At the outset of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Bashar al-Assad had been ruling over the country for 11 years. His father, Hafez al-Assad, had died in June 2000. Bashar only slightly modified the neo-patrimonial system his father had created. While this political system was built around the Assad family and Syria’s Alawite community, Hafez had also managed to engage well with the Sunni majority, the Christians, and the Druze. At the same time, both father and son presented their country as a beacon of resistance to the West and to Israel. Although Bashar had been expected to become a political reformer, he did not introduce any game-changing reforms and kept the status quo of neo-patrimonial authoritarianism intact. In fact, while the late Hafez had already sidelined officers he deemed threatening to his rule, his son picked his very own friends for important military and security positions.
However, even these advantages for the Assad regime did not prevent the Syrian people from riding on the waves of protest which swept through the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and early 2011. Indeed, the uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt had encouraged Syrians to believe that political change was possible. In January 2011, Tunisia’s longstanding dictator Ben Ali was toppled and fled to Saudi Arabia. One month later, his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak followed suit and resigned from office. Thus, from the perspective of the “Arab street” there was reason to be hopeful about the positive effect of public demonstrations. In a striking similarity to Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the Syrian town of Hasakeh saw the self-immolation of Hassan Ali Akleh on 28 January 2011. In contrast to Bouazizi, however, Akleh’s suicidal act of protest neither found extensive media coverage nor did it contribute to removing the Syrian regime. It did, however, highlight the willingness of the Syrian people to confront a government whose willingness to listen to the demands of the street was very limited.
The Syrian regime could count on two foreign powers: Russia and Iran. Russia had historical ties to Syria which hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. The strategic interests, however, were of greater importance to the Russian leadership, primarily the rivalry with the United States. Any defeat for Assad in the course of the conflict would have meant a victory for the US (or US allies in the country). Moreover, Russian president Vladimir Putin also feared that Sunni jihadist radicals could gain momentum in Syria and in Russia itself. When the Assad regime was on the brink of collapse, Russia intervened militarily and thus secured the survival of the Syrian dictator.
It is important to have a close look at what happened on the ground in Syria since March 2011. The southern town of Darʿa was the starting point of the conflict between regime and population. Syrian teenagers demonstrated against the Assad regime and were arrested and tortured. This resulted in renewed protests across the country, calling for the release of the young prisoners and general political reforms. The regime reacted with violence. The security forces killed at least four people, several more were arrested by the intelligence service, and the demonstrations were violently dispersed. Up to this point, the popular uprising against the Assad regime was not driven by militant forces.
The year 2012 saw the beginnings of an armed insurgency, thus moving from peaceful urban protest to militant rebel opposition threatening the Syrian government. These rebel brigades, armed and supported by foreign powers, managed to capture major cities in northern Syria, including parts of Aleppo. In this way, the regime was put under enormous pressure and had to demonstrate its resolve. In 2015 and 2016, government forces were able to recapture many of the major cities in Syria, including Aleppo in December 2016. This was only possible because of Russian military support, and it became clear that the regime had effectively won the war. By mid-2018, Assad had also regained control over important suburbs of Damascus and the city of Darʿa, the origin of the uprising in 2011. The rebels still control a small area along the Syrian-Turkish border near Aleppo, whereas Turkey and Kurdish forces fight over territories in the north of the country. Any lasting solution to the Syrian conflict will thus have to engage Turkey, the Kurds, Russia, Iran as well as the government in Damascus.