The war in Syria has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people, displaced half the country’s population, and sparked a humanitarian crisis that caused shocks in Europe and the world.
It has now been 10 years since the start of the conflict.
Looking back on this decade-long conflict, Euronews has published a series of exclusive reports that tell the story of the war through the personal experience of those who lived through it and escaped.
“The people want the fall of the regime” – was the chant repeated by the tens of thousands of Syrians who, in March 2011, took to the streets for the first time daring to shout what they once feared to whisper.
Muhammed Subat was among them. “No one could say anything. But in 2011, the words just came out … everyone took to the streets to say: ‘freedom, dignity, we want to eliminate Assad.’
Bashar al-Assad had ruled Syria for 11 years, inheriting power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had spent 30 years in command.
The family ruled a totalitarian state and Syrians held them accountable for a dark era in which corruption, injustice and torture were the norm.
Inspired by the initial successes of a powerful wave of uprisings that was shedding dictators and transforming the face of the Arab world in the so-called Arab Spring, many in Syria dared to dream of change.
The southern city of Daraa, Muhammad’s hometown where the initial protests took place, would become known as the “cradle of the revolution.”
And there, the Bashar Assad regime was to unleash the first wave of terror that Syria was to witness for the next 10 years and beyond. He tried to suppress the protests with deadly military force and mass arrests.
Muhammed Subat ended up in Assad’s jails, twice.
“In a very small space, there were more than 100 people. There were electric shocks. And insults… everything. There’s something where they hang you upside down from the ceiling for nine or ten hours and they beat you up. And our only crime was participating (in protests) and asking for freedom. That was our crime. “
The Syrian regime justified its initial actions by accusing the protesters of carrying out an armed insurgency from the start. The protesters flatly deny it.
“From the beginning, the Assad government and its media lied. And everyone knows that they are liars. Everyone saw that the people in the streets had nothing, how can the protesters be blamed? What did you do? They did nothing. They sang, danced, talked… everything was beautiful. We were like in a bubble… we wrote songs about the revolution. But the government lies. Everything he says is lies. “
After months of brutal government crackdown on protesters, military officers began to defect to form a resistance movement. In July 2011, the rise of the Free Syrian Army ushered in a new phase in the revolt.
“And when the regime starts bombing cities, we try to ask the international community to intervene, to protect us from being killed, but no one responded,” says Khaled KK, from Homs, who was only 21 when he decided to collect arms.
“We lost hope and said that we have to trust ourselves and what we have.
“I did not know how to use a weapon. I’ve never seen a real gun before. “
Like Khaled, thousands joined the conflict in a fight for freedom, democracy and a new Syria. But very quickly the multitude of groups diverged in their priorities.
In January 2012, al-Qaida fighters announced the creation of a Syrian branch. The newly formed Nusra Front called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria.
Meanwhile, the fighting continued to escalate. The rebels captured the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s second city. The regime forces dropped barrel bombs on densely populated urban areas.
By the second year of the conflict, one million civilians had fled and another half a million had been displaced.
Then US President Barack Obama said that “we cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons fall into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime and also to other players on the terrain that a red line for us is, we start to see a lot of chemical weapons moving or being used … that would change my calculation, that would change my equation. “
But exactly one year later, in the east and west of Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, a sarin gas attack struck rebel-held areas, killing hundreds.
Obama’s “red line” had been crossed, but nothing could be done: Congress rejected the action.
The Ghouta chemical attack was the closest the West came to direct intervention.
At one point, the UN said the chaos of the battlefield made it impossible to count the dead. Then they stopped. But the fight did not.
The Syrian war would become the most complex conflict to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring.
From the beginning, outside actors used Syria to settle their scores. Dozens of countries, regional governments, and global powers were involved in fueling the flames of war within the country’s borders.
First, Iranian-backed militias provided ground support to Assad, while the opposition had financial support from the Gulf countries, but also training from the United States and Turkey.
