The Syrian civil war is an unstoppable cataclysm that’s killed nearly a quarter-million people and displaced around ten million more.
It’s destroyed Syria’s existence as a single national entity. It’s deepened Iran’s strategic takeover of the northern Levant and created the safe haven in the country’s desert east that led to ISIS’s rise. At various points the violence has spilled into Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey.
It’s the contemporary Middle East’s defining event, and one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century.
But Syria and the surrounding region were a far different place on March 16, 2011, when Reuters’ Beirut bureau filed a brief report headlined “Rare political protest held in Syria, witnesses say.”
On January 14, 2011, popular protests had unseated Tunisian dictator Zine el Abdin ben Ali, who ruled the country since 1989. Less than a month later, on February 11, Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power in Egypt came to a rapid and dramatic close after less than a month of popular protest. On March 17, the UN Security Council voted to authorise military action to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, a decision that led to Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster the following August.
The day of that Reuters report, it seemed like just about anything was possible in the Middle East — even in Syria, where the Assad regime maintained one of the region’s strictest police states. But it’s still jarring to go back and read that first report in light of what actually did end up happening: a war that’s engulfed much of the region and somehow continues to get worse.
“About 40 people joined a protest in Syria on Tuesday, chanting political slogans, witnesses said, in the first challenge to the ruling Baath Party since civil unrest swept across the Arab world,” the report begins, before ominously noting that “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father 11 years ago, has said there is no chance the political upheaval shaking the Arab Middle East will spread to Syria.”
The protestors worked their way through a marketplace in the Old City section of Damascus, and the article states that “A YouTube video showed a few dozen people marching after noon prayer near the Umayyad Mosque, clapping and chanting, ‘God, Syria, freedom – that’s enough,'” a subversive take on a regime-promoted slogan.
What happened next is a study in authoritarian survivalism, as Assad went about protecting himself from ben Ali and Mubarak’s fate and tried his best to prove that their country simply couldn’t exist without the regime remaining in power.
Protests quickly spread, with 10,000 people reportedly attending a protest in Daraa on March 19th. The regime began deploying snipers and plain-clothes security officers to break up the protests — which only encouraged more protest. Over 3,500 activists had been killed by November, and by the end of the year Syria was an incipient state of civil war.
The US and Assad ally Russia supported a peace plan in March of 2012 that effectively called on the opposition to lay down its arms. With Assad refusing to consider stepping down and the international community doing little to affect his ouster, the country was soon split between regime and rebel-held spheres of control, without an obvious political solution that either side could accept. Iranian and Shi’ite militant backing for the Assad regime throughout 2012 ensured that the conflict would take on a regional and sectarian character, something that attracted both Shi’ite and Sunni foreign fighters to the battlefield.
Today, the Assad regime survives — but mostly within an urban and coastal enclave created at an almost unfathomable human cost. For now, ISIS and Iran appear to be the war’s big winners.
None of that was a certainty four years ago. The closing lines of Reuters’ report on one of the first protests of the Syrian uprising are a reminder of how rapidly the situation spiraled out of control — and of the possible world-shaking crises lurking beneath even the most seemingly peripheral global events.
“‘The date is [March] 15. . . . This is the first obvious uprising against the Syrian regime. . . . Alawite or Sunni, all kinds of Syrians, we want to bring down the regime,'” Reuters reported, describing a YouTube video of the March. “There was no reaction from the Syrian government.”
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