“Assad or we burn the country” was the grim warning partisans of Bashar al-Assad’s regime graffitied early in the Syrian uprising. Tensions had been steadily rising since January 2011, in line with the revolutions then sweeping the Arab world, and on 15 March simultaneous anti-government demonstrations swept the nation for the first time, including in the cities of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
By April, residents of the southern city of Daraa, an early hotbed of anti-regime activism, described being unable to move for fear of the snipers positioned on the city’s roofs. On 29 July a group of officers who had defected from the regime announced the formation of the rebel Free Syrian Army as civil unrest escalated into a full-scale civil war.
The nearly decade-long conflict would eventually draw in a dozen external powers and lead to the rise and fall of Islamic State, extinguishing the early hopes of the protesters in Daraa, Damascus, Homs and elsewhere.
In the first years of the war, Assad’s regime’s grip on power at times appeared shaky. In 2013, after his forces used chemical weapons in an opposition-held suburb of Damascus, killing around 1,400, according to a US government assessment, Western powers looked poised to act against him. Had then-US president Barack Obama enforced his self-declared “red line” against chemical weapons, the course of the war might have been drastically different. But, in the event, Obama backed down, leaving Assad’s regime safe.
In the following months, Assad’s strategy of strengthening the Islamist opposition at the expense of secular rebels contributed to the rise of Isis, which enforced its reign of terror over territory straddling the border between Syria and Iraq. At points, the regime controlled less than a third of Syria’s land.
Yet intervention by Russia, from 2015, would help turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favour. Rebel towns were levelled as regime forces, supported by Russian airstrikes, struck indiscriminately at civilian targets such as markets and hospitals. Entire neighbourhoods of Aleppo, an opposition stronghold and the country’s pre-war economic capital, were devastated during the campaign to recapture the city. A UN report later found that the Russian air force was guilty of war crimes.
Today, Assad’s regime controls most of the country, but his is a pyrrhic victory. Syria is demolished. Half of all hospitals have been destroyed. Some 70 per cent of Syrians do not have access to clean water. Around 50 per cent of the population is displaced, half of those having fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon but also to Europe. Almost 20 million Syrians – out of 22 million total – are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. Around 400,000 have been killed over the decade of fighting and perhaps 1.5 million injured.
The cost of rebuilding the country is estimated at $250bn, four times Syria’s pre-war GDP and close to ten times the estimated size of its economy today.
Meanwhile, Assad exercises a form of limited sovereignty over a country divided between rival factions, including a Turkish occupation in the north, Kurdish rule in the northeast and a US-declared “de-confliction zone” in the south. Within the territory he controls, his rule is secure. Elections due this year are unlikely to result in any great upsets.
Syrians rose up a decade ago because “nobody – not even such a dictatorship – has the right to prevent people existing as human beings and not as slaves”, Mazen Darwish, an opposition activist who was at the first protests in Daraa, told me when I met him late last year.
More than anything, Syria’s decade of war is the story of the abandonment of a people. As great powers quarrelled over geopolitical spheres of influence, Syrians were bombed, gassed, tortured and starved. The fighting may now be mostly over. But the bleak future promised by the regime’s taunting slogans came to pass and the suffering of the Syrian people continues.