That was until Russia entered the conflict, irreversibly shifting the balance of power.
The ‘Syrian Mission’ was launched in September 2015, two months after Ahmad Sheer, a painter from Aleppo, fled Syria.
The 40-year-old said he didn’t want to leave, but one day he was left with a choice: flee or join the fight.
“Getting involved in the war is something else. It’s something I couldn’t do. “
Moscow claimed it was targeting terrorist groups, but Russian attacks were found to constantly hit Western-backed rebels as well as civilians.
War crimes charges were brought against Moscow due to the constant attacks on hospitals and civilian properties.
Ahmed says he watched from afar as his people faced relentless violence. “Pain and shock” are now etched into his art.
Rise of the Islamic State
Amid the chaos and violence, Syria became a fertile ground for extremism.
The rise of the Islamic State, originally an offshoot of Al-Qaida, spread unprecedented levels of terror as the group declared a ‘caliphate’, using Raqqa, a city of 300,000, as its de facto capital.
As extremist followers from around the world flocked to the territory, the Syrians had one more enemy to escape from.
Mohammad had already fled the city, but tells how he experienced the horrors perpetrated by the terrorist group from afar, through his mother and siblings who were left behind and subject to the group’s rule.
“One day they came to see my mother and told her that I had to stop my humanitarian work. She knew it then and understood it as a threat, ”says Mohammed.
In Eskilstuna, on the outskirts of Stockholm, the Swedish capital, Mohammed is not the only refugee from Raqqa.
Doctors Hamza Alkhedr and Ismail Kadro, both doctors now employed by the local hospital, say their lives have been forever marked by the group’s brutality.
Not just because of ISIS, but also because of the destruction caused by a four-month US-led air campaign against the terror group, which is estimated to have killed 1,600 civilians.
Among the dead are Dr. Ismail Kadro’s mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephews.
It was “January 8, 2016 in Raqqa. And I don’t know who bombed my house, who killed my family. I do not know. Maybe Assad, maybe America, maybe France, maybe British, maybe Dutch … I don’t know.
Over the past decade, multiple attempts to find a solution to the conflict have failed. From initiatives launched by the Arab League in 2011, to talks negotiated by Russia, the UN, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Conferences in Geneva, Vienna, attended by officials from the United States, the EU, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran: nothing has worked.
Civilians suffered not only the physical danger of the war, but also the collapse of the economy and the Syrian pound, which drove wages down and prices raised.
The situation has inevitably led millions to flee for refuge.
Dorado Jadiba, a 31-year-old dancer from Damascus, was someone who risked his life and limb seeking an opportunity to live in peace elsewhere.
His journey took him through Lebanon, Iran, Turkey. He spent two months in a refugee camp in Greece and was illegally rejected the rest of the way.
Now finally safe in France, he has just finished his professional training in physical education and hopes to start working soon, to give back some of what France gave him.
“This country opened its arms to me. From the beginning. There are people here who support me. So of course I hope that one day the French will say ‘this is the man we need’ or ‘this is the man we have been looking for.’
Meanwhile, in Syria, almost 90% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Its currency, the Syrian pound, hit a record low against the dollar, decimating the value of wages and making everything more expensive.
Food prices have more than doubled and the World Food Program has warned that 60% of the population is at risk of starvation.
Despite these problems, Assad maintains control of about two-thirds of the country.
After a wave of uprisings that saw regimes fall across much of the region, Syria’s leader could, in theory, claim victory.
But Dorado Jadiba says: “Nobody won this war. We lost a lot of things. I lost many of my friends, my cousin. All Syrian families lost someone. “
In February 2021, the UN Syrian Commission of Inquiry concluded that civilians in Syria were victims of “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international violations, including genocide.”
The commission renewed calls to “revitalize international efforts to end the conflict and put the country on the path to peace and justice.”
The Syrian government rejected our numerous requests for interviews or comments.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism