A bit over ten years since the first protests against the Assad regime broke out in Syria in March 2011, Assad has control across the bulk of the country. He controls all six main cities and 12 million people out of an estimated population of 17 million.
At Assad's low point, in spring 2013, he controlled only a fifth of the country.
The majority of the population are living in poverty, with at least 60 percent food insecure. The United Nations World Food Programme reports that food prices increased by 376 percent between October 2019 and February 2021. The salary of a state employee is now equivalent to $20 per month. It was $400 in March 2011.
6.8 million Syrians are refugees and a further 6.7 million people are displaced within Syria. 11.1 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. Probably half a million have been killed.
The democratic rebellion, and the ensuing civil war, in which the opposition came to be led by Islamists, have been crushed by the regime of Bashar Assad thanks to the active support of Russia and Iran.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have small areas in the north. Smaller groups of rebels, with little connection to the democratic impulses of 2011, and the remnants of Daesh in Syria, control some territories, mostly in the north west. Turkey controls areas near its border. Russia and Iran effectively control many other bodies.
After the dictator Ben Ali was toppled in Tunisia (14 January 2011), and Mubarak in Egypt (14 February), small protests rippled across Syria in early 2011. In late February fifteen teenagers were arrested in Daraa, and tortured, for scrawling “the people demand the downfall of the regime” on walls across the city. That sparked a series of protests across cities and towns in Syria including in Damascus and Aleppo. Protests were violently suppressed by the regime, but funerals for those shot at the protests in Daraa turned into bigger protests.
By the end of March demonstrations had spread across the country, with a mass non-sectarian movement against Assad. Bashar Assad had ruled Syria since the death of his father Hafez Assad in 2000. Political opposition was strictly controlled. There was a ban on the teaching of the Kurdish language in schools.
Assad did allow the Turkey-based PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) militia to set up training camps in Syria.
Although he owed his survival to aid from the Shia sectarian theocracy in Iran, he professed secularism, allowing religious space to his own Alawite Shia sect, to Christians, and to the Sunni majority, and more latitude for Palestinians in Syria than in other Arab states. After 2011, the Kurds, primarily through the PKK-allied PYD, quickly took control of areas in the north they described as Rojava. The Assad regime left them alone, so most of the Kurds' fighting has been against other rebels and later against Daesh.
Elsewhere it was different. Hafez Assad had also faced opposition. He had faced down rebellions in the 1980s with massacres.
After 2011 Bashar Assad faced more widespread revolt. He laid siege to as many strongholds of the rebellion as possible, cutting off their access to food and supplies, shelling them and and barrel-bombing from the air, using chemical weapons.
He destroyed the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world, Yarmouk, because rebels had managed to gain control. More Palestinians have been killed by Assad during the Syrian civil war than have died in the conflicts between Israel and Gaza in the same period.
The ad-hoc militias that had come to control many towns could not withstand the assault. The initiative in battle against Assad slipped to those with outside funding from the Gulf states. Even they could do little without the anti-aircraft weapons denied to them.
Non-sectarian and democratic activists sought to help civilians with medical care. Groups like the White Helmets, were slandered by regime supporters and Russia to suggest they were Al-Qaeda or faking on behalf of the CIA.
In the early days of the uprising, Local Coordinating Committees organised the distribution of food and medicine, and protection in the besieged areas. There were debates and discussion about strategy, with leftist input, particularly on the potential for local councils undermining Assad's state.
The Syrian National Council created the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a mix of ex-regime soldiers, small militias and individual volunteers. It was non-sectarian, but dominated by an Arab chauvinism that excluded Kurdish forces from the beginning.
Turkey played a key role in forming, funding and providing support for the FSA. Turkey did not want Kurdish regions along its border with Syria to gain autonomy.
Foreign mercenaries and jihadists moved to Syria. Iraqi Shia militias sponsored by Iran, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard , sent forces to back Assad. Syria became a focus for Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict across the whole region.
The increasing militarisation of the rebellion sped its degeneration. No revolutionary council in a town or suburb of Damascus could compete with the militias funded, equipped, and supplemented by external powers.
Alawites (members of the same Shia sect as Assad and most of his cronies) found themselves isolated within the rebellion. Sunni Islamists pushed slogans like the “the people demand jihad” and “the ummah demand an Islamic Caliphate”. The culmination was the advance of Daesh from Iraq into Syria, declaring its Caliphate from Raqqa.
The regime claimed to be the only force who could defend the Alawites, Christians, and other minorities, and regained some support on that basis. By 2013 we noted that, “Given the fragmented and increasingly religiously radical nature of the opposition, a victory for the rebels will lead to ethnic cleansing, chaos and warlordism... if the opposition are able to overrun the Baathist state conditions (both for the welfare of ordinary Syrians and for the possibility of progressive struggle) will be made worse, and so we should avoid slogans which lead to this”.
The first reaction of Western governments in 2011 was to wait. It took several months for US president Obama to call for Assad to go. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, declared Assad to be himself a reformer!
The Tory/ Lib-Dem coalition government in Britain was also cautious. It eventually threatened air strikes against Assad in 2013, but did not follow through.
Daesh's rapid advance, with massacres and enslavement of Yazidi women and children pushed the US, in September 2014, to begin a bombing campaign targeted at Daesh and promise to provide military support to militias who would concentrate on fighting Daesh and not the regime. In practice that meant the Kurdish-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces).
When Daesh besieged the Kurdish-held city of Kobani, in northern Syria, from July 2014, Kurdish groups and supporters across the world called for support and arms for the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the military wing of the PYD.
In January 2015 the YPG successfully drove back Daesh from Kobani; it subsequently came to control large stretches of Northern Syria, running prison camps of Daesh members and their families.
In 2018-19, the Turkish army and allied Syrian militias drove the YPG further from Turkey’s borders. Turkey now controls more of the border areas.
To gain control of most of Syria, Assad counted on Iranian-backed militias and on Russian airstrikes and support from Russian troops. From 2015 a shift to Assad occurred, thanks to the Russian military aid. Russia bombed Raqqa and other Daesh-held areas, but also civilians in rebel-held areas. Iran, Russia, or Turkey control almost all Syria's borders. Russia has a major naval base in the port of Tartus, which it has leased from the Syrian regime and is expanding both for military and commercial use, and operates a sizable airbase near Latakia. Stroytransgaz, a Russian company linked to a Kremlin-supporting oligarch, has been granted 70 percent of all revenues from phosphate production and control of the Tartus port for the next 50 years. Syria has one of the largest deposits in the world of phosphates (key ingredients for fertilisers) .
Syrian writer Leila al-Shami describes parts of Syria now as under Iranian occupation. Iran wants ties with Syria, as with Iraq, to build its “axis of resistance” against the USA and Israel. Iranian companies hold contracts for large infrastructure and reconstruction projects.
The Gulf states were some of the first to call for Assad to go and were early funders of the anti-Assad groups, but now seek to do deals with Assad. The Gulf states can provide finance and economic support for further Syrian reconstruction and hope to use that influence to push the Iranian militias out.
"Caesar Act 2019" sanctions by the US are still hitting the Assad regime. Previous rounds of sanctions targeted figures in the regime and military, but the Caesar Act hits businesses within Syria and limits trade. In March 2021,14 Syrian organisations released a statement calling on the Assad regime to end sanctions by engaging with the UN peace process.
The Assad regime, however, remains on its feet. It staged a presidential re-election in May 2021, reporting 95% of the vote for Assad, and more votes than there are voters in government-controlled areas of the country.