The Battle of Aleppo: The History of the Ongoing Siege at the Center of the Syrian Civil War (2016)

Chapter 5: From Protests to Civil War

Although demonstrations were seen as early as January, March 15 is generally considered to be the start of the Syrian “uprising”. On that date, a “Day of Rage” saw hundreds protest in Damascus and Aleppo and six participants were detained.[26] The next day, as many as 34 additional people were arrested when security forces intervened in another demonstration in the capital near the Ministry of Interior.[27] In Dara’a, located in northwestern Syria, protesters gathered to condemn the alleged arrest and torture of teenage boys responsible for anti-government graffiti earlier that month.[28] That Friday, March 18, large-scale demonstrations were held in Baniyas, north of Tartus in western Syria; in Homs, also in the country’s west; in Damascus; and again in Dara’a. In all but Baniyas, where the entrances to the city were reportedly closed, security forces intervened and detained participants.[29] Human rights activists also stated that four people were killed in Dara’a.[30] 

From this point on, protests became a daily occurrence, with funerals often acting as anti-government rallies and Fridays seeing some of the highest turnout. Assad’s obstinate attitude toward the protesters took a fateful and violent turn when he gave his brother, Maher, a free hand to deal with them. Maher filled a role similar to Hafez’s brother Rifaat before he was exiled from Syria, as he was head of the Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard, which served to protect the regime (Lesch 2012, 105). Just as Hafez called in Rifaat to put down the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the late 1970’s and early 1980s, Bashar appealed to Maher to suppress protests in Syria 30 years later, which he gladly did with equally brutal methods, often carried out personally (Lesch 2012, 105). The primary difference between the two situations was that the methods employed by Hafez and Rifaat ultimately proved to be successful, while those used by Bashar and Maher have apparently thrown Syria into a state of sectarian warfare.

Forcible dispersal of protests, involving traditional methods like tear gas, as well as live ammunition, became commonplace, including at funerals. This then created a cycle, comprised of death, subsequent funeral-cum-protest, police intervention, additional deaths, and so on. Some of the operations by Syrian security forces also went further than forcible dispersal and detention, with government sieges and blockades routinely placed on cities witnessing regular opposition activity. Dara’a, for example, came under siege as early as April 2011. In addition to a daily curfew implemented 19:00 to 07:00, residents faced cuts to electricity, water, and phone lines, as well as difficulties in accessing increasingly depleted stores of food, water, and medicine. Local residents described arbitrary arrests and torture, while attempts to bring supplies into the city were met with repression.[31] And although authorities announced the conclusion of this siege in May, other reports indicated that, despite the withdrawal of some participating forces, the blockade continued.[32]

Dara’a was not unique. Similar situations were seen in cities across the country, involving, like in Dara’a, the entry of tanks, closure of city entrances, and arrest operations. Torture was a common allegation. Notable cases in the first half of 2011 included Madaya, located in northwest of Damascus, and Douma, a suburb of the capital[33] in April; Baniyas in northwestern Syria,[34] the western cities of Homs,[35] Talkalakh,[36] Talbiseh, and Rastan[37] in May; the northwestern cities of Jisr al-Shughur[38] and Khan Shaykhun[39] in June; Hama[40] and eastern Syria’s Deir Ez-Zor[41] in July; as well as the coastal city of Latakia,[42] Qusayr in the west, and multiple cities and towns in the northern Idlib Province in August.[43]

From the beginning, Assad described the events in Syria not as a domestic movement with legitimate concerns, but as actions taken by “armed groups” or “armed gangs” and backed by “foreign conspirators” and “enemies of Syria”. Israel, in particular, was frequently cited as one of these foreign conspirators, including as early as March 2011 in his first public address since the unrest began.[44] Assad said in a speech to the Syrian People’s Assembly on March 30, 2011: “Our enemies work every day in an organized, systemic and scientific manner in order to undermine Syria’s stability. We acknowledge that they had been smart in choosing very sophisticated tools in what they have done, but at the same time we realize that they have been stupid in choosing this country and this people, for such conspiracies do not work with our country or our people.” (Lesch 2012, 76-77).

Even as late as 2012, with the civil war raging, Assad remained defiant when Der Spiegel asked if he was sorry about the way his supporters handled Dara’a: “There were personal mistakes made by individuals. We all make mistakes. Even a president makes mistakes. But even if there were mistakes in the implementation, our decisions were still fundamentally the right ones.” And in response to questions from Der Spiegel about the Syrian people wanting him gone, Assad said of his enemies, “Again, when you talk about factions, whether they are opposition or supporters, you have to ask yourself the question: Whom do they represent? Themselves or the country that made them? Are they speaking for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? My answer here has to be frank and straight to the point. This conflict has been brought to our country from abroad. These people are located abroad, they live in five-star hotels and they say and do what those countries tell them to do. But they have no grassroots in Syria.” At the same time, he has cast his opponents as the very al-Qaeda terrorists the West despises: “The whole problem wasn't about the president. What do killing innocents, explosions and the terrorism that al-Qaida is bringing to the country have to do with me being in office?”

