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What is the Syrian Revolution?

The Syrian Revolution began in 2011 with spontaneous peaceful protests in the marginalized regions. 


The protests demanded freedom, dignity, and liberation–an end to their government’s oppression, corruption, and dictatorship. The protests quickly spread throughout Syria and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with armed repression, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Millions of people were displaced within Syria or forced to seek refuge in various parts of the world. Syria has become an international crisis as well as an arena for conflict between regional and international powers.


The Syrian Revolution cannot be viewed in isolation from the Arab Spring, which commenced with the Tunisian Revolution of December 17, 2010. The Tunisian Revolution was followed by the toppling of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mukbarak and Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which gave Syrians hope for the possibility of real political change. 


On February 17, 2011, A Syrian police officer insulted and beat up a citizen on February 17, 2011, prompting a gathering of people in the Al-Hurria (Freedom) Area in the middle of Damascus. They chanted slogans to support that young man, such as "The Syrian people will never be humiliated!" and "The country’s protector is its thief!"


However, these chants later turned to "We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Bashar!" after the Syrian Interior Minister resolved the matter for the benefit of the young man.


This incident was followed by a sit-in organized by civil society activists in front of the Libyan embassy on February 22, 2011, supporting the Libyan revolution. They chanted slogans calling for freedom, such as "Oh freedom, where are you? The rule of Muammar is between you and us!" and "The one who kills his people is a traitor!"


Daraa, in southern Syria, saw security forces arrest a group of children from the Arbaeen School at the end of February 2011. This was because they wrote phrases on the wall of their school such as "The people want to topple the regime!" and "Your turn has come, Oh doctor!" imitating the phrases raised by the protesters in the Arab Spring countries. The latter chant referenced Bashar al-Assad’s previous career as an ophthalmologist. 


The children, most of whom were under fifteen years old, were taken to the Political Security Headquarters in Daraa and tortured. 


When parents demanded to know the fate and whereabouts of their children, the local head of Political Security, Atef Najib–a relative of Bashar al-Assad–responded by telling them to forget about their children. He also made lewd comments to the distressed parents, telling them to make more children and joking about having his thugs help with the process. 


This paved the way for popular demonstrations later in Daraa.


Some people say the Syrian Revolution began on March 15, with the first protest organized by civil society activists in the Hamidiyah Market in central Damascus. The protesters chanted slogans calling for freedom, such as "God, Syria, freedom, and that's it!" The police and other security forces quickly attacked the demonstration, violently dispersed it, and arrested a number of the participating activists.


Some Facebook pages that supported the revolution called for mass protests in Syrian cities on Friday, March 18, 2011, under the name "Friday of Dignity." Several Syrian cities responded, and the Daraa demonstration was particularly massive. This was in response to the Assad regime's officials expelling the families who had demanded the release of their detained children. 


The Syrian regime forces resorted to firing live ammunition while dispersing the demonstration, which led to the death of the first martyrs of the Syrian Revolution.


The demonstrations continued, and Syrian cities and villages successively joined the demonstrations. The funerals of the martyrs turned into mass demonstrations of a peaceful nature, demanding freedom and change.


The Syrian regime responded to all the demonstrations with repression, arrests, shooting to kill, human rights violations, and other assaults on those who took part in the demonstrations and on the residents of the areas where they took place. They also carried out raids and arrests of Syrian activists and peaceful protesters and set up checkpoints in cities, their outskirts, and the countryside.


A major turning point for the Syrian Revolution, a moment that convinced even moderates who had settled for demanding simple reforms that Assad must go, was the discovery of what happened to Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. 


He was a thirteen year-old-boy from Daraa who participated in a protest with his family and went missing on April 29, 2011 after security forces started shooting. He disappeared amid the chaos of people fleeing for their lives from gunfire and his family spent nearly a month trying to discover his whereabouts–they received no word from the government that he had been detained along with fifty other protestors by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. It was only on May 29 that his parents, siblings, and extended family learned of Hamza’s fate when his corpse was delivered to their home. 



