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The Battle for Syria

Christopher Phillips—

The Syrian civil war is the greatest human disaster of the twenty-first century. Since conflict broke out in 2011, it is estimated that over 500,000 have been killed and 1.9 million wounded. Over 5 million have fled the country and 6.6 million more are internally displaced, more than half the pre-war population of 21 million. A United Nations report estimated that by the end of 2013 Syria had already regressed forty years in its human development. Two years later, half of its public hospitals had been closed, barely half of its children were attending school and over 80 per cent of Syrians were living in poverty, a third in abject poverty. Thousands of cases of long-absent diseases like typhoid and measles returned due to a lack of vaccination. Large parts of Syria’s cities were rubble. The economy was in ruins. Hundreds of the country’s precious cultural heritage locations, including five of its six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, had been damaged or destroyed. The average life expectancy of a Syrian dropped from seventy to fifty-five in four years.

Over the course of its conflict Syria was fragmented. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad concentrated its efforts on retaining a heavily populated strip of land stretching from Suwaida in the south to the capital Damascus, the central cities of Homs, Hama and the coast. Yet he lost control of large swathes of the east, north and south, and only slowly clawed some of this back. Where regime forces withdrew, a patchwork of different opponents claimed authority, often challenging each other as much as the regime. Along the northern border, Syrian Kurdish forces ruled three self proclaimedcantons, while the sinister ISIS, a jihadist organisation originating in neighbouring Iraq, captured much of the east. In the south and north different opposition militia ruled local fiefdoms, some secular but many Islamist, often radically so. Attempts to end the war through negotiation have struggled, with neither Assad nor the rebels willing to make significant compromises. At the time of writing, the Assad regime has managed to retake much of its lost territory, but huge areas remain beyond its reach and much of the country is poor, war-shattered and unstable. Sadly, violence and instablity look likely to continue in Syria for many years. 

How did this happen? When peaceful protests broke out in the southern town of Deraa in March 2011 few could have imagined the horror to come. The protesters initially called for reform rather than regime change, inspired by similar demonstrations that had toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. When the authorities replied with force, killing several in Deraa, the protests snowballed, spreading to other cities where they were also met by regime violence. Opposition grew rapidly, particularly in poorer regions, now demanding Assad’s fall. The prosperous urban centres of Damascus and the commercial capital, Aleppo, remained comparatively quiet, and large orchestrated pro-Assad counter-demonstrations were held. The regime deployed cynical and brutal tactics. Agents provocateurs were placed among peaceful protesters to fire at regime troops, justifying them replying with lethal force. In some cases the regime’s secret police, the Mukhabarat, were placed within military and security units to threaten execution if soldiers refused to fire on civilians. False reports were delivered to Syria’s religious minority groups, claiming that the protesters, who were mostly from the 65 per cent of the population who were Sunni Muslim Arabs, were Islamist radicals determined to slaughter them, which scared many into backing Assad. Tens of thousands were arrested and tortured, while female protesters reported sexual assault by regime thugs, the shabiha.

Facing such violence and brutality, segments of the opposition, which emerged as a localised, largely leaderless movement, fought back. Initially, local militia were formed to protect protests, but as thousands defected from Assad’s military in disgust these groups swelled and began to challenge the regime head on. By late summer 2011 skirmishes between the regime and rebels were commonplace, and a civil war developed. Yet the decentralised nature of the opposition, which had allowed it to survive multiple arrests, proved a hindrance to waging a military campaign. The rebels formed more than 1,000 independent militias, often centred on a particular individual, region or ideology, hindering subsequent efforts to coordinate them under a single command structure. Personal and ideo-logical differences, particularly over the role of Islam and jihadism, only grew as the conflict dragged on. The failure to land a decisive blow on Assad contributed to rebel recrimination and the growing appeal of emerging radical groups such as ISIS. 

From The Battle for Syria by Christopher Phillips. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Christopher Phillips is Reader in International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. He lives in London.


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