Assad’s claims were also echoed by Iranian officials. In April 2011, for example, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that “what is happening in Syria is a mischievous act of Westerners, particularly Americans and Zionists”.[45] Foreign correspondents also fell under this category, with restrictions placed on media coverage and frequent reports of journalists being detained and expelled.[46] These actions would help the Assad government control the information leaving Syria and, most importantly, the narrative. It is one thing to be killing unarmed civilians with legitimate demands for reform, and it is quite another to be putting down a rebellion. Attempts to restrict media coverage, however, could only impact traditional news outlets and methods of reporting; the extensive use of social media meant that information about events on the ground would continue to leave the country.

By April, this narrative would also involve the depiction of Assad as being at the forefront of a battle against radical Islamists: In that month, the country’s interior minister stated that Syria was facing an “armed insurrection”, including by some groups using “the motto of Jihad [holy war] to set up a Salafist state”.[47] After all, the threat from al-Qaeda was real and Assad attempted to exploit this fear. Some even argue that the March 2011 release of 200 prisoners, the majority of which were reportedly Islamists, was not in fact an effort to appease protesters but rather the intentional release of Islamist prisoners to discredit the opposition. Some of these individuals were allegedly secretly trained by Syria and dispatched to Iraq to fight American forces there, only to be detained upon their return.[48]

While people outside of the country were rightly skeptical about such claims, one of the primary strengths of the Assad dynasty, the backing of the Alawite sect, became one of the major reasons why Syria devolved into sectarian warfare. Most of the government and police forces who participated in the violent crackdowns against protesters were Alawites, while the majority of the opposition was from the Sunni community, which was portrayed by the Assad regime as fundamentalists (Lesch 2012, 106). Assad has used the fragmented sectarian demographic background of Syria to his advantage by arguing that if fundamentalist Sunnis came to power in Syria, it would mean bloodshed for the Alawites, Ishmailis, Druze, and Christians whom his family protected. After all, the Syrian minorities only needed to look at the persecution the Christian Copts of Egypt were experiencing in the wake of their Arab Spring (Lesch 2012, 107).

Side-by-side with the violent repression of protests and sieges of Syrian cities, Assad frequently promised to—and did—implement reform, even as his rhetoric to delegitimize the opposition movement also continued.[49] In his first public address in March 2011 since the unrest began, Assad promised to start implementing reform immediately with the caveat that the government’s “priorities are stability and improving economic conditions”.[50] Later, he ordered investigations into replacing the emergency law, which barred gatherings of over five people and legally legitimized police intervention; into deaths of protesters, including in Dara’a; and into the possibility of addressing and resolving the number of stateless Kurds.[51] All of these were demands of protesters.

Shortly after these promises, at the beginning of April, Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to the approximately 220,000 Kurds classified as “foreigners” in Hasaka, located in the country’s northeast.[52] He also aimed to address the demands of Sunni Islamists, which were, as previously discussed, perpetually part of the opposition. Therefore, also at the beginning of April, Assad closed the country’s only casino and lifted the ban on teachers wearing the niqab.[53]

The promise to replace the emergency law was revived again on April 16 in Assad’s second televised speech, this time to the new cabinet, which had been sworn in following the prior cabinet’s resignation over the anti-government protests.[54] “The juridical commission on the emergency law has prepared a series of proposals for new legislation,” he announced, “and these proposals will be submitted to the government, which will issue a new law within a week at the most”.[55] On April 21, Assad signed the bill that lifted the emergency law, which should have, at least in theory, legalized demonstrations by lifting the ban on gatherings of more than five people. However, in practice, the simultaneous passage of separate legislation that required a permit for demonstrations[56] meant that violent police intervention continued, as did arrests.

In June 2011, Assad’s third public speech promised additional reform, including a national dialogue, Parliamentary elections in August, and legislation aimed at fighting corruption. He also mentioned electoral and constitutional reforms, but left this vague.[57] All of these were, as before, demands of protesters. The next month, in July, the national dialogue was opened at a resort northwest of Damascus in Dimass (also spelled Demas) and tasked with discussing a transition to multi-party democracy. Although politicians who were described as “moderate” participated in the dialogue, opposition figures refused to attend any talks while violence against protesters continued. Demonstrations were also called under the slogan “No to dialogue”.[58] The results of the national dialogue were then implemented in early August when Assad issued a decree permitting the formation of multiple parties.[59]

The devolution into armed conflict can be seen as a result of four main factors: Assad’s continued use of violence to repress demonstrators despite parallel reform measures; the perception among the opposition that Assad had lost all legitimacy and that his reforms were not being implemented in good faith; the inability of the international community to concretely influence the on-the-ground situation; and the developing belief that protests were no longer a sufficient way to effect change in the Syrian leadership.

Even if the reforms implemented by Assad were done in good faith, which is understandably debatable, continued efforts to suppress and delegitimize protesters created a “too little, too late” attitude among and meant that, after time, there was nothing Assad could do to satisfy the opposition aside from leaving his position. This is clearly seen in the evolution of the demonstrators’ demands from calls for reform, including the abolition of the emergency law, increased freedoms, multi-party democracy, an end to corruption, and the release of political prisoners, to calls for Assad to be overthrown. To the opposition, the government wouldn’t be using armed force against protests if they truly intended to listen to and implement their demands.