The murdered child was covered in burn marks of various size and shape, ranging from cigarettes to electroshock devices, as well as lacerations, bruises, and several broken bones–including his jaw, neck, and kneecaps. His entire body was swollen and bruised from non-stop beatings and torture, his hands and feet had their skin stripped off from being whipped with a cable. He also suffered three gunshot wounds–one bullet through each arm, passing through bone and lodging into his abdomen, plus a third round fired point-blank into his chest–and had his genitals cut off with a knife or other sharp object.   


Hamza Ali al-Khateeb was not merely killed–he was tortured to death by the Assad regime, at only thirteen years old. This atrocity enraged the Syrian Opposition and convinced many of the undecided that the regime needed to be overthrown.


The repression used by the Syrian regime to confront the peaceful demonstrations led to their slogans changing from freedom and demands for change to calls for the toppling of the regime and rejecting the rule of Bashar al-Assad.


Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and other local councils emerged in Syrian governorates, cities, and rural areas amid the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution. They aimed to unify efforts, follow up and plan for field activities, and organize a habitable living situation for their neighborhoods and villages. Their role expanded over time, and they gave rise to media, human rights, relief, and political committees.


The LCC’s and local councils worked to document human rights violations and communicate with official bodies to provide them with the names of detainees, martyrs, and crimes that occurred in the area. They managed the community while some areas were subjected to siege and shelling. They were also responsible for relief efforts and issuing reports on the regime’s human rights violations.


Army defections began in the ranks of the Syrian regular army in the second month of the revolution. The defections continued in different ranks, such as when a lieutenant named Abdul Razzaq Tlass announced his defection in an interview with Al-Jazeera on June 7, 2011. He explained the reason for his defection was the regime’s inhuman and immoral practices against the citizens. 


The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was founded by Colonel Riad Al-Ass’ad, the highest-ranking defected officer, following a statement he issued on August 3, 2011 inviting defected soldiers to organize themselves. The number of defectors and those joining the Free Army increased over time, and its presence was distributed in various rebellious areas.


Free Syrian Army fighters carried the weapons they had with them, and they captured some weapons from the military in operations they carried out. By the end of 2011, the FSA was distributed across the country and controlled parts of Idlib, the countryside of Aleppo and Hama, Homs, Qusayr, Ghouta, and some areas of Daraa.


When the regime was unable to stop the demonstrations and lost its ability to control the rebellious cities and towns, it adopted a scorched-earth policy. It besieged opposition-held areas, cutting off food and medical supplies to the population and intentionally caused famines. This coincided with continuous shelling of the besieged cities by artillery, heavy machine guns, and aircraft, targeting residential buildings and houses. This led to massacres and the death of many martyrs and the injuring of several others. Field hospitals staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses were unable to remedy the situation, especially with the cutting of roads and medical aid.


The regime eventually attempted to storm the cities and seize control of opposition-held neighborhoods, committing a massacre everytime they succeded. The Free Army defended the besieged cities and fought on their fronts until it was forced to withdraw or surrender and make a truce with the regime, due to the brutality of the siege and shelling. Things often ended with the deportation of everyone in the city, town, or village to Idlib–the alternative was allowing them to stay on the regime's terms, such as the condition that the fighters leave and hand over their weapons or become “reconciled” with the regime and join its army.


This was perpetrated in many Syrian cities, including neighborhoods in Homs such as Baba Amr, Khalidiya, and Qusayr–as well as Eastern Aleppo, Ghouta, and many other cities and towns that the regime was able to regain control of through the scorched-earth policy.


The regime used heavy weapons of all kinds, including incendiary weapons, cluster munitions, and Scud missiles. A year into the revolution, the air strikes began–most often explosive barrels filled with metal and explosives that were dropped from helicopters. The targets included all civilian facilities, such as homes, houses, schools, civil society institutions, hospitals, medical points, field hospitals, popular markets, and civilian gatherings, and caused great massacres. 


The regime also engaged in the most egregious and extensive use of chemical weapons seen thus far in the twenty-first century. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented that the Syrian regime carried out 222 chemical attacks in different parts of Syria, killing at least 1,510 people and injuring more than 11,000 others.


