On 13 March 2011 in Dara’a, in the south of Syria, 15 teenage boys were arrested by Syrian security police for having written hostile graffiti against President Bashar Al-Assad on a school wall. The arrests led to non-violent protests in Derra and by 15 March the protests had spread to other Syrian cities. There were social, economic and ecological conditions in the country which set the stage for such protests. Corruption, unemployment, high population growth, limited resources and a huge budget for oversized security and military forces were the main obstacles for economic reforms. There was also the spirit of the “Arab Spring” which had started earlier with the January 2011 end of the government of Ben Ali in Tunisia.
Unlike earlier protest movements in Syria which were based on religious or ethnic, especially Kurdish, identity, the early 2011 movement stressed the unity of all the people and their demand to have their dignity recognized. Women participated actively. Social media via the internet was widely used.
Fairly quickly the protesters started to structure themselves in cities and larger towns. Protesters started to form local councils and to take up local administrative tasks. In 2011, Syria was a police state but under-administered concerning services of education, health and other public services. Rural areas were even less administered. There was a strong rural to urban migration, especially to larger towns. Social service needs were not met.
The government responded to these demonstrations with police and military violence. By mid-April, a peaceful demonstration in Homs was repressed with a number of demonstrators killed or wounded. Arrests, often followed by torture, became widespread. There were 12 different branches of the security forces, and prisons were overcrowded. While there were local leaders of protests, there were no nationwide leaders. With no identifiable leaders to arrest, the security forces arrested anyone who looked like a potential troublemaker. Due to the regime’s determination to silence any opposition, Syria’s political culture regressed into fear with an end to independent periodicals and intellectual forums.
By the end of 2011, the government increasingly called upon the regular military to replace the specialized security forces which were too few to deal with the spreading protests. Protesters started to carry weapons. Some of the regular military who were of the same background as the protesters started to desert and to take their weapons with them. Thus the Syrian conflict was transformed from a non-violent civil protest to a violent civil war leading to a large number of people displaced within the country and a large number of refugees, especially to neighbouring countries – Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, but also to Western Europe.
As the conflict grew, several regional and international actors involved themselves: Russia and the USA, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Lebanon with Hezbollah as well as the Jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Efforts at mediation have been carried out nearly from the start by the Arab League, U.N.-appointed mediators, and broader U.N.-sponsored meetings in Geneva. While the mediators have made detailed proposals, none have been acted upon. There have also been a few non-governmental efforts at mediation or at least efforts to keep avenues of communication open or to widen the persons involved, especially by increasing the role of women.
The Association of World Citizens has been involved in some of these non-governmental efforts, but there have been few advances. The long night of sorrow continues, but we must watch closely for a possible dawn.