Unfinished Revolutions: How Syria’s Uprising Turned Into a War

by David Wearing

17 March 2021

Design: Bronte Dow

Ten years ago, a wave of popular uprisings erupted across the Middle East, threatening not only local monarchs and dictators but the strategic interests of the Western powers that backed them. In this series, David Wearing looks back on these events, their causes and consequences, and asks what they can teach us about the nature of imperialism in the twenty-first century.

The Arab uprisings arrived in earnest in Syria ten years ago this week, with large demonstrations marking the culmination of weeks of brewing unrest. What followed was one of the worst conflicts and humanitarian disasters of the modern era. But while the sheer scale of the catastrophe was almost unique (save for the current war in Yemen), the key factors at play were the same here as elsewhere in the region.

As we have discussed earlier in this series, the Arab uprisings as a regionwide phenomenon sprung from a common set of causes. Severe authoritarian rule was being meted out by corrupt elites, while living standards deteriorated across the board, especially for a younger generation facing a bleak economic future. These pre-revolutionary conditions were to be found in Syria no less than in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

The modern Syrian state emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire under French colonial control, with France’s policies of divide-and-rule helping to shape the sectarian hierarchies and antagonisms that were inflamed so disastrously under the recent civil war. The decades immediately following independence saw a bewildering series of coups and counter-coups before the regime of Hafez al-Assad secured its long-term domination of the scene from 1970 onwards. After Hafez’s death in 2000, power passed to his son, Bashar.

The regime Bashar al-Assad inherited was one of the toughest in the region. The extended Assad family and its long-term associates controlled both the political and military spheres, as well as a large proportion of the economy following a fantastically corrupt process of part-liberalisation and privatisation. There was no chance of the military leadership turning on the civilian government as in Tunisia and Egypt, or of mass defections from the higher echelons of the government as in Libya. The entire clan was tightly bound together in a formidable fortress of a power structure.

One of Syria’s tragedies, therefore, was that peaceful protest alone stood little chance of prompting the kind of regime split necessary for a revolution. But at the same time, the prospects for an armed uprising were scarcely much better. Damascus had already crushed one prolonged rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood between 1976 and 1982, devastating large population centres in a grim foreshadowing of what was to come in the 2010s.

When civilian protests began in 2011, they were immediately met with deadly force. As much as those leading the early protests tried over subsequent weeks and months to remain peaceful, the regime was determined to steer events onto the terrain of violence where it felt it had the advantage.

As the civil war began, significant defections from the lower ranks of the army formed the basis of the armed uprising, but the upper echelons of the military remained loyal. As the shift from protests to conflict disempowered democratic civilian activists, the regime pursued divide-and-rule tactics, just as the former colonial rulers had done in their time. Sectarian gangs were unleashed on those areas where the rebellion was strongest, while minorities were warned that the regime was protecting them from an Al-Qaeda style enemy, not a popular uprising. This of course proved a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as the regime had intended. When regime thugs chanted “Assad, or we burn the country”, they were not making an idle threat.

This then was the picture on the domestic level. An uprising turning decisively to armed resistance, increasingly restricted to the Sunni working class majority, and later seeing its cause hijacked by the battle-hardened forces of Al-Qaeda and Isis. On the fence, a Sunni bourgeoisie who had done reasonably well out of economic liberalisation, plus the Alawite, Druze, Christian and other minorities, none of whom loved the regime, but who feared the growing jihadi presence within the rebellion. In parallel, Kurdish forces saw their opportunity to carve out their own autonomous region to the north east.

Assad’s success in ensuring that the rebellion became increasingly sectarian and divided, rather than one which united the nation against him, is one of the two principle reasons he remains in power to this day. The other is the crucial support provided by outside forces. For decades Damascus had served as the crucial facilitating link between Iran and the Lebanese party-militia Hezbollah. Neither ally was prepared to countenance its demise, and their support bolstered the regime’s muscle considerably in the early phases of the war.

But it was the direct intervention of the Russian military in 2015 that tipped the balance of the conflict permanently and decisively in Assad’s favour. It also closed off any dwindling prospect of a US intervention against Assad, since that would run too great a risk of a nightmare clash between Washington and Moscow. Russia’s commitment to retain its one real foothold in the strategically vital Middle East was seen through with brutal resolve as the rebellion was methodically crushed one city at a time.

The question of why the US did not move to prevent this can be answered quickly and straightforwardly. Washington simply did not place the same strategic value on capturing Syria through regime change as Moscow did on retaining it. Between its alliances from Cairo to Riyadh and the Persian Gulf, Washington had the most desirable real estate in the Middle East sewn up already. Syria mattered far more to a historically diminished Russia than it did to the US.

This calculation was reinforced by what the Obama administration regarded as the poor prospects of success. Correctly or not, the democratic (or at least non-jihadi) forces on the ground were judged early on to be incapable of toppling Assad and securing the country, even if fighting side by side with the Americans. Naturally the recent military failures of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fear of entering a third such quagmire, loomed large in official thinking.

As a result, some limited support was given to vetted rebels, but no direct action was taken against the Assad regime itself. US allies the Gulf states and Turkey gave their own support to various rebel groups, but none of this was enough to imperil the regime once Moscow had made its decisive commitment.  

Lost in all this cynical geopolitical manoeuvring, ten years on, has been the aspirations of the Syrian people. No sooner had their heads been raised than counter-revolutionary forces from all sides piled in to co-opt or crush their attempted revolution. The most hopeful thing that can be said at this point is that Assad’s victory is a limited one. He rules over a wasteland of his own making, standing now as an international pariah. Whether this represents a solid basis for his long-term survival is a question that remains to be answered.

David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.

Part one: What Were the Roots of the Arab Uprisings?

Part two: How the West and the Rest Conspired to Thwart the Arab Uprisings

Part three: How the UK and Gulf Monarchies Helped Crush Bahrain’s Pro-Democracy Movement

Part four: How the Arab Uprisings Were Drowned in Oil

Part five: How Syria’s Uprising Turned Into a War

Part six: What’s the Future of the Arab Uprisings?

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