As of February 2013, the civil war in Syria has been on-going for 1 year and 11 months. In March 2011, only 4 months since the Arab Spring began, protesters started to demand the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party government. President Assad had then been in power for 11 years, since his father’s death in 2000; his father had ruled in the same manner since 1971. Unlike the other revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, the ruling party did not fall within months. Bashar al-Assad remains in power and his forces are still fighting a bloody war with the rebels. Last month, the United Nations estimated that the death toll had exceeded 60,000 people.
After the country achieved independence in 1946, Syria faced a series of coups and instability until the Ba’ath Party seized power in March 1963. A bloodless military coup in late 1970 brought Lieutenant General Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, to power. A state of emergency has existed in Syria since 1963, due to tensions with Israel. Under the provisions of emergency law, Hafez al-Assad suppressed freedom of the press and political dissent, and his security forces arrested people without warrants and tried them under courts operating outside the standard judicial system. Human Rights Watch estimates that over 17,000 people have disappeared without the formality of a trial. Perhaps most infamously, in 1982, he ordered the destruction of Hama, a rebellious city, killing up to 40,000 of his own people. Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Bashar. The state of emergency remained in place and so did his father’s authoritarian regime.
The Arab Spring truly started on 17 December 2010, when Tunisian market vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself to protest government corruption. Massive protests and riots erupted among the population. In January 2011, Tunisian President Ben Ali, resigned and fled. A few days after that, emboldened Egyptian revolutionaries occupied Tahrir Square and demonstrations began in Syria; in February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned and protests began in Libya. The violent government crackdown on the protesters in Syria culminated in a “Day of Rage” on 15 March 2011 and civil war truly began. Since then, the regime has descended into launching daily airstrikes on its citizens, rebels and civilians alike.
Attempts by the United Nations to stop the bloodshed have stalled at the U.N. Security Council. Permanent member Russia has thrice blocked resolutions aimed at putting pressure on al-Assad, maintaining that Syria should decide its own fate. Russia’s only naval base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union is in Syria. Notably, Russia is the main producer of weaponry for the Syrian government; the current arms contracts are worth £950m and 10% of Russia’s global arms sales. Recently however, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has admitted that the likelihood of al-Assad remaining in power is decreasing as time goes on.
As we near the start of a third year of bloodshed, we can only hope for an end to the violence and the beginning of a free, open and peaceful Syrian society.