The Ghouta massacre is the most infamous chemical massacre carried out by the regime. It took place on Wednesday, August 21, 2013, and targeted the suburbs of Ghouta in the Damascus countryside. The Syrian regime bombarded it with rockets carrying chemical warheads, which led to the deaths of at least several hundred people and the injury of thousands.


The Syrian Revolution witnessed the intervention of external sides to support the regime in the fight against the rebels, contributing to the survival of the regime and preventing its toppling. Several human rights and press reports have documented the participation of sectarian militias in supporting the regime and providing it with military assistance since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. They documented the presence of at least 35,000 foreign fighters–most of whom come from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistanfighting alongside the Syrian regime. Their presence contributed to the regime's recapture of large areas from the hands of the rebels, especially in the countryside of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.


Numerous massacres and other major human rights violations were also recorded by these militias through the brutal methods they used in raids–including arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, slaughtering of civilians en masse, and mutilation. 


Some of these movements have openly declared their participation with the regime, such as the announcement by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General of their participation in the Battle of al-Qusayr in April 2013. They continued to fight alongside the regime’s soldiers and militias for several years until Assad’s government recaptured most of Syria–the regime would likely have fallen a decade ago had Hezbollah not intervened. 


Iran has been a political and military ally of the Syrian regime even before the revolution and now contributes to the regime’s prolonged lifespan by supporting it on several levels. On the economic level, Syria’s debts to Iran amount to more than 35 billion dollars.

Iran has also worked to supply the Syrian regime with weapons and foreign fighters, a campaign of military intervention that became impossible to keep secret. The Battle of al-Qusayr in 2013 was a major turning point in Iran's military role–no longer limited to support and supply, but rather tasked some officers from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to take command during battles and other military operations.


Talking about Russia, they have supported the Assad regime politically and diplomatically since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. Their minimal role expanded significantly in June 2015 when military supply ships and giant transport planes arrived in Syrian ports and airports. The Hmeimim base was established 25 kilometers south of Latakia, and the first attack by Russian aircraft was recorded on September 30, 2015, by targeting Free Syrian Army (FSA) positions around Homs.


Russia bases the legitimacy of its intervention on two things. The first is that the intervention was "a response to calls of a legitimate regime", which is the Syrian regime. The second is based on UN Security Council Resolution 2249, which allows members to "take the necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts" on the territory under the control of the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq. 


However, human rights organizations respond to Russia's intervention by saying that the Syrian regime is an "illegitimate regime" because it seized power by force, terror, and threat. They also say that it has violated international law by committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. Russian forces have committed multiple massacres that have killed more than 7,000 people, including more than 2,000 children, and targeted more than 1,243 vital centers, including schools, medical facilities, and markets, by the end of 2022. 


Finally, our revolution still faces difficulties, but the Syrian people have found their way and will continue until they achieve the noble goals of their revolution. They will lay the foundations for a state of citizenship that respects the rights of its citizens and provides them with dignity, justice, and a decent life. We can now realize this very well as we witness demonstrations in the city of As-Suwayda calling for freedom and the overthrow of Assad, and others in Idlib calling for the overthrow of the de-facto authority held by Abu Mohammed al-Julani. Further protests in Jinderes against the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army and in Deir ez-Zor against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last year make it abundantly clear that the Syrian people will no longer tolerate corruption, disrespect, and subjugation.  


Syrians in the north, south, east, and west–despite everything that has befallen them–still insist on achieving their demands.


We call on the free people of the world to join Free Syrians in supporting their struggle for freedom, justice, and dignity. We also call on them to trust the Syrian people's ability to complete their revolution, after their youth amazed the world with their courage. Our duty towards those who sacrificed their lives for Syria is to build the better state that these heroes dreamed of after getting rid of systemic injustice and tyranny.


We are celebrating the thirteenth anniversary these days, and we are all hopeful that this will be our last year to suffer from displacement, detention, prosecution, and torture. We hope that by the next anniversary of the revolution will come that our goals of freedom, justice, and dignity have been achieved, and that we will all be in the squares of Syria chanting for freedom.


Mercy to the martyrs, healing to the wounded, and freedom to the prisoners.


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