The people of the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria for short) have seen decades of struggles, tension, and conflict. They have seen a dynastic series of Assads lead their small nation for over 40 years. They have seen peaceful protests against the Assad regime turn into a violent rebellion, and their current president turn from a reserved, quiet doctor to a tyrannical dictator. They have been struck by chemical weapons of their own government, the United States and the United Nations threatening to punish Syria (including the innocents) for their nation’s horrendous actions. These people live in the shadow of politics, the drama of their president’s actions receiving more international news coverage than the families and communities who are affected by their government.
Bashar Al-Assad, once labeled by Diane Sawyer as a “quiet man,” succeeded his father, Hafez Al-Assad, on July 17, 2000. His father was considered legendary by the people he governed and many outside of Syria, having led Syria for 29 years and negotiated with 5 U.S. presidents. Bashar was not Hafez’s first choice of the successor: Bashar’s older brother, Bassel, was groomed his whole life to follow in his father’s footsteps; he was thoroughly educated in military sciences. When Bassel died in 1994, Bashar was hastily primed to take over his father’s presidency.
Even though he was not prepared to take the role of a leader, Bashar did well in the first few years of his presidency. In the beginning of his rule, the new Assad introduced a set of reforms to improve the quality of life in Syria, dubbed the “Damascus Spring.” Some of the objectives of these reforms pertained to granting economic rights to all citizens, establishing a multiparty democracy, and ending the special status of the Baath party, Bashar’s own political faction. The Damascus Spring answered the issues that many Syrians had hoped Hafez Al-Assad would address over the previous three decades, and Assad’s attentiveness towards his people made him a very popular president.
In 2005, Bashar helped organize the Damascus Declaration, an attempt to make peace with the government’s opposition and the regime’s conflict with the United States over Iraq and Palestine, considered a bold, but extremely progressive move in the eyes of his nation and internationally as well.
On the day of his 2007 re-election, Syrians flooded the streets with signs of praise and cheers for the president, and cheered when he won with an astounding 97.62% of the votes. At that time, the Syrians loved their progressive and attentive president, who was leading his nation on an upward spiral, and advancing Syria to a national greatness never previously achieved by any Syrian president.
Unrest over the regime began in 2011 as a part of the ongoing “Arab Spring.” Syrians, sparked by the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, began themselves to protests for better human rights and socioeconomic equality.
Established in 1963, an emergency rule still active today allows police to detain or arrest citizens without a warrant, censor websites, and impose travel bans. The Syrians, eager to reap the benefits of a republic, desired more freedom from their government, a basic, necessary right for a country that calls itself a democracy.
Additionally, the Syrians called for an improvement in the government’s economic situation. According to the CIA World Factbook, 11.9% of Syrians lived beneath the poverty line, even after the reforms of the Damascus Declaration. Massive economic inequity existed between the elite Syrians and the poor, and many protestors requested more support for those in extreme poverty, as a socialist nation was desired, and this ideal must be followed.
The small fire of peaceful protests grew after a nameless group of teenagers were arrested and tortured by local police for writing anti-regime graffiti on a school. When word of the detainment reached the public, enraged protests grew against their generally popular government. This was the start of the Syrian Civil War.
As demonstrations turned into violence against police, and police retaliation fueled the riots, tension between the opposition and the regime grew at exponential rates. On March 20, 2011, revolutionaries burned down the Baath Party headquarters. In response, an armored division of soldiers fired live ammunition into a crowd of unarmed protestors. 15 demonstrators died that day, and by now, both parties were completely enraged.
As the war began, a new, powerful force was born. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed from a group of defected soldiers from the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) in July of 2011. The group focuses on disposing possible informants, shabiha [“thugs”], and prominent military officers in the SAF, with the goal of protecting innocent Syrians from the regime. By executing force against Assad’s army, the FSA protects protestors and brings security for the opposition through their organized military force.
The ferocity of the war expanded as the regime developed new methods of fighting the opposition. Local police became violent in support of Al-Assad, but the opposition fought back with equal force. Recognizing the use of social media to organize rallies and protests, the regime also shut down the Internet in parts of Syria, and spread propaganda around towns and cities. During this period of growing conflict, hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the country under the direction of the United Nations.
The battle between the opposition and the regime lasted for several months, from roughly April of 2011 to today, in October 2013, growing with intensity, and the death toll increasing steadily. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that by September of 2013, over 110,000 people had been killed in the crisis in Syria.
On August 21, 2013, massive chemical explosions erupted in a heavily populated suburb of the central city Damascus. Over 1,000 men, women and children were killed; they suffered agonizing deaths from the weapons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) stated that Assad’s administration was responsible for the attack, but the regime immediately rejected the claim. The UN led subsequent investigations, and confirmed that these weapons contained the extremely toxic nerve gas sarin. The few survivors joined the refugee count fleeing their country.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that there are nearly two million registered Syrian refugees, currently residing in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Conditions for these refugees are less than ideal; one UNHCR video explains that over a thousand refugees live in an underground garage in Lebanon, without medicine, clean water, reliable electricity, but plenty of sickness. The footage shows children playing on the damp pavement, watchful mothers lounging underneath sodden clothes hanging, as they wait for some, any kind of reassurance or support. In Jordan, over 50% of the refugees are children.
“We have nothing here,” a refugee referred to only as Fatima pleads in a UNHCR production.
Another refugee, Yosra, tells her story to the online community. Seven months ago, an attack shattered her hip and killed her husband.
“I didn’t see the plane before it started shelling us,” Yosra told the UNHCR. “I just heard it coming. Then the sound got a lot louder and the shelling started. The whole ground started shaking. I fell down and I couldn’t feel anything anymore. When I got up, I realized that something was wrong with my leg. And that the whole house had collapsed on top of my husband.”
Today, the revolution and the counter-insurgency efforts surge on.