Outside of Syria, the international community as a whole proved both ineffective in influencing Assad to alter his policies and highly divided. In April, Russia, China, and Lebanon opposed the wording of a United Nations Security Council resolution presented by European nations that condemned the government’s crackdown on protesters. Russia’s deputy UN ambassador explained his country’s opposition by stating that Syria’s response to the protests was not a threat to international peace and security. Rather, he stated, “a real threat to regional security could come from outside interference”.[60] In fact, the first statement issued on Syria from the Security Council would be unrelated to the government’s suppression of protesters butand instead condemn the July 12, 2011 attacks against the French and U.S. Embassies in Damascus.[61] A month later, a statement expressing concern over the situation in Syria was finally issued by the Security Council president.[62]

Although the lack of collective action caused individual countries to engage Syria on their own, they proved equally ineffective at changing the behavior of the Assad regime. In April 2011, for example, the U.S. imposed sanctions on “Syrian officials and others responsible for the commission of human rights abuses, including those related to repression”. The next month, designations were placed on Assad and six other senior Syrian officials, and still other sanctions were imposed in June. Iranian entities and figures were included in these designations for offering material support to the Syrian government. By August, “the President issued Executive Order 13582 which blocks the property of the prohibits new investments in Syria by U.S. persons, prohibits the exportation or sale of services to Syria by U.S. persons, prohibits the importation of petroleum or petroleum products of Syrian origin, and prohibits U.S. persons from involvement in transactions involving Syrian petroleum or petroleum products.”[63]

In May and June, the European Union (EU) also imposed and expanded sanctions on Syrian and Iranian individuals and entities. Initially in May, 13 senior officials “identified as being responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population” were sanctioned and an embargo on arms and equipment designated for “internal repression” was passed. Later that month, 10 additional officials, including Assad, were added to the list, with another seven more in June, including members of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF),[64] as well as four entities.[65] These economic measures occurred alongside condemnations of the situation in Syria by various parties, including the UN Secretary General (UNSG), Arab League, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),[66] as well as the recall of ambassadors from Damascus. By August, the leaders of multiple western countries, including the U.S., Canada, Germany, and France were publically calling for Assad to step down.[67]

However, Assad didn’t step down, the sanctions and arms embargo didn’t stop the crackdown on protesters, and the recall of ambassadors, much less public condemnations, didn’t influence his decisions. Thus, much like the evolution in the opposition’s demands, continued repression and inaction elsewhere transformed the perception of successful ways to bring about change. If protests couldn’t and wouldn’t trigger Assad’s removal and remained ineffective in the face of armed security forces, if the UNSC wasn’t able to pass a resolution, and the international community could do naught other than enforce sanctions, recall ambassadors, and issue condemnations, then perhaps armed opposition would see more success.

The fact that the initial instances of armed opposition came in response to government sieges supports this argument. One of the first recorded incidents occurred at the end of May 2011, when the sieges of Talbiseh and Rastan triggered an armed response by residents using automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. According to an activist quoted by the Associated Press (AP), it was not uncommon for Syrians to be in possession of light arms,[68] including those used in Talbiseh and Rastan. Both were ultimately suppressed.

The next month, armed opposition was similarly reported during the siege of Jisr al-Shughur that began on June 11; however, by June 13, the Syrian government stated that the city had been completely retaken.[69] The solidification of this perspective was likely also assisted by the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the end of July 2011. Led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad and composed of defectors from the Syrian military, its stated objective was the removal of the Assad regime. This was the first organized military opposition and demonstrated that even former members of Syria’s own security forces saw organized armed opposition as the appropriate way to defeat the regime.

Although Assad’s tactic of dividing Syria’s population may have initially helped him stay in power, it had the effect of deepening the sectarian conflict. Furthermore, as defectors from the Syrian army began to form the Free Syrian Army, Islamic militant jihadists also began to enter the war (Lesch 2012, 174-75). Although the Free Syrian Army is comprised of a lot of secular elements (British Broadcasting Company 2013, October 17), Assad’s propaganda campaign has tirelessly depicted his enemies as al-Qaeda connected terrorists, and he has portrayed a potential Free Syrian Army victory as genocide for Syria’s Shia and Christian communities. The fear has prompted paramilitary Alawite gangs, known as Shabihas (ghosts in Arabic), to kill members of the opposition and Sunnis indiscriminately (Lesch 2012, 177). Perhaps not surprisingly, Assad has denied the Shabihas exist, even while justifying their existence: “There is nothing called ‘Shabiha’ in Syria. In many remote areas where there is no possibility for the army and police to go and rescue the people and defend them, people have bought arms and set up their own small forces to defend themselves against attacks by militants. Some of them have fought with the army, that's true. But they are not militias that have been created to support the president. At issue is their country, which they want to defend from al-Qaida.”

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Riad al-Asaad