people want the downfall of the regime” on a wall.

Razan said, “They were tortured. Then the army shot and killed their protesting families. It shook Syrian society.

“Solidarity protests erupted in other parts of the Deraa region and soon spread to other regions.”

At first hundreds protested, then thousands. There were protests in other cities.

“Repression only hardened the protesters’ resolve,” said Razan, “and they kept on protesting in spite of live ammunition being used by the armed forces against them.

“In the first few weeks, the protesters’ demands mainly concerned political and economic reforms. People would demand jobs, better public services, education, healthcare etc.


“The regime’s repression caused the escalation of the demands towards the toppling of the regime.”

Younger people knew of the regime’s reputation for brutality, and an older generation had experienced the crushing of protests in the 1980s. But they were unprepared for the scale of repression in 2011.

The story of the revolt led by Islamists in Hama in 1982 which ended in a siege of the city and the slaughter of up to 20,000 people by the Syrian Army had been written out of history.

“The regime was notoriously repressive and violent, but did well to hide its violence,” said Razan. “People generally were very scared and didn’t dare mention the Hama massacre.

“For millions of Syrians, who had heard of the censorship and the torture, now was the first time they witnessed repression first hand, out in the open, and experienced it collectively.

“Bashar was branded as a kind of liberal reformer because of his education in Britain. But we witnessed that Bashar was just like his father, and was committing even worse atrocities.

“The collective nature of the protests gave a space where you could see a way to overcome divisions. In this uprising, we started to have a dialogue.

“One thing that I have learned in this uprising is that the regime knows us better than we know ourselves because it has all the data, it has all the maps, it has everything.

“It’s amazing how we existed in a very narrow reality, where we did not know that other possible realities exist. Despite this, we discovered ourselves in this uprising.”

The regime worked hard to make sectarian differences into a frontline of the battle, as a way to fracture the unity of the mass movement.

“But it is not like people started to kill each other because they hate each other. What happened is that people started to protest peacefully.

“Then the army and the security forces came and shot them and they kept shooting them and they kept bombing them, using chemical weapons and they tortured them to death.

“This violence made the Syrians in late 2012 and early 2013 carry weapons to defend themselves.

“I was there in a protest, a peaceful protest surrounded by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who did not shoot a bullet.

“They were just there to scare the regime from shooting us. The FSA were mainly soldiers defecting from the regime to help the Syrian protesters to protest.

“Despite all the suffering we should also remember how people have changed. A lot of men who did not believe in women’s work, in women’s participation, today they have changed altogether.

“We should also remember when people say that there is a civil war in Syria that more than seven countries have bombed Syria in the last five years.

“I call that a war on Syria.”

Further reading

  • Isis, imperialism and the war in Syria by Anne Alexander in International Socialism
  • Syria: from inter-imperialist rivalry to inter-imperial clash by Simon Assaf in Socialist Review
  • Arguments for Revolution by Joseph Choonara and Charlie Kimber, £3.00

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance