Written by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Queensland
“Assad, or we burn the country,” Syrian government loyalists chanted in 2011. It was a statement of intent that proved to be prophetic.
In early 2011, the Arab Spring tore through Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and Jordan. Syria stood at the precipice as people rose up against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, who had ruled since 2000.
Assad had assumed power from his father who had himself taken power in a military coup and then ruthlessly cracked down on the opposition. Hopes that Assad junior would prove be a reformist soon dissipated as his regime too ruled with an iron fist: a security state that used terror and torture to keep control.
The regime responded to peaceful protests with force, gunning marchers down in the streets of cities like Daraa and Hama. The opposition – bolstered by mass defections from the army – turned to force. But the opposition was always fragmented, riven by internal dissent and a sharp divide between secularists, moderate Islamists, extremists, and the Kurds.
Nonetheless, they made significant gains. Assad responded brutally, gradually reclaiming control of much of the country through a campaign of indiscriminate bombing, siege and starvation, mass detention, torture, and killing.
As diplomats at the United Nations argued about what to do in Libya few seemed to understand that Syria was descending into a hell that would consume more than half a million lives, displace more than half the population, incubate the genocidal Islamic State, and draw in Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, the United States, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Britain, France and others – including Australia.
Except for the courageous Syrian White Helmets and a few humanitarian organisations, no-one made the protection of Syrians from atrocities their priority. As the UN’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, put it in 2015,
everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third, or not at all.
It is difficult to convey the sheer extent of the brutality inflicted on Syrians since the hope-filled days of Spring 2011. Raw numbers have a numbing effect. Syrians were shot in the streets as they protested. (They protest still, in the streets of Daraa this month). Tens of thousands were hauled into prisons and tortured until dead.
Barrel bombs packed with high explosives, nails, and makeshift shrapnel were hurled indiscriminately by the dozen into civilian neighborhoods. Men, women, and children were gassed to death with sarin and chlorine.
Civilians were shot, knifed, beheaded, and even crucified. They were denied food, water, and medicine to the point of malnutrition. Children had their homes brought down on top of them, were raped, shot, tortured, and forcibly recruited into armed groups. Women and girls in their thousands were kidnapped, trafficked, and sold as sex slaves. Schools and hospitals were systematically targeted and destroyed.
The Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies were not responsible for all Syria’s atrocities, but they were responsible for the vast majority.
Datasets compiled by groups such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and private statistic companies record the number of civilians killed by the government and its allies between 2011 and 2021 as being between 175,000 and 207,000. In comparison, those same datasets record that ISIS was responsible for the deaths of between 5,000 and 6,500 Syrian civilians. The number of civilians killed by other opposition groups ranges between 6,000 and 11,000.
Put another way, the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies are likely responsible for between 86% and 94% of all civilian deaths directly caused by the war. There is no place for moral equivalency here.
Failure of conscience
Today, Assad’s government nominally controls about three quarters of the country. The region around Idlib, in the north-west, remains in opposition hands, principally those of radical Islamists though other groups operate there too and the area houses more than two million displaced Syrian civilians.
Turkey holds a pocket of land around the city of Afrin and along its border, and the Kurds continue to control most of the land they claimed during the war, a condition thus far tolerated by Damascus. Last week Istanbul launched missile attacks against Kurds in north-east Syria.
In government held areas, arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, and killing remain common. Torture is still employed systematically. Collective punishments are commonly employed, and families thought associated with the opposition have had property seized.
More than half the country’s population is displaced either inside Syria or in neighboring countries, principally Turkey and Lebanon.
There were many points when world leaders could have taken different decisions from the ones they did. Different decisions could have saved lives. For Russia and Iran, protecting Assad was always more important than protecting ordinary Syrians. For their ally, China, solidarity with political friends and an instinctive preference for brutal yet orderly authoritarianism were paramount.
What concessions to humanity these nations made were wrung out of them through intense diplomatic pressure, fears of Western military unilateralism and calculations of self-interest. The disarming of Syria’s chemical weapons after 2013 was agreed to only to forestall US airstrikes. At the peak of the war, “humanitarian” evacuation agreements were accepted by Assad’s government because they facilitated surrenders and forced displacement.
Western governments exhibited genuine humanitarian concern. But it was shallow concern always tempered by fears of international jihadist terrorism, political instability, and refugees, and the US ambition to withdraw from the Middle East and avoid creeping military entanglements.
The result was a dangerously contradictory strategy that involved vocal backing for human rights and democracy without offering the material support needed for these values to prevail.
Concerns about getting drawn into new military commitments inhibited serious consideration of options such as safe zones, no-fly zones, or targeted strikes against government artillery and aircraft used to terrorise civilians – options that Turkey proved in 2020 (when it used force to prevent the collapse of Idlib) could be utilised to good effect.
In 2011, the Obama administration stumbled on a strategy of trying to coerce Assad to share power by providing just enough support to keep the fight going but not enough to bring the opposition victory.
This strategy rested on an assumption no less flawed than the belief that Assad’s fall was inevitable: that Assad could be coerced into stepping down. It was a strategy that took no heed of the regime’s nature or its oft-stated intent to claim “every inch” of Syria by force. A flawed strategy always doomed to fail.
With the rise of ISIS in 2014, even this approach was pushed aside in favour of combating the caliphate and managing the refugee crisis. For the chaotic Trump administration, which came to power in late 2016, Syria – even with ISIS – was never more than a “strategic sideshow,” as one of several short-lived National Security Advisers, John Bolton, explained.
The inheritors of Bush Jnr’s “war on terror” were determined to avoid the mistakes of the past but in their determination to prevent resurgent jihadist terrorism, they contributed directly to the rise of first al-Nusra and then ISIS, and to the fragmenting and marginalisation of Syria’s peaceful protestors and mainstream opposition.
The US and its allies did eventually intervene in 2014, first with air strikes and special forces and then with a more extensive ground campaign – but to counter ISIS, not protect Syrians. The US-led coalition’s intervention helped some Syrians – notably the Kurds – in the short-term, but while it saved some Kurds from ISIS, its hasty execution exposed others to Turkish encroachment on their territory.
Regional powers also had their own priorities. The protection of Syrian civilians was rarely near the top. Syria’s neighbours played out their geopolitical struggle through the lives of Syria’s people.
More than two-thirds of Syria’s population are Sunni Muslim. These formed the backbone of the protest movement. One of the greatest cruelties of all was that those states with vast resources and a proclaimed affinity with Syria’s Sunnis – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Turkey, and Jordan – privileged their own interests over the collective interests of the people they claimed they were helping.
Rather than helping build a united opposition, they fermented and rewarded factionalism. Rather than encouraging a Syrian-led Free Syrian Army, a group initially founded by ex army officers , they tried to boost their own influence by arming and funding a panoply of small and fractious armed groups.
And rather than instilling in their clients the values of moderation and inclusiveness, they encouraged the lurch toward extremism. Regional powers created a competitive marketplace for arms, fighters, and funds that encouraged factionalism, rewarded extremism, and sowed the seeds of the opposition’s destruction.
What about civilians?
Everything else flowed from the key fact that the fate of Syria’s civilians was no one’s priority. There were critical junctures when things might have turned out differently had protection been prioritised. Yet at each turn there was always something else judged more important. The fate of Kofi Annan’s mediation mission in 2012 – effectively abandoned by a UN Security Council that had endorsed it – was one such instance.
There were many more mis-steps. Obama’s decision not to authorise air strikes in 2013. The UN’s decision not to refer the torture and killing of thousands trapped by Syria’s detention system to the International Criminal Court.
Russia’s decision to prop up Assad with military force. The West’s decision to not back Sunni opposition groups battling ISIS. Decisions to allow Assad to manipulate humanitarian aid to his advantage. The series of decisions by the UN Security Council to allow the cities of Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Deraa to be toppled one-by-one.
Once the fleeting belief in the inevitability of Assad’s fall evaporated, Western fears about instability and entanglement fed a deeply flawed assumption that drove a political strategy doomed from the outset to fail. That assumption was that Syria’s president could be persuaded or coerced into negotiating a political settlement that would satisfy the opposition’s core demands.
But no paper agreement could end state terror while Assad held onto the levers of Syria’s security apparatus.
To think otherwise was to misunderstand the personalised, patrimonial, and intensely brutal nature of Assad’s regime. It was also to be wilfully deaf to what Assad said repeatedly: that he would not be coerced; that he would reclaim “every inch” of Syria. Those who talked to him usually came to the same conclusion, though it took some longer than others to reach it.
The UN’s first envoy, Kofi Annan, reported that Assad had no interest in serious negotiation. Its second envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, quickly reached the same conclusion. The third UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, skirted around the issue for years propping up a zombified peace process that existed only in the minds of those paid to attend. But even he eventually reached the same conclusion.
No matter how often these flawed assumptions were exposed, governments persisted with a strategy dependent on the good graces of the very regimes they knew to be responsible for mass atrocities. We cannot be surprised that they failed.
Yet despite it all, Assad has still not retaken “every inch”. He likely never will. The Syrian economy has nosedived toward total collapse. Hyperinflation has brought home a new reality to Assad’s loyalist circle, a future with limited income, destroyed infrastructure, and little hope of reconstruction.
A future in which Syria’s governing elite will be dependent on Iran and Russia, two states with their own troubles that will likely diminish their ability and eagerness to prop up Assad, much less pay for reconstruction.
In much of the country, the government rules in name only. The security state on which Assad depends is no longer controlled exclusively by Syria’s government or the Assad family.
Russia all but controls the remaining functional parts of Syria’s armed forces; Iranian proxies in their tens of thousands have established themselves across the country in militias, causing resentment even among loyalists. Elsewhere, government control depends on a loose network of militias, each with its own loyalties and interests. It is a brutal compact already fraying – the daily protests in Daraa are far from the only signals of this.
Of Assad’s foreign allies, only Iran comes out of the war the stronger – its militias, weapons factories and stores, and networks now positioned across Syria are not far from the Golan Heights. But even this apparent success came at a colossal cost. Iran’s Shi’ite militia and Hezbollah allies sustained heavy losses, and the Syrian meat grinder helped cripple Iran’s economy. Spending more than $1 billion per year on Assad’s defence, the Iranian economy spiralled downward in 2020, provoking anti-government protests.
Russia succeeded in reasserting its place on the global stage by helping prop up Assad. But even before it invaded Ukraine, the nation found itself politically isolated, backing a Syrian regime it knows cannot command the loyalty of most of its people – a collapsed state run like a loose network of mafia fiefdoms facing a huge reconstruction bill.
Looking back to its original goals, Moscow’s policy failed completely in its first purpose: containing extreme violent Islamism. Its strategy of backing Assad helped embolden ISIS, which was suppressed only with significant American and Kurdish help.
Even with ISIS seemingly defeated, it would be difficult to claim that Moscow faces less of a threat from jihadi terrorism in the 2020s than it did in 2011. Its disastrous invasion of Ukraine has forced Moscow to reduce its support to Assad, giving up ground in the great game of political influence to Iran. Russia’s imperial dreams reached their apogee for a while in Syria but were fraying even before they were crushed in the fields of Ukraine.
It is not just that Assad’s long-predicted victory remains incomplete. It is that by refusing to deal properly with a regime responsible for mass atrocities, the international community is storing up trouble for the future.
The ghosts of the recent past will haunt Syria’s future until there is, at last, a reckoning. The UN, an increasing number of governments, and even some human rights organisations believe an authoritarian peace is possible. That Assad victorious can be coaxed to reform, his terrorised people persuaded to meekly accept their fate.
They are wrong. The violence and the suffering will likely continue until there is a reckoning with Assad and his allies.
Alex Bellamy’s Syria Betrayed: Atrocities, War, and the Failure of International Diplomacy is published by Columbia University Press.